Burkhard Ulrich plays the role of 'Mime' at the Bayreuth Festival. The veteran Wagner tenor talks about the rehearsals for the 'Rheingold' production and the various tasks of a singer.
Deutsche Welle: Singers are not necessarily actors, but you have to master both roles on stage. Has the director helped you to grow into your character?
Burkhard Ulrich: I have to disagree with you right away: I actually think that musical theater involves a great deal of acting. It's a pity that that often doesn't get much attention. It is, of course, a godsend to be able to work together with Frank Castorf. He's a drama director, and it's been a very fruitful cooperation since he takes us very seriously as dramatic artists.
You have to pay attention to the conductor's baton, while at thesame time mastering the dense Wagner texts, and also - to some extent - improvising. How do you manage all that together?
About the music and lyrics: One cannot think about it too much; it's something you simply have to be able to do. It has to be natural, completely taken for granted - only then can the actual musical interpretation begin. Of course, the conductor has his own ideas, as does the singer, but basically everything is determined by the score and the composition.
Improvisation is something for the initial rehearsals, but that can't continue because theater, especially musical theater, is about coming to agreement. With Castorf, improvisation is actually part of the program. So each rehearsal would begin with: 'How are we going to do it?', which was to say: 'How do you want to do it?'. Castorf asked us that so that he could tap into our strengths as actors.
That sounds as though the drive came from the singers and actors, and not from the director.
That's not true. Castorf, of course, says exactly what he expects of the scenes and for the final result. But he has the wonderful gift of being able to take what he needs and throw away the rest. And he does it all in such a way that you don't feel bossed around. He gives us a lot of freedom, but it must be nailed down eventually so that you can turn it into musical theater.
In "Rheingold," there were a lot of good gags, and the staging was entertaining.
I'm glad to hear that because there was a great deal of anticipation beforehand. During rehearsals, I sat with Norbert Ernst, who sings the role of "Loge," in the auditorium, and we enjoyed ourselves tremendously. I think the great lightness and ease are also the strength of "Rheingold." Unfortunately, opera and Wagner fans are not so well versed with American television series - there are references to the "Sopranos" and its tale of a mafia clan, and to "Breaking Bad," about a criminal's career. Even the idea of transferring the setting of "Rheingold" to Route 66 has a certain flair to it. The combination of these two TV series that tell an incredibly brutal story with such levity - it's precisely this levity that really suits the piece.
How did the collaboration with Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko go?
It's been a fantastic encounter. At the first rehearsal, within 20 minutes, I knew: In terms of both fun and meticulousness, he's in my own personal ranking among the top three. It really is incredible how meticulous he is - in the most positive sense - and the grand gestures he makes in working on this piece. Even now, between the individual performances, I've heard from his assistants that mistakes are still being corrected among the orchestra voices. Anyone else would say, "Just leave me alone!" - but Petrenko keeps at it.
I've been singing the role of Mime since 1999 - that's already 14 years now. With that amount of material, little mistakes creep in, and Petrenko regularly adds insult to injury. He says, 'Watch out, it's a sixteenth of an upbeat, not an eighth.' And I respond by saying: 'Thank you very much, Kirill. I hope to keep that in mind.' And he says, 'Don't worry. Even if you don't, I will. And I'll remind you again and again.' And that's exactly what happens, and that's why these performances are so precise.
The Mime role has a lot of text with one vocal line. Some singers screech or bark the role. But you sing it.
Singing is my primary intention. With Wagner's compositions, especially the "Ring," one must distinguish very clearly which character is singing. There are simply different languages, and the Nibelung language, which the blacksmith Mime and Alberich the dwarf use, is very different from the lyrical roles. When the text can be understood and the melody heard, then the mission has been accomplished - but that's precisely the challenge with such roles. And there are actually two or three spots which I've tried to learn for the past 14 years, and I simply can't. I need a prompter for them.
What would you like to see for this production?
I am very pleased that "Rheingold" has been very well received by the audience. That's not something to be taken for granted. But honestly, I wasn't really worried because there have always been scandalous productions at Bayreuth that have managed to survive. You just have to recall the "Ring" by director Patrice Chéreau: There was a huge amount of booing directly afterwards, but it's considered the "Ring of the Century." So, I just hope that people enjoy it, have fun with it. That's the best thing there is - that's what it's all about.
Tenor Burkhard Ulrich has been a permanent member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin ensemble since 2001. He has given guest performances at the Salzburg Festival, the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, at the Opéra National de Paris, the Bregenz Festival, the RuhrTriennale and at the Seoul Arts Center. He garnered the highest praise from critics for his interpretation of Mime at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2009.