Deborah Humble is one of Australia’s most respected and internationally successful dramatic mezzo-sopranos. Now that the worst phases of the pandemic seem to have subsided, the heartbreak of all those cancellations, which so many performers have experienced, has been replaced by a very busy schedule indeed. Between a full calendar of engagements, including performances and rehearsals of Mahler symphonies for the Sydney and Queensland Symphony Orchestras, rehearsals for the role of Klytaemnestra in Victorian Opera’s production of Elektra, and roles in Melbourne Opera’s Ring Cycle, she found time to share her thoughts.
You are in Melbourne at the moment to rehearse the role of Klytaemnestra in Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Is this a role you have often sung?
I’ve had a long relationship with Elektra. The first time I sang in it I was a servant and Trainbearer for Yvonne Minton. It was the Melbourne Festival production in the early 1990’s conducted by Mark Elder. I was so excited to get to know Yvonne, whose recordings I eagerly listened to as a student, that when I relocated to London a few years later she became my singing teacher. Next I graduated to First Maid and sang that role many times in different productions including in Hong Kong and Hamburg. A few years back I was singing the role again in Germany with Simone Young conducting, and she asked me to cover the role of Klytaemnestra. None other than the great Agnes Baltsa was performing in it. In 2018, I first performed Klytaemnestra in concert.
The main female roles in Elektra are notoriously difficult. What are the challenges in singing Klytaemnestra?
Klytaemnestra is one of the most difficult roles I have learnt. Technically and musically speaking it’s definitely a real challenge. It is generally set in the mid to low voice but it has its high moments too; negotiating the large range and then, most importantly, adding the characterisation for a degenerate character is what this role is all about. I’ll admit that the first time I coached this role in Germany I was told that I was singing it “rather too beautifully”. I’ve worked very hard on adding a wide range of vocal colours to the part by using the text and in particular the consonants. After the music is learned and secure, attempting to inhabit the role of a murderous insomniac and impart the trajectory of her moral and physical decay is the next step in the process.
Your Elektra for the Victorian Opera production will be Catherine Foster. Have you performed with her before?
Catherine and I first performed together as Brünnhilde and Waltraute in a production of Götterdämmerung in Hamburg. They were newish roles for us at the time and we were at the very beginning of our Wagner careers. I remember well our backstage conversations about work, home, life on the road and dreams for the future, and I look forward to reconnecting with her in September.
What are the relative merits of singing in a concert performance versus a fully staged production of an opera?
I do a lot of concert work and there is definitely an immediate connection with the audience in this type of presentation. Without the benefit of scenery, costumes and large-scale dramatics there is an opportunity to really think about the music and for the orchestra to take centre stage. It doesn’t have to be dull. In full view of an audience you need to make every gesture, every posture count, and that helps the audience use their imagination to fill in the story. There certainly appears to be a trend towards concert versions of opera at the moment and one of the reasons is no doubt financial. For opera companies and orchestras there are a lot of benefits to not doing a fully staged production. The problem for the singer is that it takes an awful lot of work to memorise a role for a single performance.
What about having a large orchestra on the stage?
Having a full-scale orchestra on the stage for a concert production can be very exciting both for the singers and for the audience. The challenge always lies in the balance between instruments and singers. It is the conductor’s job to assess the acoustics of a particular venue and to ensure that the orchestra does not overwhelm the singers on stage, whilst at the same time allowing the orchestra to “speak” and convey the drama inherent in the score.
What do you have to consider regarding what to wear in a concert performance of an opera? Do you have a choice?
The singer usually chooses what to wear in a concert performance. It is sometimes a purely practical decision especially if you are travelling (what fits in my suitcase?), but sometimes you might choose an outfit based loosely on character. A mezzo singing a pants role might choose to wear a suit for example. Occasionally a directive will be given such as “everyone in black”. Comfort is important to consider too, especially with regard to shoes. Standing in one place on stage all night in the wrong pair of shoes is a recipe for disaster!
You also have quite a few Wagner performances coming up. Strauss versus Wagner – any preference?
Wagner is easier! At least that’s my current take on things. Strauss seems quite difficult at first reading of the score, but becomes more relatable the longer you live with it. The two composers have much in common including the use of musical motifs to depict characters and events, indeed Strauss was often seen as a kind of aesthetic disciple of Wagner. Strauss really finds the limits of an orchestra’s capabilities in terms of dynamics and was very modernist with his harmonic developments. I enjoy the scope of singing both composers’ works. To be singing both Klytaemnestra and Erda in the same month is a wonderful treat. Siegfried is being presented in concert at the Recital Centre as part of Melbourne Opera’s Ring Cycle. I’m particularly looking forward to working with conductor Anthony Negus who will, no doubt, offer new insights about the music and character. That’s the beauty of singing these works; the learning is never done and so the singing of the roles, no matter how many times you might have done them, always remains fresh and interesting.
We have recently seen you in the televised reopening of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall singing in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It was an acclaimed performance and seemed to suit you perfectly. What place does Mahler have in your repertoire?
Mahler is definitely a favourite composer of mine and it was a thrill to sing the Resurrection Symphony at the reopening of the Concert Hall in Sydney recently with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Simone Young. Mahler writes so lusciously for mezzo-soprano voice and it’s obvious when you sing the music that he liked this voice type. The rich, dark tonal quality required for Mahler’s mezzo writing is similar to the sound I think the role of Erda requires; there is definitely something of the Earth Mother in it. I’m off to Brisbane at the end of August to sing Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with the Queensland Youth Orchestra at QPAC so it’s been quite the month for Mahler.