Having spent my summer singing all three Wotans and Kurwenal, I’ve finally plucked up the courage to have a stab at The Flying Dutchman, or Der fliegende Holländer, as it’s known in German.
I say “finally” because it is a role I have studiously avoided for a long time. With good reason.
Both Norman Bailey and John Tomlinson – two of my great Wagner heroes – told me it was the Wagner role they enjoyed the least. Now, in John’s case, that’s completely understandable. Manoeuvring that cavernous bass voice around the nose-bleedy heights of Holländer requires a bending of the laws of physics beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, like performing aerobatics in a jumbo jet.
But Norman is another story entirely. His vocal range and colour are closer to mine than John’s, and Dutchman should, theoretically at least, be a good fit for our bass-baritone voices. Yet, strangely, it’s not.
Norman once told me that at the end of a performance of Meistersinger, he felt like he could start from the beginning all over again, but Holländer made him feel like lying down in a darkened room for three days.
So what is it about this role that’s so tricky?
The first thing to note is that the role is a little bit vocally schizophrenic, by which I mean that the opening aria and final scene favour a dramatic, Germanic bass-baritone voice, whilst the rest of the piece requires a more lyrical, Italianate baritone voice. As John put it, “The aria is Wotan, the rest is more like Wolfram.”
In Holländer, Wagner was heavily influenced by Italian opera, and this can be heard throughout most of the piece – long, lyrical lines are the norm in duets which generally follow the pattern of “slow start, faster middle, quick end” so favoured by Verdi and his bel canto predecessors.
Then there’s the tessitura. An Italian word literally meaning “weaving” (you can see how close “texture” comes in English), “tessitura” is used in opera to describe how the majority of a role sits within its vocal range.
For example, a fairly standard tessitura for a bass would be where the bulk of the role sits between middle C and the F one-fifth below it, whereas a bass-baritone tessitura would spend the majority of the evening a tone higher, between the D above middle C and the G one-fifth below. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni demonstrate this difference quite clearly, with Figaro and Leporello sitting in the lower tessitura, and the Count and the Don sitting in the higher one.
Hans Sachs and Kurwenal also sit quite comfortably in that higher tessitura, while Wotan ranges over both throughout his three evenings.
Holländer, however, sits yet another tone higher, spending most of his time between the E above middle C and the A one-fifth below. This tessitura is more generally found in Italian opera, Bellini, Donizetti, and Puccini all favouring it for their baritone roles. (Verdi liked to push his baritones a further semitone higher, tessitura-wise.)
Many of the roles I sing contain higher individual top notes – for instance, Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde is very fond of high F-sharp, even the occasional G, while Jochanaan in Salome loves nothing more that a good “top F”, and flirts on several occasions with F-sharp – however, neither one of those roles sits in the same high tessitura as Holländer.
With such a straightforward baritonal tessitura, surely the solution is simply to hire a Verdi baritone to sing the Dutchman? While that might work for much of the role, there are some points that require some fairly low singing, although those notes are not heavily scored in the orchestra, and many high baritones would no doubt be able to traverse this problem. The real issue is one of colour.
The Dutchman is a dark, mysterious character, a driven, tortured man, punished by God for blasphemy, and condemned to sail the seas indefinitely, allowed to come ashore only once every seven years to seek a wife whose eternal fidelity can redeem his soul.
Such a character, as you may imagine, is not exactly the life and soul of the party, and, while a higher voice could easily cope with the tessitura, a lower voice brings a much more mysterious, fatalistic colour that far better suits the Dutchman’s depressive nature.
A further issue for the bass-baritone is that so many of Dutchman’s lines lie, as we say, “in the cracks”.
Singers use this term to describe singing in their “passaggio”, which, far from being as alimentary as it sounds, actually refers to a modification of the upper-middle part of the voice, which provides the preparation for approaching the very top of the voice, and the highest notes in a singer’s range.
“Passaggio” literally means “passage” – the passage from middle to upper voice – and mastering it takes years, but, essentially, it involves slimming down the sound to enter the high register without carrying the weight of the lower register up with you.
These notes are what I like to call “either/or” notes. You either sing them wide open, or you modify (or “cover”) them to achieve a desired colour. Unlike the very highest notes, which typically require a specific technical position, these passaggio notes can be sung in a number of different ways, and, accordingly, require serious forethought, and subsequent careful treatment, each one of them being a negotiation with your larynx to stop it making a bid for the nearest emergency exit.
Such notes are the natural habitat of the Flying Dutchman. Argh.
So there you have it – Holländer is a role written for one voice-type which requires a different voice-type to do it justice. The result is that the poor bass-baritone spends the entire night singing slightly higher than is comfortable, playing out a protracted game of Russian Roulette with his own larynx.
Hopefully, with a bit of practice, my larynx will eventually stop shooting me in the foot.