Vocalist David Steffens: Every performance is different – you can’t step in the same river twice

Today Bavarian vocalist David Steffens is enjoying his busy summer in Salzburg – a place where he also spent his student years. This time he is a part of Salzburg Festival, performing in three productions total and therefore visiting the stage of the Salzburg Festspiele almost daily. David Steffens started performing in this festival at the year 2012 when he was selected to participate in the Young Singers Project, but his main career path lays in the opera ensembles in Germany –  Stadttheater Klagenfurt and Württembergisches Staatstheater Stuttgart. He had also performed in such opera stages, as Teatro Real Madrid, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, the Volksoper Vienna, the Opéra national de Lyon, etc. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė conducts an interview with the singer in which David Steffens shares his thoughts on this year’s Salzburg Festival, handling three roles at the same time and the process of bringing the music to life.

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You are performing three different roles in this years Salzburg Festival. How do you manage?

Well, it is a great pleasure to be in so many performances. I think it is all in all forty in the summer festival. Originally I was only invited here for Oedipe and Salome and the Idomeneo role came up just a few days before the dress rehearsal. I had to replace another singer, this situation was quite exciting I must say. It was the first time that I worked with the conductor Theodor Currentzis and I think we got each other quite well. He was very clear and it is very exciting to watch him conducting when you are a part of that. It feels great.

How does your experience differ from one production to the other – Idomeneo, Oedipe, Salome?

I think those are really different productions. Ingo Metzmacher has a very special style with the Oedipe. It is a very interesting work, because you, as a singer, can make a very reduced form of gestures that you are allowed, because of singing. And you never know how it would actually look from the outside. You just have to trust that everything comes together like a puzzle in the end. And you can never hear the final product. Of course, Salome is very well known for everybody from the last summer. I think Asmik Grigorian does an incredible job there. It is also a very mysterious staging, I think. You don’t really get any answers, you have to think about them yourself. It makes you think a lot, it raises a lot of questions and it is a really interesting point. It differs from other theater productions of today when you more or less know what you are being served. They suggest what you should see and think, the questions start on the stage, but in the end, it is up to the audience to make up their mind and find the answers.

How does it feel to perform the same production of “Salome” with the same people, at the same place after one year? Did you have similar experiences before?

I am a part of the vocal ensemble in Germany, Stuttgart. It is a part of a huge opera house with a big repertoire. So I am quite used to revisiting the repertoire pieces. But of course, you really have to find again what is the essence of the role and remember what the stage director wanted. And of course we have some changes this season as well – two of the Jews are new and other roles. So you still have a feeling of a fresh start here. You remember what you did last year, but you also reinvent the whole piece. Romeo Castellucci wanted to change some little details in this years Salome as well.

You had a short period of time to prepare your roles – only a few days for Idomeneo and a week for Salome. How does the process change when the time is limited?

In Idomeneo, I got the score ten minutes before the orchestras main rehearsal, in a break. That day earlier I had rehearsals for Oedipe actually. So I was already in the theater. I got the score that I didn’t know at all and then went on stage. When you have ten minutes to prepare, you just look at the score and have a short talk with the pianist, who tells a few details about the music – the phrasing, the style and how Currentzis want it to be. That’s it. Such performances are very energetic and adrenaline is very high. Afterwards, somebody asks – how did it go? And you just don’t know, because you are focusing so much on the presence and on what you are doing at the moment. You have no idea what is happening around you. These experiences can often be the best, I like and enjoy them a lot.

And for the preparation for Salome we had ten days. We started on Monday or Tuesday last week. It was ten rehearsals until the premiere. Of course, the Felsenreitschule hall in Salzburg is always taken by other performances, so the rehearsals there are very limited and we had different rehearsal spaces in town. It is actually incredible how they managed to squeeze the project of Salome in the schedule of festival and in the Felsenreitschule. Because at the beginning it wasn’t actually supposed to happen again this season. But thankfully they have found a solution. Ten days is enough time to revive things and we will see how it will sound in the premiere tonight.

Do you have any rituals before going to stage? Even today – isn’t is disturbing to make an interview a few hours before the premiere?

It also depends on the role – I don’t think I would be making an interview if I would have an important and complex performance later. Usually, before the concert, I try to have a relaxed day, maybe even a short nap in the afternoon and I try not to speak. I have a baby girl now and so I have to learn to adapt to my new circumstances.

When creating an opera production, how much of a creative-decisions power do you have as a performer?

It depends on the production. I would say we as singers definitely make creative decisions, but in the end, it all depends on the conductor. Maybe they come with a certain picture in mind or maybe they just want to develop things on the way. Sometimes a conductor asks you to create the world from the within of yourself – this I understand as the essence of the creative process, without which the production wouldn’t have any meaning. Other directors are interested in the big picture that you can’t see yourself as a performer. Then you just have to trust these people – of course, they thought a lot about this production and they know clearly what they want. At a certain level in every situation, you have to go with the flow. You have to listen to the director before you share your experience and suggest what you have learned by performing this role in previous productions.  The same with music – sometimes you have a conductor that has very specific ideas about phrasing or about special tempo. You should always try to find a way to cope with that. If he has his reasons – try it out and if something is not possible, then you have to find a new creative solution. I do a lot of artistic things in order to make it easier for voice and vocal expression. And in the end, I think we as a vocalist are definitely a part of the creative process, to answer your question. But it is definitely not the situation when you come and perform whatever you want. It is always a dialogue with the director.

And how do you start to work with the new music material?

For me, the most important thing is to read a libretto. I always read it just to get an idea about the text, the story, the character. I translate it word by word and try to understand the language because most composers really think through the meaning of the words. It is also a crucial part for me to understand it right. After that, I take the score, sit at the piano and try to get an idea about the composition myself. And when I have a rough sketch in my head about how the role should go, I bring it to the coach. Then you have to memorize and bring music to life, but it comes later. If I have a bigger role, I try to have a year before the premiere, so that I could take my time and the whole process grows very slowly like a plant.

Do you look at the other interpretations of the roles?

Yes, you shouldn’t try to close your ears to the good things that happened before, but at the same time, you shouldn’t copy anyone. When I first have an idea about what I would like to make, I just listen to other recordings to get new ideas about score or special phrases. It is always very inspiring.

Could you share a little bit about your ideas or concepts of these roles that you are performing at the festival?

Well the High Priest in Oedipe – when I first got the score, I didn’t know the piece at all. I just wanted to listen to it, because it sounded so strange. I fell in love with the score the first time I have heard it. The high priest has a lot of action in the first act where he leads a ceremony of Oedipe birth, when he is greeted by the citizens of Theben. And then the Tiresias comes with a warning. Very stirred serious character, who is concentrating on his ritual. And I like the music very much. Funnily enough, the part I play in Idomeneo is also called the high priest, so there I give the warning that we are the children of the destined and we shouldn’t be fighting against the gods. So he is a serious messenger as well. And the fifth jew in Salome is a part of Jews quintet that is a very famous piece by R. Strauss. There we work on the character of each of the Jews. They all have different ideas about the situation. Some people are fighting and are contradicting about things, but my character – the fifth jew – is the mystic one. He says “well, you really don’t know how things are. Maybe what we think is good is bad, and what we think is bad is good.” So I perform more of a mystic part in this all situation.

How does the process differ when you prepare short and big roles?

Of course, you have to take seriously both of them. No main roles can exist on stage without the small characters and the relations with them. Sure, people don’t come to Salome to listen to the fifth jew, but you are still the part of the whole picture. These little roles have their importance and you have to study them very carefully. In the end, you often have more stress with smaller roles than the bigger ones. Every time you are on stage, you want to do your best. But when you are the main role and some detail goes wrong, you still have around an hour to change the public impression of you. You can also develop the character – where is he at the start, what changes the character is going through, where he ends up. There is a psychological process, which you can show to the audiences. And with the small roles, you have one chance to do it right – at the right time, at the right place. Every mistake will be taken in count. And a lot of people really fail to perform on the point because of the nerves. A lot of old singers actually say that you need experienced vocalists for the smaller parts so that they would not mess things up.

In the end, I think that the preparation of the singing itself while rehearsing on stage, is quite the same with long and short roles. You still have to warm up properly and you need to have a certain level of energy. Actually, after singing a small role – like, for instance, a fifth Jew in the Salome – you still feel like you gave everything you had and you are tired with a reason.

I have heard that Richard Strauss is one of your favorite composers. What fascinates you in his music?

Every single piece of his has its own state, but then when you hear any of them, you just immediately know that this is Strauss. And I think he is one of the few composers in the XX century, who really wrote music for the voice. He also really cared a lot of how the voice fits with the orchestra. Because the orchestras that are used in Strauss music can be quite big and he knows exactly how to orchestrate certain passages so the singers would have a chance to get over the orchestra. Also, he always worked with the best playwrights of his time. It is just the great artistry that he had. Der Rosenkavalier is my personal favorite piece of his.

I think my favorite to perform its romantic repertoire – Strauss, and Wagner. Right now I am going to sing Lohengrin, which is also one of my favorite pieces I must say. This kind of music style is very close to my heart.

Is it more complicated to perform the XX century music?

While performing R. Strauss, for instance, you need a good coach who can really show you the harmonic structure of the whole piece. At the end you are just singing the line and maybe it’s good for the beginning, but you have to understand the bigger concept and the structure of the Strauss music. In this harmonic sense, his music, funnily enough, is closely connected to Bach. Of course, Strauss need more expansion in the voice and tone, but in the end, you still need to think harmonically. Then you have fewer problems with the intonation because you feel very secure about what you are singing. And it takes time to really learn it. Also, the quintet in the opera is extremely complicated and you need to be secure in what you are doing, in order not to crush the whole piece.

How do you choose the repertoire for the solo or ensemble concerts?

I like performing at concerts, being a part of the ensemble and being busy with the theater. There are always so many new roles that there is not so much free time left for solo concerts. But I hope that somehow over the next years I will also be able to do more, because I love the Lied. I have made some performances in Stuttgart already – at the opera house we have some concert series where you can perform chamber music. I like this kind of style, where you can narrate the story while creating your own microcosm for a few minutes.

When I choose the repertoire, first I try to find the general idea – maybe I like to do a certain piece and then to arrange the group around these pieces. You try to find if there is anything else in this style that a composer had written or something that would complement or even contrast the music. Then you have to arrange them harmonically and look so that pieces would be compatible with each other. It is a great joy to just sit there with ten scores and to just browse through the music and see what you can do.

I also want to ask about Salzburg, because you were studying here in Mozarteum and you also work here a lot. I wanted to know what is your take on the musical scene of the city?

Well, I think it is a city with less than 200 thousand people living here and regarding this comparably small size of this town, it is just immense how much culture is going on. Salzburg festival in the summer is a huge attraction, a lot of people wants to go there, but the musical events here are great all year long. In winter you have Mozart week festival in Mozarteum, where I also performed few years ago. Then you have the Easter festival, which is one of the most prestigious festivals in the world, also a midsummer festival and so on. The whole year there is something important going on in this town. And the local organizations – the Mozarteum orchestra, Landestheater, etc. – all of the cultural infrastructure is very well made. I really enjoyed that in my study years, when I didn’t have to go anywhere –  sooner or later all the most important performers of our time would come to perform in this little town. I think it is amazing how it developed. I really hope that the cultural life goes on like this.

Are there any values in a musical performance that were grown into you during the years of study in Mozarteum? By your teachers maybe?

I studied in the class of a Romanian teacher – soprano Horiana Branisteanu. Actually I never had another teacher. Of course, I did master classes and I had good couches, but in the end, I think I really owe her almost everything. I am still open to new influences and new experiences, but she gave me a system for vocal technique. I know how to handle your instrument in a general way and that is quite important for singers. I studied Lied here with Wolfgang Holzmair and he really thought me how to have a closer look at the music. Then of course in the opera class, we had a big focus on Mozart, which is very good for young singers. You learn to understand Mozart’s phrasing, which is one of the most complicated. I really feel, that in performing Mozart, once you push a little bit too much, or you are a little bit too low – then the phrase is ruined. You have to be really cultivated every detail with your instrument in order to really achieve mastery in the phrasing. It was a really good time for me here. I am really happy for the opportunity to study in Salzburg.

Do you look  for a connection with the characters or their experiences when you perform?

Of course, because I think that if you can’t manage to find a connection to the character, you shouldn’t try to perform it. In the end, opera is also a musical theater and it’s all about the emotions. Somehow it is easier for the singers to the right emotion. We don’t have to look for it – the composer actually had already created the subtext in his music. All you have to do is to manage that the emotion comes out in you at the right moment. You need to forget about the music and dare to express the inner experience. At the same time you need to keep your technical awareness, so you need to find a balance. You can’t scream, you still need to incorporate it in your singing.

You are also from Germany, where you still work. Maybe you could compare Austrian and German music traditions?

I come from Bavaria, so I am very close to the border with Austria. The systems in these countries are similar. They both still have the tradition of stable singers crew in the theater, who perform all the repertoire. There are lands with many small and bigger opera houses, where the singers can grow up and develop. I would rather compare this cultural landscape together with maybe France or Italy, where there also are a lot of theaters, but there are no constant ensembles in the theaters. They hire fresh for every single product and looking for people that could fit the roles the best. I think this kind of German and Austrian musical theater tradition gives you the chance to really start of the smaller roles and when people get to know you better, you sing something more serious. After some years you can end up in the solo league and perform main roles. You grow up in this system, which gives you an opportunity to take your chances and expand your repertoire. When you perform as a guest, you sing the same roles you did somewhere else, because then they know that you can really do it. Then it is more difficult to broaden your repertoire. Both countries care a lot about music. Maybe it is more obvious in Austria. You go in the streets of Vienna and music almost feels in the air. When you listen to people on the streets, at some point you will start hearing them talking about the opera theater or Musikverein. All people are discussing music themes. In Germany, it doesn’t happen that easily. I think this is a great quality of the country. There are a lot of allegations that this kind of culture is too elite, but I do not agree with them. In Austria, a lot of public really enjoys classical music.

Do you have people in your field that are examples for you?

Yes, of course. There are many of them. Now Christopher Maltman in Oedipe. You know how many roles he has performed, where he has performed, how long he has performed. It is amazing. I find it very inspiring to listen to people like that and to hear their story. How they got there, what they did. And you also can learn a lot from them about singing.

Do you think about your impact on the listener?

The impact is a big word. Of course, you are happy when people feel touched after your performance and say that they liked it. I think it is an essential part of our jobs to grab the audience’s attention. And to convince them about what you are trying to tell and express. The audiences are attracted to people that are sincere about what they are doing on stage. When you are listening to people, you are always after the raw emotion. You shouldn’t think that much about how the audience is perceiving you – one director once said to me “you know, I always have the impression that you watch yourself from the outside and you try to be the best you can.” It is important to get rid of that because it creates a glass wall between you and the audience. I thought quite a lot about that and I do agree with that.

Does singing bring strong inner experiences for you?

Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t do the job. When you perform it is a different thing because you are in the character and it is not you, who has to be touched by the character, but you have to touch the audiences. It is very mysterious  – you are walking on the edge of a line. You don’t want to get drowned into your own emotions, but you want the audiences to have the emotions for you. That is actually the point of the performance. Also, there are moments from time to time when you are just so happy to be a part of the whole thing. I still remember sitting on the stage, listening to the bases and I was so happy to be there and witness such kind of music happening here and now. It is a huge gift to perform this kind of repertoire and to be a part of the whole thing.

Thank you very much for the conversation!

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