For you, Falstaff represents one of many career highlights with Opera Australia. Would you say that it’s your biggest role to date?
It’s difficult to compare roles that come from different types of repertoire. Singing Rigoletto is as herculean as singing gets (for this baritone anyway), but Dr Schön in Berg’s Lulu was far more difficult than any other role that I’ve performed, notwithstanding the fact that Mandryka in Strauss’ Arabella was extremely complex musically, longer than Dr Schön, and in the same league as Rigoletto for elephantine vocal weight. So it’s very hard to nominate a biggest role in my career. Safer just to say that Falstaff is one of my biggest roles for Opera Australia.
What are the challenges of the role?
There are a few exposed notes which are delicious but tricky, and they must be perfect. How one overcomes such a challenge? It’s like the old joke about how one gets to Carnegie Hall: Practise! Dramatically the role is like a jewel box of exquisite moments and details, and the challenge is to give each the greatest chance of registering with the maximum degree of lusciousness.
There are some physical matters to consider: I’m neither a spring chicken nor sylph-like, but Falstaff is considerably older than me and his obesity is of another order of magnitude. I have to be conscious of these things and compensate for them.
|Fyfe trying on his fat suit |
in Falstaff rehearsals.
Photo courtesy of Jacqui Dark.
What were the best parts of preparing the role?
I’ve enjoyed finding those aspects of my own character and personality which, when amplified, coincide with aspects of Falstaff’s. Finding such parallels fuels the creative process wonderfully. I’ve enjoyed playing with the different colours in the music and discovering as many warm sounds as I can. And naturally it’s a joy watching great actors’ interpretations of the role. The Falstaff which looms largest in my mind is Orson Welles’ in Chimes at Midnight.
What do you enjoy about working with Simon Phillips?
Like Neil Armfield, Simon Phillips is a guarantee of a quality production. He’s a genial, boyishly humorous presence in the room, but also very serious-minded. When I go to New Zealand I sometimes rehearse at the drama college where he trained. On the walls are group photos of graduands for each year going back to the college’s establishment. Simon is in one of the photos, that huge smile unmistakeable and completely unchanged.
|Warwick Fyfe as Pooh-Bah |
in The Mikado
Conductor Antony Walker is a singer himself. What is it like working with a conductor who has keen insight into the challenges that singers face?
It saves having to go into explanations regarding things which non-singers – even seasoned musicians – tend not to understand.
You spent many years as a member of Opera Australia’s ensemble, and often acted as cover for other singers. What are some of the lessons that you learned during your years as an “ensemble” singer?
My time as an ensemble singer toughened me up and engendered in me certain pragmatism when it comes to balancing diverse commitments. Having said that, I am obsessive, and this fuels a perfectionism that makes me a somewhat tortured singer. For instance, if a tiny bit of dried mucous on my cords (something to which I’m prone) causes an imperfection on a high note – which may not even be audible from the stalls – I will be inconsolable and the performance in question (though I never allow the rest of my work on such a night to be affected) will be all but wrecked from the point of view of my own enjoyment. This may sound precious, but in the heat of the moment, that’s how it feels. After the show it’s important to focus on the fact that life does not depend on these things: we do this job because we want to share the beauty and genius of these sublime works of art, but nobody is going to die if my top note has some gunk on it.
|Fyfe as Dr Bartolo in|
The Marriage of Figaro
What have been some of your hairiest moments as a cover?
I suppose going on as Mandryka in Arabella was a bit mad because the Company had sent me back to Sydney (Arabella was on in Melbourne at the time), and I was not on stand-by. When Peter Coleman-Wright realised that he couldn’t sing, I was practising Pizarro, not exactly light repertoire. The call came at 1.30pm: “Where are you?” I was asked. When I replied that I was at home in Sydney, the next words to come down the line were “Oh shit!” I was soon on a plane; arrived at the hotel and without any pause went to the theatre, where make-up was applied. Then there was the small matter of performing one of the most sadistically difficult roles in the repertoire.
In what ways has your voice developed in the past few years?
In 2007 I had a polyp off one of my cords, which almost ended my career. But it was successfully removed, which gave me back high notes. With greater technical facility I’m better able to “float” the voice in my upper range as well as change gears, sometimes mid-phrase or even mid-note, between softer singing and a more stentorian tone. Also: I performed Dr Schön in 2003, The Flying Dutchman in 2004 and Rigoletto in 2006, so that heavy roles are easier for me now – or should I say less difficult!
Warwick Fyfe performs the title role in Falstaff at Sydney Opera House from 15 February - 16 March. Click here for more information and tickets.