At this year's Bayreuth Festival, American singer Susan Maclean sings the roles of Kundry in "Parsifal" and Ortrud in "Lohengrin" - two challenging characters with a lot of depth, she tells DW.
You are playing Kundry and Ortrud this year. Those are perhaps among the most fascinating roles Wagner came up with.
I definitely agree - it's like I hit the jackpot with interesting characters this summer. I've sung both of them for years but never really quite so near to each other. Just seeing the differences in these two ladies has been very fascinating.
Ortrud might be seen as the embodiment of evil. But is it that simple with Wagner?
No, not at all. That's one of the things I love about Hans Neuenfels' production. He really chisels the characters, and nobody is as simple as they appear to be. You see how what kind of pain Ortrud is in - having her entire culture destroyed around her and taken away. Out of her loneliness comes this desire for power and this pleasure in hurting people.
Ortrud can turn very easily into some sort of Disney evil witch. And you want to avoid that.
When was your Bayreuth premiere?
My premiere was in 2010 as Kundry, so this is my third year in the Stefan Herheim [production of] "Parsifal." This is the last year, so we were all very sad because we all love it very much. It's a fantastic production - full of energy, ideas, mysticism. And it grows forever. We could probably do it each year. It would just bloom and grow - because of the piece itself. "Parsifal" is so fertile with ideas. They speak to the human psyche and soul so deeply.
The range for the role of Kundry is huge. It takes some wild leaps, doesn't it?
It's sort of a combination of a deep contralto and a high dramatic soprano - all in one evening. It's very challenging to perform. You have to take big risks in it. If it's too crazy then it just sounds shrill and shrieky, and you turn people off. But if it's too controlled and pretty, then you're not getting the point across. You have to find this combination of dramatic and all the colors in between so that the people understand that this woman's entire psyche is being pulled out of her and exposed to the world.
You have interesting insights into Wagner's characters. Where does that come from?
I always come at everything from a character standpoint. I learn the role, read the text and read the story. I have the ability to zero in fairly early on what that person wants and what they are about. I'm a real mezzo[-soprano]. The mezzos have a lot of very interesting character parts. We're usually the bad guy, or the whore, or something that's the fly in the ointment for the evening. And I just find that more interesting.
Everyone sort of has their psyche and way of being on stage, which is often very contrary to their personalities. But there are some things that you just can't act away. It's like what Louis Armstrong said: You blows what you is! (laughs) You have to stay true to your nature.
What's your experience of working here at the Bayreuth Festival?
I love it. It's a very supportive atmosphere. You're around other Wagner singers, who tend to be very experienced and focused on the work. There's not a lot of ego tension between the singers.
There is a lot of pressure, but the good thing about this area is that after the performance is done, you relax immediately. The woods around here and all the fields and so much nature - you can come down really quickly after a big, stressful performance. And that's very enjoyable.
Interview: Rick Fulker
Editor: Greg Wiser