Wagner. To no composer is ETA Hoffmann’s concept of the onus of intelligibility more relevant. Little did I know that I was setting off down a long road when the sounds of Dad’s latest mail order LP wafted from lounge room to kitchen causing my ears to prick up. It felt like a summons. It emerged from the speakers, wedged in behind sofa arms, teetering records and newspapers, invisibly, as from metaphysical space (which I suppose in a sense it was). It filled the dusty air of the cluttered gloomy room, portentous and full of meaning, but conveyed in a language I didn’t yet understand.

In some philosophical systems, music is placed at the top of the hierarchy of art forms because, being totally abstract, it is also open ended and unlimited in its expressive potential. The other side of this is that its meaning is the least concrete, and therefore potentially the most mysterious. And that was how it felt. Expressively pregnant but, given my ignorance of everything about it, utterly cryptic. So I started asking questions. It was an LP of Wagner excerpts. Solti and the Vienna Phil. The piece which had transfixed me just had “3. Götterdämmerung” next to it. I didn’t realise it was part of a larger work. I decided “3. Götterdämmerung” was one of my favourite pieces of music. No, actually it was my absolute favourite.

I thought it was a stand alone work. Those dark, squirming chromatic lines which had made a conquest of me for life were the opening bars of Siegfried’s Funeral Music. I played it obsessively for a long time thereafter, over and over, trying to fathom how such sounds could exist. Oddly, those slithery first bars reminded me of James Gleeson’s The Citadel, which was at the time my favourite painting in the National Gallery in Canberra. My father was keen to feed my interest and dug out his ancient Chums annual from his boyhood. It had a few beautifully illustrated pages devoted to Wagner and I was off. Would the rest of my life be enough time for the task ahead?

Warwick Fyfe as Alberich in Opera Australia's Melbourne <i>Ring</i> Cycle in 2013.

Warwick Fyfe as Alberich in Opera Australia’s Melbourne Ring Cycle in 2013. Photo © Jeff Busby.

I’ve never understood people who complain of films’ being too long. I always think: “But hang on … that’s MORE FILM, and that’s a GOOD thing surely…?”. It’s probably significant that my favourite films are Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, Tony Palmer’s Wagner and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Anyway, this naive trait of thinking more is actually more means I’m at an advantage when contemplating Wagner. When I read Les Murray’s The Quality of Sprawl I sensed a kindred spirit!

My musical journey as a performer began with the tuba, and I distinctly remember an audition in which I had to play a variety of orchestral excerpts – one of which was from Ride of the Valkyries. Enthusiasm palpably made a beneficial difference (and left me feeling buzzy and a bit giddy). With the Canberra Youth Orchestra we did the Prelude and Liebestod (in Yass, on a program also featuring a piece for orchestra and vacuum cleaners!). But by then singing was pressing its claims on my time, notwithstanding the fact that I was completely hopeless at first. I got into the chorus for a staged production of Handel’s Joshua by memorising, a capella, O Ruddier Than The Cherries from a record. The panel were very enthusiastic, if bemused by the fact that it hadn’t occurred to me to bring music or avail myself of the pianist provided.

Alas, when I began taking lessons I went backwards at light speed and started honking and growling. Fast forward two or three years and I was at the Ronald Dowd Summer School for Singers. There I participated in a masterclass with John Matheson. After the usual Voi ches sapete and Non pius andrai it was my turn. What would I be singing? I cleared my throat and said “Fafner’s death”. This announcement had the silencing effect of an unexpected report, as if one might detect a whiff of cordite in the air. To his credit, Maestro Matheson took this in his stride and soon the pianist, leaning largely to the left hand end of the keyboard, was ploughing through that gloriously lugubrious stretch of music while I bellowed and growled and tried to radiate a grimly saturnine demeanour, hard to achieve when one is palpably still so wet behind the ears. Eventually the weird noise stopped. Now it was John Matheson’s turn to clear his throat as he tried to work out what to say. I think he was impressed by the sheer cheek of my effort because he was very kind.

Graeme Macfarlane as Mime, Warwick Fyfe as Alberich & Opera Australia Chorus and extras in Opera Australia's Melbourne <i>Ring</i> Cycle in 2013.

Graeme Macfarlane as Mime, Warwick Fyfe as Alberich & Opera Australia Chorus and extras in Opera Australia’s Melbourne Ring Cycle in 2013. Photo © Jeff Busby.

My first professional Wagner role was Ortel in Die Meistersinger in early 1994. Having a gig with The Australian Opera (as it was known at the time) was a breakthrough, and that it should be in a Wagner opera made the whole affair dizzyingly joyous. I remember the crashing of the chords at the start of the overture irrupting into the dressing room and knowing it was a solemn moment for me. My main solo consisted of three words “Immer am Ort!” (Zis is a very fonny German play on zee verds.)I can’t say I bothered trying to convey wryness or make it jaunty – my object was to make those four notes as loud as I could, and they were preternaturally loud in a dramatically unjustifiable way. And thus it came about that I joined the ranks of professional Wagner singers.

As an audience member, a performance that really stands out from that time in my life is the Victoria State Opera Lohengrin (1992). In Act 3, when the transformation music into the last scene – with its deafening fanfares and simple but rousing theme – was reached, a platform (known in the business as a “truck”) rolled forward with the assembled manhood of Brabant on it, back lit in a way which provided one of the most startlingly dramatic effects I’ve ever witnessed in the theatre. Its approach had the awesome ineluctability of a pyroclastic flow. The spectacle swelled out at me and I was engulfed by the music. I sat there in a state of stupefaction, and had my feelings been given a voice they might have said: “Alright, take me and do with me what you will…”

It wasn’t until four years after my debut as Ortel that I got to do another Wagner role, this time in Meistersinger’s sister opera Tannhäuser. I was Reinmar, who gets exactly two solo notes: O bleib! I’m still haunted by the giant twangingly erect phallus, from which nothing in that show could pull focus, strapped to Jonathan Hardy as he impersonated Amor.

In 1995 I auditioned in Melbourne for Fasolt in the State Opera of South Australia Ring Cycle planned for 1998. It went well, but Bill Gillespie the impresario wanted to hear me on stage so I flew to Adelaide. I shared an agent with a Chinese tenor who was also headed to Adelaide to audition for something else. He and I had dinner together. He had no English and I had no Mandarin. I tried to help with the menu. I pointed at one item on the bill of fare, made a mooing sound and created cow horns on my forehead with my index fingers. Then I pointed at another item, described a circle in front of my nose using once again an index finger and said “Oink oink”. Before I could get as far as clucking, a bloke asked me what language my friend spoke. As soon as I told him he launched into fluent Mandarin directed at the tenor, with the twin results that we both got the food we wanted and my dining companion spent the evening talking over his shoulder to the aforementioned stranger. Anyway the next day I did the audition and Bill immediately came down to the stage to tell me I’d got the part.

For three years this glittering prospect hung before me, a reliable source of comfort as well as anticipatory excitement whenever transitory clouds obtruded on life. When the time came, the whole thing was a sort of blissful delirium. Obviously I can’t describe much of it in a magazine article – it would take a book. But I can say that for me it involved a perfect synchronisation of the peaking of my youthful, idealistic enthusiasm for all things pertaining to my craft with a superb professional opportunity.

State Opera of South Australia did a new Ring in 2004 and I covered Alberich, with the result that I learnt more than I could possibly write down at the foot of the master, John Wegner. Meanwhile I’d taken over the second half of a Dutchman season in Sydney. I sang Papageno one night, Germont the next, then a day off and then Dutchman. Three different roles in four days. I dined out on that for a while.

In 2007 Wolfram with OA came along. Unfortunately I had to have a minor throat operation that year, with the result I only did the last two of the scheduled eight performances. Of course all this is leading up to the 2013 OA Ring. I was originally only covering Alberich. Then my hero John Wegner began to falter – it was incipient Parkinson’s. Right up to the stage orchestrals, I thought he’d make it and was willing him on. I could see him carefully marshalling his resources, and he was such a genius I thought he’d find a path through. But it wasn’t to be and I was substituted mid-rehearsal. Evidently I was satisfactory – it all went well and I even got an award.

But the memorable bit for me was John’s graciousness. I bumped into him shortly after I’d taken over. He was so kind and encouraging it makes my eyes full to think of it. Had our positions been reversed I’d have been prostrate and inconsolable in my room, which just shows who was the better man. I later ended up inheriting many of his scores and
am regularly engrossed by his markings. It’s as if he were speaking to me.

But atop the memory of my bittersweet success in 2013 sits a hideous, poisonous toad: I was sickening too, with an illness which would define the rest of my life, and which I’d have to carry round like a mewling infant every day for the rest of my earthly span. I developed severe late-onset Type 1 diabetes. It manifested gradually, like a lugubrious monster dragging itself free from a foetid swamp. I’ve not the room here to describe it all here but I’ll just say it compromised performances as I became skeletally thin for a couple of years and hobbled my attempts to take my career to Europe. I managed to recover my strength in time for the 2016 Ring, thank God.

Subsequently, the Japan Philharmonic booked me for a splendid concert version of Das Rheingold, and there was another opportunity to give my Alberich an airing, this time with the Tianjin Orchestra. The latter gig was one of those which had a book’s worth of incident packed into it: it was like some sort of supercharged cheese dream. The journey from the Beijing airport to my accommodation alone was a Tolkienesque quest. At one point I returned to my dressing room to find I’d been ejected by Rhein Maidens and had nowhere to be. It was meant to be semi-staged but there was no director, so we singers just made it up, including the props. I could go on. And yet it was rather good in many ways. Indeed, I’ve had many of my happiest experiences in Asia. The good folk at The Orchestra of the Music Makers in Singapore honoured me the role of Wotan in their magnificent Die Walküre. It was a splendid production and the way they conjured it into being left me speechless with admiration.

Warwick Fyfe

Warwick Fyfe takes his curtain call after Opera Australia’s presentation of Parsifal at the Sydney Opera House in 2017. Photo © Keith Saunders.

Parsifal is a very special work for me. Although I’d listened to it on LPs before I saw it at Bayreuth, it was only then, in the venue for which it was composed, that I really “heard” it for the first time. I used to say, at the risk of sounding pretentious, that it was the one really transcendent experience of my life. What I had in mind principally was that, especially in the Grail scene, I had a sense of time floating rather than progressing. The sensation partook of both stasis and epiphany. It also felt as if nothing else in the world mattered. It
inaugurated an era in my twenties of listening to it obsessively on recordings, armed with new ears courtesy of the Green Hill.

Immediately after that performance I found myself babbling to Geoffrey Blainey and Mrs Blainey, who were also in the party of Australian Wagnerians in attendance. At one point Professor Blainey gently took my elbow and moved me out of the path of an oncoming car.

As an audience member I’ve been unlucky with Parsifal. On that first, far off evening I had been seated next to a heavy breather, the susurrations of whose breaths, sucked in through the nose and then expelled effortfully via the same route, marred somewhat the esoteric magic of the Act 1 Prelude. Then when I saw it at the English National Opera, having purchased one of the cheap seats way up the top at the back, three things made life difficult: I could not fit in the seat (which was more like a ledge), the tallest man in the UK sat in front of me, and the fellow next to me, a wombat-like myopic creature, fell asleep almost immediately, and started snoring. I elbowed him. He snuffled into consciousness briefly but was soon snoring again. I abandoned my seat for Acts 2 and 3, preferring to stand at the back.

Finally, in 2017, thanks to OA, I got to sing in the sublime Bühnenweihfestspiel. It had always irked me that performances of it in Oz were as rare as the thylacine. Heathen though I am, it had an ersatz religious significance for me and I despaired of ever performing it. Yet there it was, an offer to do Klingsor. I had always eyed Amfortas covetously, but they were right and I was wrong: Klingsor was my role. Or at least it was then. I’ve since assimilated two of the three Wotans with the result that I sense more possibilities. And Klingsor perhaps bears the relationship to Amfortas that Alberich does to Wotan. So yes, I still want to do Amfortas.

Parsifal was one of the highest standard shows musically I’ve ever done. We had the best international and international quality local singers working on it as well as the unbelievably good OA chorus. I find that more often than not, the very top people in the profession are amongst the easiest to get on with. For example, the great Jonas Kaufmann. There was no sense of haut en bas. He was just a great colleague, albeit a prodigally talented one.

I thought I did a tolerable job but there was one anomaly. Notwithstanding its being a concert performance, we’d been told to sing it off the book. Although not semi-staged, the suggestion was that we’d be able to inhabit the roles a bit physically. Then at the last minute we were told it was to be on book after all with music stands. I obviously had to accept this but I was determined to preserve some of the ideas I’d come up with predicated on being off book (I’ve always cleaved to the outré). So I humbly tried to convey the visual impression of an evil, emasculated wizard. If I’d hoped for praise I was disappointed – a reviewer who shall remain nameless likened me to something out of a Hammer Horror film (and he was not being complimentary). He compared my approach unfavourably to that of the other singers who’d shown more physical restraint. He’s entitled to his view but he’s still permanently banished from my Christmas card list.

L-R: Daniel Sumegi, Stefan Vinke, Warwick Fyfe and Michael Kupfer-Radecky in Opera Australia's 2018 production of <i>Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg</i>.

L-R: Daniel Sumegi, Stefan Vinke, Warwick Fyfe, Luke Gabbedy and Michael Kupfer-Radecky in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo © Jeff Busby.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg returned in 2018, and this time I was Beckmesser. It’s one of the things I’ve of which I’m proudest. I’d covered the role fifteen years earlier while performing Kothner (a bit of a feat in itself as they’re in some of the same ensembles – in different time signatures!). The gap meant it was like learning from scratch, although I’ve found that even when one thinks one remembers nothing because of the lapse of too many years, in fact something always comes back from the deepest recesses of the brain after one starts picking away at it. Even though it was an extant production, previously performed at Covent Garden, I felt the wriggle room was sufficient that I really had done my own Beckmesser. Perhaps I could sing it slightly better now, but in general I think I achieved pretty much all I set out to. The ending of that work is one of those which some in the directing fraternity like to mess around with. Dutchman provides another example. Anyway, I was really pleased with what we came up with. I felt it true to Wagner’s intention while at the same time belonging to me as an artist. As a technical feat, getting through Beckmesser is formidable because it’s so complicated and, especially in Act 2, hard to memorise. But I believe I squeezed as much as I could possibly have from the role artistically, given the necessarily circumscribed nature of my abilities.

The new OA Ring Cycle is a very different proposition from the previous ones I’ve done. The rehearsals last year were somewhat abortive because they coincided with the descent of the COVID armageddon, but I did glean some things. I shan’t give away too much, but I can say that the emphasis will be on dazzling spectacle. Qua actor, I am not permitted much improvisatory freedom of movement because everything hinges on special effects which require careful choreography and positioning at all times. If I’m not to be merely a singing mannequin I will have to make maximum use of facial and vocal acting. That I won’t be tearing around quite so much is probably welcome anyway as I get older and  slower. And one thing made me really happy – I have a joke when I go to fittings for modernist productions, which is to say with a sigh, “Let me guess – another bloody business suit?” Well not this time! I won’t reveal the details beyond saying that I’ll probably look as if I’ve just crawled out of a David Cronenberg film or a Kafka tale.

Warwick Fyfe in Opera Australia's 2016 Melbourne <i>Ring</i> Cycle.

Warwick Fyfe in Opera Australia’s 2016 Melbourne Ring Cycle. Photo © Jeff Busby.

Of course, after writing the above some months ago, a bristling collection of COVID rules devised by politicians and their bureaucrat abettors sank plans to do the Ring in Brisbane in 2021. Well you know what they say about a pleasure deferred, so I expect that a pleasure deferred twice will be swoon-inducingly ecstatic when it at last arrives – which it will – in 2023.

Anyway, I’ve still had my hands full with Wagner. Unlike last year when I couldn’t get across the Murray for Das Rheingold, I was graciously allowed into Victoria for Melbourne Opera’s recent season of Die Walküre in which I sang Wotan. I cannot believe how lucky I was to be part of such a staggeringly successful production, and one moreover which I fancy Wagner would have recognised. I mean I actually had a spear an and eye patch, and it wasn’t set on a collective farm, and I wasn’t required to service a combine harvester while singing the Act 2 monologue.

That brings us to the present and the next thing in my diary, to wit: Opera Australia’s production of Lohengrin in which I’m to perform The Herald (Heerrufer). I performed the role a couple of decades ago (also for Opera Australia). It’s an important small role. It’s a feature of Wagner’s oeuvre (especially in all the operas after Lohengrin) that small roles (in terms of duration) are often very important and have to be cast with the best available singer. Think of Erda. Add up all the minutes she sings and it’s surprisingly short, and yet one has to scour the world for the best contralto if one is serious because she looms as large in the mind as other roles of much greater duration. I wouldn’t claim for the Herald the same dramatic weight or psychological importance as we find with Erda, however, he’s not unimportant. His is the first voice we hear. His entire role is exposed and full-throated vocally. His narrative function in the opera is structural. I’ve heard on documentaries about American law enforcement the expression “command presence”. One could apply this notion to the Herald. He certainly needs an imposing voice which demands attention and silences sotto voce mutterings. It is therefore a compliment to be offered this role, its modest duration notwithstanding.

You might think that after the Walküre Wotan, the Herald would be a walk in the park. But you’d be wrong. Because of where it sits in the voice and the character of the role, one could very easily fall into the trap of blasting the whole thing. But that would to deface the music. It needs to be sung with and much technique and careful control as possible. And then it will sound twice as gloriously stentorian as it would have had one merely screamed. Bear in mind also, a fluffed phrase or even a single note which doesn’t speak correctly is proportionally a much greater blemish than would be the case in a great big role. I always feel acutely the need to be perfect in small roles. It’s a heavy responsibility. My teacher Christina Henson is helping me to meet the challenge.

I’m greatly looking forward to returning to Opera Australia where for so many years I was full time. And in this production it will be a real joy to be reunited with colleagues such as Jonas Kaufmann, with whom I did Parsifal, Elena Gabouri, with whom I’ve done a good few Aidas, and Daniel Sumegi, with whom I’ve done more shows than I can remember.

What with Time’s Wingèd Chariot and so forth, I seem to have blundered all the way to my early fifties. I feel two things: that I’m only just getting the hang of my craft and that as regards Wagner, my grey hairs notwithstanding, I’m still only nibbling at his flanks – an autodidact yet in the initial phase of an odyssey which began when on the cusp of puberty. Dad’s LP reaches out across the intervening years, collapsing time. High Art will do that.

Opera Australia’s Lohengrin, starring Jonas Kaufmann, plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, 14–24 May 2022.

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