The late bloomer of tenors: Stephen Gould | Music | DW | 26.07.2019
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The late bloomer of tenors: Stephen Gould

During the rehearsal period before the Bayreuth Festival opening, DW talked with the world-class tenor. Having arrived at the summit of the art, he doesn't hesitate to reveal that it was a rocky road getting there.

Now age 57, American tenor Stephen Gould is one of the very few tenors worldwide in complete command of the most difficult roles in Wagnerian opera, and he is in demand on the world's premiere stages.

At the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, he has sung the roles of Siegfried and Tristan — and on opening day, Gould gives a repeat performance of the role with which he premiered there years ago: Tannhäuser.

Staged by Tobias Kratzer, the production is conducted by Valery Gergiev.

Gould's career veered over the years from failure to musical to Wagnerian singing — and as he told DW's Hans Christoph von Bock, the Bayreuth Festival played an intrinsic role in his artistic development. 

DW: How is Valery Gergiev as a conductor?

Stephen Gould: He is very engaged with the orchestra, within the time that he's here. It's necessary to spend some time in the pit. The good thing about the festival is that we have many, many rehearsals. Sometimes the singers say: maybe too many!

The character of Tristan, apparently constrained by metal bars (Bayreuther Festspiele - Inszenierung Tristan und Isolde EINSCHRÄNKUNGStepFestspiele/Enrico Nawrath)

Gould as Tristan in the current Bayreuth production of "Tristan and Isolde," which premiered in 2015

What makes your spine tingle when you come to Bayreuth?

For me it really is the tradition. My first year here of course I was just terrified, to be honest. What gives me these magical moments is when you discover something especially in Wagner singing that you probably never could have discovered anywhere else. It's what actors and artists describe as being in the moment, and also being "fully here," so that you can perform to the level that Wagner would have wanted.

Read more:11 things you need to know about Wagner and Bayreuth.

I don't try to sing for the public anymore. I did when I was younger of course. You want to be popular, you want the critics to love you, you want your career to go high and all of that. Now when I'm onstage, what I enjoy most is discovering something for myself. Particularly at the Festspielhaus, a place that was formed just to perform Wagner's music. 

What do you think of this production of Tannhäuser?

It has multi-media elements, with a lot of pre-recorded cinema incorporated into the live action onstage. During the singers' contest, there is actual live television on the stage filming us. We have to play sometimes even when we're backstage. The second act is really a play within a play. It suggests that behind the scenes, there's a another life, one that happened between Tannhäuser and Elisabeth before he left her to join Venus — and among the other singers in the song competition.

Wagner Nibelungen Siegfried und Brünnhilde (picture-alliance/ dpa)

With Linda Watson as Brünnhilde in the 2007 production of "Twilight of the Gods" at Bayreuth

It's about the conflict between free love and traditional love, which is supposedly constrained. So we have a merry band of anarchistic political activists, who live freely, and Tannhäuser comes to realize that this ideology is also a prison. The festival theater itself plays an important part in the production, with some of its historical tradition thrown in.

I have to say that within just one day of being here, I was totally convinced by stage director Tobias Kratzer's concept. I've seldom encountered somebody who has thought out the concept so fully, and has all the details already in place.

How did you come to be a singer of Wagnerian opera?

I was a very young singer, starting as a baritone. Then in my early days in conservatory, I tried to become a tenor. I worked at that for maybe a year or two but started to have some serious problems, because I just didn't have the proper technique yet. So when the Chicago Lyric Opera told me they didn't need my services anymore, the musical Phantom of the Opera was auditioning there for the first national tour. Just as a joke, I went to the audition and ended up getting into the production — and was employed that way for nearly eight years of my life.

I thought that would be the end of my career. When I finished with musicals, I just was going to quit, but I wanted to give it one more chance and met a teacher from the Metropolitan Opera who told me that I'd been singing incorrectly from the very beginning.

Evelyn Herlitzius and Stephen Gould, arms outstretched, holding hands (Bayreuther Festspiele)

Evelyn Herlitzius as Isolde and Stephen Gould as Tristan in "Tristan and Isolde"

After getting back into opera, I realized that those years between seriously studying voice and growing into the Wagner repertory may have actually saved me, because by then I was at the right age to actually sing Wagner. Too many singers today are pushed into their big Wagnerian roles in their 20s. I've heard people say: "Well, you know, by the time I'm 28 or 29 I want to sing Siegfried myself."Well, if you sing Siegfried at the age of 28, I can guarantee you won't be singing anything by the time you're 38. It's just wrong. Everyone wants their heroes to be young and vibrant and look like Brad Pitt in his early days. But you have to give the voice time to develop.

At what point did you find Wagner? 

He kind of found me. My teacher told me at one point, "You need to go into the heavy German roles." Tannhäuser was my first Wagner role. At the Oper in Linz, Austria, they offered me the part. I called my teacher and asked, "Do you think I'm ready for this?" He said: "Well, you've been doing the exercises for over three years. Now you know the dangerous places, so go for it!"

In an archaic costume, the character Siegfried holds up a sword (AP)

Gould as Siegfried, the dragon killer during the opera "Siegfried" in 2006

How did you come to sing in Bayreuth?

Anytime anyone new in Europe sings Wagner, you can rest assured the Wagners will be there — then it was Wolfgang Wagner and his wife Gudrun. Today it's Katharina. So they heard me in Linz and invited me to jump in to Tannhäuser in 2004. It was a super cast. You couldn't ask for a better set of colleagues, and they helped me in every way.

Where did it go from there?

I soon found myself singing the role of Siegfried here. But this not a house to try out new pieces. I realized that too late. It took me two and a half years to prepare the role, but even that wasn't enough. For a major role, you have to "routine" the part, that means: run it over and over and over again, so it gets into your body and your emotions. But I ended up rushing it and was a bit overstretched.

What happened then?

It all comes down to Wolfgang Wagner, the former Bayreuth Festival director and one of the great influences in my life. When I was doing Siegfried, I think he saw one day that it looked like I was about to fail. He said "Come over here, boy." No one else was around, and I thought to myself. "Oh no, I'm fired, this is the end!"

And he took me into a little room and started telling stories. Stories of all the great tenors that had sung here from his childhood onward, tenors like Max Lorenz, who was fantastic but had intonation problems and was actually very lazy. Then later, Wolfgang Windgassen, who, the first time he sang Siegfried, left out eight of the high A's in the forging song because he just couldn't do it. He told me about other legends — and then, just stood up and walked out.

That's when I realized that this was his way of telling me that every one of the great tenors was not a perfect Siegfried the first time. Siegfried is a development. That's how Wolfgang Wagner was. He was interested in discovering, but also nurturing talent.

Where are you at this point in your development?

I feel very blessed and happy to have had the career up until now that I've had, and particularly to work here. This is my 10th season, I think, in Bayreuth and not a lot of people have that honor and privilege. And so I'm enjoying feeling that I'm still at the level. The problem is, when people say you're "at the level," there's unfortunately only one place to go after that, and that's down. But that's not my condition right now.

What do you do to relax?

I like to listen to Indian or Tibetan music, Gregorian chant, other early music. And of course Bach. It's a Sunday ritual: the newspaper, coffee and a good Bach cantata. What else could you want?

And your favorite part of Tannhäuser?

The Rome Tale. You can sing about the Pope with excitement in your voice, or rage. Or with sarcasm, and every degree of emotion in between. And when the Pope condemns me, I can express all the heartache, the pain, the hopelessness and the senselessness. And if I'm having a good night vocally, I can dare to do some other things too.


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