This weekend bass-baritone Alan Held (pictured left, leftmost photo by Christian Steiner) finishes a run of Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera. He goes to Baden-Baden next for Salome, Munich in July for Rusalka, Washington DC in September for Tosca, and Bilbao in October and November for Tristan und Isolde. Next season he returns to San Francisco for the Symphony's semi-staged Bluebeard's Castle. The Last Chinese Unicorn and the Unbiased Opinionator caught up with Held last Monday.
LCU: There are those who have difficulty sitting through pieces by Berg, Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. What advice would you give to those unaccustomed to atonal music to prepare for Wozzeck?
AH: I have a friend who's flying in from LA this weekend to see the show and intimidated by it as well. She just wanted to enjoy it and I told her to be familiar with the story. To me a piece like Wozzeck is almost musical theater. There are wonderful sections of the piece that are very melodic, but there is all the atonal music and the Sprechstimme. The first step is to get familiar with the play, it's a gripping story. Then, listen to fragments of it. When you're preparing to hear a piece like this, don't try to listen to it all at one time. People are shocked at how much enjoy this thing, because it is so musical. The orchestra is so strong. But you have to take it in small portions at first, and then when you see it all together it will blow you away. If the artist is doing his or her job, to express the text and the story, to me Wozzeck is more natural and easier to absorb than just about any other operas out there. There's no repetition of the same phrases over and over. The bones of this stuff – the music and the sound palette is put out there to put the emphasis on the drama even more than you would in many other types of opera, or other theater pieces.
UO: That will be quite helpful to those less inclined toward the Second Viennese School.
AH: I'm very committed to this piece and to contemporary music. I do a lot of it. My bread and butter is probably Wagner and Strauss. I've been in the business 25 years this year, and I've seen the tastes and what audiences go for really change in these 25 years. When I was starting out you'd see Verdi, Wagner, Mozart and Puccini; that was the meat and potatoes. Things have really changed. You're getting more contemporary music, Czech music, a lot more of Bartok, and the Russian repertoire. And there's a change in the other direction, too. You're getting a lot more Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, because of the artists who come around in certain time periods. Maybe we're a little bit low on the Verdi end right now. The economy affects the repertory too. You're not getting as much Wagner in some houses as you once were, because it's very expensive to do Wagner. But I think audiences become more enlightened, more intelligent about different styles of music and more accepting of it. It used to be, when Wozzeck was done, you'd have a very small audience. Same thing for Lulu. Now the audiences are becoming much fuller and more active. The response we received after opening night of Wozzeck was as huge as anything I've ever heard at the Metropolitan Opera House. So, I think audiences, singers, and companies are all becoming more appreciative and open to a wider range of repertoire.
UO: That's great to hear, Alan. I'm looking forward very much to hearing the broadcast and being in the house this Saturday to hear you.
AH: I'm glad you're going to be in the house because this is a production that you must see as well as listen to. I think it comes off one way on the radio, or CD, but this is a production that needs to be seen. You have merits of the theater and the music together, especially in a piece like Wozzeck.
UO: Of course you have the enormous advantage of having James Levine conducting.
AH: We're thrilled to have him step on the podium once again when he came back after being away for so long.
UO: I've done a little bit of chorus work with Jimmy, and I find him enormously inspiring. Would you tell us a little bit about what the working process is like with him as a soloist? I imagine at the point you start working with him it's so integrated that you're working less on details and more on the larger picture.
AH: I've worked with Maestro Levine quite a bit on many different things over the years including the Ring, Elektra, Hoffmann, and Wozzeck. The process that we usually use at the Met is that, unless it's a brand new production, we rehearse the staging first – we do that for a couple of weeks. Then he'll come in when we start to do the stage rehearsals, sometimes before, when we're still in the rehearsal room, and he really puts a lot of polish on it. Sometimes it takes a lot more polish than other things. But we usually do the rehearsal on stage and then we'll get together in List Hall or somewhere else at the Met, really working on details and working on characters. Maestro Levine is such a master at melding the character into the voice and he loves pure sound and expression of the text. He's very good with Wozzeck at not just being such a great technician and a great musician, but he does a great amount with the drama as well. He's so familiar with it; he loves the score and he does so much to help bring more out of you. It's been said so many times what a great accompanist he is and that's absolutely true. He's right there with you all the time and you really feel when you're working with him that you're working together. There's none of this: just someone beating a stick. I've had the privilege of watching him work not only with the Met orchestra but also with the Youth Orchestra at Tanglewood. He's a master technician as far as teaching the orchestra, and he's teaching us all the time.
UO: When you first debuted the role in San Francisco back in 1999, how did you go about learning it? Did you simply pound it into yourself?
AH: I began as a pianist and I also listened in theory class, so I understood the 12 tone style. But again, I approached it from the drama as much as I did it from the music at the beginning, because the two have to be married together. Yes, I did pound out the notes, but I looked at the rhythm and how the language flowed and Berg set it masterfully. It all makes sense, what he did. I think this piece is almost as tough rhythmically as it is note-wise. The rhythm is just as important. And then incorporating it into how I work as an artist, and as an actor, all together. I didn't do it separately: note, note, note, note. That would be the wrong way to approach Wozzeck.
UO: You've sung, as you say, for 25 years on an international level and you’re working in constantly changing acoustic environments. I'm sure you're familiar with most of the big houses but if you're confronted with a very dry, unforgiving acoustic, what do you do?
AH: There's really not a lot you can do. If you go messing around and trying to change the way you're singing to fit the acoustic of a certain opera house, you're going to end up in trouble. You can't change the acoustic. If you try to change your voice you're going to end up hurting yourself. So you have to just accept it. Fortunately, we get several rehearsals in the halls so you have the time to adjust your mind more than anything. A tough house is Amsterdam and it's not simply because of the acoustic, but the stage is very, very wide and you're not used to the audience being almost at your side all the time. But again, you can't really go changing your singing. You may have to sing more straight out, and less to the sides in certain houses, but your technical apparatus is the same.
LCU: What is your favorite city, and what do you love about it?
AH: Boy, you know when I do operas, I think, "Oh, this is my favorite scene! Oh, no, I love this one!" Every time I think that I have a favorite, it's the thing that I'm singing. I oftentimes say the same things about cities and I like a lot of different ones. I love San Francisco. The weather there is fabulous; it's a great walking city. I love Chicago, maybe because I'm originally from Illinois although I didn't spend much time there as a kid. I love New York. In Europe, I like Munich a great deal and Vienna. I just spent two months in Barcelona and that was great because I avoided all the weather on the East Coast! So, yes, there are a lot of places I love to be. There are some places that I don't want to go back to (laughter). I'm not going to say what they are. I may need a job there someday!
LCU: Wasn't it in Barcelona that you took the picture of those pig heads for Valentine's Day?
Oh yes! Nothing says Valentine's Day like a pig head! I tend to walk around, I'm a pretty observant guy when I'm doing so. So in Barcelona there was this meat case and it had all these pig heads and stuff, and they had Valentine hearts all over the place, and I was like "Oh my gosh!" (Laughter)
LCU: I remember seeing that picture, wondering if it was a joke or real.
AH: It was absolutely real.
UO: It's either a joke or another piece of Regietheater.
LCU: What's the story behind your Facebook profile picture (above right)?
AH: Thats Dr. Miracle from Tales of Hoffman in 1993 at the Met, the old Otto Schenk production. I love that picture! I figure that's how I look after four kids. (Laughter) That old production at the Met was amazing. It's one of my favorites. Dr. Miracle pops out of the fireplace, and he pops through the floor. I get so many people commenting on that picture all the time! And someone said that that's the best picture on Facebook so I said "OK, I'll keep it!"