The powerful and uncompromising Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones sings Walther von Stolzing in the Royal Opera House’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, alongside his fellow countryman Sir Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs. I went backstage to meet him…
|Hughes Jones (left) and Terfel (right) in the rehearsal room|
(c) Royal Opera House, photo by Clive Barda
Jessica Duchen: Gwyn, can you tell us about Kasper Holten’s new production, without giving the game away?
Gwyn Hughes Jones: No! Haha… I think people already know that it’s set in a club, a sort of music club. It reflects that idea of the application of rules to art and expression and how, if they’re not applied conscientiously, they hamstring the expressive sense of spontaneity, that creative evolution in art. We have to have rules in art because human beings have to have structure. Two plus two has to make four: we do need some kind of balance in nature and in the world. We can’t help ourselves. But it’s when rules take over and exist for their own sake that there’s trouble. I think this works for the piece: it doesn’t compromise it in any way. It’s always interesting to see the path directors take in their concepts of how to make a piece relevant to today. I’m sure that, as always, some people will like it and some people will not. We’ll see…
JD: You sang Walther at English National Opera not so long ago, in English, so this is your second Walther, but your first in German. What’s it like to make that change?
GHJ: In a way, you start all over again. You can’t take anything for granted. The structure of the language is different, the inflection of the stresses are different, the way the language is used is slightly different too, so you have to be mindful of those things in preparation and delivery. I think singing these pieces in English is incredibly useful because you end up with a really broad palette of colour choice. Instead of having maybe one to three colours for a word, you have six or seven. Of course you still have to choose the right ones. But as someone who works in, if you like, the discipline of sound-painting, to have that choice of palette is always a very important weapon.
JD: Walther is a notoriously difficult role. What are the biggest challenges?
GHJ: It’s long. It’s high in some places. It’s not written in a friendly way. Nevertheless, you can look at some works of Puccini and Verdi and you see they, too, are writing for the kind of singer they have a right to expect. They don’t think we arrive without having had any kind of vocal education. These pieces play a part in stretching singers and not compromising them. I think the bel canto style was a hugely important influence on Wagner and this is reflected in all his works to some extent, but particularly in this piece. So it’s about having that elegance, it’s having the youthfulness – and one of the biggest challenges is remaining fresh to the very end.
One difficulty is this paradox that characters like Walther are young, but in real life you have to wait until you’re a fair bit older, a mature singer and a very physically strong and sophisticated singer, to be able to sing these roles to their potential. There is no other way. You will not find a 20-year old-who will sing Walther to its potential. So one of the challenges in this kind of repertoire is to keep the voice young, fresh and vibrant, so that when you come to your potential you can fulfil it for as long as possible. That’s why singers like Gigli, Björling and Pavarotti could keep that youthfulness and vibrancy in their voices for a very long time and that’s what made them convincing exponents.
|Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther with Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva in the new Meistersinger.|
(c) ROH, photo by Clive Barda
JD: Do you have a regime for looking after your voice?
GHJ: It’s a lot to do with choosing the right kind of repertoire and I think the root of it goes to the beginning of my learning about singing. You have to be fortunate enough to work with good teachers, you need to work with people who know what they’re talking about and you need to be incredibly patient in your development. By all means, have targets along the way, have a long journey, but also work hard within a sense of context. You need to be sensible about repertoire choices and understand that if you do aspire to sing Wagner, if you aspire to sing the Verdi and Puccini spinto roles, then in the same way Wagner was inspired by Bellini, you have to sing that repertoire too: you have to immerse yourself in the bel canto style. You have to sing everything, but it is a process of building by small bricks. You build a very solid foundation, then build on that. You don’t just wake up one morning and find you’re a Heldentenor. It doesn’t work like that – and if people do do that, they don’t last very long.
JD: So it takes 30 years to be an overnight success…
GHJ: Yes, and to remain an overnight success, that’s the thing. It’s not about that initial splash. Spotting potential is the easiest thing in the world; allowing it to develop is something totally different. The onus is on us as individuals, but on the people we work with as well. So it is very challenging and you have to be incredibly patient too.
JD: How did you start to sing?
GHJ: My parents were not academically musical, but they loved opera, my father loved singing and there was always plenty of music in the house. Also coming from Wales there was always plenty of great culture around, so I was never far away from great literature and great poetry in English and in Welsh, and great music too. It was a very common thing for me to hear operatic arias when I was very young, sung by schoolteachers or farmers. In Eisteddfods these are competition arias, so you’d turn up to an Eisteddfod competition and there’d be people singing the ‘Prize Song’ and ‘Vissi d’arte'... So there’s a sense that, yes, they’re great, great art, but also that it wasn’t an elitist thing by any means: they were extremely reachable. You saw people who were having a singing lesson once a week or once a month, singing these arias as well as they’d be sung at some of the greatest opera houses in the world. That always for me was an example to say, ‘Yes, why not?’.
As someone who comes from Anglesey, whose father is an engineer, whose mother is a housewife, some people would say I have no business whatsoever doing this. And yet all these influences I had in my upbringing gave me the privilege and the opportunity to be able to pick these things, experience them, enjoy them and find a path.
JD: People always think there’s a mystique about the Welsh and singing, but is it perhaps more down to this musical tradition that is very egalitarian?
GHJ: I think it’s a big part of it. Our historical, cultural tradition involves hundreds of thousands of years of storytelling. In this culture before the Romans came to Britain, we didn’t write. And that oral tradition has always been incredibly strong – the old tales in Welsh are thousands of years old and he oldest piece of poetry in the Welsh language comes from the 6th century. As a nation that struggled for its existence, you keep these things very close to you and they’re the things that keep you believing, keep you defending your culture and your language. They are incredbily important to us along with the sense of struggle and telling the story of the struggle. We love our heroes, yet we’re extremely melancholic too. There is that range of expressive colour in our culture that all goes to arm this huge weapon we have, called singing or storytelling.
JD: This is quite a Welsh dominated Meistersinger: you are Walther and the freshly-knighted Sir Bryn Terfel is Hans Sachs…
GHJ: I think it’s a great achievement for the background we come from: the Eistefodd tradition, the amateur tradition. It shows how incredibly rich that was. We both were given a kind of unofficial education outside school: we were being taught some of the most amazing ideas and shown some of the most amazing art and weren’t really aware that it was happening. That’s the most wonderful thing and it’s easy to take it for granted. But it’s not just the musical aspect, it’s the literary aspect too, it’s the poetry, the understanding of how people use words and why people choose certain words to describe something. Being immersed in that – this is the consequence! I think it’s something worth reinvesting in: not just keeping it alive but allowing it to go from strength to strength. And it’s difficult, because Wales is economically poor. So it needs as much support as it can get.
JD: Have you worked with Bryn much before?
GHJ: We did some concerts together in Wales years ago, and we did Falstaff together in Chicago, which was my American debut in 1999. But we haven’t sung together for a very long time. I could have had the chance to sing Walther with him as Sachs when Welsh National Opera did Meistersinger, but it so happened with that season that I was debuting two big Verdi operas and one Puccini within the six months previously and I didn’t think it was wise to take on the part. But then ENO asked me to take on the role and it came at just the right time. It’s about having the longer journey, seeing the bigger picture – you don’t compromise yourself. For every Meistersinger, you need to do a Tosca, a Butterfly, pieces that don’t put you out there to the same extent. It’s good sense.
JD: Do you see yourself doing more Wagner soon?
GHJ: I think so... Ironically, the first opera I ever saw was the Patrice Chéreau production of the Ring cycle on TV, when I was nine or ten years old. It was Dame Gwyneth Jones and it was something amazing. Even on TV, you could tell how amazing it was. Those costumes! Those giants! It made a huge impression. Also, the first classical music tape I bought was 'Ten Tenors sing 20 Arias', which included plenty of Wagner. I enjoyed listening to it, but it didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much as the Italian repertoire, Verdi and Puccini – that was what I really wanted to do and the kind of singer I wanted to be. So I didn’t really entertain the idea of being a Wagnerian singer. I started out as a baritone and when I became a tenor there’s an idea of the kind of colour you carry through from being a baritone: people immediately say, “Oh, you’ll sing Florestan, you’ll do Walther and Lohengrin…” But I was thinking about Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Chénier, all these pieces, and I didn’t see myself as being a Wagnerian singer.
|As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly|
But then I found people were saying, “Well, Walther is a lyric part, it’s an Italianate part,” and your ears prick up because you realise it can be done that way and actually it should be done that way. If you go back and listen to people at the beginning of the 20th century, they sing this music in a lyrical, Italiante way – Walther, Lohengrin, they have line, beauty, harmony. You realise that somehow, in the last 50 years of performing this music, something has been allowed to fall into the shadows. And the idea that it can be, needs to be beautiful, it needs to be expressive in the right way, that made me incredibly interested in doing it. So when Welsh National Opera did put on Meistersinger in Cardiff, I went to see it and finally thought that, yes, I could see myself singing it. When the offer did come to sing Walther, I jumped at it, because it had come at the right time.
Now I’m going to be doing Lohengrin in about three years in the US. Parsifal and Siegmund are certainly roles I’d do as well. I do regard myself as an Italianate singer, though, so they’re not my main mission. There is so much to do... I’m not really interested in saying I have done 200 roles. I don’t think you achieve anything except marks on the post that way. The more you do a piece, the more you realise that you actually don’t know it and the more you discover about it. To do the iconic roles that are the mainstream in every opera house in the world, to work those pieces to their potential – not just getting through them but producing work that is significant – that interests me a lot more than tallying the numbers. I’m far more interested in doing 350-400 performances of Tosca than having 200 roles under my belt.
JD: How did you turn into a tenor from being a baritone?
GHJ: I think it’s about the colours you have in your voice. It’s funny – learning how to sing is like forgetting everything you learned between infancy and adulthood. You have to go back to that point where you find the voice works at its most efficient. One of the biggest traps that young singers fall into is that they try to create a voice colour well beyond their years. You have to allow the voice to develop into these colours. It’s OK to sound young, it’s OK to sound not ready – it’s part of that long journey. So in the pursuit of that idea, I sang as a baritone because baritone music was what suited my voice.
I wanted to sing Verdi and verismo baritones, but I always suspected I didn’t have that baritonal colour of all the singers I admired – people like Piero Cappuccilli, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill had this beautiful round colour. Even at that age I wasn’t interested in being a lighter baritone singing Verdi’s music because I didn’t think it was honest. It wouldn’t have the gravitas, that noble colour, that these lines demanded.
I came to study in London at the Guildhall when I was 18, with David Pollard. He said to me, “I won’t tell you you’re a tenor or you’re a baritone, I have my suspicions of where you’ll go but what we have to do is work to the potential. We have to get you singing, we have to find out where your voice is most comfortable.” So I started singing as a baritone, because that was the music that fitted my voice. I sang a lot of song repertoire, so even though I didn’t have to make any cast-iron decisions about the kind of voice I was going to be, I was getting an incredibly rich and intense education in repertoire. I sang everything from the beginning, Verdi from the beginning, to get the vocal culture in place.
Then I won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize in 1992, as a baritone, and people started asking if I was interested in working on contract at various companies. The repertoire I was offered, though, was far too challenging. It was understudy work, but it’s one thing to learn a role and quite another to go on stage and perform it, which as an understudy you would have to do, and it wasn’t a good idea.
Meanwhile with my teacher we were starting to look at excerpts of very iconic tenor music – the third act of La Bohème, the first duet between Cavaradossi and Tosca, part of Manon Lescaut, parts that could show unequivocally whether I was a tenor for that sort of repertoire. One day David sent me to William McAlpine down the corridor, a very brilliant Scottish tenor who was also a teacher at Guildhall, to see what he would say. I sang him one aria and he said: “Yep, no doubt!”
But as I’d won the Ferrier as a baritone, a lot of people refused to accept that it was a good idea. I’d also won a lot of scholarships to allow me to study and those were as a baritone as well. But the way I saw it, I was awarded them because of the singer I was, not because of the voice type I was. That’s the point: you have to be allowed to discover and develop. People will always have opinions about the kind of singer you are, but in the end you have to decide where you want to go. And David said, “You have to make a decision: you can be a very, very good baritone, or you can be a better tenor. It’s up to you.” For me there was no question: this was the time to study, to make those decisions, as opposed to waiting another ten years when I might be already established in my career.
|As Cavaradossi in WNO's Tosca. Photo: Robert Workman|
JD: And you’ve never looked back...
GHJ: No – there’s too much to look forward to! But you do look back, of course, because this is a career that requires absolute discipline: it requires you to be able to work right at the coalface, work in detail at things and not shirk those challenges. It’s correcting those weaknesses that allow you to build. You don’t want to take a step forward and then realise that the very thing your house is built on isn’t sturdy. So you have to work in that way, while at the same tine being able to step back and see how far you’ve come, and never lose sight of that. It’s difficult to strike that balance. We’re trying to be as good as we can be, and that’s always exciting.
JD: Is Wales still home?
GHJ: Yes indeed. It is my home and I’m obligated as a Welsh professional to work for Welsh National Opera. It’s a fantastic company. You have the potential to produce world-class opera there – you have a great orchestra, world class technical staff, a fantastic 2000 seat theatre, the opportunity to work with Carlo Rizzi, you have the opportunity to work with people who are at the best opera houses in the world and are regarded as the best in their field in the world.
JD: What’s next after Walther?
GHJ: Next I have some concerts between now and the summer at the National Eisteddfod – there are some works I’ve commissioned and as a Welsh artist I think it’s incredibly important to stimulate new compositions in Wales. In the autumn I do my first Radames in Aida and then the new year brings Forza. Next year is heavy on the Verdi and the Puccini, and then I come back to Lohengrin. You have to find a balance between the stuff that stretches and stimulates you and the stuff that stimulates you, but allows you to rest.
JD: I should let you rest too... Thank you very much for talking to us, Gwyn, and we’re looking forward to opening night.
Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 11 March. Kasper Holten directs, Sir Antonio Pappano conducts and besides Hughes Jones and Terfel the cast includes Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser, Rachel Willis-Søresnsen as Eva and Allan Clayton as David. Details and booking here.