An Interview with Dramatic Soprano Alwyn Mellor

Dramatic soprano Alwyn Mellor will perform Brünnhilde in a concert performance of Act 3 of Siegfried on April 26, 3 p.m., at Symphony Hall. Maestro Benjamin Zander will conduct the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Stefan Vinke will sing Siegfried, Mark Delavan the Wanderer, and Deborah Humble Erda. See the interview with Deborah Humble also.

How long have you been singing Brünnhilde, and what attracted you to Wagner’s music?

I sang my first Die Walküre Brünnhilde in 2010 in a small festival in the UK, followed by Siegfried the following year. I had been studying the role over a couple years, and to perform them separately was an ideal way to start. Götterdämmerung came along in concert in Gothenburg [Sweden] in 2012 with Kent Nagano. We performed it over two nights, and so I was eased into the role gently. All of this was preparation for the Seattle Ring in 2013, which I was already booked for.

As is usual with Wagner’s music, I grew into it over a period of time. I believe that one has to have lived a little before beginning to understand his work. I always had a bigger, mature sound, and so I was careful not to embark on the more dramatic repertoire until I felt ready both vocally and personally. Being grounded is so necessary in this repertoire. So, the answer really is that my voice and personality drew me to Wagner. It was all of a matter of timing.

Did you have to have special studies, learn new techniques to sing this role?

I studied all my Wagner and Richard Strauss roles with Dame Anne Evans, who is a British dramatic soprano who had a long career as both a lyric soprano and latterly as a Wagnerian. She taught me much about the style of the music and vocal color and text, which are what it’s all about. I also worked with some very experienced coaches and conductors here in the UK, and then I took all that advice and knowledge and made the roles my own.

How do you prepare to sing this role before the performances, and where do you find the stamina to get through an entire Ring Cycle in four nights?

All of the things I have previously mentioned are the most important part of preparation for these huge roles. Studying them over a long period of time, listening to what those who have gone before have to say about the roles, both musically and dramatically and practically. Keeping oneself healthy both vocally and physically helps to give you the stamina. Singing out in rehearsals is also vitally important, as it helps to build stamina in the run-up to the performances. Lots of sleep! Learning how to pace yourself over a long evening is something you have to learn for yourself through experience; it’s just like being an athlete. The Ring is a marathon. You can’t give everything in the first few miles and then expect to have something in reserve!

We know that every conductor has his or her way of presenting the music, and singers need to adjust. But do you need to change your singing and/or acting depending on who your Siegfried and Wotan are?

Each pairing of performers is unique, and sometimes you just click and it’s easy from the beginning, and other times it has to develop over the rehearsal period. In my experience it always helps if you get on well when not singing . . . ! Luckily in this repertoire, rehearsal periods are often very long, and so it gives you the chance to get to know each other better, and then that makes the onstage chemistry more believable.

Brünnhilde’s scenes with Wotan are long dialogues rather than any structured duet. Most of Wagner’s music is like this, but Siegfried is different, as Brünnhilde only sings with Siegfried and at the end of a very long evening for him. There is more structure to the vocal writing here, and Brünnhilde even has an “aria,” albeit part of the scene as a whole.

It is a collaboration with the director, and the best directors draw on what they learn about the performers and help to create the relationship on stage. Sometimes it’s just instinctive, and you feel like you’ve sung with that person many times when it’s only the first time. Vocally, some voices just blend better than others, and finding yourself vocally as one is always a joy.

In Act 3 of Siegfried, which you will perform at Symphony Hall on April 26, how do you portray all the emotional contortions that Brünnhilde goes through at the end of the act, from happily greeting the sun, to her deep regrets at having to give up her godhood, to completely yielding to her passion for Siegfried and becoming human? That is quite a lot for one character to go through in such a short time. Is it difficult to express so many emotions that change quickly?

I always feel that the emotional journey for Brünnhilde in the whole Ring is huge, and she literally grows up through this process. Each of the three operas is so different in every way, and the Brünnhilde we see in each of them is a different person. By the time we get to Siegfried, the teenage warrior is no more, having lost her godhood and been put to sleep surrounded by fire, waiting for a hero to rescue her.

The awakening of Brünnhilde is the awakening of her womanhood, as she is now mortal. She goes through tremendous angst and confusion as to who she now is. She hasn’t forgotten all that she was in Walküre and that she had purpose and value in Walhalla. She was stripped of everything that made her who she was, and now finds herself faced with an uncertain future, which makes her incredibly vulnerable.

In some ways it’s easier to understand this Brünnhilde because she’s human and goes through all the emotional experiences that we can relate to. She has already learned something about human love through Sieglinde and Siegmund. In Act 2 of Die Walküure she doesn’t understand this and is shocked at Siegmund’s refusal to go to Walhalla without Sieglinde, but in Act 3 she helps Sieglinde flee Walhalla and is punished so brutally for it.

I love the challenge of finding this new person and the coming to terms with a new life. Musically Wagner gives her so much warmth and humanity, and I hope I can bring all these things to the audience in our concert.

What other roles have you been singing? And which non-Wagnerian role is your favorite?

I have just been in Bordeaux singing Isolde. It’s one of my favorite roles. Last year I sang my first Minnie in La fanciulla del West, and it was an absolute joy for me. I love that woman and how she is like a mother to all those miners. Heart-breaking at times. I love her passion and compassion. I hope so much that she comes my way again.

What performances do you have in the future and where?

This summer I’m back at Opera North in the UK, where we will perform semi-staged concerts of Der fliegende Holländer, with me as Senta. Other highlights include a return to Seattle Opera in 2016 for Senta, followed by Sieglinde and the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde in the widely acclaimed Opera North Ring Cycle.

–Dalia Geffen