BWW Interview: Peter Marsh: Villains, Oscar Wilde and the Colors of Life in Opera
Which witch, male or female? Tenor Peter Marsh, who makes his Seattle Opera debut as the villainous Hexe in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel next month, shared his insights on the subject and on diverse aspects of a singer's life as he prepares for his role.
In a daring, new-to-Seattle production that pushes the envelope of traditional takes on the Grimm fairy tale and contemporizes the two siblings' precarious situation, Marsh's character is a metaphorical ecological anti-Christ who represents the resistance and challenges that present and future generations will face in trying to save the planet from the consequences of egregious consumerism and lack of regard for the wanton waste that the human race has perpetrated on the ecology of Mother Earth.
EM: Congratulations on making your Seattle Opera debut!
PM: Thank you very much. I'm very excited to be singing here. I haven't sung in the States for about 18 years now. It's nice to be back.
EM: Looking at your background I see that Oper Frankfurt has been a home base for you?
PM: I'm a full time singer there and I do guesting outside of there as well.
EM: I did see your YouTube videos where you were interviewed in German and I found your German extraordinary. You could have fooled me that you're from Upstate New York.
PM: Well, I can turn on a Tonawanda accent if you want me to [Laughs].
EM: What was your journey from your hometown of Fredonia, N.Y., to the opera stage?
PM: I lived in the area until I was ten. Then my parents moved to Portland, Oregon. In high school I enjoyed theater, sang in choirs and had fun doing musicals. From there I thought, "Well, I really enjoy music and probably can't have a career in it, so I'll get a degree in teaching but I want to keep music going because I have fun with it." I got my Bachelor of Science degree from Portland State University with an emphasis in teaching, but I never got my certification. That was the first time I'd sung in or heard an opera. I really enjoyed it, so from there I went for a Master's at the University of Texas Austin and had a 2-year stint for the Austin Lyric Opera's Young Artists Program. Then I went to Europe, got an agent there, was able to do an audition at Oper Frankfurt, got the job and I've been there ever since, singing in Germany and Asia.
EM: Your CV shows quite a lot of German repertoire, in a number of German and Austrian opera houses. Do you think of that repertoire as your mainstay, or is there other repertoire that you have branched out into?
PM: My voice, I think, suits the German style a bit more. I did Pinkerton once in Bremen, in Butterfly. I felt really comfortable with it and it went well, but when I listened to recordings of myself I thought, "The color's not really Italian." It wasn't quite where I fit. Then I started singing more Strauss and some Wagner and I thought, "That's a little more the color and direction I'm going." I've done Britten a lot throughout the years. I feel like that's always suited me well. I've been very fortunate that in Frankfurt and Germany I've been able to try a lot of different roles, from character and buffo to some leading roles as well. I like to do a combination of different things.
EM: Is this your first time singing the Witch in Hansel and Gretel?
PM: I have sung it in a production in Frankfurt and I've done about 20 performances of it before. So I have a little experience with it.
EM: It's a really interesting role, and at the Met Opera we usually did it more with female than with male singers. Do you feel that it's equally effective sung and played by a male or a female, or do you lean more toward it being better suited for a male voice and character?
PM: It depends a lot on the production the color of the way the director or conductor wants it to go, but I think it's equal. Originally it was written for a female. Later on the tradition came with the tenor doing it as well. There are pluses and minuses on both sides. Men tend to have a bit more variation of colors in voice or character but the woman's quality can also be different. It's really more of a taste thing, just what people prefer.
EM: What are the differences you've observed in the role, both character wise and vocally, sung by male and female?
PM: Everybody brings their own things to it and it's always different. Some people will swear by a woman, some by a man. I prefer a man because I enjoy singing it, but I've seen it done very effectively with a woman. I try to do as many colors as I can in the role and try to bring certain sides to it. In the production I've done beforehand, the concept was that it was a woman and a man and switched back and forth. That one was a little different because the director actually asked for me to sing it, and he wanted me to do it a certain way. Another time I saw a production that was double cast, one a woman and one a man. It really depends on how a company wants to see it and how they do it.
EM: Character wise, it must be a lot of fun.
PM: Oh, I enjoy it immensely. It's a combination of being silly and evil, every side of a person that you can be. I've always had fun doing roles that are a bit more on the evil side or bad side. In life we tend not to be those people - I find most people don't want to be cannibals [Laughs] - so we try to be best foot forward all the time. But here's somebody who's completely evil in a fun way. I enjoy being the bad guy.
EM: "Completely evil in a fun way." That's one to remember. Certainly the character is fun to watch. Let's face it, for a really good plot you need a great villain. This one is definitely that.
PM: It's almost if you want to compare it to the James Bond movies. Sometimes we remember the villains - the character we love to hate - more than the Bonds. With the Witch you want a combination of loving and hating this person. Part of you says, "Oh, I'd like to do that, too," but you wouldn't really. I think that's a goal you want to go for when you're performing the Witch.
EM: Like, "I wouldn't mind seeing her feet peeking out from under a house that just fell on her."
EM: Have you started rehearsing yet?
PM: We just started yesterday, so everything's really new.
EM: Which of your fellow Seattle cast members have you been working with so far?
PM: We all met yesterday, and I had a musical rehearsal with my Hansel and my Gretel, Sarah Larsen and Anya Matanovic. They're both great - a lot of fun, beautiful voices. I'm really looking forward to getting the chance to be on stage with them.
EM: I'm looking forward to seeing you on stage with them. Let's talk about some of your other German repertoire. I've noticed that you've sung the title role in Zemlinsky's infrequently performed one-act opera, Der Zwerg. How did you come to that role, and what was it like to learn and to perform?
PM: We were doing it in Oper Frankfurt and the Intendant asked me if I thought it would be a good role for me. I jumped at the opportunity. It's a role I love. It has beauty, a tragic character - everything in it. I think it's a masterpiece opera that should be done more. I enjoyed doing it so much because it was a part of looking at yourself as a character, how we look at ourselves in life, how we sometimes always look at and only cherish the good sides, and wish that if only other people would only see those good sides we could live our lives and go on and everything would be okay. If somebody shows us how we truly are, that can sometimes tear us apart if we haven't done that introspection. The chance to do that role was wonderful. Luckily I've been able to do it two other times, in Bremen and Seville. It's one of my favorite roles to sing, very challenging vocally and dramatically. I love doing that sort of thing on stage when you can combine all the aspects of the stage life. It's one of the things I enjoy most.
EM: How did audiences react to this grim story in those two very different cities?
PM: I think audiences in Germany tend to see the style of music a lot more. In Frankfurt we perform around 20 productions a season. There are usually 11-12 premieres, and the others are revivals, modern music and others. Zemlinsky for the German audience is actually fairly normal because it's colors and styles of Mahler, music they know. Also the story isn't really that strange because a lot of people know it from the Oscar Wilde short story (The Birthday of the Infanta) on which it's based. Other audiences might not be familiar with it, but this type of story is not new for audiences in Germany as I think it may be, for instance, in the States. In the productions I've done the audience has really enjoyed and reacted positively, in seeing this tragic figure played out. In some ways I find similarities with Pagliacci as far as the character goes. Pagliacci is probably a little meaner but he isn't loved because of his appearance or other things and has been cast off by the person he loves for somebody else. So there's similarity as far as that goes.
EM: That's a great parallel. As regards contemporary operas, there are a number of others in your repertoire: works by Bloch, Henze, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, many grim plot lines. Do you feel a special affinity for recent works?
PM: It depends on the production, how it's staged and the piece itself. At times I enjoy doing modern music because sometimes a character is a little deeper than say, Tamino, where you pick up a picture and say, "Oh my God, I'm in love, isn't this wonderful," and that's about it. In modern works you can get into real people, try to play different characters and different sides. I enjoy that especially from the acting side. You don't always get that with the traditional style of opera stories. For the most part it tends to be more of a 20th-21st century thing. Sometimes I've done modern pieces that I think at the end, "That piece doesn't need to ever be done again." But I enjoy the fact that a lot of places are trying to keep modern works alive, because you never know when you'll have the next masterpiece. If we stop doing that it would really be tragic.
EM: In my interview with Jake Heggie (/dallas/article/BWW-Interview-Jake-Heggie-Part-2-Opera-Now-and-in-the-Future-20151023), he talked about how it's not always easy to bring new operas to the stage but even more difficult to make sure they're performed after the premiere. Jake felt that contemporary opera in America is experiencing a resurgence. Perhaps audiences in Germany might be a bit more open to contemporary works?
PM: I think there's a little more tradition there with contemporary works. Because a lot of theatres are state funded, they can take more chances with it - if it's done well and you have very good leadership in companies that know how to balance out how much you can try and can risk. I can only imagine how difficult it must be, balancing the financial and artistic sides. It's an incredible task. I'm just amazed by how people can do that, handle all different sides of it. I would have no clue [Laughs]. From what I've seen so far here in Seattle they do a very good job of it. I've really enjoyed my few days being here.
EM: The excitement about opera in the city is amazing, and Seattle Opera does a wonderful job of outreach, not only with older audiences but for kids - they're the audience, after all. Hansel was one of my favorite operas when I played at the Met. It's so affecting emotionally, and so much fun to play. Can you draw any parallels between the dwarf in Der Zwerg and the Witch in Hansel?
PM: Musically you can always find parallels. What Humperdinck did with the score of Hansel und Gretel affected so much of the next generation of composers. Zemlinsky looked at that, as well as Richard Strauss and Mahler. Humperdinck used a lot of Wagner but you find a lot of other things that are almost quoted or the same ideas are used. Ariadne auf Naxos or later Strauss works, for example. Hansel was one of the most popular operas of the time. I'm sure Zemlinsky must have heard the music. The score must have affected how he did things. As far as the characters go, between Der Zwerg and the Hexe, I'm not sure how much is the same. You do use a completely different technique when you're singing them. The Hexe is almost completely character style, where you're going for different colors and it's not necessarily just about the singing. How you sing it is important but it's not the long lines, where in Der Zwerg it's almost a young heldentenor style, where you have to keep the long lines pulling through and the colors in the voice - you really have to stay on the voice without doing silly sounds that might add to the witch's character. But the characters are not the same. With Der Zwerg you're really in your own world, dreaming of being in the other world, being like other people. The Witch is in her own world, but the only thing she wants from the rest of the world is a little food.
EM: Or a lot of food.
PM: And she's more about having her own things, where the Zwerg is trying to be a part of something that he's not. So in the styles of music you could see a lot of similarities between the two, but not in the characters.
EM: Do you have a wish list for other roles in the future?
PM: I would like to sing more Strauss repertoire, a Bacchus, the Emperor in Frau ohne Schatten. Maybe in another 10 years to do a Walther von Stolzing (Die Meistersinger). We'll see how the voice develops, but that would be a lot of fun.
EM: Let's hope we'll be able to see you in all of those. I'm certainly looking forward to your performance in Hansel and Gretel. Thank you so much, Peter, for your insights.
PM: Thank you so much, Erica.
Hansel and Gretel runs at Seattle Opera from Oct. 15 through 30 at McCaw Hall (https://seattleopera.org/on-stage/hansel-and-gretel/).
Photo credits: courtesy of the artist; Bill Cooper, Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.