Interview with Heldentenor Peter Furlong

Furlong (colour) Headshot 2017 verticalWe are delighted that you will sing Siegmund for the Boston Wagner Society on November 11 at Old South Church. 

Thank you, Dalia. I am delighted to have the opportunity to sing with the Boston Wagner Society. It is always such a treat to come back to my home, where my music career started as a young boy in Framingham. 

Where have you sung this role before? 

This will be my first time performing Siegmund, and I will also sing the whole role in April 2019 in Berlin. The wonderful thing about doing this concert with the Boston Wagner Society is that it allows me to work out the role (or at least Act 1, Scene 3) in a performance with wonderful colleagues, and that is such a beneficial thing. 

Given the difficulties of singing the Wagnerian repertoire, how and when did you make the switch from lyric tenor to heldentenor? 

The progression to Wagnerian repertoire was rather slow. I started out as a lyric tenor and slowly grew into a lyric spinto tenor (progressing from Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Rodolfo in La bohème to Cavaradossi in Tosca). However, the switch to Wagner was a bit slower. I never thought I would be a Heldentenor. After about 10–15 years of singing the spinto repertoire, I found that I was getting good feedback from auditions, but not getting the jobs. I eventually grew so frustrated that I flew back to New York City to work again with the great coach Kathy Olsen Simpson (with whom I used to work extensively when I lived there) and asked her what was going on. She heard me sing just a few bars of “La fleur” from Carmen, and she said (in her wonderful mid-Western accent), “Peter, your voice has grown!” and from her advice this wonderful journey began. I can only say that singing Wagner is like a balsam for my voice. It’s wonderful. 

Which roles did you sing as a lyric tenor? 

The roles I sang were (on the lighter side) Don Ottavio and Rinuccio (Gianni Schicchi); at that time my signature aria was Tonio’s “Pour mon âme” from Daughter of the Regiment (the “nine high Cs” aria). On the heavier side (as my voice matured) my roles were Rodolfo, Pinkerton, and Cavaradossi, with a healthy dose of contemporary music in the mix. The beginning of my Helden career started with Max in Der Freischütz 

Which Wagnerian roles have you sung and plan to sing? 

Lohengrin was my first full foray into Wagner and, boy, was that a heck of a lot of fun. I really enjoyed singing Lohengrin, as he gave me the chance to open up, be free, and sing more powerful passages along with one of the loveliest duets ever (Act 3). Up next is Siegmund (as mentioned), then Parsifal for late 2019 and Siegfried for 2020. I also have Tristan on a “slow burn,” which is a role I cannot wait to sing! 

What do you like about the character Siegmund? 

What do I like about the character Siegmund? Hmm . . . an interesting question. The relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde poses some awkward questions, to say the least! However, there are beautiful and tragic moments to be treasured. For example, I find Siegmund is a bit of a lost soul, defeated, alone, in the wilderness. It is Sieglinde who shows Siegmund that he has the potential to be a hero, and it is their love that changes the course of the Ring. His determination, strength in the face of certain defeat, his love, and his courage are all qualities to admire, no matter how misplaced they may seem. 

How do you prepare to sing a role that is so arduous? What do you do in the days leading up to the performance? 

Preparation for a main Wagner role is similar to how one prepares to run a marathon. It takes the same time, dedication, strength, and understanding of how to pace one’s self, except in this case it’s in order to sing at one’s best throughout. In short, it is a full regimen that any athlete must adhere to. In the days leading up to a performance, the most important thing I do is to keep well rested and well hydrated. I usually try to keep my singing to a minimum and mark when I need to (which is very hard to do when you’re in final rehearsals). 

Tell us a little about your background. Was it a long road from your childhood in Framingham to Berlin? 

It has been a rather long road, but one that has been quite fulfilling. I started really singing in high school (at Framingham South High) under the guidance of my music teacher, George Perrone, and took private voice lessons with Joan Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, I was advised to avoid taking too many music classes and was only allowed to be in the after-school “elite” choir (I also played clarinet and took music theory classes, so to add singing was deemed “too much”). I managed to be in the All State Choir with an almost perfect score in my senior year of high school. From there I went to University of Lowell for a bachelor of music (where I studied with the wonderful Eunice Alberts) and then onward to my master of music at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut (where I studied with Jerome Pruitt and Sherry Overholt). Afterward I was an apprentice for two wonderful years with the Santa Fe Opera, and then three great years as a Young Artist at Opera Colorado under Nat and Louise Merrill. I then moved to New York, where I got my first big break singing Rodolfo with Dicapo Opera (whose general director, Michael Capasso, is now general director of New York City Opera). 

After three years in New York, I was hired by Theater Dortmund [Germany] for a one-year Fest contract. I then went freelance and moved to Italy, where I mostly worked abroad singing Italian and contemporary repertoire. Then it was back in Berlin and eventually . . . Wagner! 

How do you handle all the traveling you need to do as a singer? Does it affect the way you perform? 

Traveling is so difficult in some ways. Although it is wonderful that you can cross an ocean in about seven to eight hours, the effects of A/C, the stress of trying to make connections, and the lack of sleep from jet lag wear on the voice. I’m (sort of) lucky that I traveled a lot as a child (I was nine months old when I took my first flight), and so I am somewhat used to it. However, when one adds the demands of being a professional singer to the decline in comfort of the flying experience, it does take some practice to come through unscathed. As I mentioned, lack of sleep is the most difficult aspect. I try to sleep as much as I can the day before a flight and the day after (I tend not to sleep on planes, unfortunately). I also drink a LOT of water while traveling. This usually requires a chat with the cabin crew to allow me to just fill up my ever-present water bottle at my discretion. I also make sure I am seated in an aisle seat so I have the freedom to do just that. Exercise is the third step in the mix I use to keep the ill effects of travel away. It helps get the blood and oxygen flowing, the muscles moving, and the brain engaged. 

What was the worst thing you had to do on stage? 

Unfortunately, in this day and age, singers are low in the pecking order when it comes to opera productions. When we sign a contract, often we have no idea who the director is, and we won’t find that out until some time later. The director is the big boss, and we have to follow the vision laid out, no matter what. So, depending on the definition of “willingly,” of course I do, because it’s my job and I want to get paid. From my own theatric and directorial point of view, I usually reserve judgment until I can find a way to understand the director’s vision. Sometimes that happens, other times it does not. When it does, it’s wonderful. I may not like it, but I can understand it and from there I can build my character and perform with confidence. However, when I cannot understand the vision, it is very difficult and makes the process rather painful and frustrating.  

The worst thing I had to do was probably be on stage nude, in an orgy scene (I will protect both the innocent and the guilty by not naming names). I refused to be nude, which caused all sorts of problems, with the director pressuring me to change my mind (I didn’t), and so I got to wear a body stocking. The orgy scene was rather tame and involved much more laughter from us (under our breath) than sexual tension, which annoyed the director.  ;

Tell us about your upcoming performances for those who might want to hear you again. 

My upcoming performances are

In the US

  • Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” Sunday, October 28, 2018, at 4 pm,‬‬ at CedarHouse Sound and Mastering in North Sutton, NH. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬
  •  ”Das Lied von der Erde,” Thursday, November 1, 2018, at 7:30 pm, at the National Opera Studio, New York City.‬‬‬‬
  • ”Wagner: Mythology, Mystery, and Masters,” Sunday, November 11, 2018, at 3 pm‬‬ at Gordon Chapel, Old South Church, Boston‬‬‬.‬‬‬‬‬‬
    • ‬Join me and a fantastic group of Wagnerian singers as they perform an all-Wagner concert presented by the Boston Wagner Society.  I will be singing Siegmund in Act 1, Scene 3 of Die Walküre, with mezzo-soprano Janice Edwards as Sieglinde. ‬‬‬‬

‬‬‬ In Europe

  • Siegmund, Die Walküre, April 2019, with Berlin Wagner Gruppe.
  • Parsifal, Parsifal, June 2019, with Berlin Wagner Gruppe.
  • Siegfried, Siegfried, 2020, with Berlin Wagner Gruppe.