Internationally acclaimed tenor Jon Frederic West sits in the canteen. During a break in rehearsing for the title role of Richard Wagner's Siegfried, he talks about his globetrotting performance schedule. He suddenly stops and shouts to somebody in the hall, "Harry, buddy, what the hell are you doing here?" Bass-baritone Harry Dworchak pops his head in and the two enthusiastically shake hands, while Dworchak explains that he's "doing Alberich," another role in the opera. After he leaves, West remarks, "The last time we saw each other was in Dallmayr's, which is a great delicatessen in Munich."
Constantly jumping from Germany to New York City to New Orleans and beyond, West grew up in Dayton, Ohio. "My mother told me that I was singing around the house doing chores from the time I was 3 on up," says West. He participated in boys choirs before studying voice at Bowling Green University and the Manhattan School of Music. With a successful career spanning three decades, West, 53, has made a name for himself by specializing in Siegfried, a part he has performed several times a year since 1998. He makes his New Orleans debut this week, continuing the New Orleans Opera Association's staging of the complete Ring cycle over several years. Siegfried is the third of four operas in the cycle, following 2004's Das Rheingold and 2001's Die Walküre. The conclusion, Götterdämmerung, will be staged in the fall of 2006.
Serbian stage director Dejan Miladinovic wanders in and apologizes for being late. Oblivious to the activities of the studio, West discusses the complexities of playing Siegfried, a 17-year-old boy who gets caught up in the machinations of the gods and his own hubris. It's a difficult role, "mostly because of the length," says West: Siegfried clocks in at around five hours. West adds that the climactic duet with helmet-clad Brünnhilde, played by New Orleans native Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet, is the hardest part of the opera. "That's the point where I'm most exhausted," he says, and Miladinovic chuckles. West continues: "It's also the most unfair part because of course she only sings for 30 minutes and she comes in totally fresh. After five hours, it's quite a challenge to wind up with enough voice and sound fresh enough to match her."
Miladinovic pipes in, noting the importance of having West in the role of Siegfried: "Jon convincingly plays a teenage boy bored with everything and he develops the character. You will hear him singing heavy stuff' with such easiness onstage. I am standing very close to him; I cannot see his veins on the neck which means his technique is marvelous. He knows the role upside down."
In addition to the length, Siegfried is challenging for its notoriety. The music and imagery are widely known and often parodied, famously by Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in the Looney Toons short What's Opera, Doc. J.R.R. Tolkien borrowed liberally from the Ring cycle for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. "This role is very well written," says West. Dworchak begins warming up with scales two doors down, and West has to raise his voice to be heard. "The problem with Wagner is we have a tendency to think that it's heavy stuff. It's because it's been done badly for a long time. In truth, Wagner is the most human expression. You see all human glory, you see the human foible, you see everything in it."
Interpretation of the cycle varies greatly from director to director, which helps West in keeping his performance of Siegfried fresh. West has performed in traditional fairy tale-inspired stagings, such as last year's performance at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, and in off-the-wall modern stagings in cities like Stuttgart, Germany, where he performed in jeans and a T-shirt and Wotan was dressed as a biker. "Every production, just because of the complexity of this whole work, becomes new again. You can do it a hundred years and it would never ever [get stale]," says West.
For this production, Miladinovic will employ the use of screens, silhouettes and projectors, stage effects that have become his signature over his years of directing operas. "Light," Miladinovic notes, "is the most beautiful miracle that can happen onstage."
It's an opportunity to overcome some of the Wagnerphobia that some people might have and, West says, rediscover this epic's delights. "Everyone should come to the theater to see this," he says. "It is so much fun. Anybody who likes The Lord of the Rings should be here for this. Anybody who's an epic person, anybody who likes football should be here for this. There's love, there's sex, there's killing, there's murder, poison, greed, corruption; you have the whole human spectrum of good to bad. Don't let this kind of opera go by." The interview over, West sits back in his chair and looks at Miladinovic: "Rehearsal's at 3, right?" "Yes, rehearsal's at 3," Miladinovic replies. The two stand and wander back into a studio filled with the sounds of hammering and singing.