Deborah Humble: An Interview

Deborah Humble

Deborah Humble

Here is an introduction to Deborah Humble, who will sing Erda in Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s concert of Act 3 of  Siegfried, conducted by Benjamin Zander, Sunday, April 26, 2015, 3 p.m., Symphony Hall. The other singers are Alwyn Mellor, Stefan Vinke, and Mark Delavan.

How long have you been singing Wagner, and what got you interested in his music in the first place?

Although I had sung and understudied various smaller mezzo roles in the Ring Cycle, my first important Wagner role was Erda in the Hamburg Ring Cycle in 2007. This Ring, a new production by Claus Guth and conducted by Simone Young, was staged over four years and then presented in complete cycles in 2011 and 2012. I ended up singing five roles in these cycles: Erda, Schwertleite, Erda, Waltraute, and the First Norn. The operas were recorded and released commercially on CD for Oehms. It was a first-class initiation into the world of Wagner, and I found myself onstage with the likes of world-class Wagner singers such as Deborah Polaski, Sir John Tomlinson, and Falk Struckmann. It was a real thrill for a young singer from Australia. Since then I have participated in many Ring Cycles and Ring operas: in Halle and Ludwigshafen in Germany, in Melbourne for Opera Australia, at the Teatro Petruzelli in Bari, Italy, for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Auckland Philharmonic in New Zealand, and Scottish Opera, to name a few. To be honest, I never really “chose” to be a Wagner singer, but I seemed to have a big voice and the kind of sound suited to Germanic music, so after the initial success it was just a matter of following the opportunities that arose.

When you sing Wagner, do you find yourself having to sing it in a different way from other composers’ music? Is there special preparation you have to make to sing Wagner?

I believe that the basics of singing stay the same whatever repertoire you undertake; a good technique is the basis for everything. Having said that, there are certainly special considerations when approaching and performing Wagner’s music. The first consideration, especially for a foreigner, is a total understanding of the text and of Wagner’s special use of language. The textual nuances such as alliteration, use of consonants, subtexts, and presence of musical leitmotifs to underscore meaning and characterization all need to explored and interpreted to best effect. If a singer wants to take the exploration further, then there are philosophical, historical, and political aspects to learn about. All this takes years of study, and the more one repeats a role, the more depth of understanding one usually gets about the characterization, relationships, and musical delivery. Of course, every director and conductor also adds a different perspective, and this means that no interpretation or production is ever the same. The singing of Wagner needs a big, well-focused voice of great stamina to get over the often massive orchestral forces, but also a singer who intelligently and instinctively knows when to hold back and how to express the delicate moments of music.

When you sing Erda in the Ring Cycle, do you have to put yourself in a special frame of mind to convey the uniqueness and otherworldliness of the character?

The challenge of singing Erda lies in the brevity of the appearances, especially in Das Rheingold. There is no time to warm up on stage or get comfortable, and one must convey the importance of the much-anticipated “Warnung” and something of the character of Erda in a very short time. It is five minutes where Wagner basically stops the action and everyone on stage and in the theater is focused on her and what she is saying. Her music, personality, and prophecies do indeed cast a long shadow over the rest of the proceedings and, when well done and well staged, this brief appearance can often be one of the most memorable moments in the entire cycle.

Erda obviously is a very wise woman who saves Wotan from disaster in Das Rheingold. Why does she not help him in Siegfried when he makes a final attempt to save the gods? Has she given up? Has she fallen out of love with him and no longer cares?

The difference between Erda in Das Rheingold and later in Siegfried is very marked. In the first opera she appears to Wotan entirely of her own volition. One has the impression of power, strength, and knowledge as both goddess and earth-mother. Erda dominates proceedings in the scene, and Wotan’s behavior can be seen as rather submissive. In Siegfried she arrives only because she is summoned by Wotan, and the impression changes to one of tiredness, age, and diminishing power. World events have significantly changed, and her exchange with Wotan is much more equal; indeed, Wotan seems to know more than the all-seeing goddess. Part of this change is heard in the music announcing Erda’s reappearance, which, cleverly, contains only one chord per bar and conveys immediately the idea of fatigue and diminished capability.

Have you ever sung in the U.S. before? Boston?

I sang in Seattle in 2008 in the finals of the International Wagner Competition after competing in the semi-finals in New York. It was a wonderful experience and a chance to work with the Seattle Symphony and conductor Asher Fisch and meet other young, aspiring Wagnerians from around the world. Although I didn’t win, this opportunity was a very important one and contributed to my growth as a Wagner singer, as well as giving me the all-important contacts and international exposure that such an event brings. I have never performed in Boston before, although I visited in 1998 after studying in New York with Elena Doria, who was working and teaching at the Metropolitan Opera.  I imagine the city has changed quite a lot since then. The concert in Symphony Hall on April 26th is something I am looking forward to very much. And yes, I will be singing the role of Erda somewhere in the US in 2016, but for the moment I am obliged to remain mysterious and not to reveal where.

What non-Wagnerian roles are your specialties, if any?

In addition to Wagner I have quite a wide-ranging repertoire. Indeed, I just performed my 50th operatic role in February this year. My professional life has been dominated by the Ring operas and by German composers Strauss, Mahler, and Brahms in recent years. I love to sing Carmen, of course, like any mezzo, and the Verdi roles are personal favorites. I particularly like to interpret Amneris in Aida. I also very much enjoy roles such as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly and Olga in Eugene Onegin. Although not large roles, they offer an opportunity for interesting characterizations and also leave strong impressions when well done. I have never sung in Samson and Delilah, but that is certainly a dream role, and I hope to have the chance to do it one day. I would also love to sing Charlotte in Werther. People are often surprised that I do quite a lot of Handel, as they think it is so different from Wagner, but it keeps the voice fresh and flexible, which is important. Concert works and song recitals play an important role in my career, and I sang my first Wesendonck Lieder with orchestra last year, the Henze version, which was a career highlight.

Can you tell us what is coming up for you? Which roles will you sing in the immediate future and where?

In the next four months I have quite a variety of performances coming up.  I will sing my first Sea Pictures by Edward Elgar at the inaugural Festival of British Music in Bamberg, Germany. I make my role debut as Brangaene in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Mexico City under the baton of Jan Latham Konig, immediately followed by a Flower Maiden in Parsifal with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the United Kingdom, conducted by Andris Nelsons. Following that I have performances of the Verdi Requiem in London, a concert with the Minsk Radio Symphony in Belarus, my first Mahler Eighth Symphony at the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore, and I will interpret Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok in Melbourne, Australia.

–Dalia Geffen