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23.9.03

INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington (Part 3 of 6)

The Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, continues. As you will learn in this installment, I received an invitation to a rehearsal of singers of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, which I accepted. At the rehearsal which I recently attended, there were three real singers and an accompanist with Ms. Berger, and they worked on portions of Wagner's Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Walküre, as well as one of the Wesendonck-Lieder and one of Strauss's Four Last Songs. It is a privileged position to be at a rehearsal so I will not say much more than to observe that these three singers are talented musicians with voices and training perfectly appropriate for this sort of repertory. It was a delight to hear, and I hope that the company will ultimately have a chance to present the productions it envisions. You can also purchase a CD that features some of the company's singers, through the Millennium Wagner Opera Web site.August Friedrich Pecht, Portrait of Richard Wagner

Ionarts:
What are the ideas you teach in your vocal studio?

Carol Berger:
The Bayreuth-Theater Wagner Studio came about as part of the process of bringing singers on and rehearsing. What I will do is invite you to come to one of our rehearsals, and you can speak to our singers and find out from them what they think of our work.

Ionarts:
That sounds great.

Carol Berger:
In the United States, Wagner coaching seems superficial. It's about dynamics or understanding leitmotifs. That's not Wagner coaching. That's vocal coaching of Wagner’s music. What we do is role interpretation. I work with singers on Wagnerian roles. I work with troubled singers, singers with vocal problems, singers who are blocked. This is not to say that I replace a vocal coach, because I don't. I have been told that it is myself and two other people in Germany who work this way. What I do is work inside the psychology of the part. I never tell a singer, "Tell me about Isolde, or who Siegfried is." We do a series of exercises in which they literally take on the character. I am not going into much detail, but this brings out a level of passion and intensity that they are not getting elsewhere.

Ionarts:
How would you characterize your role in the company? Will you direct productions?

Carol Berger:
With our coach as my partner we do everything right now. I do initial screening of singer candidates and then we audition the singers. I’m doing all the admin. I’m hoping to acquire several interns from conservatories now that we're into the fall, because I need to offload much of the administrative work. We have a huge mailing list of people. If there is one role that I will always maintain, it is that of the dramaturge, because I understand these characters better than most people do. To make our Wagner productions searing, I have to do the dramaturgy part of it.

Ionarts:
What are some of your company’s past performances?

Carol Berger:
We have not had a major production yet. We are only a year old. When you deal with serious opera people, people in the profession, they understand that you do not create an opera company and immediately start doing productions, unless you are doing some sort of local predictable repertory theater, the old war-horses like La Bohème, Aïda, and La Traviata, and things like that, and you just go out and rent a local theater. That's not what we are. It takes time! It took Wagner almost 12 years.

We have a new vision of Wagner. We've done this from the ground up beginning with a solid business plan. Let me tell you how hard it is to get into this company. I've had approximately a thousand singers send me resumes, send me cassettes or demo CDs, for the purpose of auditioning in the first year. My standards are different. I insist on absolutely perfect German declamation, unique color, professional experience, stage resumes, and absolute commitment to Wagner. We are not a freelancer company: every single one of my singers is under contract. They have to sign a roster agreement, a contract, meaning that they are committed to Millennium. The agreement requires confidentiality about the content of our programs, which is our intellectual property. This is necessary because last year some local adversaries were successful in getting some of our contracts for recital work rescinded. So, unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of running our mouths about our work. Does this contract mean they don't do any other work? No. Most of our singers work with other major opera companies and are under agent management, but they have a direct working relationship with this company that their agents acknowledge and are happy for them to have. In the case where a singer comes to us through an agent introduction, we always need to talk to the singer directly and hear a demo first. Since this is not a gig company, we need to get a feel for their commitment and long-term interest in Wagner. Then we make what accommodations we need to make. The agents that trust their singers and know about their dreams do not stand in their singer’s way.

(To be continued.)

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