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Commentary

Michael Volle [Photo by Anne Kirchbach]
24 May 2009

Michael Volle’s intriguing Dr Schön, in the Royal Opera House’s new Lulu.

There’s a buzz about the new Lulu at the Royal Opera House, spreading by word of mouth from those who’ve heard it being prepared. Berg’s opera hasn’t been heard at Covent Garden for 30 years, though there was an acclaimed production at Glyndebourne in 1996 with Christine Schäfer as Lulu.

Michael Volle’s intriguing Dr Schön, in the Royal Opera House’s new Lulu.

Above: Michael Volle [Photo by Anne Kirchbach]

 

Michael Volle is singing Dr Schön in the new production. The role is critical, for Dr Schön has known Lulu most of her life. He rescued her from the streets and is a kind of father figure with whom she is obsessed. Yet, once she has him, he’s destroyed. “This music is difficult the first time you hear it”, says Volle, “but after these rehearsals, I’ve discovered its beauty”. Volle is extremely experienced, but this is the first time he’s created the role. “I knew it would be interesting to do it with Christof Loy”, he adds. He’s worked with Loy before. In 2008, he sang Pentheus in Hans Werner Henze’s monumental Die Bassariden, directed by Loy, in Munich.

“It was marvellous”, he adds. “I knew he would not do anything conventional but that he would try and get into the characters and find the key to their personality”. Loy’s does this by working closely with the singers from the start. “We talk a lot about the role. He tells you his thoughts about the background and what he imagines the character is like and then you have to find a away to express it. He is one of those directors who knows and loves the music so well that he can make it easy for a singer to find his way into a character. He doesn’t try anything artificial you can’t understand. It’s more like putting flesh and bones on the score”.

Dr Schön is a mighty business magnate. He seems so solid and secure, yet inside there’s something vulnerable. He ends up humiliated by Lulu, who kills him. “All over the world, there are men who have power in society like this. But they aren’t fulfilled if they don’t have something in their private lives that keeps them strong. Dr Schön doesn’t have that, so he’s vulnerable”. Ironically, he might have escaped Lulu if he hadn’t spared her from being arrested for stealing from him when she was a child. It was he who arranged for her to marry the wealthy Dr Goll, and he who made the Painter rich by buying his paintings.

“There are productions where there are a lot of sexual things on stage”, says Volle, implying that Dr Schön’s motives are simply erotic, for men (and women) lust after Lulu. But in this production, it’s more complex. “Only one kiss”, says Vollle, and a few bits of touching. There’s no need to show nudity and violence. It’s shocking how much violence there is in it anyway”. Suicide, murder, implied paedophilia, and Lulu seducing Alwa on the very sofa his father bled to death upon, all easy subjects to play up to scandalize an audience. Yet Loy’s approach is not sensational for sensation’s sake. “What I like about Loy’s work is that he does not do Yellow Press”.

“It’s very tragic. Terrible things have happened to Lulu in the past, and it’s affected her so she can’t trust anyone, or be content”, says Volle, explaining the psychology behind this production. “She must always destroy the happiness of others ”. Lulu wrecks Dr Schön’s engagement but she’s unhappy when she marries him herself. “She loses interest because she doesn’t have to fight for attention anymore. In this production that tragedy is made very clear. There are lines which show Lulu does have feelings for Dr Schön, but she’s damaged, and hurts others because she’s been hurt so much herself”.

Volle is also happy with the Royal Opera House production because it’s being developed so closely with the conductor, Antonio Pappano. “He is a gift”, says Volle, “He was there at the first rehearsal, and he knows the piece inside and out. He gives so much input and ideas about the music”. With Berg, details count. “The more you hear in it, the more you discover”, says Volle. This is significant, as Volle knows Berg’s idiom well, having sung the title role in Wozzeck.

“Tony says Lulu is closely connected to Vienna. There are so many dances, waltzes, gavottes, which might not be obvious at first, but you can hear wonderful things in it, even in the piano rehearsals”. With full orchestra, it should be impressive, given Pappano’s affinity with the opera.

This Lulu will be performed in the three act version, completed by Friedrich Cerha in 1979. The deceased Dr Schön returns as Jack the Ripper and kills Lulu when she, in her turn has been humiliated and reduced to prostitution. It creates symmetry in the drama, but it’s frustrating to sing after a break of 2½ hours after Dr Schön’s death. “When I get going, I want to keep singing”, says Volle. “It’s a bit like Amfortas in Parsifal”, which Volle sang with Haitink conducting, when he was at Zurich Opera, “but the character is very different”.

This new production is interesting because it has insights on how Lulu came to be who she was, and on the way people react to her. Dr Schön can’t stand up to her because he doesn’t have an anchor in his own past. Michael Volle’s background is rooted in solid values. His father was a pastor, his family was large and close. They were poor but that wasn’t necessarily a disadvantage. When people make a lot of money easily, the temptation is to live unwisely, but from his childhood, Volle learned the true meaning of the motto “less is more”.

So much opera is about creating convincing roles with depth of character, so having good basic values helps professionally, too. “I feel that the more I have with me inside, the more I can give. There is more to singing than just technique. It’s nice to do technically difficult singing, but for me, there has to be more expression, more depth”.

Volle grew up singing Bach, Schütz and Handel. “I must have Bach in my life”, he says, “I love every Passion, and cantatas, oratorios, even chamber music with no singing involved. It’s my lifeblood, I need it”. It is not about religion as an institution, but an expression of a more fundamental spirituality. “Bach is not a composer like any others”, says Volle. “Like Mozart, he creates something wonderful you can’t describe, like clean, open skies, like Paradise. “Everyone has different tastes, of course, but for me there is more in the last wonderful moments of Le Nozze di Figaro, or a few passages from Bach, than in whole works of other kinds. I will go on singing Bach to the end of my singing days, it’s so healthy”.

“You must engage with Lulu, you cannot only sit and lean back” , he says of the new production at the Royal Opera House. The cast is particularly strong. Lulu is Agneta Eichenholz, who has worked with Christof Loy before : word has it that she’s very good. This Lulu is psychologically intense, and sometimes, as Volle puts it “if you get too close to a part there are inner strings which get put into motion”. Volle has sung a lot of material like Wagner, and demanding roles like Don Giovanni and Graf Tamare in Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten (in the superb production from Salzburg), but given his background, he’s mature enough to create a good Dr Schön without having to “be” him. “There’s definitely not, I hope any Jack the Ripper in me”!

Anne Ozorio

Lulu runs at the Royal Opera House, London from June 4th to 20th 2009. The cast includes Agneta Eichenholz as Lulu, Michael Volle as Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper, Jennifer Larmore as Countesss Geschwitz, Klaus Florian Vogt as Alwa, Gwynne Howell as Schigolch, Philip Langridge as The Prince/Manservant/Marquis, Peter Rose as Animal Trainer/Rodrigo, Heather Shipp as Dresser/Gymnast/Groom, Frances McCafferty as Mother and Will Hartmann as Painter/Negro. Christof Loy directs, and Antonio Pappano conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra.

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