Covent Garden Debuts: Stephen Gould & Korngold’s Die tote Stadt [The Royal Opera’s Die tote Stadt, 27 January-17 February 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Stephen Gould, the American tenor making his first appearance at Covent Garden in an opera not seen there before, talks to Mansel Stimpson…

Stephen Gould. ©Peter Rigaud

Stephen Gould is articulate on many issues but during our conversation at Covent Garden one comment in particular stands out. What he says is offered as a general observation about singers, but it has unusual relevance to his own rather unorthodox career. “It’s not so much talent itself that matters”, he observes, “but the way in which it is developed.” His own route as a professional singer was far from smooth and could easily have come to a grinding halt had he not discovered how best to proceed at a crucial moment. Today he is an international performer in parts that extend from Wagner to Peter Grimes and Otello as well as the key role of Paul in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt now being presented at Covent Garden. But earlier he spent seven years working for Cameron Mackintosh and toured across America in The Phantom of the Opera, while before that his operatic work had seen him tackling roles very different from those in which he is now engaged.

Given these variations, it is interesting to learn how they came about and what his aim was in the first place. “My intention was always to get into opera. I grew up in a minister’s family and my mother was a concert-level pianist and I always loved classical music. I heard my first opera aged about seventeen: it was La bohème at the Virginia Opera Theatre and I was kind of hooked. When I went to college I was thinking of following my sister who was a doctor, but I was involved in semi-professional performances of Gilbert & Sullivan and went to a voice teacher who wasn’t sure whether this 17-year-old was a baritone or a tenor. When I actually decided to switch to music I think that I wanted to be Pavarotti, a king of the high notes, and because of that my first attempt to become a tenor went in slightly the wrong direction. I had a big falsetto back then and at the New England Conservatory of Music they saw me as a dramatic Rossini tenor. There was a big revival of his work at the time and when I joined the Lyric Opera in Chicago that was what I went as. But it just didn’t work, and after my first year there I was beginning to have vocal problems, I kind of wanted to go back to baritone, but nobody needed a baritone: they wanted tenors. So to make a living I fell back into musical theatre, but this time professional musical theatre and I enjoyed it. But it was never what I had seen myself as doing, and I think that Cameron Mackintosh would admit that in musical theatre you either need young people or you need character people. When you hit that middle ground, there is no work for you. So eventually I became more or less ready to give up. Even more than before, I had to reinvent myself somehow just to survive. A lot of singers when they get into their thirties and find that their career is just not happening go into teaching, find other work or leave the business altogether.”

If that did not happen to Stephen Gould, it is down to one man, John Fiorito, and to Stephen’s willingness to respond to his ideas. “About a year before I finally quit Phantom I travelled from Philadelphia to New York hoping to take lessons with this man and I was very intrigued by him. He had been at the Metropolitan Opera for many years and, when I first auditioned for him with lessons in mind, he was very blunt and direct: not insulting exactly, but almost. He said: ‘Please stop singing, or whatever you call that’. Yet he also had very specific ideas about my voice. He said – and it was not something that I had conceived of myself – that I could either train again as a lyric baritone or I could become what in his opinion I really was: a dramatic tenor. He was also clear-cut about what would be involved, that I would need a minimum of two and possibly three years to do it and that during that time if we were to unbuild and rebuild my voice I could not at the same time continue to sing in some other capacity. Well, he convinced me, and it did take three years during which time I worked in Telecom in New York to make money while I studied.”

When Stephen re-emerged as a performer he appeared as Florestan in Fidelio but there had been a key moment halfway through his studies with Fiorito. “He pulled out Lohengrin and wanted me to learn arias like ‘Mein lieber Schwan!’ and it was when I did that that he finally heard colours in my voice that persuaded him that it was where I needed to go.” Wagner has, indeed, come to play a core role in Stephen’s repertoire. It will be Der fliegende Holländer which brings him to the Met for his debut there in 2010 and meanwhile he will be following up earlier satisfactory experiences in Japan by singing his first Tristan in Tokyo. “That is strategic. I love Bayreuth and had a fantastic relationship there with Christian Thielemann, but to do Siegfried for the first time both in Siegfried itself and in Götterdämmerung was a little too much to bite off, and in such a high profile place too. So in contrast I’ve planned to do Tristan first in three concert performances in Sao Paulo with Violeta Urmana to be followed two months later by this staged production in Japan under Kazushi Ono with plenty of time to rehearse. Japanese audiences are very knowledgeable: they come to the opera after studying their libretti and their recordings and you’ll be signing autographs for almost an hour afterwards. The Wagner fans out there are phenomenal: they just love Wagner.”

Wagner is, of course, an inevitable influence on the opera that Korngold worked on between the ages of nineteen and twenty-three, Die tote Stadt, although it might be said that Korngold’s mentor, Richard Strauss, comes to mind here even more. It was first performed in 1920 and what is by any standards an astonishingly assured work for such a young composer was an immense success, not just in Europe but in New York where it was staged at the Met in 1921. The opera’s subsequent eclipse was triggered by it being banned by the Nazis as the work of a Jewish composer, but other factors came into play as well. Korngold may have been acclaimed by Mahler as a genius but when in later years, from 1934 onwards, he worked in Hollywood a snobbish disdain discouraged appreciation of his standing. It is only in comparatively recent times that recordings of film music have gained a certain respect with Korngold’s qualities in that genre earning him fresh praise (as Stephen puts it: “this man won three Oscars and when you listen to some of his film music we would be doing well to have people writing symphonies of that quality today”). Yet another thread in the chequered history of Die tote Stadt is the question of timing, of how it fitted into the way that music was being perceived in the 1920s. All of these issues are touched on in what Stephen had to say but I should first perhaps add a word about the nature of this piece since it is not well known.

Set in Bruges, this is the story of Paul, a man in mourning, whose commemoration of his dead wife, Marie, becomes obsessive and then leads to conflict when the coquettish Marietta, a woman who resembles her, arouses him. Paul nevertheless resists and seeks to remain faithful to what may well be an idealised vision of his relationship with Marie. Eventually he kills Marietta seeing her as Marie’s would-be usurper, but this action, like much of what has preceded it, is all within Paul’s imagination and reality re-asserts itself when he makes the choice to leave Bruges and move on. The drama could be seen as a romantic one centred on the desirability or otherwise of embracing new relationships after the death of a loved one or alternatively as a psychological study of a man’s fantasies. Those who would stress the latter viewpoint may feel that by appearing after Salome (1905) and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1918), albeit ahead of Wozzeck (1925), the opera was from the start behind the times in not allowing the story’s Freudian elements to give the work a tone in which disturbing depths resonate sufficiently to add a true 20th-century essence to the underlying late-19th-century romanticism.

“I think it is the brilliance of this piece that Korngold left it quite ambiguous, enabling it to be valid whether played darkly or more positively. I did the opera first in Berlin at the Deutsche Opera in a production by Philippe Arlaud who went for a rather surrealistic interpretation and saw it as putting the audience actually inside Paul’s psychotic mind. Philippe left some ambiguity in it, but nevertheless he hinted that Paul had perhaps killed his wife and that the same thing was going to happen with Marietta. In reality it doesn’t, but only because he comes out of his psychosis, and at the end we don’t know if he lives or dies. In the present production by Willy Decker it is very different. We really sense at the close that Paul is going to escape from the loneliness that has enveloped him after losing Marie. We see that in his own mind he is capable of killing and it’s his realisation of that fact which finally brings him up with a shock so that he can recognise that his mourning has become morbid and has almost destroyed his life.

“Young as he was when he wrote it and under the influence of his father who wrote the libretto, Korngold was living in the age of Freud. It was becoming popular for people to do regression therapy to discover what it was in their past that had caused emotional problems and made them what they were. This was one of the first operas to be written with that in mind, so it’s really a very modern work, and that’s true even today I feel. Willy Decker’s staging is such that it is clear that at the start we are seeing a real-life situation, but once Paul talks about thinking that he’s met the reincarnation of his wife things start to become blurry. Consequently, the audience has to start to ask if it’s still real or if we are entering into Paul’s dream-world. That happens gradually, and in the music as well – it’s so cleverly written. But by the Second Act we are seeing warped, sick characters that could only exist in Paul’s mind. That’s particularly true of Marietta who becomes almost evil, but that is his version of her. This is reflected in the set which itself starts to tilt and becomes more like a Magritte painting. Then later when Paul comes out of his dream the set starts to come back into being a real room again.”

Such details fit well enough with the fact that one scene of tension between Paul and Frank, the friend turned rival, does briefly foreshadow Wozzeck (its composer, Berg, admired Die tote Stadt). But there’s also another perhaps unexpected aspect of the opera to be noted. This relates particularly to two pieces described in the text as ‘old songs’, one performed by Marietta and the other by the pierrot Fritz. “Oh, yes, there are some tremendous moments in this reminiscent of Viennese operetta. There’s one piece that could come out of Wiener Blut and it’s a great foil to have passages of beautiful, heart-rending music. Those tunes were part of the Viennese idiom in which Korngold was still composing, but to stress that too much would be unfair because he was such a dramatic composer. Nevertheless, music critics of the day felt that the musical world was going in a different direction. We would soon have Schoenberg and romanticism would be left behind completely. Korngold would soon become famous in Hollywood because of his sense of theatre music, but I think that what he wanted was to compose music that was appropriate for the drama taking place, not to actually create drama through the music as happens in Wozzeck. In that work the music almost creates the libretto and the psychosis too rather than existing as a response to that.”

Willy Decker’s designer Wolfgang Gassman has cleverly created a set that is a room within the stage so that it can easily be adapted to different stage sizes, that being important for a travelling production like this one. Stephen applauds not just this but the visual approach generally. “People keep asking me rather fearfully if the direction is modern. Well, yes, it is – but then the piece is modern. If you try to play it too literally without any sense of symbolism and without any understanding of the psychoanalytic element, then it could appear melodramatic and not unlike soap opera. The heart of the piece lies in its subtlety and, if the audience come with an open mind, they’ll enjoy the scenery, the images of Marie that are represented in various ways on the stage. Everything here is deconstructionist, but if people accept that it should enhance their experience of the piece. And, the music is brilliant.”

  • Performances at 7.30 on January 27 & 30 and February 2, 5, 11, 13 & 17
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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