Baritone gets crash course for Wagner role

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — In a bare rehearsal room three floors underground at the Metropolitan Opera, Michael Volle was learning how to move around on a set that wasn't there.

The German baritone had to be a quick study because just three days later he would be onstage as Hans Sachs, the poet-cobbler hero of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," temporarily taking over the role from veteran James Morris.

"Over here there's a really nice shelf for your book, and over there's a pillar," instructed Paula Suozzi, who is directing the revival of Otto Schenk's two-decade-old production. "You'll see Jim comes there and leans. After that he rolls up his sleeves." With no shelf or pillar available in the rehearsal space, she guided Volle as if he were in Sachs' well-furnished workshop, while he sang his lines in full voice.

It's not unheard of for a singer to parachute into a Met production with little rehearsal, but these circumstances are extraordinary. "Meistersinger" is one of the longest operas in the repertory, a stream of glorious melody that clocks in at six hours including intermissions. Sachs is onstage and singing for much of that time.

What's more, Volle's visit is something of a whirlwind: He flew in from his home near Zurich, Switzerland, last Friday and heads back eight days later after just two performances, including a Saturday matinee that will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters worldwide.

"Of course it's a little bit crazy to do this," Volle said with a hearty laugh during an interview after Saturday's rehearsal. "But there's also some suspense, in a good way, to be confronted with something new, and suddenly you have to sing and act."

From the airport, he had gone straight to a costume fitting. Saturday was a day of rehearsals capped by attending a performance that night so he could watch Morris in action. During intermissions he was invited up on the stage to stroll around the set. On Monday, more rehearsal, including a session with conductor James Levine "to talk about transitions and tempos." The first time he sang with the orchestra was Tuesday night.

It would have been hard to tell from that performance just how quickly it had all come together. Volle seemed at home in the set and interacted easily with his fellow performers, displaying delicious comic rapport with the town clerk Beckmesser, portrayed by baritone Johannes Martin Kraenzle. Volle's sturdy baritone glowed with warmth and filled the house during the climaxes.

If Volle's visit is literally an eight-day wonder, his overall career arc has been far more gradual. Now 54, he didn't begin performing in opera until he was 30. He learned from the ground up, singing a staggering 130 performances his very first season in Mannheim, Germany, mostly tiny parts like the Second Prisoner in Beethoven's "Fidelio," but also the title role in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro."

His first Sachs came in 2012, and in the summer of 2013 he starred in a Stefan Herheim production in Salzburg, Austria — a version that Met general manager Peter Gelb plans to bring to New York with Volle again in the cast.

"Nothing in our fach (the baritone repertory) compares to the role of Sachs," Volle said. "It's paradise. It's heaven, but it's so demanding that you must be very, very careful. I'm happy that it appeared in the perfect moment of my singing life — not too late, but not too early."

Gelb tried to hire Volle for all seven performances in the current revival after baritone Johann Reuter withdrew in September. But Volle had a conflict, so Gelb turned to Morris, who had sung the role 14 times in past seasons but at age 67 is past his vocal prime. Gelb was able to snare Volle for two performances, including the high-profile HD.

In the future, the Met has big plans for Volle, who made his debut just last spring as Mandryka in Richard Strauss' "Arabella." He'll be back for Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" and also as Wotan in that composer's "Ring" cycle.

For now, he's delighted to be here even briefly — and also looking forward to hurrying home to his wife, singer Gabriela Scherer, and their two young children, ages 5 and 3.

"Saturday's performance ends at 6 p.m., and the last flight out of Newark leaves just after 10, so it's doable," he said. "I'll be home with my family by Sunday morning. Time is so precious. I love each night at home."