Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Meet Our Singers: WENDY BRYN HARMER, Freia/Gerhilde/Gutrune

Although she’s new to Seattle Opera, Soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer is no stranger to the Ring. Wagner fans have recently enjoyed her performances in San Francisco and in New York; reviewing a recent Met Ring, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal singled out her Gutrune for praise. She spoke to me the other day about the three wonderful roles she plays in this Ring, about why Wagner singers are so easy-going, and about how she evolved from flutist to Rossini mezzo to lyric soprano and where she may go from here.

Welcome to Seattle Opera! Since this is your debut with us, could you tell us about your background—where you’re from and how you became a singer?
I was born in Roseville, California, and I became a singer because my flute teacher told me to. I was intending to become a flute player well into junior year in high school. I’d studied for twelve years, and I was applying to conservatories for flute performance. But my flute teacher came to a musical I was in and she said, “Your talent might be in flute, but your passion is clearly in voice.”

What was the musical?
I was Maria in The Sound of Music. I’ve portrayed every female character in The Sound of Music—worked my way up through all the little girls—except the Baroness and the Mother Abbess!

Now, favorite roles. In your online bio we’re listing a large number of operas you’ve done at the Met...but which roles are your favorites?
Sieglinde, which I’m covering in Seattle, is probably my ‘desert island role.’ If I had to pick only three roles to sing for the rest of my life, I’d pick Sieglinde, Tatyana [in Eugene Onegin] and Ariadne. Mmm...I don’t know. Maybe Adalgisa [in Norma]. I’ve sung that a couple times, and love it, love it, love it. And I firmly believe she’s a soprano, not a mezzo.

Are you considered zwischenfach, that middle-ground between soprano and mezzo?
I was a Rossini mezzo, all through my training. I went to Music Academy of the West after junior year in college, and the first time Marilyn Horne heard me she said, “I think you are probably a dramatic soprano.” And I was all of 21. So she said, “Carry on with this Rossini mezzo business as long as possible, because what’s anyone going to do with a 21 year-old dramatic soprano?” So I stayed a mezzo until I went to the Met. I was auditioning for Juilliard when Lenore Rosenberg [then head of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Program] heard me; I sang “Una voce poco fa,” and Mimì, and the Countess. One of those “Okay, where is she going with this?” auditions.

But Horne had said, “dramatic soprano.” Have you gone that far, toward Brünnhilde, Isolde, etc.?
Not yet. But I will.

Wendy Bryn Harmer and Stephen Wadsworth check the score at a rehearsal of Das Rheingold
Alan Alabastro, photo

Now our director for the Ring, Stephen Wadsworth, has long been closely associated with the Lindemann program. Do you remember when you first met him?
It was in 2005 or 2006. We worked on Tatyana together, and Alcina. But I haven’t appeared in his productions at the Met.

It must be interesting, knowing him from New York as you do, to come here and see the Wadsworth/Seattle Opera machine, which has been developed over all these years, at work.
Yes, it’s funny, I was doing the Ring at the Met before coming here, in May, and he ran into me just outside Lincoln Center, and he grabbed me and said, “Wendy Bryn Harmer, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve written your name this week.” You see, he was working on the Master Rehearsal Schedule for this summer. So I was nervous about where this was going! And he said, “But I don’t know what to do, because Asher [Fisch, Seattle’s Ring conductor] is asking for music rehearsals, and I don’t know when we can fit them in!” And I said, “Stephen, good heavens! We have three and a half months! Can’t we find the time to rehearse the music? It is the Ring cycle after all...please give us some music rehearsals!”

You’re one of the few people in this production who’s joining it for the first time. What’s that like?
Well, Stephen works both ways: sometimes we do a bit of staging because that’s what’s in the book, that’s what the character did last time. But sometimes, particularly if multiple performers in the scene are new, he’ll just scratch the old staging and create a new one for the new performers. When you’re doing things because other people motivated them, twelve years ago...it makes for a difficult rehearsal process. It’s awfully hard to memorize the staging when it isn’t self-motivated, when the reason is that twelve years ago, somebody else moved on one particular word.

Right, because the book didn’t record the motivation, it recorded the move.
Yes, and it doesn’t make any sense to me, because as the character I might move on THIS word, and in this way and at this pace.

Many in our cast think of Seattle Opera’s Ring as a family. Have they been welcoming to you, as a newcomer?
Oh, yeah. But Wagner productions are always that way. There aren’t that many Wagner singers. There’s, like, five people in the world who can sing Brünnhilde. So we all know each other. Stephanie [Blythe, Seattle’s Fricka and Götterdämmerung Waltraute] and I have been together forever. A bunch of us just did the Ring at the Met. We move in packs! I was talking to one of the singers here, who’s doing her first Wagner, and she was a little surprised by how easy-going everyone is. But it’s true, Wagner singers tend to be pretty chilled out. And there are good reasons for that. If you’re, say, a soubrette soprano, there’s always someone better and younger than you clawing at your back. When you’re a Wagner singer, you’ve got thirty years ahead of you. So you can just calm down and settle in. Also, the operas are longer, which means everyone has to play nice.

That’s interesting. All Wagner’s operas are ensemble pieces—there’s no way to have a “diva turn” in any of them. So that kind of energy...
Yes, and it’s an awfully long time to be the person that no one likes. If you’re mean, or difficult to your dresser or what-have-you...all Wagner singers learn that lesson pretty quick.

I’ve noticed that you keep busy with Twitter. (Follow Wendy at twitter.com/WendyBryn!) Do you find it a useful way to connect with fans?
I do! Because I use Facebook to stay connected with my family—we’re all so spread-out—I find Twitter a better way to connect with fans.

Now let’s talk about your characters. As Gerhilde you get to be one of the Ring’s kick-ass warrior women; but as Freia and as Gutrune you’re a very different kind of woman. Not necessarily a very modern woman.
It depends. This Freia is pretty badass. She’s a goddess, too, and she is really angry at Wotan. Often Freia is just Fricka’s baby sister, who gets dragged around a lot. But Stephen wants Freia to stand up for herself as much as possible. There’s not a whole lot she can do, given the situation—the contract is written, and the giants are here—but here she isn’t a whining victim about it.

Wendy Bryn Harmer, with Freia's bag of golden apples, rehearses a scene from Das Rheingold
Alan Alabastro, photo

Freia doesn’t have too many lines; but this is a classic Stephen Wadsworth production, where you have a million reactions to everything everybody else says.
Right, Freia is tricky, because she doesn’t have a lot of lines and yet her two scenes are all about her. Stephen needs every reaction from her to be bigger, stronger, faster than the reactions from the other gods. This is all happening to her—she has the most at stake. Without Freia, there is no opera. She’s the point, she’s the problem! The giants are here to take Freia away, and what does that do to the gods? And when they get the gold and ransom Freia, what does that do to the gods, long-term?

If she had more lines, what would she say? How does her attitude toward the other characters evolve over the story?
She starts very angry with Wotan, that he has put her in this position. And at the end, I think she’s really sad. Because Wotan doesn’t get it, and I do. In this production, Freia hears what Loge says at the end: “This is it for the gods...they’re going to their doom.” And I have to take that offstage with me.

And what about Fasolt?
At the end I think Freia feels a little bit of guilt. Fasolt wouldn’t have been killed, if it hadn’t been for her. Now, some directors play with the idea that she falls in love with him...

...whereas here, you’re pretty grossed out by the whole idea.
Yes, and I remain grossed out by the idea...not so much of him, but of being taken. It’s that she has no control, that she’s being traded like a commodity. But from the beginning, Freia recognizes that Fasolt and Fafner are two very different people. And Fasolt has a good soul. He really wishes I would come willingly. If I don’t, he’ll just have to take me. But it would be better if I just wanted to come hang out with him. Fasolt doesn’t have his brother’s violence in him; he’d always rather have Freia than the gold. And she recognizes that as being noble. She doesn’t hate him, she just wishes she had a little more control over the situation.

What does she think of Loge?
Loge is responsible for Fasolt’s death. He tells Fasolt to take the ring away from Fafner, and that leads to their fight. I grab Loge, as if to ask, “What are you doing?!” but two seconds later, Fasolt is dead.

So Loge is never on Freia’s “good” list. He complains at one point that you’re always stingy with your precious fruit, around him.
There is a moment where I give him one apple. Loge ends up giving it to Wotan, to get him through Nibelheim. But no, Freia doesn’t trust Loge. He isn’t one of us.

Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia in the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen production of Das Rheingold at the Met
Beatriz Schiller, photo

What do Freia and Gutrune have in common?
Very little. The first complete Ring I ever did playing multiple roles was with Otto Schenk, the last go-around of his production at the Met, in 2009/10. And he wanted me to keep in mind that Gutrune was the only mortal I played. For him, Gutrune was much more of a victim than Freia. But Freia can stand up for herself and speak her mind, and that isn’t really possible for Gutrune, given that she’s human, and female, and very sheltered. She’s lived in this castle her whole life, dominated by her two brothers. She’s very close to Gunther—he’s father, brother, friend, everything. Freia lives in a bigger world.

Freia is goddess of love, but she isn’t in love herself. Gutrune, however, falls pretty hard...
...for Siegfried, yes. There’s also this sense of wishing that he fell for her without the use of that potion. She’s constantly aware that he may or may not truly care about her. It’s probably just because of the drink.

In your last line, you blame Hagen.
“Hagen, this is all your fault!”

But she gave him the drink! Hagen just reminded her about it. Does she ever acknowledge her own guilt here?
In her last line, I think that’s the closest she comes to acknowledging that she understands. She understands, by then, that Brünnhilde was Siegfried’s true love. And she didn’t know anything about Brünnhilde when she gave Siegfried the drink. It’s easy for Hagen to manipulate her, not because she’s stupid but because she doesn’t have enough information. She’s offstage for a lot of really important conversations!

So is she the female version of Fasolt? You know, “I’d like him to be in love with me...but if not...”
Right, “I can drug him into this.”

Seems morally sketchy, no matter where you’re coming from.
Yes, and she fights with that for the whole opera. “Should I have done this?”

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune in the Lepage production of Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera
Ken Howard, photo

Is Gutrune a challenge to sing?
Gutrune can be a challenge just because it’s spread out over such a long time. You’re in costume for about seven hours. There are many places where your energy can drop.

Let’s talk about your Valkyries. I notice that you sing Ortlinde at the Met, but on the west coast you are Gerhilde. Switching roles in that scene sounds like a terrible idea!
Dreadful! I hate it, I hate it! I’ve been offered other Valkyries, and I say no. The solo lines aren’t the problem; it’s the ensembles, they kill you. It’s 100% muscle memory. Two years ago, when Stephen asked if I’d do this, I asked to sing Ortlinde, because that’s what I was doing at the Met. But for staging purposes, he really wanted me to be Gerhilde. But I’m always Ortlinde at the Met, because of the staging there. At the Met Ortlinde spends a lot of time running up and down the machine, and I could handle the machine—I’d spent so much on it already.

How do we tell the difference between Gerhilde and Ortlinde? Their costumes are similar.
Gerhilde starts the scene! That’s the easiest way to keep track. And she’s usually higher, in the ensembles.

What about personality? In this production, Siegrune tends to stick out—
She’s so ornery, grumpy-pants there, yeah. Gerhilde is a little more involved in the scene. Ortlinde is the meteorologist, on weather-report duty looking for Wotan’s storm. In Seattle she’s around the corner for much of the scene. Also, Ortlinde is typically portrayed as the youngest sister.

Do you like being a Valkyrie?
I do.

Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gerhilde, with her sister Valkyries protecting Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) in the Zambello production of Die Walküre at San Francisco Opera
Cory Weaver, photo

Must be noisy up there!
It is. There’s always an alpha-Valkyrie. I did my first Walküre when I was 23, at the Met alongside some hard-core Valkyries who’d been doing it for 30 years. And I didn’t know what I was doing, just didn’t get the character. Otto Schenk pulled me aside at one point and said, “Just want you to know: you’re looking a bit like a cheerleader.” So we had a great conversation about being a Valkyrie, because nothing in my real life corresponds to being a Valkyrie. I’m sort of a girly-girl: I’ve been taken care of a lot, I’m tidy, I get to shower every day! Valkyries have probably never showered. Valkyrie humor doesn’t translate very well to human humor: “Ha ha! Dead bodies!”

Have you ever met anybody, on Planet Earth, who reminds you of a Valkyrie?
Totally. [laughs] On sports teams, a couple politicians. You know, Valkyries are not vegans. They probably don’t do their nails. They don’t use hand-rails. They don’t sit still very often. And they’re getting together here at their Clubhouse. That’s why it’s such a shock when Sieglinde comes in.

“A girl?! On our rock?”
There’s totally a “No Girls Allowed” sign hammered to the mountain-side. No matter what the Valkyrie rock is, it’s their meeting-place, hangout.

So it must be weird when Wotan shows up there, too. Dad, suddenly invading your rec room.
Yes, usually he wouldn’t come in there. That’s how we know we’re in trouble.

It must be strange for Waltraute to come back there, in Götterdämmerung, and see what Brünnhilde has done with the place.
Yes, like when you go back to the house you grew up in and you don’t recognize anything. I’d think that’d be very jarring.

So you’re Freia in Das Rheingold, Gerhilde in Die Walküre, and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung. What do you do on a night when the rest of the gang is performing Siegfried?
Avoid the theater! I didn’t even see Siegfried for a lot of years—a night off can be precious when you’re doing the Ring.


  1. Wonderful interview. Thanks for sharing all your insights int the thre characters.

  2. Fabulous performer and beautiful singer! Can't wait until she performs Brunhilde or Isolde!