Our knight at the opera

By William Dart

Sir Donald McIntyre, New Zealand's Wagnerian knight, is looking forward to having a good swim at a Wellington beach, whenever Parsifal rehearsals allow.

He has just arrived in the capital to rehearse his role as Gurnemanz in the New Zealand International Arts Festival production of Wagner's mammoth music drama.

The Wellington cast "could be a knockout", he enthuses. "It's extraordinary that New Zealand has five singers in this cast and, in the hands of Anthony Negus, it could be an absolute sensation."

Conductor Negus joined the team on McIntyre's suggestion. Their friendship goes back to when the Englishman was rehearsal pianist for Reginald Goodall's 1985 recording of the opera. "He really knows Parsifal," McIntyre says.

McIntyre speaks fondly of Goodall and Pierre Boulez, whom he played under in Parsifal and The Ring. "This great intellectual and a simple chap like me got on like a house on fire. Boulez was an analytical conductor rather than a person who blurted it all from his heart, and many did not like that.

"He certainly had a heart but didn't display it very much in his performances. He got the cast he wanted and picked people who could provide that side of things."

This world-class Wotan (Wagner's chief of the Gods), who made his name with Wagner, feels the composer's operas are "still relevant to mankind and all of us".

McIntyre has worked under directors like Patrice Chereau and can cope with an unconventional staging "as long as it doesn't twist what the essential subject is about and get away from the basic topic, which is political conflict - whether you run the world by power of love or force".

He is yet to walk out of a production, but almost did with a French Parsifal. "I got really hot under the collar. I didn't like the way it was going, with character made into caricature, which I never like.

"I was really annoyed with the third act, Last Supper," he says. The cast were staged drinking blood and carving up a body.

Parsifal has inspired tomes of learned analysis and heady interpretation, but McIntyre sums it up in a sentence: "You have to be become part of the whole world, the whole community, the whole universe."

Musing on how central the word "heil" (German for "whole" or "health") is to the score, he feels that "nearly all the characters are unholy or incomplete".

"The problem is that they are a celibate band of knights whose job is to look after the holy relics. One of their biggest problems is reconciling the secular and spiritual. Going for the spiritual, they have cut out the sexual and it's too much for them."

The Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson once quipped that sensible shoes were the staple requirements for successful Wagnerian singing, but McIntyre opts for physical strength and resonance.

He remembers Nilsson, who died in December, as "an extraordinary singer, almost supernatural in what she did.

"It was mainly to do with resonance. Standing next to her, her voice seemed no bigger than the ordinary lyric soprano, but she sent that out like a laser beam using the auditorium as a sounding box."

Do younger singers have this same power? "I don't hear all the best singers at the moment because I'm sort of semi-retiring," McIntyre replies.

"It is long overdue, but I keep getting asked to do things and I don't feel I've lost a lot of my resonance."

* Sir Donald McIntyre in Parsifal, NZ International Arts Festival, March 17, 5pm; March 19, 3pm, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

* On disc: Parsifal, conducted by Reginald Goodall, with Sir Donald McIntyre as Gurnemanz (EMI, 4CD set, CMS5656652)

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