Q & A: Wilhelm Schwinghammer On ‘Elektra,’ Strauss & The Canadian Opera Company

By Francisco Salazar

Wilhelm Schwinghammer is one of today’s leading German basses. 

Throughout the past few years, he has performed at the Bayreuth Festival, Teatro Real de Madrid, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Wiener Staatsoper and the Hamburg Staatsoper as a studio member. He is a great exponent of the operas of Wagner, Strauss, Mozart, and Verdi, as well as the works of Puccini and Handel. 

This season, he makes his Canadian Opera Company debut in the role of Orest in “Elektra,” a role he has performed before. OperaWire had a chance to speak with him about his upcoming debut and the challenges of performing Strauss’ music. 

OperaWire: This is your Canadian Opera Company debut. What are you most looking forward?

Wilhelm Schwinghammer: The Canadian Opera Company in Toronto is a fantastic opera house where the best singers from all over the world are performing. So I’m very excited to make my debut here.

OW: You’ll be doing Orest in “Elektra.” The role is not particularly long but it is important. What is the key to making the character as complete as possible? 

WS: It’s true, Orest is not the biggest role of the opera, but he is very important to the narrative. I’m not quite sure if I really want to represent Orest as a sympathetic character. On the one hand he is getting revenge and on the other hand, he is killing his own mother. Both are violent and cruel actions and that does not make him a very pleasant person. I think it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not Orest is sympathetic. In the story, Orest has been acquitted from his guilt at that time.

OW: Elektra is based on Greek myths and based on Hoffmanthal’s play. What type of research did you do when preparing the role?

WS: Well, one of my graduation topics was ancient Greece, so I’m quite familiar with all these Greek myths. I also sang the role before, in an older staging by August Everding at the Hamburg State Opera, so I know the opera quite well.

OW: What are the biggest challenges in performing the role?

WS: For me, the biggest challenge of singing the role consists in giving a really convincing characterization of Orest during the short time I’m on stage.

OW: Strauss music is extremely complex and rhythmic. It is also very text heavy and therefore there is a requirement of having a good balance between both. Tell me the key to performing a Strauss opera. 

WS: The best way to present a Strauss role is to be very well-prepared – to know the music, the text, and the rhythm. If you are well-prepared it’s not difficult, because Richard Strauss composed his operas similar to Wagner’s: the text and the music go together perfectly. It’s as if the text lays “on the music.” So you do not have to decide if you focus on the music or on the text, because both come naturally.

OW: Having performed other Strauss roles, how does this compare to the others given the composer changed his musical style and language throughout his career? Are there similarities and what are the differences?

WS: I already sang different roles in many other operas by Richard Strauss including “Feuersnot,” “Salome,” “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” “Arabella” and “Daphne.” In May 2018, I made my debut as Ochs in “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Royal Opera House Stockholm with Alan Gilbert.

For their world premieres, “Salome” and “Elektra” both caused enormous scandal in the opera world because of the revolutionary new style, the polytone passages that culminated in the work’s climaxes. The scandal caused by “Elektra” was even bigger because “Elektra” is probably the darkest opera that Strauss composed.

After “Elektra” Strauss wrote something amusing, “Der Rosenkavalier.” And he completely changed his musical style. So “Elektra” and “Salome” mark a turning point in his early career and they were both huge successes.

OW: Strauss’ orchestra is one of the biggest in “Elektra.” How does singing over an orchestra of this size differ from performing in other works?

WS: There are about 110 musicians in the orchestra pit which is really quite a lot. But of course, the volume is not at maximum level during the entire 100 minutes of the opera. There are also some piano parts in it. It’s the same with Wagner‘s music dramas: you have to keep singing your part in a lyrical way. It’s not a good idea to push the voice and it doesn’t serve the music at all. By pushing your voice you’ll never get through the whole opera performance, so you have to trust your technique. Without a good technique, you are lost.

OW: You’ll be working with Christine Goerke, one of the great Elektra interpreters of our time. What excites you about working with her?

WS: This is our first production together. She’s a fantastic interpreter of Strauss and Wagner roles and it’s just great to work with her. We also have a lot of fun at the rehearsals.

OW: Tell me about your collaboration with the director of the production and what new insights he brings to the work. What is the approach to the story?

WS: For this production, Omer Ben Seadia is running rehearsals in James Robinson’s stead. She is doing a great job bringing James’ artistic vision to life. In his staging Robinson focuses more on the personal dynamics and conflicts of the characters than on the political dimensions of the story highlighting the drama between Orest and Elektra when they reunite. The cast is fantastic and very experienced and we also have been able to put our own stamp on our characters.

OW: What future projects are you looking forward to after this production?

WS: I’m returning to the Bayreuth Festival this summer to perform in the new production of “Tannhäuser” and there are more Bayreuth plans for 2020. It is always very special to be part of the Bayreuth Festival because the atmosphere is unique as well as the acoustics of the theater.

I’m also looking forward to returning to Hamburg for “Fidelio,” “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and “Der Fliegende Holländer.” I was a member of the ensemble in Hamburg for some years and I still feel very close to the opera house. At the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, I have a series of Mozart concerts with Zubin Mehta.


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