Q & A: Bass-Baritone Derek Welton on ‘Elektra,’ Greek Tragedy, & the Salzburg FestivalBy Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
Bass-baritone Derek Welton started his journey toward performing on the big stages in Australia when, after language studies and social work in 2004, he discovered his passion for singing.
Then, an unexpected grant and a victory in the Australian Singing Competition helped Welton continue his path to Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Soon thereafter, the singer was noticed in auditions as the ideal voice to sing the German repertoire.
Today, he is finishing his five-year contract in Deutsche Oper Berlin and, for the second time in his career, sings Orest, the brother tasked with killing his mother in Richard Strauss’ “Elektra.”
In an interview with OperaWire, Welton talked about character development, Greek tragedy, and his experience in the very special jubilee festival of Salzburg.
OperaWire: It is extremely hot these days. Do you treat your voice differently in the heat?
Derek Welton: Generally, some singers are more sensitive to changes in weather than others. I am from Australia and I love fresh air, so for me it is strange to see singers in Germany panic when they see an open window or feel the wind blowing. When it’s hot, you have to hydrate the body and make sure you drink enough water. At the day of the performance, I am more careful and I will not go for a hike, for example. But my voice is not that sensitive to weather changes.
OW: How do you plan your days between the performances?
DW: Since we have a performance every five days, there is enough time to recover. I have a routine that involves working on pieces I am reviving in the future. After Salzburg, I will go to Vienna to stage “Elektra” again, so I need to look at the production video and prepare. Also at the moment, I have a ton of papers to fill since my ensemble position at Deutsche Oper Berlin is finishing. But it’s a mixture – I also make sure I sleep, have a nice coffee, or go hike somewhere out-of-town. You have to hike in Salzburg–the nature is too beautiful to miss it!
OW: You had one staging of “Elektra” before Salzburg and you will have one later. Do the different approaches to the story deepen your understanding of Orest?
DW: Every time I do a character, I learn something. In every character, there is always a core that remains the same throughout the opera. Orest, for me, is a damaged individual who flees his homeland after his mother tries to kill him, and then he returns with the task from gods to kill the mother himself. I have never been involved with an interpretation to the opera where they wouldn’t express the inner torment Orest experiences. I am reminded of that in every production.
For me, it is very visible in the moment when Elektra and Orest recognize each other and try to touch, but almost can’t do it. I find it very expressing–to show what characters want, but can’t show. And the humanity of the moment is what touches the listener.
OW: What elements of Greek tragedy did you explore in this staging?
DW: The narrative of “Elektra” is so strong that finding a way to show its elements in different light brings out the skill of the director. The staging of K. Walikowski in my eyes was immensely successful. I remember seeing the stage for the first time–I thought that, visually, it was spectacular. It is a very visceral piece–not just cerebral or just in your head. Everything starts with this massive minor chord–it is meant to really grip the listener.
I was also surprised that Krzysztof Warlikowski went back to the tradition in Greek tragedy and did not show the killing. The scream in the dark was even more effective. It’s amazing how you can show something more powerfully by not showing it. The same goes with the emotion–if you have Orest and Elektra standing in the same room and you know there is a problem between them, it is painful to watch them both not saying anything. And when you know Klytämnestra is being killed by her own son, but you are left in the dark seeing nothing–the effect is also very strong.
OW: I have read that musical interpretation was focused on leitmotivs in the score. What have you learned about Orest from the music of Richard Strauss?
DW: Franz Welser-Möst illustrated very clearly what he wanted and why he went with such a particular musical interpretation of “Elektra.” It was exciting to work on that level of detail–Maestro, from the musical language, understood Orest as an enigmatic figure that comes suddenly and starts singing quietly.
The role in the score starts with very strange chord progressions. The color of the orchestra is completely different than before. And then every phrase was decoded–for instance, the phrase when Orest asks “Who are you?” is written in G Major.
Franz Welser-Möst said to me, “This is the most innocent key there is, so ‘who are you’ is definitely not a loaded question. Orest honestly doesn’t know who she is. The colors in the scene are ever-changing, and through them you can find the psychological nuances more effectively.”
I think conductor Franz Welser-Möst did a fantastic job.
OW: What was the greatest challenge of interpreting this role?
DW: The whole repertoire of Richard Strauss is tricky if you are a lower baritone, and Orest is probably a challenge for every singer. It starts very low and it ends very high–as almost written neither for baritone nor for bass. I think the beginning is low because Orest is concealing who he is and, therefore, he was meant to speak quietly.
The trick is that, when you are really stressed, to sing low is the most challenging, because your voice automatically comes up. You don’t truly hear yourself, so you just have to trust that your voice will carry through that and relax.
OW: How do you relax when faced with so much pressure about the performance in the festival?
DW: It is a stressful situation, so I do get stressed. But the experience of being a part of the ensemble in the Deutsche Oper Berlin Theater really helped. There, you are put through pressure many times in the season and you get used to it–you see people make mistakes on stage and realize that it is not the end of the world. It is more important to mean something with the performance than to be correct. So, after that, you take a more relaxed approach.
OW: Did you feel extra pressure during the premiere of the “Elektra” because of the live broadcast?
DW: I was nervous to know that 1.5 million people have watched it live through the broadcast and would see whether I made the mistake. It is not that easy to relax when there is a microphone attached to your clothes. But on stage, you have to sing for the audience, not for the microphone–so it felt like a compromise. Then I listened to the recording afterward and I was happy with it. I was also happy they made a couple of corrections.
OW: Are there any tricks that help you to hear and understand how you really sound on stage?
DW: Of course, there are different strategies you can use–I experimented with earplugs, so I could concentrate on what is inside my head, changing the pressure in the ears.
But you have to accept the fact that you will never hear how you sound. I remember doing one production with a hat and it was hell, because I couldn’t hear all the high frequencies and I thought I had lost my voice. And then I took the hat off and realized that the entire time I was shouting! So, as a singer, you have to trust what you are feeling rather what you are hearing.
OW: Where does your focus go while you’re performing on stage?
DW: First of all, it is important to feel technically and vocally secure in the role, so it would come automatically. That is the goal, but not the reality, because there are small changes and differences in every performance–the orchestra sounds differently, someone starts a little earlier or later. So it is a juggle between staying in the character and also making sure you are together with the conductor, as well as listening to other soloists, choir, and orchestra.
In a piece like “Elektra,” where actions are still and focused, and reactions are realistic, it is easier. Krzysztof Warlikowski encouraged everyone to come from stillness and find the authentic expression from within. He showed us what he wanted and then left us to interact with each other naturally, in more improvising manner. He used the natural expression and I am glad, because I am more comfortable with a natural expression than extreme, even though it is still difficult to sustain throughout the opera and stay concentrated. Warlikowski also asked us to read the mythology of Elektra and I was very interested to find out the whole family tree and relations of the character. It is a really complicated family story. It was great to have context.
OW: Would you say it is dangerous to go into such a tragic story and look for realism in it?
DW: Everybody in opera learns playing realism in the framework of the piece, which means that you don’t have to be the character in order to understand him and what he believes in. You try to empathize and think about what you would do in his shoes.
OW: A distance between characters and spaces can be felt on stage–does it relate with social distancing?
DW: Since we are rehearsing without restrictions, the distance on stage is definitely not created for social distancing reasons. The stage itself is massive, and I think distance is part of the idea, creating tension between characters and making the action more intense when they are close to each other.
Opera differs from theater, because you have no freedom with timing–there is always music, always strict rhythm. We have to deal with there being no action, where the focus is not on moving, but on inner expression of thoughts or emotions. So that is where the stillness of “Elektra” comes from.
OW: What are you actually thinking when you go on stage and Orest opens the door?
DW: I try to imagine what it would be like to return to the place where I saw my father being murdered–going to the same bathroom and dipping my fingers into the water. I find the inner torment, shock, and stillness of Orest. And at the back of my mind, I always have a thought that there is a step and if I am not careful, I will trip.
OW: You went into singing after language studies–how did your career start?
DW: Singing has always been something that I loved doing, but I never thought about doing it seriously. By the time I was finishing language studies, a lot of things happened through luck and chance. I was in the right position at the right time and worked hard enough–then luck happens and certain chances work. I am fortunate to have a career that so many people with fantastic voices don’t have.
OW: Did you feel it was a bigger challenge to start a career a little bit later?
DW: I think for a long time singers just wait for their voices to grow up. There are still little roles that I consider to be future roles. It helps that, seventeen years ago, when I started my singing career, I was musically educated, learned piano, and sang in choir for years.
Everyone’s voice is very different, and therefore it is very important to learn singing technique and getting to know how your voice works. For example, there is no Mozart aria that would fit for me to audition with. And your voice gets better every time you sing with the voice you have, working with it individually, and don’t push for anything more. My voice is very lyrical and I get feedback that the roles I play, even Orest, are not masculine enough. But it is just not for me and my voice.
OW: You started with the Baroque repertoire, but now you are associated with Wagner. How did you make this change in repertoire?
DW: When I was 21 years old, Handel’s music suited my vocals particularly well. I think I am versatile and still can sing both styles. But people I know associate me with repertoire of Wagner and Strauss because of certain carrying power and metallic sound; it fits my voice’s range. Earlier this year, I was supposed to participate in a concert of Italian opera, and I had such a big difficulty finding repertoire that would fit my voice. It’s always such a case between bass and baritone.
OW: What is your relationship with the Salzburg festival and how does it feel to be part of this important anniversary season?
DW: My debut was in the young singers’ project. I think it was probably the most important turning point in the development of my career. Later, I came back to Salzburg in 2013, 2014, and 2017–this year, it is my fifth festival. I love being a part of “Elektra”–the orchestra sounds beautiful with a great conductor in a hall with amazing acoustics. Salzburg is a wonderful place to spend time in, and I love coming back–it feels very special to be a part of the festival.