Producing a Richard Wagner work is like climbing Mount Everest for any opera company. Singers need enormous stamina to be heard over the orchestration during the four to five hours that the operas last. Most of Wagner’s works also require large choruses, elaborate settings and a much larger orchestra than other operas.
N.C. Opera’s concert presentation Nov. 9 of the complete second act from “Tristan and Isolde” is a step toward this young company’s ultimate goal of staging a full Wagner production.
Similar to its first Wagner excerpts concert in January 2013, this presentation will have an 80-piece orchestra on stage with the performers in front. They’ll sing in the original German with supertitles projected in English. The second act of “Tristan and Isolde” includes the famous 30-minute love duet between the doomed lovers.
Only a handful of singers in any generation can meet all of Wagner’s demands, and this concert features two of them. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris gained fame by taking over the taxing role of Siegfried at the last minute for the Metropolitan Opera’s complete “Ring Cycle” in 2011. Heidi Melton has sung in “Ring Cycle” performances from San Francisco to Berlin and at the Met.
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Timothy Myers, N.C. Opera’s artistic director and conductor for this concert, minces no words about these two.
“It’s not hyperbole to say that this is a world-class experience,” he said. “Representatives from various big opera companies are coming to hear it, and other big companies have told me they’d put this cast on their stage any time.”
In recent phone conversations, Melton and Morris spoke about their roles, what drives them to tackle Wagner’s punishing challenges and how they balance their work and private lives. Here are excerpts from those conversations:
Q: How strenuous is this role compared to others in Wagner?
Melton: It’s a close tie between Isolde and the Ring’s Brunhilde. It’s definitely a difficult sing. There are so many words, and it exploits every part of the voice – low, middle and high. There’s lyrical singing, there are large jumps – it’s got everything.
Morris: Tristan is close to being the pinnacle, right next to Siegfried. It’s incredibly challenging. Once you get over the fear and know you can get through it, you can really enjoy it.
Q: What do you like about singing this character?
Melton: Isolde is just about as romantic as they come, and for a girl with an incredibly romantic heart, it’s a great experience to be singing her. She is so full of life, love and passion. She really kind of inhabits me.
Morris: Tristan is so rewarding because some of the music is the most gorgeous and lush ever written. The payoff is just getting to sing the role because there are few men in the world who ever get the chance.
Q: How do you like singing opera in concert?
Melton: It’s an incredible blessing to be able to concentrate on just the music for this concert. I haven’t sung a complete Isolde yet, so this allows me the chance to find where to reserve energy and where to let go.
Morris: I enjoy the theatricality of sets, costumes and makeup, but for some pieces, like “Tristan and Isolde,” it’s enough to stand and present the music. It has really worked well when I’ve seen it in concert as an audience member.
Q: The opera world always needs singers who can handle these roles. What sort of offers are you getting?
Melton: I have two full productions scheduled in the near future. Some people have asked why I am taking on the role in my early 30s, and my answer is that you have to do what your voice tells you to do. I have a small group of people I trust that I call my “board of directors,” and they are all OK with it.
Morris: I’ve only sung Tristan once, in concert in 2012 in Valencia, Spain. I had to cancel several scheduled productions to take over Siegfried at the Met. I have one possibility for an upcoming Tristan, and I wouldn’t say no to more. I’ve been singing opera for 26 years, and at 51, I feel I’m ready to do my best work.
Q: How do you balance your opera career and your everyday life?
Melton: To be honest, I haven’t found that balance yet. This summer, when I took my two nieces on vacation, I made sure that every minute with them was packed full. When I’m not working, I try to live those moments as fully as I do when committed to a role.
Morris: I have to make choices to maintain that balance. My wife and son are the most important things to me. I work hard every day, but when it is time, I close the book and concentrate on being husband and father.