With Wagner, text is paramount
Tenor Thomas Blondelle in conversation with Leidmotief
Tenor Thomas Blondelle (Bruges, October 1982) has been a regular soloist at the Deutsche Oper Berlin since 2008. He also holds a Master's degree in musicology (KU Leuven) and took a brilliant second place at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2011. Leidmotief spoke with him via e-mail.
In an interview after the Queen Elisabeth Competition you said "I am still at the beginning of my career and have yet to figure out where I want to work and live in the long run. Do you know in the meantime?
With a wink I would like to answer : fortunately not! I still live half the time in Berlin, half the time in Belgium and I'm happy with that. A "certain insecurity" is the reality of many singers: during productions (6 weeks of rehearsals, and then the performances, also good for about 2-3 weeks if they are right after each other) you are away from home in one city or festival location. But in between productions, of course, there are periods when you rehearse the roles. I did learn that I prefer to spend those periods in a location surrounded by nature, it calms me down and inspires me. I used to need the city: the fast, anonymous and dynamic aspect fascinated me. Now it seems that there is an expiration date to that as well. As Boni says in Die Csardasfürstin: "ich merke, ich werde täglich älter".
Gerard Mortier had a nice definition for opera. He called opera "the theater of the singing actor." Can you agree with that?
I think that is an apt description. Opera intrinsically also carries a certain identity problem: is it a theater piece that is ( I exaggerate now ) "accidentally" set to music, or is it a piece of music in which there is also acting " whenever possible "? Of course, the answer to this has evolved greatly over time, and the evolution of thinking about it has perhaps been the pendulum swing that dominates the history of the genre. Perhaps from time to time the pendulum swings a notch too far and an untenable extreme is reached. As, for example, in the mid-18th century, when the singer and his potential for vocal spectacle were the absolute focus, at the expense of virtually all other parameters. That was trendy, popular and burningly topical at the time. Perhaps today we also live in such an untenable extreme, with armies of culture makers who believe that we are very contemporary and innovative.
The fact is that because of this pendulum swing, opera has succeeded in reinventing itself again and again for about 400 years. Fifty years ago you could only perform Aïda with pyramids, elephants and so on; today we find it almost a quotation from the past, hopelessly outdated. I think composers would find it remarkable that we still play their works. Should Mozart come back, he would probably say: "Die Zauberflöte? Ihr spielt das noch immer? Mein Gott, das muss ich umschreiben" and he would perhaps quickly write something genius on the topic of politically correct thinking, climate change or fake news. We need new pieces, I think. New, good pieces that exist alongside the old pieces, but that tell something about us, about our human condition anno 2022. If at all possible in a musical language that does not repel, but I am now stepping on a slippery slope.
The fact that singers nowadays have to be fully-fledged actors is, in my opinion, only a positive evolution. When I see a colleague doing "park and bark", it can seriously work on my system. Just like silly concept directors who pretend to push the boundaries of the genre, by the way.
You sing Graf Tassilo (Gräfin Mariza) as well as Parsifal. I will not conceal from you that this greatly charms me in a singer. I would like to see the masterpieces of the operatic repertoire disappear from that damned corner. By the way, the very greatest Wagner singers sang operettas in the last century. It also gives an idea of the difficulty of the genre. What would you say to opera lovers and intendants who turn their noses up at the wonderful world of Strauss, Lehár and Kálmán?
I also see absolutely no reason why the best operettas are still treated with a certain denigration. One is perhaps often taken aback by the fact that such pieces always include some "high and low" culture: a lyrical Puccini love duet for the "serious" roles, as well as a march-like sing-along for the buffo couple. And then the sing-along is exactly what is seen as too popular. And yet it is precisely this combination that characterizes the genius of, say, Shakespeare or Mozart: combining the great king dramas with the popular, the easy, the funny. Puccini and Lehár got along very well, also musically. But one is considered the genius of opera, the other the king of "light classical". Although their pieces are at times equally politically incorrect, but for me as a singer certainly equally interesting.
My experience is that those who approach the pieces with respect, who view the characters performed as people of flesh and blood, repeatedly encounter universal stories, which are also relevant today. But that's exactly where the shoe pinches: for operetta you need a very good director, and - I'm being a bit provocative here - the classic game of a forced, flawed concept can be unmasked very quickly. In opera one can get away with that, in operetta it becomes painfully clear very quickly whether a director knows his stuff and whether the concept makes sense. Humor and lyrical melancholy are the typical characteristics of the great operettas, but uniting them in an exciting, contemporary whole is certainly not everyone's cup of tea.
Is there a difference when you have to perform in an operetta? Does it require you to flip a switch? Is it harder to find the right balance for yourself in an operetta?
Actually, I don't really find a difference in it. I start from the text anyway and read it as a play. I try to give shape to the character. That's a wonderful job, by the way. In operetta, there's usually a little less to memorize, but the work of shaping the character properly is sometimes more extensive. On stage, however, there is only 1 option for me: to tell the story as well as possible. In the operetta you also have longer text fragments to achieve that, in the opera usually less. Perhaps therein lies the greatest difference: the transitions between spoken and sung texts must feel natural. That takes a lot of time and effort, but when it works, it's great. In opera (except for the Singspiele) it is perhaps the music that dictates the timing and you have to extract all the layers of what is being said from the harmony, melody and phrasing. With Wagner and Strauss you also very often have long orchestral passages for that. As a singer you almost have to learn these by heart, they say and tell something about your character, help you to build a character.
My goal, however, is always to make the audience and myself forget that there is singing and acting, and in the first place to tell the story of, say, Parsifal, Edwin, Erik or Danilo. Anyone who goes on stage must be a devotee of our Western basic narrative culture, which has its literary origins with the ancient authors. We are somewhat the guardians of that treasure chest of stories, I think. That's why I find it so hard to accept when there's piece A on the music desk but they're actually telling piece Z on the stage, which is then also much less interesting. What arrogance? The argument is always "because the original piece is not good". Then I always think: leave it alone and tell something else that you do want to tell. I get really scared when programmers defend the most unworkable directorial concepts with "we don't want to be museum-like". That is a terrible mockery of what singers as singing actors can do - if we bring something experienced to the stage, with a lot of preparation, it is a priori no longer museum-like. Keep the Mona Lisa next to a Hopper or Mondrian, put the painting in a bright orange frame and hang it in a public toilet, I think all of that is fine (if it really has to be done), but don't start painting over it and cutting it up in the vain hope that it will be better, more modern, less museum-like.
Having said that : those pieces are of course heritage, and heritage has to be passed on alive, not as dead matter. With Thomas More I say "tradition is not the preservation of the ashes, but the passing on of the fire". So it's about approaching the pieces with such respect that they become tangible, tangible to a modern audience. But if you're going to tell Little Red Riding Hood, don't start with "once upon a time there were 3 little pigs."
Operettas resurface from time to time at major opera houses. Do you think the operetta is making some kind of comeback ?
I should hope so! Unfortunately, the phenomenon is limited to a few houses. The vast majority do not venture into it. A missed opportunity. Anyway : there is so much beauty to discover. The "Schreker" revival, for example, can only be applauded. What a composer! And where are such well-known unknowns as Salieri, Haydn and Vivaldi on the scenes of this world? Anyway, in a stagione house you really only have 8 to 10 productions a year, to put everything into that you have to be devilishly creative. Commercially speaking, the business also has to attract some people, of course, otherwise it's a waste of time anyway.
You are also a musicologist. Does that help you to be a better singer?
I found that 4-year bath of scientific distance from the object with which you normally deal very practically as a singer interesting. That did me good, the training in Leuven at the KUL was also for the most part very qualitative. Meanwhile I also teach in the opera class in Leuven (LUCA) and see the practical training up close. Maybe since then I feel even more in favor of a model in which every performer would learn a musicological reflex - historical context, analysis of the material, checking sources. That certainly helps me in the construction of a role portrait. You look at Wagner in a very different way when you have read his own books: you understand, for example, that the typical Wagner roar of the last 40-50 years was never wanted by himself. I am relatively sure that he would give 80% of modern Wagner singers and conductors a Wagnerian blow: the text and nothing but the text is paramount, the orchestra must never overpower and the singer must never resort to showing off his vocal muscle.
You have been singing since you were a child. Sooner or later you came into contact with Wagner. Did that grow organically or did you, like so many, have a kind of Aha-erlebnis?
It grew rather organically. My idea of Wagner was : "ah, but that's only for the very big voices". I had to learn on the stage of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin that of course that is true to a certain extent, but not to the extent I thought. Anyone who gets it right in a Belmonte or Tamino will also get it right in Wagner, you don't suddenly have a different voice because you have to sing Erik. I've had the good fortune to sing many smaller Wagner roles alongside the greats of the moment : those who were convincing always deployed their vocal material in such a sly way that the overwhelming effect was not in producing volume or demonstrating flawless high notes.
You can easily get me on my horse in this regard : what is a "Wagner singer"? For me, first and foremost, someone who is willing to bring the text and its nuances to the audience without compromise, not someone who can/will fill a hall of 4000 seats with overwhelming sound.
Thus, if Wagner is brought to the genre of opera out of respect for his own artistic vision, he can absolutely lead to aha-erlebnisse. In the history of opera, he is undeniably one of the absolute key moments, and has left a mark on music history that goes far beyond the genre of opera.
When you made your debut as Parsifal in Strasbourg (2020) I wrote that this must be the high point of your career. Did you feel that way at the time?
The beauty of life is that you can only say afterwards what the great moments were. But of course as humans we live from day to day and the excitement of the moment always feels very important. But speaking less philosophically : yes, it was a great moment for me because as a lyric tenor I was able to defend that part while in the audience you always have self-proclaimed Wagner specialists who think that those parts should be sung by dramatic tenors and otherwise it is "wrong". While -again- Wagner himself would not have wanted that at all. There were also elements of the direction that really moved me, such as the end of the second act, in which Klingsor's spear hits Parsifal after all, but not the adult Parsifal, but his younger "I" (a young actor who accompanied him throughout the opera). The end of Parsifal's innocence, the end of his youth. So he carries the corpse of his youthful self on his back in the third act and has become a grown man. Now that is an element of which I say: I can work with that. This is an interpretation by the director which I find exciting.
Just after that production, by the way, came Corona, so it was also a time of introspection. That does everyone good.
As far as I can judge, you have as Wagner roles David, Stolzing, Loge, Erik, Parsifal now on your record. Will others follow? I am thinking of Siegmund for instance.
I am indeed thinking of adding Siegmund and Lohengrin, as far as Wagner is concerned. But if I may swear in church, Wagner is not the only composer. I am currently learning Schreker's Der Schatzgräber for the Strasbourg opera : the role of Elis in it is an absolute marathon, comparable to Stolzing. Lyrical, at times dramatic, then intimate as in a song recital, piano moments on high notes, carried lines, but also Sprechgesang. A kind of calling card for a singer, and all in the context of a handsome piece. For me, that is as much on a pedestal as Stolzing or Lohengrin. There are also a number of roles in operetta that I find interesting. What a gift of life when you get to shape those characters, both vocally and scenically. I continue to find that an enormous privilege.
As for Wagner, I do have a burning desire to do some more research into his views on singing and vocal technique. Actually, that is an under-researched chapter in Wagner studies. Perhaps that tiny pebble in the river can contribute to a different vision of that musical genius, and bring us closer to a thorough reading of his works. It really is time that we begin to see the poppingly loud orchestras and the consequently roaringly loud singers as a time-limited fashion, and not as the essence of a 19th century composer, who of course writes for a 19th century orchestra, and then again (for some pieces) with specifically Bayreuth in mind.
We never hear you sing Verdi or Puccini. What is it that so determines your choice of the German repertoire?
A short answer : the opera world itself. Today you are known as a "baroque singer", "Mozart singer", "Wagner singer", or if things are really bad for you : Opera tenor (which I consider a compliment myself). Agents, casting directors and directors have a certain tunnel vision. As a young singer, you can aim as broad as possible, and then you find yourself looking at what other people think you excel in. Having said that : I don't have to sing Verdi or Puccini to be happy. I am singing next season (22-23) Elis in Schatzgräber, Danilo, Manru, Tambourmajor, Eisenstein etc. I love that colorful mix, it means a lot of study but that keeps you young, I'm told. And for a tenor, it doesn't hurt to use one's brain, if any.