Dynamics with Background

Rudolf Hermes
Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, August 4, 2008

In preparation for his upcoming debut as Florestan in Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” tenor Steven Harrison speaks with journalist Rudolf Hermes during a musical rehearsal in Düsseldorf. This debut, in Germany, will be the first leading German role for the tenor who is known for his interpretations of French and Italian operatic characters.

When Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, “FIDELIO”, has its Premiere in the Duisburger Theater on November 15th, Steven Harrison will be singing the Florestan. For the American tenor, who is already known to the public as Aeneas in “The Trojans”, Don José in “Carmen” and Turridu in “Cavalleria Rusticana,” it will be his Debut in the German Repertoire. Steven Harrison already started working on the role with Kapellmeister Rainer Mühlbach early this year.

For the fifth coaching of Harrison and Mühlbach, the Aria “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” is on the schedule. In the Kapellmeister Room of the Düsseldorfer Operahouse, Rainer Mühlbach plays a few bars on the piano, and Harrison starts singing with a powerful “stage” voice. In the little rehearsal room, the sound is almost deafening, but in the Duisburg Theater, Harrison’s voice must fill the entire auditorium.

The tenor explained, “I have to start now to build the necessary feeling (tension) in the body for this role. When I’m standing on the stage and playing the role, I have to think of many other things. If I have a good musical preparation, then the muscles in my body will react almost automatically.” Rainer Mühlbach added, “Volume isn’t always the same volume: the dynamics that Steven sings here have an emotional background.”

After Harrison sang through the first part of the aria, Rainer Mühlbach gave him some suggestions: before “O grauenvolle Stille!” (oh, what a gruesome silence!), Harrison could make the silence audible by making a slight pause. The accentuation of single syllables was also discussed. Many words get a special accent through the music. In the phrase “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!”, the word “hier” falls on the accented first beat of the measure. “Go more towards the ‘Dunkel’”, suggested Mühlbach. “The ‘Dunkel’ is more important than the ‘hier’.”

Harrison works on the German pronunciation with the greatest of care: he makes notes for himself using the International Phonetic Alphabet. Expressions that he doesn’t know are looked up in a dictionary, and Mühlbach clarifies the background of the work.

One can hear the success: Harrison, whose American accent can’t be hidden in conversation, sings the opera text of Joseph Sonnleithner and Friedrich Treitschke in perfect Hochdeutsch.

Rainer Mühlbach doesn’t limit his work to just playing the piano and explaining things: sometimes he sings a bit himself, to show the way it should sound. Another time, the Conductor in Mühlbach comes through. Then he swings his right hand up high and beats the time, while he continues to play with his left hand.

When the scenic rehearsals start in September on the Wanheimer Rehearsal Stage, Harrison wants to be optimally prepared, and to know all the nuances of the music and the text. He doesn’t have any fear of going too much in the direction of interpretation through his work with Rainer Mühlbach. “I have to be open for many interpretations, but the work with Rainer opens up for me the heart of the character. If I ever have one of those ‘dumb tenor’ moments, he helps me to understand the character philosophically.”

Ludwig van Beethoven?s only opera, ?FIDELIO? will have its Premier on the 15th of November, 2008 in the Theater of the City of Duisburg. The musical direction is in the hands of Kappellmeister Andreas Stoehr. The Intendantin of the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, Amelie Niermeyer, will be the Staging Director. The sets will be designed by the architect Stephan Braunfels, who is the grandson of the composer Walter Braunfels.