On The Right Road: Eric Halfvarson

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Illinois-born bass about choosing to sing, about conductors and about Fidelio being staged at the Royal Opera House…

In retrospect there’s a scene in Eric Halfvarson’s childhood that stands out, although he was so young at the time that he can’t remember it himself. “My mother was a singer who did a lot of oratorio work and the Messiah became quite familiar to me because she would practice ‘Rejoice Greatly’ while washing dishes and the sound would float through the kitchen window into the neighbourhood. What I didn’t remember about that and had to be told was that I was to be found riding my tricycle in circles in the driveway and singing an accurate ‘Rejoice Greatly’ albeit down a few keys!”

Eric may laugh at this now but it was a pointer to how important music would be in his life, something that was hardly surprising given his family background. “Although my father was born in Pittsburgh, his parents came from Sweden where my grandfather had belonged to a choral group. As for my mother, her family was English and Scottish with a pinch of Dutch and her mother was a wonderful contralto. Furthermore both my parents were professional choral conductors and music teachers and as a child I myself played the French horn and studied it for some years. In addition I would sing in choirs, but I had no intention of going into singing until quite a bit later, later even than 1970 when while at the University of Illinois I heard my first opera. It was Das Rheingold and I was charmed by it.”

This delay in spotting what his future would be partly stemmed from the fact that the bass voice takes longer to mature, but by 1973 Eric was making his debut with a professional contract despite still being at university. “I really found my voice through my first teacher Mark Elyn, himself a noted bass. It was he who set me on the right track. And then there was David Lloyd: he ran the University opera programme but was also in charge of the Lake George Opera Festival, a summer affair in upstate New York. That year they were doing The Barber of Seville and towards the end of the season they were running out of Don Basilios. Consequently David asked me to go up there and fill in, and that was the start of my professional career.”

After a period as an apprentice at Houston Grand Opera, two years in which he learnt a lot, he moved on. “I set out for New York with several suitcases and by then I had an agent, Martha Munro, with whom I’ve been ever since, and she put me to work through a lot of auditions.” Roles in small regional companies followed (“I did Colline everywhere”) and this took him far afield but later resulted in substantial work in Washington and Santa Fe. The former would lead to him being honoured as their ‘Artist of the Year’ and the latter brought him a role that would become one of his most acclaimed, Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. This was due to the enthusiasm for Richard Strauss of Santa Fe Opera’s John Crosby. “When first asked, I balked at it because it was more a buffo kind of part and I considered myself essentially a serioso bass. But I found I could do it, and I learnt a lot at Santa Fe where I appeared also in the Capriccio and Die Schweigsame Frau. It was Ochs, however, that together with Hagen in Götterdämmerung would become the part I was to perform the most. Nevertheless, at that time I did want to resist the tendency of people to brand me a German singer since I had been quite successful in Gounod’s Faust as Méphistophélès and in some Verdi pieces. There are parts like Guardiano in La Forza del Destino that I’ve always wanted to sing and, having played the King in Don Carlo in places like Ohio and Cincinnati, I would love to return to that role – but as a friend of mine in Vienna once said: ‘If we have you as King Filippo who the hell are we going to get for the Grand Inquisitor?’ In any case once the ‘Ring’ came along the German thing again took a central place in my repertoire, although I do try to be as versatile as possible. It’s fantastic, for example, to play Claggart in Billy Budd because there’s such intense character work involved there and it’s such a powerfully written piece. I do enjoy the acting aspects and I devote myself to the study of the characters themselves as much as to how to sing them. I certainly can’t complain too much, having done about 130 different characters by now.”

We get onto the subject of Eric Halfvarson’s latest undertaking – he’s playing the role of the head gaoler Rocco in Covent Garden’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio – by way of comments on conductors (Eric himself would actually like to be one). “One of the most inspiring I’ve worked with has to be Jimmy Levine. He has an amazing gift for knowing exactly where a person is in their development of a role and what they need to be told – often the smallest thing but exactly what is needed if they are at that moment to find a way to be better. Furthermore, when you work with him there’s such a wave of positive energy coming from the podium. Tony Pappano, our conductor for Fidelio, takes after him actually. He too has an electrifying personality on the podium, and he’s a marvellous coach. He demands the utmost quality and pays attention to the minutest detail, and that’s inspiring because he is always trying to be better and by doing so he makes everyone else want to be better too. Any great conductor needs to be simple and clear in the process but for me to qualify they have to possess another quality too: I ask that they should at least be a nice guy. The guys of George Szell’s ilk of two generations ago, they’re gone. If somebody decides that the way to succeed is to become some sort of dictator, a tyrant monster who berates everybody with negative energy, I would just say to them ‘ciao’ and that would be the end for me. What you need instead is the sense that you are sharing together in making something that you hope will be marvellous.”

Fidelio, that great paean to the human struggle to overcome tyranny and to find freedom, may find Eric singing in German once again but there’s nothing he would rather be doing. “I absolutely adore Fidelio. It may be hard in places, but it’s worth the effort because it’s just magnificent. In terms of performability, it’s not as difficult as the Choral Symphony, which for the poor chorus is in places nearly unsingable. In Fidelio the problems are more to do with the demands of dynamic change, the transitions being much less smooth than you get in Mozart. However, the very first ensemble quartet is one of the most sublime and beautiful pieces of music in all of western musicology. It’s also the very devil to sing! If you have a voice like mine that seems suited to the weight required for the rest of the piece, it’s quite difficult to start out with the very delicate, soft, high stuff. I struggle with it, and most people I know who do it struggle with it as well.”

This new production was first staged in New York at the Metropolitan, but it appears that the director, Jürgen Flimm, is working freshly at it and proving ready to redirect scenes as he rehearses with the present cast. “I find him wonderful to work with not least because he handles the dialogue passages in a very realistic manner so that at times his direction has something cinematic about it. It’s been a real education to do this with him and it’s given me a lot of insight into the character. There are indeed choices to be made in how you play Rocco. On the one hand there is an element of human sympathy to be found in him and in addition he’s a man coming towards retirement and hopeful of getting his daughter married off. However, Jürgen’s attitude is not to play up the sympathy but to let it come up naturally and in an indirect way. After all, there’s also the other side of the coin: the fact that in dealing with political prisoners Rocco is prepared to follow orders. “I do what my duty requires of me,” he says, and all the stuff that happens here is very pertinent today. The time period in our production is quasi-modernistic and, looking at what occurs, you are reminded of conditions in Third World countries in 2007. Think too of the Fascist elements present in our society; think of Saddam Hussein’s prisons and of what may be going on in Guantanamo Bay. Jürgen even told us of meeting a woman from the Eastern Bloc during a tour of Fidelio: she came round to say how incredible it was because the story of Leonore’s attempt in disguise to get her husband out of prison was virtually identical with her own real-life experience leading to the rescue of her husband. I believe that this production of Jürgen’s will be very, very powerful.”

  • The opening performance of Fidelio is Sunday 27 May 2007 at 3 p.m. and runs until 24 June; most performances are at 7.30, with two at 7 and the final one is also at 3 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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