Q & A: Bass David Steffens On German & Austrian Musical Culture, Small Roles, & His Passion For Strauss

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
(Credit: Mattias Baus)

Today Bavarian vocalist David Steffens is enjoying his busy summer in Salzburg – a place where he also spent his student years.

This time he is a part of Salzburg Festival, performing in three productions total and therefore visiting the stage of the Salzburg Festspiele almost daily. David Steffens started performing in this festival at the year 2012 when he was selected to participate in the Young Singers Project, but his first career steps took place in the opera ensembles including the Stadttheater Klagenfurt (A) and Württembergisches Staatstheater Stuttgart. He has also performed at numerous opera stages, including the Teatro Real Madrid, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, the Volksoper Vienna, the Opéra national de Lyon, Semperoper Dresden etc.

OperaWire contributor Ona Jarmalavičiūtė recently spoke with Steffens about his work at the Salzburg festival, handling three roles at the same time and the process of bringing the music to life.

OW: You are performing three different roles in this years Salzburg Festival. How do you manage?

David Steffens: Well, it is a great adventure to be in so many performances. I think it is all in all fourteen in the summer festival. Originally I was only invited here for “Oedipe” and “Salome” and the “Idomeneo” role came up just a few days before the dress rehearsal. I had to replace another singer, this situation was quite exciting I must say. It was the first time that I worked with the conductor Theodor Currentzis. He was very precise in his ideas about phrasing and it is very exciting to watch him conducting when you are a part of that.

OW: How does your experience differ from one production to another?

DS: I think those are really different productions. Achim Freyer has a very special style with “Oedipe.” It is a very interesting work, because you, as a singer, are allowed only to use a very reduced form of gestures. And you never know how it would actually look from the outside. You just have to trust that everything comes together like a puzzle in the end.

Of course, :Salome” is very well-known for everybody from last summer. I think Asmik Grigorian does an incredible job there. It is also a very mysterious staging. You don’t really get any answers, you have to think about them yourself. The questions start on the stage, but in the end, it is up to the audience to make up their mind and find the answers.

OW: You had a short period of time to prepare your roles – only a few days for “Idomeneo” and a week for “Salome.” How does the process change when the time is limited?

DS: In “Idomeneo,” I got the score 10 minutes before the orchestra main rehearsal, during a break. A day earlier I had rehearsals for “Oedipe” actually. I got the score that I didn’t know at all and then went on stage. When you have 10 minutes to prepare, you just look at the score and have a short talk with the pianist, who tells you a few details about the music – the phrasing, the style and what Currentzis’ wishes are. That’s it. Such experiences are very energetic and adrenaline is very high.

Afterwards, somebody asks – how did it go? And you just don’t know, because you are focusing so much on the presence and on what you are doing at the moment. You have no idea what is happening around you. These experiences can often be the best, I like and enjoy them a lot.

And for the preparation for “Salome” we had 10 days. We started on Tuesday last week. It was 10 rehearsals until the premiere. Of course, the Felsenreitschule hall in Salzburg is always taken by other performances, so the rehearsal time there is very limited and we had different rehearsal spaces in town.

It is actually incredible how they managed to squeeze the project of “Salome” in the schedule of festival and in the Felsenreitschule. Because at the beginning it wasn’t actually supposed to happen again this season. But thankfully Markus Hinterhäuser and his team have found a solution. Ten days is enough time to revive things and we will see how it will sound in the premiere tonight.



OW: When creating an opera production, how much of creative-decisions power do you have as a performer?

DS: It depends on the production. I would say we as singers definitely make creative decisions, but in the end, it all depends on the leading team. Maybe they come with a certain picture in mind or maybe they just want to develop things on the way.

Sometimes a conductor asks you to direct the world from the within yourself – this I understand as the essence of the creative process, without which the production wouldn’t have any meaning.

Other directors are interested in the big picture that you can’t see yourself as a performer. Then you just have to trust these people – of course, they thought a lot about this production and they know clearly what they want. At a certain level in every situation, you have to go with the flow. You have to listen to the director before you share your experience and suggest what you have learned by performing this role in previous productions.

The same with music – sometimes you have a conductor that has very specific ideas about phrasing or about special tempo. You should always try to find a way to cope with that. If he has his reasons – try it out and if something is not possible, then you have to find a new creative solution. It is always a dialogue with the director.

OW: And how do you start to work with the new music material?

DS: For me, the most important thing is to read a libretto. I always read it just to get an idea about the text, the story, the character. I translate it word by word and try to understand the language because most composers really think through the meaning of the words. It is also a crucial part for me to understand it right.

After that, I take the score, sit at the piano and try to get an idea about the composition myself. And when I have a rough sketch in my head about how the role should go, I bring it to the coach. Then you have to memorize and bring music to life, but it comes later. If I have a bigger role, I try to have a year before the premiere, so that I could take my time and the whole process grows very slowly like a plant.

OW: Could you share a little bit about your ideas or concepts of these roles that you are performing at the festival?

DS: Well the High Priest in “Oedipe…” I fell in love with the score the first time I have heard it. The high priest has a lot of action in the first act where he leads a ceremony after Oedipe’s birth, when he is greeted by the citizens of Theben. And then Tiresias comes with a warning. He is a very stern serious character, who is concentrating on his ritual.

Ironically, the part I play in “Idomeneo” is also called the high priest, so there I give the warning that we are the children of the dust and we shouldn’t be fighting against the Gods. So he is a serious messenger as well.

And the fifth jew in “Salome” is a part of the Jews’ quintet which is a very famous and ironic piece by R. Strauss. There we worked on the character of each of the Jews. They all have different ideas about their religion. Some people are fighting and are contradicting about things, but my character – the fifth jew – is the mystic one. He says “well, you really don’t know how things are. Maybe what we think is good is bad, and what we think is bad is good.”




OW: How does the process differ when you prepare short and big roles?

DS: Of course, you have to take seriously both of them. No main roles can exist on stage without the small characters and the relations with them. Sure, people don’t come to “Salome” to listen to the fifth jew, but you are still the part of the whole picture.

These little roles have their importance and you have to study them very carefully. In the end, you often have more stress with smaller roles than the bigger ones. Every time you are on stage, you want to do your best. When you have the main role you can develop the character – where is he at the start, what changes the character is going through, where he ends up. There is a psychological process, which you can show to the audiences.

With the small roles, you have one chance to do it right – at the right time, at the right place. Every mistake will be taken in account. A lot of old singer colleagues actually say that you need experienced vocalists with good nerves for the smaller parts.

In the end, I think that the preparation of the singing itself while rehearsing on stage, is quite the same with long and short roles. You still have to warm up properly and you need to have a certain level of energy. Actually, after singing a small role – like, for instance, a fifth Jew in the “Salome” – you still feel like you gave everything you had and you are tired with a reason.

OW: I have heard that Richard Strauss is one of your favorite composers. What fascinates you about his music?

DS: Every single piece of his has its own state, but then when you hear any of them, you just immediately know that this is Strauss. And I think he is one of the few composers in the XX century, who really wrote music for the voice. He also really cared a lot about how the voice fits with the orchestra. Because the orchestras that are used in Strauss music can be quite big and he knows exactly how to orchestrate certain passages so the singers would have a chance to get heard without forcing the voice.

Also, he always worked with the best playwrights of his time. It is just the great artistry that he had. “Der Rosenkavalier” is my personal favorite piece of his.

I think my favorite to perform is the romantic repertoire – Strauss, and Wagner. Right now I am going to sing King Heinrich in “Lohengrin,” which is also one of my favorite pieces I must say. This kind of music style is very close to my heart.

OW: Is it complicated to perform Strauss’ music?

DS: When performing R. Strauss you need a good coach who can really show you the harmonic structure of the whole piece. At the end you are just singing the line and maybe it’s good for the beginning, but you have to understand the bigger concept and the structure. In this harmonic sense, his music is closely connected to Bach.

Of course, Strauss needs more expansion in the voice and tone, but in the end, you still need to think harmonically. Then you have fewer problems with the intonation because you feel very secure about what you are singing. And it takes time to really learn it. Also, the rhythmical structure is often very much inspired by the words and needs diligent preparation to really get as closely as possible to the composer’s intention.


OW: You also studied here at Mozarteum and work here a lot. I wanted to know what is your take on the musical scene of the city of Salzburg?

DS: Well, I think it is a city with less than 200,000 people living here and regarding this comparably small size of this town, it is just immense how much culture is going on. Salzburg festival in the summer is a huge attraction, a lot of people want to go there, but the musical events here are great all year long.

In winter you have the Mozartwoche festival in Mozarteum, where I also performed few years ago. Then you have the Easter festival, which is one of the most prestigious festivals in the world, also the Whitsun festival and so on. The whole year there is something important going on in this town. And the local organizations – the Mozarteum orchestra, Landestheater, etc. – all have a very high level.

I really enjoyed that in my study years – sooner or later all the most important performers of our time would come to perform in this little town. I think it is amazing how it developed. I really hope that the cultural life goes on like this.

OW: You are also from Germany, where you still work. Maybe you could compare Austrian and German music traditions?

DS: The systems in these countries are similar. They both still have the tradition of stable singers crew in the theater, who perform all the repertoire. These are countries with many small and bigger opera houses, where the singers can grow up and develop. I would rather compare this cultural landscape together with maybe France or Italy, where there also are a lot of theaters, but there are no constant ensembles in the theaters.

They hire fresh for every single production and look for people that could fit the roles the best. I think this kind of German and Austrian musical theater tradition gives you the chance to really start off with the smaller roles and when people get to know you better, you sing something more serious. After some years you can end up in the top league and perform main roles.

You grow up in this system, which gives you an opportunity to take your chances and expand your repertoire. When you perform as a guest, you sing the same roles you did somewhere else, because then they know that you can really do it. Then it is more difficult to broaden your repertoire. Both countries care a lot about music. Maybe it is even more obvious in Austria. You go in the streets of Vienna and music almost fills the air. When you listen to people on the streets, at some point you will start hearing them talking about the State Opera or Musikverein.

OW: Do you look  for a connection with the characters or their experiences when you perform?

DS: Of course, because I think that if you can’t manage to find a connection to the character, you shouldn’t try to perform it. In the end, opera is also a musical theater and it’s all about the emotions. Somehow it is easier for the singers to get the right emotion. We don’t have to look for it like an actor – the composer actually had already created the subtext in his music. All you have to do is to manage to channel the emotion. You need to forget about the music and dare to express the inner experience. At the same time you need to keep your technical awareness, so you need to find a balance. You can’t scream, you still need to incorporate it in your singing.

OW: Does singing bring strong inner experiences for you?

DS: Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t do the job. When you perform it is a different thing because you are in the character and it is not you, who has to be touched by the character, but you have to touch the audiences.

It is very mysterious  – you are walking on the edge of a line. You don’t want to get drowned into your own emotions, but you want the audiences to have the chance to feel with you. And there are moments from time to time when you are just so happy to be a part of the whole thing. I still remember sitting on the stage while singing Mahler’s 8th Symphony on Montreal for the first time, listening to the basses at the beginning of the second part and I just being so endlessly grateful to witness such kind of music happening here and now. These moments are a huge gift.


InterviewsStage Spotlight