An interview with international guest tenor, Steven Harrison.  This in-depth look at Steven’s recent portrayal of the love-struck romantic hero appears in the opera magazine of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre of Ostrava written by dramaturg Daniel Jäger.

Your operatic repertoire is very extensive, which roles are close to you and why?

Of all the roles I have sung, the role of Werther is the closest to my heart. Rodolfo (La Boheme), Alfredo (La Traviata), Radames (Aida), Samson (Samson et Dalila) and Enée (Les Troyens) are some others. These roles are what I call “complete roles.” They take me on a voyage of self discovery and they encompass an entire life. The men in the roles I mentioned learn something about themselves and the world around them and therefore they say something about the human condition. We learn about their strengths and weaknesses and discover the conflicts that bring them to their awakening and/or demise.

Werther is a man who is extremely sensitive and fragile and when he loves he does so with his entire heart, soul and being. I understand this from the most deep and innermost place in my heart. I have felt every desire and every thought which passes through the mind and heart of Werther. The music and lyrics are perfectly balanced and the physical gestures ultimately come out of a place of knowledge from such a well written character – which is an extension of the music. There is no guessing in Werther. He is a very good friend of mine and he is someone who I understand deeply. Every fiber of his being is displayed by Massenet and embraced by me, the interpreter.

Acting and singing roles like Werther, or the others which I mentioned, are a gift. The emotional impact and concentration needed to portray a character like Werther takes everything you have because it portrays an entire lifespan within a few short hours. It is very condensed, deep in feeling and every moment (especially the silent moments) counts.

Would you like to sing in the future some roles in the Czech Operas? If yes, which role would you like to sing?

I have studied the role of the Prince in “Rusalka” and I would some day like to perform that character very much. Since my knowledge of Czech, for the moment, is limited, I think that the Prince would be a great starting point and then I would like to expand into operas such as “Katya Kabanova” “Jenufa” and one of my favorites “The Makropoulos Affair.”

You often sing roles in French operatic repertoire, when did you first meet with French opera and what do you think about the French operatic style?

The first French role I studied and sang was Don Jose in “Carmen.” I found this role to be extremely difficult at the time (1996) and I mistakenly thought that the French language was impossible to sing. I was just wrong from a lack of knowledge and experience. My desire to sing this role with mastery brought me to a man named Thomas Grubb. He is a famous French diction coach in New York City and wrote a celebrated book on singing in French, which I recommend to all singers. He uses the IPA (international phonetic alphabet) in order to teach correct pronunciation of the 15 vowels in the French language. French, contrary to popular belief is a very round, relaxed and soft language. Even though there are “nasal vowels” they are not to be sung with harsh nasality the way you hear it sung, for instance, in the cabaret or in popular music. The tradition of 19th century French opera and art song is a masterful approach to perfect bel-canto singing. Tom maintains all of the traditions which Pierre Bernac used and these traditions are ones in which I strongly believe. Pierre Bernac was not only the mentor of Thomas Grubb. He was also the teacher of Nicolai Gedda. The French which I use is very mellifluous and helps to maintain a beautiful legato line in my singing. The style of French singing demands a smooth legato line, sustained pure vowel sounds, even tempos (Gounod and Massenet were very kind to give us precise metronome markings which make the music speak in a very organic way) and attention to dynamics. Singing in French is a very emotional experience, without letting the emotion take over the music. It maintains a high level of sophistication, and attention to every detail is extremely important. The music and characters are in a highly emotional state throughout the evening. The music, however, must maintain the highest level of integrity to the composer’s markings and wishes. The duets in “Werther” are like fine lace. The music underscores the beautiful text and when done in perfect sync the audience should feel that Werther and Charlotte are merely speaking with one another. The payoff should be thrilling, arresting and highly emotional.

When did you first encounter the work of Jules Massenet and how did his music touch you?

The first Massenet opera I ever learned or experienced was “Werther.” I was told throughout my vocal training that Werther would be a perfect role for me but I didn’t have a clue as to why that was so. Upon learning Werther, I discovered the beauty, the sensitivity and the magic of this opera and this man. I listened to many versions of the opera, however, when I discovered the recording with Nicolai Gedda and Victoria de los Angeles conducted by George Pretre I realized that I had found a very special gem. It is a jewel that plays the Massenet score with rich color, attention to detail and beautiful singing and orchestral playing. It is, I feel, my most favorite recording of any opera. I put it aside for a long while and studied the score on my own so that I would not feel compelled to copy or imitate what I heard on the CD. I slept with the score underneath my pillow and for an entire month I was consumed and possessed by this man, the character, the music, the story and everything about “Werther.” This opera went straight to my heart and I love and adore every beat, every word, every pitch, every syllable of this score. To me, it is perfect. And the end is the most beautiful, exquisite piece of theatre and writing I have ever witnessed in any opera. It is absolutely – beautiful.

In Werther you have already had great success on international stages, what do you think about this role, and are you looking forward to Ostrava?

As I said earlier in this interview, I feel that the role of Werther is a “complete” role. It is a perfect journey into the mind, heart and soul of a very special man; a man of great passion, intensity, dynamic range and emotion. The technical demand of singing Werther takes everything you possess in regard to phrasing, nuance, diction, and style. The emotional challenge is the ability to communicate with Charlotte while developing a relationship with the audience and having them walk away with Werther in their hearts. Suicide is a difficult thing for audiences to watch, to identify with and to feel. I have to make it believable for them because in today’s world people would not necessarily kill themselves over unrequited love. They would simply go to a psychologist, talk to a good friend, take an anti-depressant and find a new love. However, I believe this love story. I believe in the power of love. Throughout history stories such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Edgardo and Lucia”, “Cyrano and Roxanne” have touched us and inspired generations to create variations on these timeless love stories. There is a reason that stories of unrequited love live on through the centuries and continue to strike a cord and resonate deep within all of us. The love story of Werther and Charlotte is no different and the characters in this opera, even though it is melodrama, are so vividly and beautifully crafted. One of the most wonderful aspects of my career is that I have the ability to travel to far off lands. I have been to Prague and Brno and I am quite excited to spend some time in Ostrava. I am a born traveler and explorer and the chance to see the city of Ostrava and the chance to portray this opera, this man named Werther is, for me, a gift.