Soprano Allison Oakes and Bass-Baritone Alfred Walker will perform the roles
of Senta and the Dutchman in our upcoming production of Wagner’s
"The Flying Dutchman." The Boston Wagner Society spoke with these two artists
on the joys and challenges of performing these difficult roles.
Allison Oakes (Senta)
Q. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Have you performed Wagner before? If yes, have you sung Senta on stage? If yes, where?
A. Well, I’m British, born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, and have been standing on the stage in one form or another since I was six. When I was taken to the theatre as a young child, I knew that I wanted to be standing on the other side of the curtain; the only question was, doing what? After a short period studying at the Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK, I left to study in Weimar, a beautiful town packed with history in the middle of Germany. There I started life as a mezzo-soprano, but my vocal teacher, Professor Gudrun Fischer, said she expected me to become a soprano later, and I guess she was correct. I never thought I would sing Wagner, though, ever! But winning the first prize in an international Wagner competition soon took care of that. I have now sung Elsa, one of the Flower Girls in Parsifal, and Senta. My first Senta was in the theatre in Wuppertal, Germany, and was a fantastic production; in fact, I have been really very lucky with my Wagner productions so far.
Q. From what we understand, this Flying Dutchman is Wagner’s early version of the opera, the Scottish version. How does it differ from the later version that we all know? Is the music any different? How about the story?
A. I can’t speak for the other roles, but the main difference in my role is that Senta’s aria is a tone higher, and there are some small text differences too, especially the names of some of the other characters.
Q. What special preparations do you have to make to sing this arduous role?
A. Generally, I like to meditate in the afternoon and eat pasta beforehand; I think most singers do something similar. Of course, I have to warm the voice up and do body-stretching exercises. Singing is like a sport and needs a warmed-up body; otherwise one can hurt oneself. Oh, and I forgot to mention the bananas. I eat one just before going on stage and one at every interval if there is time.
Q. Which segment do you find the most challenging?
A. That will stay my well-protected secret. If I were to spill those beans, everybody would listen extra hard at that moment. It’s similar to when a weather forecaster says there will be rain, so everybody expects rain!
Q. How do you feel about the heroine? Is she a sympathetic character who genuinely wants to help the Dutchman or a mentally ill person, as she is portrayed in this production and others? How would you describe her obsession with the Dutchman?
A. Wow, I had no idea that this production will depict Senta as mentally ill. We’ll see. I think Senta is a young girl full of dreams and desperately seeking a way out of her situation. People in that position or mental state would go to great lengths to believe in or even create a way out. If desperation is a mental illness, then maybe she is ill. I will wait to see what the director would like, and I will try to portray this to my audience.
Alfred Walker (Dutchman)
Q. You have sung several Wagnerian roles already. Is singing the Dutchman different from, say, Amfortas or Kurwenal? What do you need to do to prepare for it?
A. I think the Dutchman is different from the other Wagner baritone roles that I’ve done. Of course, all Wagner roles have difficult demands, but the Dutchman is very intense. His first entrance on stage begins with the monologue “Die Frist ist um,” which requires the singer to establish himself right away. Kurwenal, Amfortas, and even Telramund allow the singer to ease into the part before their big moments, but the Dutchman requires immediate vocal and emotional intensity from the start. In my preparation for the Dutchman, I concentrate on emotional intensity, vocal economy, and vocal colors, all motivated by the breath. As a general rule, I often practice at least three different ways to sing a phrase because it’s impossible to know what the conductor or director may want, and it’s good to have different possibilities at your fingertips.
Q. Since this is Wagner’s Scottish version of Der fliegende Holländer, do you notice any differences from the Norwegian version in your character?
A. Essentially, I think the Dutchman is who he is. Of course, when I have conversations with the director and see the set and costumes, I may be inspired to make some changes in what I do. That is part of the fun of the rehearsal process.
Q. What is your emotional/psychological approach to the Dutchman? Is he someone we need/want to pity or feel compassion for? Is he a zombie-like ghoulish character, as he is sometimes portrayed? Or something else?
A. As an actor, it’s important to remember how tired the Dutchman must feel. He’s hundreds of years old and would like to die but can’t. I think he feels awkward around humans because he doesn’t share our physical needs and aspirations. He should appear strange to the audience because he’s from another time, but not zombie-like or creepy to look upon. An interesting costume and a gray complexion are sufficient. The audience has to be able to relate to him and his plight.
Q. Do you think you might sing Wotan someday? What special challenges are there in this role besides the length?
A. I was offered the full Ring Cycle in a new production just recently, but because I was heavily scheduled, I decided not to accept. Wotan must evolve over the course of the operas, so I think this presents a great challenge both as a singer and as an actor. He must sound vocally mature but vibrant. I like to compare the role to deciding when to open a prized bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Timing is everything!
This interview is courtesy of Dalia Geffen,
President & Founder of the Boston Wagner Society.
Click here for more information on the Boston Wagner Society
Click here to purchase tickets online to BLO's production of The Flying Dutchman