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OPERAFOCUS met with renowned bass Eric Halfvarson at the Royal Opera House in London a day after the opening night of “Don Carlo” on the 4th of May. When I first interviewed Eric last year, the only identifiable thought I had in my head was, "You're about to interview the Grand Inquisitor..." Of course, I did realise that it's only opera - but when  you do evil as convincingly as Eric does...

Those who know Eric the civilian will know that this character - or any other evil bastard he's made famous on opera stages around the world - is as far removed from the real man as one can possibly get. This is a man who loves telling stories, whether it's his own or from myths and ancient history, and he tells them with a rumbling enthusiasm enwisened by forty years on the opera road. When he makes a point he lowers his already deep voice so that it rumbles like midnight thunder in July - followed by roaring laughter.

This is a man it's impossible not to like.

Do you remember the first time you and Ferruccio Furlanetto did “Don Carlo” together?

- I think it was in the Teatro La Fenice di Venezia. We've done it so many times in so many cities!  Our debut together would have been in about 1991.  It was the year before the theatre burned down. I was so horrified to hear that story because we had just been there. We had a double cast of “Don Carlo”, and neither Ferruccio, nor Sam Ramey could be there for the big orchestra stage with Daniel Oren conducting, … and they were nervous about doing the rehearsal because they had no King and I said, “Well, I know the King so if you want I will be happy to sing it for you” – implying “if you cross my palm with a little something, a donation to my poor fund.”

- In the end I got to sing the King and the Inquisitor – and did the duet with myself. Someone has a cassette recording of that somewhere. It was great fun. It went extremely well and the orchestra applauded me. That was one of those times when the director just sat back in his chair in the theatre looking at the abstract set  on stage and said, “Ok, do act one” and people just went around and did what seemed natural to do. It was a strange idea but it was fun to be able to sing the duet with myself.

When did you first do it?

- For my very first time I was still a student in my junior year, so it would have been around 1973. We did an opera scenes program at the University of Illinois. I sang Filippo’s aria and another student, my old friend, Carl Glaum, sang the Inquisitor and we sang the duet. My teacher, Mark Elyn, who was a very experienced Filippo himself from his time in the Cologne Opera in Germany, directed us. He was new to the school too and it was a thrill for everybody to have this real professional guy coming in as a director. We did quite a dramatic presentation of the scene, of which even the cold-as-ice, musicology teacher was heard to say, “Now that scene really sounded like opera”. So my relationship with this opera, and with Verdi, really goes back a long way through my entire life as a singer.

Do you remember when you first did it professionally?

- Did I do Inquisitor first? No, I did Filippo in the early eighties and started doing the Grand Inquisitor a little later. All the info is on my website but I don't remember myself because it’s too long ago. This is my fortieth year on the stage, you know! I don't know what I did last week, let along in 1983 or ‘84!

It will be forty years in August, won't it?

- Yes, my debut was in August 1973 in a professional contract doing Don Basilio in “Barber of Seville” with the Lake George Opera Festival on tour to Lake Placid – which some time after was to become a place for the winter Olympics. Before that it was a beautiful old lake with lots of forested land around. Down in the little town nearby you had a little auditorium and that's where we performed. We were the very first opera singers ever to sing at Lake Placid, New York.

Obviously in “Don Carlo” these are historical characters, so how much have you actually studied?

- Having read in some little blurb in a recording that Verdi and Schiller actually did depart somewhat from the actual true reality of known history, I looked into it because I thought it was interesting. There was, in fact, probably very little relationship between the real Don Carlo – who was kind of a mental case and was kept in a tower because he was embarrassing to the family – and what they wrote. Then there’s Elisabeth, who came into this official marriage at the age of about fourteen years old with a guy who was over fifty at the time.

- I looked into the fact that there was an official position, a Grand Inquisitor in the court of Philip II, but he was nowhere near ninety years old and blind. This was another exaggeration. Verdi was going for the dramatic, theatrical, scary movie effect of this figure that may have lived several hundred years before (Verdi’s time). Who he was referring to was Torquemada, who was a notorious figure in the court of Fernando and Isabella of the previous generation, and they were most famous for three things; they united  Castile and Aragon, they sent Christopher Columbus on his way – and they kicked out all the Muslims and the Jews and anybody else who wasn't ready to sign up and be a card carrying Catholic Christian according to their prescription. You know, ethnic cleansing on a grand scale! All this was in 1492 and it was in that court that the Inquisition really got going. They started their terror campaign and they had the Grand Inquisitor of Spain who apparently did some pretty dramatic and nasty stuff and gained quite a reputation – even as allowed into the history books in the 1860's. So I guess, to make this piece more dramatic, Verdi thought the Inquisitor should come in as a ninety-year-old blind guy and terrorise the King. 

- I did read the Schiller once a long time ago and I have made the pilgrimage: I have been to the El Escorial and seen this drab, ugly, nasty place he had built. The building of it hadn't been completed yet by the time this opera actually refers to. It took a long time to build! The Escorial palace is built on slag heaps left over from mining. It wasn't exactly an attractive location. It's a thirty of forty minute train ride out of central Madrid and they have a little tourist train that will take you right out there. When you go down into the tombs, it’s weird when you think of who's really buried there. It's a trip one should take if you are an historian, to go into the crypts below the church in the Escorial.

- Also it's cool at the Royal Palace in Madrid where you get to see the armoury. I loved going in there to see all the metal armour that they were wearing. There was armour for horses, armour for dogs and children, you know full suits of armour. The suit of armour for Phillip II shows he was a small statured guy. He wasn't a big, tall, giant guy at all. I mean, I wouldn't be able to get into it!

How do you actually get into the character of the Inquisitor? Obviously, he’s not a particularly heart-warming individual…

“Ah! Well, I have to admit that I generalise a little bit. I made a study of evil…” he says deeply.

- And I had to understand it a little bit in myself. Because I do a number of these guys, who are sort of similar, I have this weird place that I can go to. When I did Claggart [in Britten’s “Billy Budd”] I really actually, and I’m not kidding, read Dante, “La Comedia” and  Milton,“Paradise Lost” and even the illustrations by William Blake and Gustave Doré. I think these writers and artists influenced the whole Catholic vision of evil and the characters that they promote to exemplify it – which is pure theatre!  I found it very interesting philosophically, sociologically and psychologically and also in my wonderings about religious philosophy. My first wife was a catholic and wanted me to consider becoming one and I said, “Ok I will read up on it and then I'll let you know.” After about three years I said, “I have to let you know that it ain't gonna happen!”

- A number of the most messed up friends I have ever had in my life were largely disturbed by their strenuous efforts to conform to a strict religious vision of their philosophy. I find that to be very inhuman and unnatural and an imposition of a philosophy that is all about political power. Meaning, power  used to manipulate people.

- For me there is the second law of thermo dynamics which deals with the concept of simple entropy, where systems of great complexity have a natural tendency to deteriorate into systems of lesser complexity… unless there is some supporting influence, or energy to maintain the structure. This has to do with uranium isotopes or the structure of society or the universe at large. There's ‘energy’ and there's ‘not energy’, or lack of it, it's not like there's a good energy and a bad energy. Based on that approach, I came up with a different concept of evil. It’s a dark room.  But if you take a candle into the room, it is not so dark!

- This was so vividly pictured in the artistry around the church.  They have created some specific characters which are regarded as though they actually exist. It's not hard to put on Halloween mask and portray a ridiculously exaggerated version of some otherwise recognisable human who's playing a ridiculous part.  Certainly there is the ‘will’ to good as there is the ‘will’ to bad, which is the choice of human nature and the gift of God.

- I didn't realise I was going to get into all of this but in coming to a so vividly depicted character as Melville's book of “Billy Budd”… It’s a short novella, you can read it in one evening, but it's worth a read! It's a little bit hard because the language is a little bit poised in a style from an archaic time but the purpose of the story is apparently to juxtapose characters; a purely good character with a purely evil character and that's the purpose of it. It is not, by the way, necessarily about homosexuality as people who view Benjamin Britten's opera sometime assume. Even though I will grant you that Benjamin Britten may in fact have certain issues himself but Melville's book was not about that. Given the opportunity to flesh out a character that embodies the ‘will to bad’ with everything that you could imagine in over-theatricalised exaggeration… as it turns out, it's not hard to do. I could become Claggart so that it absolutely scared people.

- In fact, when I first did it in Barcelona I was still a little bit new to the role. I would walk into the theatre quite early and get into my mood. And Willy Decker had me wear these hard heeled high boots and walk with a kind of stylised, stiff legged, heavy walk and click my heels on the floor. I was like a robotic sort of machine, which added a certain sense of stiff power. This is another aspect of evil characters, they’re all about POWER, so I imagined that Claggart must have super human physical strength, that he must inspire physical fear and terror in all the other men on the ship. In an instant I could flick my wrist and throw somebody into the water to be lost forever. He embodies the power of Bruce Lee in a Kung Fu movie and just a stiff turn of the head towards somebody should absolutely make them pale with terror.

- I'd walk into the theatre and there would be people who I had never met before, it was my first time to visit the theatre, and they were literally scared of me in the hallways. I met the woman who’s now my wife on that show and she tells the story that she had this love at first sight reaction and her friends were telling her, “Are you crazy? He's a monster. We are scared to death of him!” She said, “Well, I kind of like...” It wasn't until I went back in a different part, where there was no Claggart involved, that people began to warm to me but for a while there I was walking around being Claggart in a very effective way.  Those performances were quite a thrill!  Working with Decker was fantastic!  He is a rare, great director!  He gave a great boost to my process!  So, working on something like that, also informs all the other bad guys!

- For Hagen, who is this psychopathic murderer motivated partly by supernatural forces which you have to assume is part of the power of the ring and the dark curse on it, of course, I had to read the whole Tolkien material and other Teutonic mythologies. I was a big fan of Mythology anyway.  I had ALL the works of Joseph Campbell, a great scholar on the subject.  I have a whole, kind of personal culture built up around all these bad guys!   When I do Don Basilio, who's a bit of a weird, psycho guy, I make him as weird as possible for comic effect. I will use the entire box of makeup, as much as you can imagine; the long nose, the weird hat, a coat with capacious pockets... I did this one production where, nothing to do with the text of the piece at all, he was a kleptomaniac. During the aria, “La Calunnia” he would distract Bartolo's attention with all he was talking about and then steal everything in site from his desk and put it in his pockets. It was like Coline's coat but on Don Basilio. It was hysterical. This was a David Gately production, and I have to say it was inspired insanity, but it also added something to the bizarre nature of a wild, kind of Burlesque comedy, totally out of his mind, crazy guy, whose still distantly related to Claggart, Hagen…

- When I finally get to the Inquisitor, I have to do some physicalisation and I've really hurt myself in some times past by overdoing it to make it look good. It helps to be in some sort of large robe that conceals what I actually have to do to my body to be able to sing. There's that one production from Paris, by Luc Bondy in French, with Jose Van Dam and Tony [Pappano] conducting, which was a big builder for me for that. I was like this alien insect creature and came in with a bulky robe and hood and a walking cane in each hand. It looks like a character from an early episode of  “The Doctor Who Show!” You almost feel you should have some guy giving some crazy lines with an English accent. I am a big fan by the way! I love science fiction and all that stuff – because I am a science fiction character and I just have a lot of fun with it!

Isn't it ultimately easier to play something as far removed from yourself as possible?

- Well, maybe. I sometimes think it is therapeutic, that I get all my ‘bad’ out on the stage. Then I can sort of be a nice guy in real life. 

What you find are the vocal challenges in Don Carlo?

- It's not easy. It's a challenge what he wrote, you know. I wonder if we really have many singers now who are trained the way they need to be trained for this high verismo dramatic singing. It seems to be harder and harder to find Don Carlos and Elisabeths who can really do it. Ferruccio and I have discussed it backstage when one soprano or another is trying desperately to get through that last gigantic aria. In several cases, in recent years, you find ladies who are a little too young and not really fully developed in their voice to do it properly. Ferruccio made the statement that I remember clearly, “This is the kind of part that used to be what one should wait for until the voice is really in the full flower of the vocal maturity of the lifetime of the singer.”

- Elisabetta is only fourteen years old, but never mind that because the demands of Verdi's music are extreme, both in range and in the necessary flexibility to be very soft or very loud at the top and at the bottom. It's almost written for two different voices. “La Traviata” really seems to be that way. Sometimes a coloratura will come in and sing the big aria, “Sempre Libera”, and they can do that, just, but then if you go to Act 2 and we see that it's all quite low in the voice. Also, it’s over a full chorus of strings, with a lot of declamation and heavy, quasi recitative.  The light coloratura who could sort of get through the aria will have a lot of difficulty.

- They are not trained to do that anymore. We expect stars to be made of young, photogenic people and that doesn't work with this kind of art form. The voice actually needs years of development and that sort of patience and that sort of perspective is lost in much of the promotion and the big art of the opera world. And that's a real shame.

- Nobody trains tenors like they used to. There was Mario Del Monaco and Giuseppe Giacomini and a Franco Corelli. I never heard Del Monaco but I heard Giacomini a couple of times and I thought... WOW!

What did you hear him in?

- I heard him in “Tosca” and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was in Chicago, which is an enormous house.  I've heard him in recordings but having heard him in person I think that's really what the composer had in mind. That's the way it's supposed to be.

You have to have a tenor like that to stand up to Tosca, otherwise she will eat him alive.

- Exactly, if she's well cast.

I saw Maria Guleghina in Oslo and she was up against a Russian tenor that she completely ate alive.

- Poor fellow. Somebody should have passed her the salt, he laughs. "…spit out the bones, Dear!"

Apparently Giacomini was a really nervous performer and if he didn't make it through the first act in the way he wanted it he wouldn't come back on.

- Yes, it seems to be endemic of those guys. Franco Corelli was another that I admired. Oh, my God! That's what I want to hear. Somebody's heart, you know. With all due respect to the fabulous and wonderfully technically developed talent we have nowadays, I think this duo we have here in London is  the best Don Carlo and Elisabeth I have ever heard personally on the stage.  Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann just make me smile every time they sing!

- I do sometimes have to remind people that I do do other parts besides the Grand Inquisitor, which also sound quite different. I had a very wonderful experience with Gurnemanz over Easter but it was in Budapest – and unfortunately everything that happens in Budapest STAYS in Budapest. There was one review, I think in Hungarian, and nothing anywhere else.

When I spoke to Ferruccio on Friday we talked about the Grand Inquisitor scene, because it is widely regarded as the most powerful scenes in opera, and I’m curious to ask you too what it feels like to be right in the middle of it?

- It's always exiting! I am never bored with this part. Even though I would like to also sing Filippo again, my brother bass is a King of Kings and he deserves to sing it. I am very happy for him and I consider it an honour and a privilege to come in and do the Inquisitor with him. I like doing what I do and working at it.  It is always a continuing challenge to fine-tune the diction here and there. I always go through it again looking for something to make it better. I have a tendency for certain Germanic vowels that leak into Italian that don't belong there.

- Then I just act my ass off and it's always great fun. I've added a few things. I don't want to distract people with little quirks and things that I try to throw in, people seem to remark about it in a positive way.  I do this bizarre caricature that seems to be called for by Verdi's direction. There was only one production that I regretted, by a director whose name went onto my little short list.  The King and the Inquisitor were literally rolling on the floor, having a wrestling match during the scene. I wasn't even blind really, and I thought the whole production was a crime against the art form. I won't tell you who that was.

- So, you know, the way this life goes when it's good, it's REALLY GOOD to do what we do. To have a night like we had last night, where the audience just went berserk.  The roar at the end of that performance was really wonderful. However, when it's bad it's like a punishment in Hell. When you have it in your concept to do such a good thing with it, and somebody is not letting you and making you do some ridiculous bullshit, it's really bad. It’s at times like that you will go home at night, look at the suitcase I pretty much live out of, feeling lonely in my bedroom looking at the ceiling at night wondering, “What am I doing here?”

- My wife and my daughter are too many miles away. Did I show you this picture of my daughter? A year ago I was doing Bartok's Bluebeard in Miami Beach so we had to go and meet a dolphin. They have a pool where you can touch them and I think the dolphin is smiling too. [proudly shows picture of daughter kissing a dolphin and a couple of family portraits]

Which role do you enjoy the most?

- Hard to say. I generally really get focused on what I am doing at the moment, but perhaps my most fun part is Ochs in “Der Rosencavalier”. Given free permission to openly lust after every pretty girl on stage I think that's pretty great! I kind of have a personal relation with every role. Also Hagen where I get to kill both the tenor and the baritone is quite a lot of fun. You know, we basses we have to know our place, it's a philosophical adjustment but sometimes it's not easy and the dramatic subtext is usually pretty clear where I think to myself [in dramatic voice], “This is because you made so much more money than I did for all those years” and I run him through with my medieval spear. Muahahaha!

Photographer: May I ask about what you think of modern productions where they change the libretto or the story?

- I don't like it. I once did once a “Lohengrin” with a notable director in Bayreuth where he really changed things around. He radically changed the character, imposing things on my character that had no business being there and depicting things of a pretty wild, far flung interpretation of what might have been going on in order to excuse the rest of it. At the end he had me die on stage in some symmetrical position just opposite where Telramund was brought in on the other side and to me this was too far beyond anything that was related in the story that Wagner was telling. My job is to do what the composer and librettist presented in their piece and tell the story. I don't care if it's set on the moon or a submarine or in Hawaii, as long as it's still the story and the characters are in relationship to each other the way they are supposed to be. And they are at least alive or dead where they are supposed to be in the piece and that I am allowed to sing the music as the composer wrote it. If you change anything beyond that then I don't know what you’re doing. Some of these modern guys use the piece in order to piggyback their current modern political or philosophical views, and make some way of expressing that in place of the piece.

- I have had bad luck with “Lohengrin”. There was another one where a young assistant was given free hand to completely interpret this piece which had no concept, except that it should look like paintings by Magritte. That was the entire overriding ‘concept’. A sky with umbrellas floating around it, with hats and chairs… It looked like a Magritte painting. But otherwise it was like he wanted Gottfried to arrive at the end as an hermaphrodite and die over the coffin of Telramund – apparently of AIDS. They were actually going to go around the strip joints and find some stripper willing to come on mostly naked and wear some prosthetic thing to represent a hermaphrodite. I mean, this began to go way too far. This is the only time I have seen a conductor and the entire cast go, en mass to the director of the company's office and sit down and say, “No way!” He claimed on the spot that he actually hadn't realised the extent of what was going on [whispers] but he did because it was written in a published article.

I am curious as to what you think it takes to be a Verdi singer.

- You have to have the right equipment and some old fashioned training, which is hard to find. I believe my teaching is going back in that direction. To find somebody's native voice, their real voice, without it being an imitation or structured through artificial means. If there is anything artificial involved, it won't work! And it must be simply ‘On the Breath!’ It takes quite a long time to grow a voice, to be a big Verdi voice. The problem of many of these young artist programmes, I think, is that many of them don't really have people who can recognise the talent in the raw and see what could become of somebody in five or eight years of growing time. If a young Flagstad walked in I don't think many people now would have any idea of how to recognise her, what she needs and what to do with her for the time that she needs to grow up to be a big dramatic voice. This is very rare to find now. Unfortunately there are a lot of programmes around, a lot of teachers trying to find young talent and that's all great but these are rare natural gifts that are hard to find.

They all want to discover the next big Callas or the next Pavarotti...

- They take a twenty five year old Flagstad voice and push her into Verdi by the time she is twenty eight. She may find a way to sort of push through it some way for a couple of years but then boom it will be over. Her voice will break, it will not last and that's a shame.

- We basses, if we have survived into a career, do have some understanding of perspective of time because our voices take longer to physically mature than everybody else. We do have to be older before we start the big repertoire and we just have to find something else to do in the meantime. Stay in school longer, go into apprentice programmes where you can keep singing and studying, get out of school and just enjoy life singing a little. Just grow slowly and eventually, if opportunities come at the right time, which is as much through chance as well unfortunately. It's a weird combination of things and it's not easy.

I saw on Facebook that you are starting teaching more. Is it in Barcelona you ended up?

- It's essentially because we have an apartment there and we are going to go live in it. I recently sold a place in Manhattan, put our stuff in storage, and moved to my wife's family’s home in a big, old house out in the country just east of Bordeaux where her mother still lives. Fortunately we found a nice, bilingual school for Beatrix (with an ‘x’, like the Queen who has just abdicated her throne). It’s a lot easier to make short visits to my family from all my European singing engagements if they are over here as well!  Then in the ‘In Between’ times, I will open a private teaching studio in Barcelona.

- I will also be collaborating with a ‘study abroad’ program in Paris, called LEXIA.  I am looking forward to master classes and private coaching starting this Fall.

- I need to teach only privately as I can't take a resident job because I have too much singing to do, off and on. I am booked solid right through practically until the end of October and then I've got three months off, so I need to teach some students in the city. I know there are a lot of good Spanish singers and almost nobody teaching them, so I am hoping to find a few students who may have a few Euros left. Overall unemployment is 27.5% in Spain, I read in the last issue of “The Economist”.

- Now there's a challenge: Try and read “The Economist” magazine! I am not a business management graduate or anything but I have been trying to learn and so I read slowly through. I am usually two weeks behind because it takes me so long to read any one issue, but there is some good news in there and one needs to be aware that things are changing rapidly and we should keep our eyes and ears open.

- Then I have contracts in the Spring of 2014 with the Barcelona theatre, El Gran Teatre del Liceu, a Rimskij-Korsakov, “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya”, overlapping with Wagner’s “Die Walküre.”

- By the way, a good friend sent me some archive info from several opera companies and found that, apparently, the next performance of “Don Carlo” here at the ROH on May 11th will be my 100th performance in this theatre!  I can hardly believe it! I don’t usually keep track of such things!  I am pleased to invite the cast out for a beer after the show! As I frequently say:  “ONward and UPward with the ARTS!!” Thanks Very Much!

See Eric Halfvarson as the Grand Inquisitor in "Don Carlo"

at the Royal Opera House in May 2013

Read Operafocus's review of the opening night

Read Operafocus's interview with Ferruccio Furlanetto

Read Operafocus's interview with Jonas Kaufmann