Depth in Life: Michael Volle and Tristan und Isolde [The Royal Opera, 29 September-18 October 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Michael Volle. Photograph: Wolfgang Detering

You would need to be selective in your facts, but it could easily be suggested that it was a foregone conclusion that Michael Volle would make a career as a singer. The youngest of eight children, he was born in the Black Forest where his father was a pastor. Music was all around and as a boy he would sing in the church choir. But, in fact, his early involvement with music was on a wider basis than that and, even if he now feels that his destiny was in some way set, the direction his life would take was far from certain.

When I talk to Michael he paints a vivid picture of his childhood. “Around Stuttgart and the Black Forest, church music was highly developed and you could hear a Bach cantata in church every Sunday. But there was also music in the family, a lot of different kinds of music. At the age of nine I started to learn the violin, and then at eleven I took up a brass instrument, too, and we would make music together. My father insisted that all we children learn an instrument and at Christmas we would always be playing sonatas and the like despite the fact that we couldn’t wait to open our presents. Although some of us might have been interested in Mozart or Wagner, only Baroque music was somehow comfortable for the ears of my father. But, looking back, I can say that this was the best preparation for my career, this growing up with music and being involved in it with others. I could not have received a bigger gift.”

The instrumental music-making at home led on to Michael playing in an orchestra as well as in chamber music and at about the age of twenty-two he switched to the viola. “At that time I never thought about actually becoming an instrumentalist or singer: I just did what I did. The direction I eventually took was decided by fate or God, or whatever you will”. In this connection he instances various formative influences that happened to come his way: the amateur but warm-hearted teacher encountered when his father made his final move to a new community who then brought him into a little orchestra of her students (“this was my family, my education”); the leader of the choir in the musically-inclined college where he found himself (“without realising it at once, he became my first vocal teacher and my first real educator”); the conductor with a special interest in contemporary music who used him as a singer in his Stuttgart group, the Neue Vocalsolisten.

Although Michael describes this development as going from one step to the next, the extent of his uncertainty is apparent when he refers to his time just after leaving school. “I didn’t want to do military service but there was an alternative allowed and that was called civil service. That’s what I chose to do, and it involved me with people who were handicapped, some physically and others mentally. It made me consider becoming a teacher for the disabled and I even started studies in university which had to be undertaken if you were to do that. Yet it didn’t seem quite right for me, because more and more the pedagogic thing appealed less than the direct practical experience offered by music and ultimately that seemed to be the way left to me.”

Any summary of Michael Volle’s career is likely to mention two teachers who were important to him, the late Josef Metternich and Rudolf Piernay who is his teacher still. However, Michael feels too the need to credit an American named Carl Davis for pointing him in the right direction. “He was a pianist in the University at Stuttgart, the Music Hochschule, and he knew a lot about voices. I was already tall at that time which made me look commanding and Carl said to me “When you enter on stage, the people will think ‘wow’, but when you open your mouth they’ll think ‘hmmm – it’s not what we expected’. So you must do something.” It was his advice that I seek out Metternich who gave me a real kick up the backside, something I needed if I was to get on the way to finding myself, my stance and my voice. Meeting him was another sign, I’m sure: another push of fate. Later it would be Piernay who would prove perfect for opening up my voice to extend its range.”

Michael Volle. ©Anne Kirchbach

As a youngster Michael had been drawn to Bach, Schütz and Handel, and he adds the name of Mozart when referring to composers who, as he puts it, possess a certain kind of spirituality which goes far beyond the notes. “Because of my love for Mozart I wanted to sing his music: roles such as Papageno, Guglielmo, Don Giovanni and in Figaro both the Count and Figaro himself. Initially I knew Wagner only a little bit, Verdi was far away and so too most of the Russian and French repertoire, but year by year I got more experience and, as my voice has developed, the possibilities for me have increased. I can now do much more, but there’s also the fact that I can return to roles that I did previously to see how much more I can do with them: Don Giovanni, for example, I will do again and next year I do Lulu for the second time and hope to build on what I did in it a few months ago here (at Covent Garden as Doctor Schön and Jack the Ripper).”

It’s surely not by chance that Michael has played Billy Budd and Wozzeck, roles that delve into the human psyche; and when he talks of his love of Lieder, the work that he instances as supreme of its kind is Winterreise. “When you start out you are concerned about the way you sing above all else, and at that stage I would think less about the intentions behind the role: but, as you become more independent of the technical aspects, you are free to go deeper into the other levels with more and more opportunity to transmit strongly what you want to express. Not that you have to be in your forties or fifties to sing, say, Winterreise: some singers of that age seem to stick to the surface and do no more, while there are young people with an inspiration that can be overwhelming. These things are not limited to something that you think about either; that’s because there are also those wonderful times when you are taken up by and in the emotions at the moment of doing it: in that very moment you capture the spirituality, and when that happens it is a great miracle because, besides the technical, the musical thing, you touch on the wonder of the music and on whatever is behind it.”

With so much stress on the serious side of things, I can’t resist pointing out to Michael that the inclusion of Danilo in The Merry Widow on his CV stands out as something of an anomaly, but when I raise this he is anything but apologetic. “I love operettas and musicals and go as often as possible when I am in London. Just the other day I was at Dirty Dancing with my daughters. That field is absolutely as difficult as something like Don Giovanni because you have to dance, sing, act and speak the dialogue. I have a brother who is an actor and every actor will confirm that comedy is a thousand times more difficult than drama because it has to be so precise. I would love to do Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus because it’s a great but challenging part and has wonderful music.”

As for his present venture, Tristan und Isolde in Christof Loy’s new production for Covent Garden, it is uncharacteristic in that his role, that of Tristan’s attendant, the squire Kurwenal, is a comparatively small one even if he does appear in all three Acts (“the Second hardly counts for me – I have only two bars to sing”). It’s a role that was taken by the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, no less, in Fürtwangler’s 1952 recording but Michael is honest about the fact that, having done the role in Munich, he may not repeat it again. “I’ve been twenty years in the business now, so I have some freedom of choice and I want to work more and more on big parts and waiting around while doing a small one can be exhausting.”

If, despite those comments, Michael is not displeased to be singing Kurwenal this time, it is not only because this is a great opera but because he admires both Loy and the conductor Antonio Pappano with whom he collaborated also on Lulu following earlier work with each of them. “Christof is one of the greatest directors because he knows and loves the music and he’s ideal for these difficult pieces. As for Tony, I worked with him first in Brussels when I was Ford in Falstaff and Figaro in a marvellous production of Le nozze di Figaro and he was so helpful. On Tristan he has been with us from the beginning and, working on it with him and with Christof here at Covent Garden, makes for a perfect atmosphere. Of course, it’s not an easy work, not least in Act Two with its limited action, but Christof is bringing to it that reductive style of his which puts the concentration firmly on the people and their relationships. For us, having such a high standard ensemble, that’s very, very good, and, as for the role of Isolde, well who can do it like Nina Stemme? I’m totally pleased.”

The First Act of Tristan und Isolde is about emotions repressed and denied and, although the plot development is very different, comparisons can be drawn between it and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. In contrast the Second Act, devoted to the outpourings of emotion between Tristan and Isolde themselves, is akin to portraying the sexual act at its most ecstatic. The Third Act is arguably more difficult to define. “Sometimes I do not understand what Wagner wants to express – you read the words and they are so long and so complicated. But the music expresses so much – that’s the wonder of it – and in this work the expression of the burning intensity of love and desire is for me overwhelming.”

Since Michael is on record as liking a role in which there is an arc for the character he is portraying, I make the point that, although Kurwenal is not a large role, he does change from the devoted, highly practical but possibly unimaginative advisor of Act One into somebody who in Act Three after Tristan’s death is transformed into a man of action. It’s then that he is swayed by emotion for the first time. “This development is very short, two minutes or so, but it’s very exciting, and also challenging to sing because the rhythm is tricky and the orchestra is really loud. It is a change of character because Kurwenal has lost everything he relied on and must react somehow, and in the end there’s catharsis. But how the opera ends is not altogether clear: in some productions Isolde dies and in some not. But I believe that Wagner wanted to portray this connection of two souls, each unable to exist without the other and only able to fulfil their destiny by breaking the rules of society in order to be together. Whether they live or die, or one dies but not the other, is not really important compared to that, and this is, of course, one of the most impressive of all love stories.”

Michael reveals that in this production the stage will be divided with a raked area at the front used largely when what is being expressed are the interior feelings of the characters. The other world, the exterior world, will be represented on the normal stage behind the raked section with a curtain separating the two. There will be stylisation and projected images, especially in the last Act when the dying Tristan is living in his memories. But for all this to become clear it will be necessary to see the production, so to conclude I turn back to a word that has come up frequently in this interview: spirituality. How would Michael define it? “I don’t want to put the things of the past on a pedestal, but we live in an age when a lot of things are on the way to being lost. People who would not describe themselves as religious go to the Bach Passions and experience some indescribable feeling of being at home there. In our day when society seems addicted to money and people seek to flee from the stress of it, there is a need for something to rely on – and when you are looking for values the Arts, be it through operas, paintings or buildings, can give people so much. Whether or not it’s religious, it’s about finding depth in life. We need that if we are to sense what we want to achieve, and each person must find their own way. But music is a way, I am sure, and it will never die because there’s this power within it that is able to give people this depth, this religion or this spirituality, whatever they want to find in it.”

  • Performances on 29 September and 2, 5, 9 & 15 October at 5 p.m.; and on Sunday 18 October at 3 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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