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Hagen talks: Gidon Saks

Last Saturday night, Gidon Saks gave a phenomenal performance as Hagen in the Washington National Opera’s “Götterdämmerung.” On Sunday afternoon, he and the soprano who sang Brünnhilde, Irene Theorin, turned around and sang a matinee performance of “Ariadne auf Naxos.” It was a marathon for both of them -- especially for Theorin, following the most challenging role in the repertory with another one that isn’t exactly chopped liver. Yet “we were still so pumped and energized,” Saks chuckled, that “… we probably both sang our best shows Sunday afternoon.” “Götterdämmerung” as a warm-up: it’s not exactly what you expect.
(read more after the jump)

On Thursday, as Saks unwound over coffee while preparing for another marathon weekend (“Ariadne” on Friday, “Götterdämmerung” on Sunday), he showed plenty of other unexpected sides. Not so much in his manner: big, bearlike, with an affable smile and a resonant speaking voice, he is certainly the image of an opera singer. But his taste in roles is very much his own.

For instance: you’d expect the part of Wotan, the chief of the gods and the main character in the first three “Ring” operas, to be the goal of any Wagnerian bass-baritone. But not Saks's. “Wotan doesn’t turn my crank,” he says. “He doesn’t excite me in the way that Hagen does or Claggart [in “Billy Budd”] does, or Leporello [in “Don Giovanni”] does, or the Count in [“Marriage of] Figaro” does. There’s something about Wotan - I don’t know. I love being on stage with Greer [Grimsley] or Alan [Held, both leading Wotans], just listening to them singing… and I don’t feel an inch of jealousy.”

His dream role is even more unexpected. He is longing to get a chance to sing -- drum roll -- Papageno, the jolly bird-catcher in Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” Papageno is usually a light role for young baritones before they grow into the dramatic and vocal maturity required for a role like Hagen. But Saks thinks there are other ways to interpret it. “I’ve never seen Papageno played as Li’l Abler,” he says. “And I think he is. I think he’s just this big, disingenuous, warm-hearted, deeply empathic, and overly emotional [person]. I mean, Papageno is usually played as being quite jovial, but I think he needs to be mercurial, and I think he needs to be somebody who gets quite weepy, genuinely weepy, at times. And I would love to play him the way I feel him.” So far, he hasn’t found any theater director willing to engage him for the part -- or who takes him seriously when he says he wants to do it.

Saks brings the perspective of a director to his work as a singer. He has designed and directed a number of operas -- now mainly in student productions -- including Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” and Ligeti’s “Le grand macabre” in Vienna. You might think this makes him an ideal partner for stage directors; but you might be wrong. His strong opinions haven’t won universal admiration from people who want to tell him what to do. At 23, he lost a job when he defied a director who wanted him to end a scene with a gesture that would make the audience laugh; Saks didn’t think laughter would be appropriate at that moment.

Saks grew up in South Africa and began singing at 15, when he was told he was too young to get into the acting program he wanted to attend and should try taking lessons in something else until he got older. As fate would have it, Frederick Dalberg lived in Cape Town -- the originator of Claggart, in Britten’s “Billy Budd,” and a Wagnerian who sang Hagen at Bayreuth -- and observed, when Saks sang for him, that he might be able to have a career as a singer. That sounded fine to the teenager. After a year, to avoid military conscription, he moved to Manchester, England, where he was not a stellar student but found a good teacher; and then to Toronto. He moved quickly on to opera studios, first in Toronto, then in Zurich. Not everyone realized his potential. One person in Zurich suggested he become a street musician. Instead, he got a contract in a German house, working first in Gelsenkirchen and then in Bielefeld, learning his trade in a cross-section of the repertory -- bread-and-butter operas, contemporary pieces, and operetta -- before branching out as a freelancer.

He went back to a teacher after a vocal crisis 9 years ago, brought on after a period of oversinging culminating in performances of “Boris Godunov” and “Fliegender Hollander” -- two enormous and difficult roles -- back to back. In the wake of that, finding he could barely sing, he withdrew from his scheduled Metropolitan Opera debut (he was to have sung in Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”) and started studying again, essentially from the beginning. Susanna Eken, the Danish teacher he worked with, helped him learn to sing, as he put it, “from north to south” -- from the head down -- rather than “south to north,” pushing the sound up. Today, he’s a teacher himself, at the conservatory in Ghent, Belgium, trying to pass this knowledge on to his students, promulgating a relaxed technique without undue strain. “I ask my singers to sing as if they’re very tired and a bit stupid.”

The magic of Saturday’s “Götterdämmerung” he ascribes in part to the close working relationship he’s established with Alan Held (who sang Gunther) and Gordon Hawkins, the Alberich; they have performed together in Rings around the world. They have even done it before in concert. “We proved on Saturday night that it can be done,” he says. “That merely by making eye contact and saying what you think and sustaining the moment, wonderful things can happen, which also make you into a more interesting and better performer.”

Not a frequent performer in North America, he is looking forward to his Santa Fe Opera debut next summer, singing the four villains in Christopher Alden’s production of “The Tales of Hoffmann.” “Christopher is someone I’ve collaborated with a lot, and work really well with, and I adore the process of working with him,” he says. And adds, “the people who tend to use me are people who know me and feel that they want that particular energy in a production.” Now if only he can find a Papageno engagement.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 13, 2009; 5:50 PM ET
Categories:  interviews  
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