EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH:
Meet Eric Halfvarson; a bass with nearly 40 years' experience as a professional singer, 25 of those as a teacher as well as a singer. He's been Mr. Versatility with close to 130 roles under his belt and nearly turned deaf after an encounter with Birgit Nilsson in the 70s. At the age of 60, he's now looking for a place to call home.
The first time I personally heard Eric sing was when a friend of mine sent me onto Youtube to watch “the greatest bass duet ever”, and I found myself watching the scene from “Don Carlo” between King Filippo II and the Grand Inquisitor. When I some years later get the opportunity to speak with the Grand Inquisitor himself, I'm not sure what to expect. The man on the other side of the Skype-screen greets me with a great, big smile and a bass-voice as deep as a bottomless canyon as he asks where in the world I am.
"I take it from your surname you have Swedish ancestry?” I ask, after having mentioned I’m currently in Oslo – next door to his gene pool.
- My father's parents came from Sweden but he was actually born in Pittsburgh. The Swedish people I do know look at the name (Halfvarson) and sort of disown it because it's spelled in a very old-fashioned way, like old Norse – but I do consider myself an old Viking. I just can't seem to find my way home. My mother's family was English and Scottish, so they were all Vikings as well. I have great affinity for the Scandinavians.
So you don't speak Swedish?
- My father spoke Swedish as a small child before he leaned English, but we never really got to learn more than "tack så mycket" [“thank you very much”]. I visited there once and my cousin taught me a phrase to say to my father when I got back, which was, "Jag är så lycklig att se dig igjen." [“I’m so happy to see you again.”] One time I attended a recital with Birgit Nilsson at my University back in the late 70s, where she was accompanied by my old coach John Wustman. I thought that afterwards I'd go up to her and say this phrase, just take off the last word, so I said, "Jag är så lycklig att se dig" and she said, "Whaaat?"
- So I explained that I don't really speak Swedish but my cousin told me to say that to my father and she laughed - into my ear - so strongly that I wasn't sure if I was ever going to hear again. I was so embarrassed and John Wustman was laughing out loud as well. I wanted to shrink into a little hole in the ground! I called my father later and asked what I'd said wrong, and he said it was OK, "but you used a familiar pronoun, the Scandinavians don’t like that unless you’re a close friend of relative.”
She had one of the most phenomenal soprano voices that ever was, really.
- I think so! I got to hear her in the early 70s in Chicago as Brünnhilde in “Siegfried” and I will never, ever forget that. I admire her tremendously. She judged me once in a contest, for the Tucker Foundation in New York, so I felt somehow a connection to her. She was very sweet to me.
DER RING DAS NIEBELUNGEN
- I saw you did an interview with my brother and fellow giant, Iain Paterson. We have sung the brothers in a couple of places already. We started in Berlin just a few months ago in a "Das Rheingold". I also jumped in to the "Götterdammerung" in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper at the end of June at very short notice, which was a bit scary. They'd called me just a couple of days before because they had a cover but were worried about him as well because he didn't feel well. I had all my stuff packed, slept for four hours because the only flight was really early and I was in a taxi by six in the morning. I was at the airport, ready to board the plane, when they called from Munich and said, "We just want to confirm that the cover is also sick so you definitely have to sing today." When I arrived I had two hours to learn the geography of the set and went on to sing Hagen that afternoon – after I'd just sung the Grand Inquisitor the night before.
- And there was Iain, as Gunther, so he was able to guide me around. I will say it wasn't so difficult the way the production was designed, and with Iain's help I was able to get around more or less OK, but it was a little scary. Then they called me and asked me to come back and do it again in the middle of July, so I had to jump in once more. This happens sometimes, because there are only a few people in the world who can sing Hagen.
- While on the subject, I must contrast greatly this production at the RoH with Keith Warner which is the most complicated, highly detailed production I've ever seen. I was contracted to just sing Fafner in “Das Rheingold” and “Siegfried” but when I arrived, Sir John Tomlinson was actually ill. We were a little worried about him because it was a recurring infection, and I was a bit nervous that if someone had to cover him they ought to really study the show. So I approached them and they said, "Yeah, it would be great if you could cover." I exaggerate, but it seems like there are 147 prompts in the score, sometimes up to 6 on each page. I admire Warner’s intelligence and thought, it's very fascinating. I'm getting kind of old for this, this is my 40th year on a professional stage and I don't really feel that I need to do another new "Götterdammerung". This is my 16th different production, but at the end of it I had to say, "Boy, you've caught my attention, my curiosity, and I want to learn more."
- So I worked really hard for a little over a week on the "Götterdammerung" production. Luckily, John is back and singing at his most magnificent best. The ultra indestructible Sir John! he laughs.
- I first sang with him back in Bayreuth back in 1994, when he was doing all the Wotans, so I've known him for a long time and admire him tremendously so I'm very happy he's better.”
What’s the dynamic like backstage?
- Iain [Paterson] and Bryn [Terfel] encourage each other in their accents; the Welshman and the Scotsman. Iain and I are sharing a dressing room, and when he and Bryn chat in hall I tease them about their accents. They won't say "got" they say "go" and I'll say, "Guys, there's a T at the end of the word Got!" he laughs. – They call me The Consonant Police.
- I also tease them about their eliding Rs. They don't say the Rs in words where it's actually spelt, like “word”, they say (in mock-English accent) “woooood”. Then they stick Rs in in order to make an illusion to another word that start with an A. So you hear things like "ChinERRR and Japan", "AustraliERRR and New Zealand". “BrunnhildERRR and...” you know. On the BBC they do it too, the newsreaders put Rs in wherever they can, he chuckles.
What’s it like handling two different sets of rehearsals and two different operas pretty much simultaneously?
- Well, the trouble is that for the past two weeks I've been involved in all four operas! It's quite normal, especially for us basses, that if there's a “Ring” going on you have to be prepared to put in some 12-hour days in the theatre. The part in “Siegfried” is very short, and I’m only in act two so it's not so difficult. There is a consistency in the characters throughout, but the difference in “Siegfried” is that after having possessed the magic ring with its curse, the whole look of the character is changed. I wear this strange alien head and it looks like I've had some horrible disease of the skin. I've often said that one of the frustrations in my life is that my fondest ambition would have been to become an alien on “Star Trek”. Now I've actually played the most alien looking character in opera, he laughs.
- When I did the “RING” in Bayreuth I sang in three of the operas, and also covered Hunding in “Die Walküre”. That was two months of rehearsals. It's a big, big coordinating challenge for an opera house. Even now with an old production that's been re-launched here in Covent Garden, it's a big challenge for the house and they're very well organised and everything works really well here. Like a Swiss watch, very impressive.
"DON CARLO" AT THE MET AND RoH
I get onto the topic of “Don Carlo” next year and ask why he thinks this particular production has been so highly regarded around the world.
- It's a fantastic show. First of all, the scene between King Filippo II and the Grand Inquisitor is the very best scene of all of opera – especially if you have someone like my dear brother bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Filippo. By the way, in a two year period I think we did five different productions together in Torino, Los Angeles, London, New York and somewhere else. So we know each other quite well and we've evolved certain subtleties of doing things in that scene, and we both have a certain focus of presence in the moment. We come on really strong in that scene, very powerful and it's a great joy to do it with Ferruccio. I did it with Rene Pape in Munich recently in a different production, he's also very gifted. It's a great honour and privilege to participate in the art form and to be of service to it.
- I don't know if you've read a book by Eckhart Tolle called "The Power of Now"? I highly recommend it if you haven't. It's about meditation and about a concept of time, philosophically. When I read that I realised that that's what I do on stage. It's a realisation of being in this moment of time and if you can just be there like that, the audiences will know it.
- I look forward to the Met, my debut there was in 1992, I think. As Sarastro in “Die Zauberflöte” and also as Baron Ochs in "Der Rosenkavalier" which is my other most favourite part. I do a lot of really bad guys, like the worst bad guys, but at least I have a little relief once in a while with the adorable character of Baron Ochs. I've tried to be Mr. Versatility, but being a Wagnerian, it’s as though people tend to think that's all you do. It’s difficult if you get into too narrow a repertoire with character parts. So I try to do some other things, for example I did my first Bluebeard in “A kékszakállú herceg vára” (“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”) this last spring and it was a glorious experience. It's difficult if you get into too narrow a repertoire to get character parts.
As a bass you tend to play older characters at a very young age. What are the challenges of this?
- I sang King Filippo in a scene of “Don Carlo” when I was in college, which is totally absurd, but nonetheless that was the assignment I got. I started working on Filippo when I was about 19 years old. I think a voice that is eventually going to evolve into a certain repertoire ought to at least have a feel of it quite early on. It takes us basses a lot longer to physically mature in the voice than any other voice type. It's very frustrating. All basses go through this kind of identity crisis, and vocal crisis, because we can't help but over-darken and characterise the arias of Sarastro when we get to sing them in our early 20s.
You sing in about five different languages, do you speak any fluently?
- My German is fairly conversational, my French is not as good but not bad - since now I'm married to one. I can do some necessities in Spanish. My Italian is not quite as good. I haven’t worked there as much. It would take a week or so to reach conversational level again. Even though I make mistakes I have the courage to try! My Russian is not conversational but I read Cyrillic and I'm good enough to look everything up in a dictionary. I have a very good ear and I am a good mimic. I don’t speak Russian”, and I can say it very well! [demonstrates in Russian].
- I'm learning a new part in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya" which is a fascinating piece. It’s referred to in some books as "the great Parsifal of the Russian language" and I'm excited. I'll have a go with that in a couple of years. I've done a piece in Hungarian for the first time. That was a challenge! ‘Bluebeard’ was a good exercise technically and vocally, to get my mouth to say such new sounds!
- I've been teaching on and off for 25 years, for instance doing Master Classes and residencies at Universities. Seeing these young singers reminds me of what it was like when I was that age. You sometimes get contraltos and dramatic sopranos that aren't ready to step into their repertoire until their early 30s, and they shouldn't. It's hard to know what to do with them for a while. Despite popular belief, it's not necessarily the answer to simply go and do Mozart, which requires a different kind of voice. Many teachers would probably have no idea what to do if a young Flagstad walked into the studio, who'd need another five or ten years of evolving before she's ready vocally and physically to start really working. What do you do with her? It's a problem. Few people have really thought through that I think.
Do singers necessarily make the best teachers?
- Sometimes it does not work but I do think if you have been a successful singer for 40 years, and you've been listening carefully to everyone all around you during that time in a wide variety of repertoire, there’s a good chance. I listened very carefully to Mirella Freni and all her Mimi performances as a younger bass, so I think I'm quite competent to coach a Mimi. I can't speak for every singer, but I think I'm a pretty good teacher and coach. It's hard for me to imagine someone who doesn’t sing and how they can know what it’s like, in a physical sense, and then try to teach someone else how to sing. I don't see how that would work, frankly, but I guess there are some that do!
What’s your teaching method?
- It starts with simplicity and naturalness, with the breath. A lot of people can't start to sing without some kind of preconception and you have to get past that and trick them into doing it naturally, without any preconception. Without listening to recordings! No-one is that innocent but I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve to get someone to make a good, natural sound and discover their natural real voice. Then I suggest they try to stick with that as much as possible, he laughs.
- You get young bass-baritones who listen to every single recording of George London, which doesn’t help. Of course we've all been there. I wanted desperately to be George London! Thankfully I was saved along the way by a couple of very good teachers and the realisation that of course only George London could sound like George London and I had to find out who I am. That's the trick. So I'll ask my students, "Who's your favourite singer to listen to?" Then I'll say, "If you listen to one person more than twice in a week, you have to swear that you'll listen to five other singers in the same week from different periods of time."
- I do find it necessary to start out by working a little against what I think to be very bad teaching or bad misrepresentations of the so-called Bel Canto technique. This is where some people try to squeeze their mechanism and force it through their nose. What they do is create an additional resistance so that air flow that's not necessary, they eliminate a great deal of resonance from their body and then end up with a loud sound that comes through their nose. They also pull [the voice] off of the breath with the idea that a voice should be effortless and float, like they try to levitate like a guru off the floor, absolutely off of their breath.
You’ve talked about what makes a good singing teacher, but what do you think makes a good conductor?
- All the conductors I've worked with, and I think I've worked with almost all of the best conductors around the world in the last 40 years... [changes the tone of his voice]…and some of the other guys too! he laughs. - I've often said that a really good conductor should be simple and clear – and he should be a nice guy. If they can't do either one of those, it can be a miserable experience. The era of the tyrannical monster on the podium we read about from the history of symphonies – certain legendary people who became dictators on the podium and were miserable to people – that era is passed. The people I've worked with now can be wonderful, giving and sharing, inspiring as well as extremely competent at what they're doing.
- I actually fancy myself as having a certain capability as a conductor. If someone's missing or sick I can jump on the podium and conduct a rehearsal. I come from a musical family, my father was a very good conductor - even by comparison to everyone I've worked with - he was very, very good.
THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF OPERA
- It's very hard when these new recordings are so manipulated because they're not really very honest. It's better to go back through the years and listen to some of the more honest, acoustical recordings by someone that doesn't have a microphone 30 centimetres from their mouths. This comes from a long experience of my own and I think that's important to share with young singers.
What wisdom would you like to pass on to next generation of singers?
- That's a good question. My mind goes partly to this technical problem because our art form is changing and it's being sent out through electronic media. There's a tendency to change the singing to satisfy the guys in the control room with their fingers on the dials. I think that's a mistake. I think we still have to sing these old fashioned, acoustical pieces for the people who bought the tickets that are in the house with you. The recording engineers never actually listen to the acoustics of the house, because they're in their little booth with ear phones or speakers, and they look at their dials. Their jobs seem to be to make sure everything sounds exactly the same.
- The little tenor who comes out (in “Don Carlo”) to announce the arrival of King Filippo shouldn’t sound like Otello or Jon Vickers on his best day! Likewise, the stentorian address of Filippo to the crowd, a declamation in the old fashioned theatrical style, shouldn’t have to be turned down. I did an interview once in Vienna, where they played some musical samples that I hadn't heard before, from a broadcast from "Der Rosenkavalier" from the Metropolitan Opera.
- At the end of act two, I come to the front of the stage with my glass of wine and sing “Mit mir…” quite loudly, then one softer, then my best efforts at the tiniest soft piano. They played this back to me and as it turns out they'd decided to change the recording level so instantaneously that you can’t realise it. So I did the first “Mit mir…”, then the electronics changed and suddenly the microphone sounded like it was right in front of me as I repeated. The third time the microphone sounded like it was pretty much shoved down my throat just to make it sound exactly-the-same.
- I explained this to that Viennese group of avid opera fans, the “Friends of the Vienna State Opera”, who are among the most knowledgeable and avid opera fans in the world, and they seemed to be completely surprised and amazed. There’s something missing from the electronic representation of the acoustical art form! There's something missing from the acoustical art form. I'm a bit worried about the whole art form because, and this'll make me sound like I'm turning into a dinosaur, but because certain houses have their hidden microphones. You find amplified singers in repertoire they should never have sung - but they can get away with it because of electronics. This is a disservice to the art form and to the audience - and to Verdi or Puccini or whoever composed the piece. I feel very strongly about that.
You hear stories from the golden age that people like Caruso and Del Monaco were told to not be “crude” and to tone it down for the diamond horse shoe.
- Exactly. I had heard Jon Vickers sing "Peter Grimes" in three different theatres within two seasons and it was one of the most thrilling events of my musical life. Then they recorded him in a studio where he had to tone it all down, completely change his interpretation and vocal personality, the presence of the voice... it was completely disappointing to me. Shame.
On the subject of voice, how do you maintain your instrument?
- Err... carefully, he laughs. - I'm better if I sing a little every day. We have several days in between “Das Rheingold” and “Seigfried”. Last night was “Die Walküre”, which I was technically on duty for, but John was in fine shape so there was no problem. I went over and sang around midday for half an hour and again this afternoon. The trouble is if I'm completely cold it takes a while to feel warmed up, particularly as my voice has got thicker and heavier and more dramatic in my old age. I have to work it carefully and I have to do physical exercise. Today I had to get up early and go over to the Japanese embassy to pick up my visa because I'm going to Tokyo right after this for a "Die Walküre" concert. So I’ve been running around, then I have you and this interview. After this I have to do my little workout: the stretching, deep knee bends, the door-frame pull, the push-ups…
- If you want to be 60 years old, like me, and still sing you have to work out. The Olympics of singing! You have to keep physically fit and strong. I don't mean heavy weightlifting, but simple exercises and many repetitions. My work-out tends to be a bit like exercises of a marine. Not that I was personally in the military, I never was, but I often compare the performances on stage to a battle; that we are going on as warriors. We have to be trained as the ninja warrior opera singers, and the mind/body/spirit energy must come together to give you a certain feeling of enlightenment while you do it. Sometimes you have to do remarkable scenes of very definite coordination in order to be in that moment and see what the conductor's doing that's suddenly different from before, catch a falling chair with the tip of your toe and still sing the phrase gracefully. All that stuff is a little bit like the dance of a Kung Fu warrior. I did do weightlifting very early on, but now I have what I call the “In The Hotel Room Routine”. It requires no expensive memberships to a club. A little Pilates, a little US marine corps training and you can be an opera singer, he giggles.
A YOUNG FAMILY
- I'm still learning new repertoire and I’m in pretty good shape overall, and I want to keep going – except that now I have a young family. I have a five-year-old daughter and am looking for a place to call home. In fact, this year I put them back over in France, in Bordeaux, so I can visit them more easily than if they were all the way across the Atlantic. My little daughter is taking her first grade in a school near Bordeaux, but what's hard for me now is that she can't travel as she did when she was a baby because she has to stay in school. So I travel alone and I'm not... very happy, but...
- I'm thinking of taking up teaching more and singing less but making that transition is a big mystery to me, I haven't figured out how to do it yet. I've done something like 130 different characters on the stage over these years and there comes a time when one thinks that maybe it's... sufficient. I would like to do more teaching, so if you hear of anything for a good teacher who's been around for quite a while, let me know!
Are you implying you’d consider… giving up?
- I want to find a way to be home...! If I can find a way to sing and be home, that would be great.
Do you still enjoy singing?
- Well... sometimes when the production is really dreadful, I do wonder what the hell I’m doing. If it's going well, if I'm enjoying my performing... when it's good, it feels so great. It's really something to be addicted to, but by next August it's 40 years since my official debut as Don Basilio in the "Barber of Seville" with the Lake George Opera Festival in New York in 1973. I've been at it ever since, I'm enjoying my teaching and I'm looking for that as a way out. I'm enjoying the University teaching where you deal a lot with song repertoire like German lieder and French chanson, a lot of music that I always loved and that I haven't really much chance to participate in. There's not much recital concerts going on anymore, whereas there was 40 years ago. It's almost at the point now where I have to pay someone to let me do it, he chuckles.
- It’s not an easy way to make a living. I seem to be waiting for a sign from Heaven to tell me where to go next. I could do more teaching next Fall, but then in early 2014 I have contracts… that big Rimsky-Korsakov opera, another “Die Walküre”… But I miss my wife and daughter, traveling alone!
There is always Skype!
- My little daughter, he sighs. – I think she misses me a lot and it's kind of a shock for her to have me leave for a long time. She's so upset she can't even deal with the emotion and sometimes she can’t even speak to me,” he says and frowns.
– Except just before bedtime when she's relaxed and then she'll say, "I love you, papa" and I'm like, "I wanna come home!"
40 years of performing must mean a lot of sacrifices on a personal level.
[He takes a long pause and sighs.] - Yes. That's... understating it, yes. It's very, very hard. I will say though, as an old teacher and director friend, Wesley Balk, who wrote a book called "Performing Power" said. He said it was like a Zen concept where you devote yourself to something – like the Zen of archery for instance – where you totally immerse yourself in something and understand it on such a deep level that it somehow affects your soul and achieve a different kind of enlightenment. He said, "Of all the different ways that you could choose, doing the opera singer lifestyle must be the most difficult. Along with all that is the potential of personal knowledge, of the reward of what you can experience and learn on many different levels of your whole being and soul, is so enormous that it can be worth-while."
- I think about that too - but sometimes when you're alone in your bed, looking at the hotel room ceiling, on a miserable production run by ignorant people who are annoying you with what they're doing... then it’s more like, "What the hell am I doing here?"
So when you’re in one of those productions, have you ever found yourself wanting to tell them how it should be done?
- Oh yeah! It's inevitable. It's now the world of the stage director - and so if they're completely incompetent you have to try and help in some way, but not take over. It's sadly true that completely incompetent people will be put in charge and it makes you wonder what the hell the world has come to. I will say... in such a long time and with so many people I've worked with, I do have a little list... and it's quite short... with names of certain individuals with whom I will just never work with again. That must be true of everyone who's been around for a few decades. Those who remain and stay with the business genuinely we're a family together, we respect each other and work together, there's respect, give and take and it's a creative process that we all share. That's the ideal. For the most part that happens and it's a nice family.
Are there any roles you haven't done that you would like to do?
- “La Forza del Destino”! I have missed that one. I've also missed out "Ernani". The pieces that Ferruccio is doing, really. I've missed “Simon Boccanegra” and nobody's asking me to do it but I think I could - before I quit, laughs.
- If people could observe that I could do Gurnemanz it would take me a little bit out of the really bad-ass bass routine, he chuckles and puts on his “evil voice” that sounds like a horror film voice-over:
– Although I do take some pleasure in killing the tenor...! I stand behind the great hero of all of Teutonic mythology. Siegfried himself. And my thought process, for ultimate dramatics is, “And this is because you made SO much more money than I did for all those YEARS!” and I run through him with my medieval spear.
- Some tenor friends of mine will say, "Be careful if there's a hungry looking bass standing behind you with a sharp object in his hands...!” he laughs heartily and winks.
Catch Eric Halfvarson at the RoH until the end of October 2012