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Robert Dean SmithRobert Dean SmithInterview with tenor Robert Dean Smith. One of the most famous tenors of our time performed at the Miskolc Opera Festival in Hungary in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt on June 20th. The singer will come to Hungary again in November to sing the title role of Tannhäuser at the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest. Though probably the greatest star of this festival, Robert Dean Smith is a humble, very friendly and genial person. The interview was made before the performance of Die tote Stadt.

 

 

You have already sung in almost all the famous opera houses in the world. Why did you come to Miskolc?

Because of the piece and because I always feel very well in Hungary. I have been to Budapest many times, where I also gave concerts. I’ve never been to Miskolc before, but I said yes, because I really enjoy singing Die tote Stadt.

This opera is rarely performed. How many times did you sing the role of Paul?

I’ve sung in two productions, some 15 times.

Why do you like this piece?

I like the story. It is suspended, there is a lot of things that are just under the surface and are not clear. One of the aspects is: how did Paul’s first wife die? We don’t know that. Maybe he killed her. Maybe he didn’t. And I also enjoy the music, this late romantic and - in a good sense - Hollywood music. It is very much like Richard Strauss but a little bit different, of course. The story together with the music makes it a wonderful piece.

Robert Dean SmithRobert Dean SmithIs this direction of Die tote Stadt very different from the ones you sang in?

In this direction the orchestra is behind us. It makes it very difficult, because we have no conductor in front of us. There are monitors but those are machines and we don’t have the personal contact. I understand why: the orchestra is so large that it won’t fit into the orchestra pit. But we’ll deal with that. Most theatres would be too small for this orchestra. Actually I have done that before in Royal Albert Hall in London, in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. There the conductor and the orchestra were also behind us. So, that’s the biggest difference in this performance. Otherwise I enjoy this direction. It tells the story and we have to try to make it believable. It is a good challenge.

As I know, at a very young age you were a saxophone player and began singing only later.

Not exactly, I played saxophone and sang at the same time in the college. But it was too much work so I had to let one go and that was the saxophone. I still studied and played it in university but it wasn’t my main focus, so I took singing in the end.

You started singing as a baritone. Why did you decide to become a tenor?

It had a technical reason. At a certain age maturity makes some changes to your body. I noticed that when I was trying to sing correctly, my voice wanted to go a little higher. So I thought maybe I am a tenor. But I was a lyric baritone and I think at some point every lyric baritone has that question: ’Am I a tenor?’ And you have to find out for yourself.

Can you imagine that you will sing a baritone role again?

I don’t think so. It would only be if something was specifically written for me… My last baritone role was in Wiesbaden, in Germany, in 1989. Then I changed to tenor and went immediately into singing tenor roles.

Your repertoire is very wide but you sing mostly the roles of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Is the German repertoire closer to you or it just happened that way?

It happened that way. I came to Germany first and got an engagement to sing mostly German pieces. It is how it happened but it’s nice to sing the German repertoire.

You have sung several big Heldentenor roles. Which one do you find the most demanding?

Among the ones that I sing I would probably have to say Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Especially the third act of this opera is so emotional, so intense and heavy, and it is very long, too. Then also Walter von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It is one of the lyric tenor roles of Wagner but it’s also very long. You have to have the stamina, the condition, but it also requires a flexible voice.

You did not mention Strauss’ tenor roles. You have sung Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos and the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten

They are difficult but shorter. Strauss wanted tension and excitement in the singing, and he wrote it all in a very difficult part. I think he did not really care for the singers…

In September in Spain you are going to sing the title role of Verdi’s Otello for the frst time on stage. It is usually a dream-role for most Heldentenors. Is it still a big challenge for you, as well?

Otello is difficult because of the lot of dramatic declamatory singing. You have to be careful with how much you do that. But I don’t think anything will be very difficult after singing so many Tristans, Cavaradossis etc. I think when you sing with a good technique, Wagner sounds like Wagner, Puccini sounds like Puccini, Verdi like Verdi, Mozart like Mozart… You have to have a technique that allows you to do that. And I work very hard on my technique almost every day. Because I want to tell the audience something and I have to have the tools to express the emotions so the audience can feel that.

Robert Dean SmithRobert Dean SmithIs there a tenor role which you have not sung yet but would like to sing in the future?

Well, it’s difficult, I don’t know. As you said Otello is coming… But yes, there is a couple of favourite operas that I like but have never sung. For example Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

Not really a Heldentenor role…

No, but it has everything in it: it’s light, it’s heavy, it’s dramatic, it’s tender, it’s a wonderful opera. What I haven’t sung form Wagner is Siegfried. I would probably not like to sing Siegfried in the opera Siegfried, but Siegfried in Götterdammerung would be possible… However, when you sing one, the opera houses want the other! [laughing]

Do you have any tenor models from the past?

Of course, for example Caruso. But I also like listening to Jussi Björling, Carlo Bergonzi. And other singers that sang mainly the Germen repertoire: Lauritz Melchior, and the American James King. When I started singing in Germany, in Bielefeld, there was a tenor singing there: Sándor Kónya, who sang German, Italian, and French operas, too. He had a very good technique.

Now you live in Switzerland. Do you like living in Europe?

Yes, I have been living in Switzerland for 15 years, now I am also a Swiss citizen. I enjoy working all over the world, but it’s the European culture, and also the European mentality that I love: the thinking about culture, the way how culture is part of life. That’s why I live in Europe and I think I will live here for the rest of my life.

Balázs Csák
(www.operaportal.hu)

 

 

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