Harrison on Harrison

Steven Harrison talks to Fiona Chisholm about his consuming passion for Massenet’s Werther and what qualities need to be brought to the role.

The dynamic American tenor Steven Harrison is considered to be one of the foremost interpreters of the doomed poet in Massenet’s Werther. He has performed roles on stages across the world, from Rodolfo at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires to Don José at the Deutsche-Oper-am-Rhein. Now the tenor will make his South African debut in Cape Town Opera’s June production of Werther at the Artscape Opera House.

Starring opposite him as Charlotte, the woman he loves to death, is the Austrian-based South African mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt in what promises to be a memorable first professional production of the opera in Cape Town.

What made you decide to specialize in Werther?

Like other aspects of my career – such as how I came to be a singer and not an oboist or a pianist – my love of Werther happened more by chance than design.

In my formative student years, people would say to me “You should look at Werther.” I always loved singing the arias but my lack of knowledge in French made me fearful of studying French music. Finally when I was asked to sing Werther I approached it with caution, as it is one of the largest roles in the operatic repertoire, with four big arias, four duets and the final arioso in the “Death of Werther”.

I began by writing the text in a notebook and translating the words. Slowly I started to fall in love with this piece. I not only learned it, I was consumed by it. I felt as if I had found something that belonged to me and something I could identify with on a spiritual level.

I slept with the score underneath my pillow and on waking I would tear open the pages to see what happened next and learn a small scene as each day passed. I started listening to recordings, which I never like to do while preparing a role…and once I found the Gedda/Prêtre recording with Victoria de los Angeles, my world was literally changed. That recording is a perfect interpretation of the piece and the emotion and heart jumps out at you.

The rehearsal process was very emotional. I felt as if there was a hurricane brewing inside of me. I reached opening night with great anticipation, and trepidation. However, once the harp played Werther’s arpeggio introduction and the door opened for my entrance I felt as if I were transported to another place and time.

My butterflies had gone and I began to fly. Singing Werther is a gift as well as a complete journey into this beautiful man, his life and his most intimate feelings.

What was the reaction?

At the after-performance party a man came to me with tears in his eyes. He told me how much this opera had moved him and said, “Massenet must have had a prophecy that one day a tenor named Steven Harrison would sing this opera and he wrote this music for you and your voice.”

There was no praise, no criticism – nothing, that could compare to that. I realised that I had done what we singers set out to do in our careers. I had touched people’s lives and brought them to a special place while maintaining the integrity of Massenet’s score and letting the composer’s music and lyricists’ words speak through me. My fears were assuaged and the role of Werther became my life’s passion.

What qualities do you need to bring to this role?

Every role requires musical integrity, educated language, communication of the text combined with the music and believable acting. However, in the case of Werther, a tenor needs to bring exceptional style in the French tradition and elegance. Beauty of tone is always essential to fully execute the long, legato spun phrases.

A friend once said to me, ‘The duets in Werther are like fine lace.’ This is so true. The talents of Massenet were never more obvious than when you look at or listen to the duets, the words and how they are orchestrated and sung. The vocal lines along with the orchestral scoring and harmonic progressions engage the singer and the audience into thinking that the characters are merely speaking to each other. This requires a great deal of skill. The language interwoven with the music is the key to singing Werther well. There is also the risk of getting too carried away with the swell of emotion. Yes, when Werther works there is a vibration that is tangible. It reverberates between the singers and the audience directly into the hall. However, this is not verismo. An air of elegance and restraint needs to be maintained. Werther is not Canio, for instance, even though the emotions are just as high

Some directors say that Werther is in love with the concept of love. Do you agree?

Werther, by today’s philosophy, is truly a neurotic. He is someone we all fear. He dares to take his own life. I find that audiences today need to rationalise the suicide of Werther because our society does not and cannot understand the feelings that are portrayed in this story.

In the 19th century, The Sorrows of Young Werther caused a great shockwave and people were finding it fashionable to commit suicide over unrequited love. When this opera first opened people would save their tears in a vile and wear it around their necks as a symbol of having experienced this great and moving piece of theatre.

We have come out of a time when the lyrics people identified with were “I’d rather be blue thinking of you than be happy with somebody else” and “Losing my Mind” (“The sun comes up,/I think about you./The coffee cup,/I think about you”). Gloria Gaynor stated “I Will Survive”, Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer said “Enough is Enough” and Melanie Beattie wrote “Co-dependent No More”. Times have changed.

The last time I sang Werther my director felt that Werther was in love with the concept of love. When he spoke about this aspect on the first day of rehearsals the woman portraying Charlotte (Carola Guber) and I looked at each other in disbelief and then questioned his viewpoint. However, I surrendered to the director’s wishes and portrayed the character as he saw it.

The progressions that happened, however, were just the opposite. The love I had for Carola (Charlotte) was undeniable and obvious. We were not allowed to look at each other and we sang duets from different rooms in a house – sometimes from different levels. The barriers were physically and emotionally present. Nevertheless, the love that radiated from Carola and myself, the love that penetrated between Werther and Charlotte was unstoppable, obvious and always present.

As an actor I absolutely cannot begin to think that Werther is a self-obsessed character who is only in love with the concept of love. As a fan of the piece I cannot either. However, as an objective observer I can truly understand this viewpoint.

Who were some of the people who have helped your career?

My father was a great force in my life. Though it must have been difficult at times, he gladly supported my musical education paying for piano, oboe and voice lessons.

My first and only singing teacher until her death two years ago was Gloria Hilborn, a local woman on Long Island, who had a beautiful spirit, kind heart, a brilliant smile and an inspirational way about her. After my father’s death, which marked the end of my youth, I told her that I wanted to go to LA to become a famous pop star, save the family farm and make a million dollars.

She said, “Don’t you want to continue singing opera?” When I replied that I only wanted fame, her answer was that some day I would change my mind and would choose music over fame. She was right.

Another important person is Thomas Grubb with whom I went to study the French repertoire. Tom, who was a protégé of Pierre Bernac, “wrote the book”, literally, on Singing in French. I have since studied not only Werther with him but Don José, Samson, Enée (Aeneas in Les Troyens) and Faust. Somehow the roundness of the French vowels, the beauty of the long legato phrases and the emotional impact of these characters just fit well with me. I feel most comfortable singing in the French language and when it is done correctly, in the manner in which Tom showed me, it is truly a divine experience.

Going back to the days when I dreamt of auditioning for the Met chorus, I had no money to buy a ticket from LA to New York. My friend at the time was Miss Bulgaria, who had recently appeared in Playboy as the centerfold. Her journey to LA came via Singapore and she had a leftover unused ticket from LA to New York. She told me to use it and wished me good luck!

When I think back I realise that my singing career was written in the stars and that I was part of a series of miracles.