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Interviews

Brian Hymel
26 Feb 2012

Bryan Hymel, Rusalka’s Prince

New Orleans native Bryan Hymel is singing the role of The Prince in Antonin Dvořák's Rusalka at the Royal Opera House, London.

Brian Hymel, Rusalka’s Foreign Prince

By Anne Ozorio

Above: Brian Hymel

 

“It’s a role that’s been good to me,” he says. He made his European debut in the role at Wexford Festival Opera in 2007. After an extended period working in Europe, it brought him back to the United States where he performed it with the Boston Lyric Opera three seasons ago. Now he’s singing the Prince again at the Royal Opera House. This is high profile, since it is the first ever full staging of the opera. Previously, it was heard only in concert performance.

This Royal Opera House Rusalka will be conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making his long-awaited debut at Covent Garden. Hymel is thrilled. “Yannick is a singer himself, he grew up in the choral tradition and was chorus master in Montréal before he made his name conducting. He’s just as at home with singers as he is with the orchestra”. Some conductors leave acting to the director,. “But Yannick understands. For him, the music is so important that he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of it.” In this production, the Foreign Prince is characterized as childish and nervous, which is valid. “But Yannick said to me, don’t let it get into your body. You know you can sing it, so you owe it to yourself to sing it well”. Hymel beams. “Few conductors have that spark of inspiration. I love it that he stands up for you as a singer, and is on the side of the music”.

This production is directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, and premiered in Salzburg. “Modern productions can be fine”, says Hymel, “but this one is very physical. It’s not easy on the body, It’s tricky to sing lying on your back, and there’s a lot of rolling about. You get beat up and knocked around, but you still have to sing beautifully”.

Rusalka is a very dark story. Dvořák really wanted to delve the depths and shadowy aspects. Lots of low brass and ominous music that probe beyond a fairy tale”. Rusalki are water spirits, exquisitely alluring. but not wholesome. “Rusalka’s own music is so sweet that you can’t help falling in love with her. Here she has a little fish tail.” Hymel smiles and “acts” Rusalka’s movements, “So sweet and innocent. But Rusalki in general? Stay away!”

What drew Hymel to The Foreign Prince? “The music, of course. Wexford was my opportunity to get to know it well. I’d sung German and Russian, but singing in Czech was a bit intimidating. No Czech coach in Philadelphia, where I was studying then, and the coach I located in New York was flying all round the world. So I found a score with the text partly transliterated and listened to the Ben Heppner recording, while getting my mouth round those diacritics. Now Czech comes easily to Hymel, who also sings Janáček.

The Prince’s music is really very beautiful. In this production, the Prince gets a chance to be a romantic hero at the end of the First Act, but after that characterwise, things go downhill. He gets frustrated which you can understand because Rusalka cannot speak or communicate, but the way he drops her is cruel. Yet he’s not that childish, and in the end he takes responsibility for his previous impatience. He asks for that last kiss knowing that it will kill him. There won’t be any Happily Ever After. Psychologically, it’s very deep”.

Hymel has an affinity for lyrical roles like Enée in Berlioz Les Troyennes, which he sang with The Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. “Enée sits a half, even a full step higher than the Foreign Prince. It’s deceptive because it goes from A natural and A flat, and then in the last scene, after you’ve been singing your voice out, there’s a high C, not an easy C because of where it lies, and was written for a specific type of voice we don’t often hear these days”

Gounod Faust is another favorite.”The range is fantastic. Last summer I sang ten performances at the Santa Fe Opera conducted by Frederic Chaslin and directed by Stephen Lawless. The part is high, but with weight and you have to sing Faust as an old man and then young again with wonderful lines in the arias and duets.” Hymel is singing Faust again in Baltimore in April.

Don José in Bizet’s Carmen holds several special memories. When Hymel sang it at the Royal Opera House in 2010, he met the Greek soprano Irini Kyriakidou, a colleague of Aris Agiris, the Escamillo. They married and make a lovely couple. She’s recently made her Royal Opera House debut as Zerlina. Then, last year in Munich, when Hymel was singing in Nabucco, Jonas Kaufmann cancelled Don José at the last moment and Hymel stepped in. “It was fun but daunting. I heard the Intendant go in front of the curtain and make the announcement that Jonas would not be there. The audience started shouting and there I was, thinking, Oh gosh, this is Jonas’s home town and I have to face that crowd! But they were appreciative, and I was relieved”.

“I think there could be a renaissance in French grand opera, just like there was a renaissance in Rossini ten years or so ago, when it had been basically Il Barbiere de Seviglia.When singers like Juan Diego Flores and Lawrence Brownlee who can sing them properly, we can hear why the operas were good in the first place. There are all these wonderful operas like Benevenuto Cellini and Les Huguenots. What a great time it must have been them, with composers writing for so many different voice types. Nowadays, we’re “Italian heavy” as Hymel puts it, but there’s so much more to the tenor range,

“They say that between age 30 and 35 the voice is in transition”, says Hymel, who is 32, “And I can really feel it filling out in a good way. It’s not like when you’re 13 and it drops overnight It’s a gradual process. The more music I do, the more it stretches me. I had to sing La Traviata in Houston when the Alfredo pulled out. After the Prince and Faust, “Libiamo, Libiamo” was different. But it’s good. It’s like when you go to the gym, you don’t do the same exercise all the time because your body needs to adapt. Ultimately, that’s what makes you stronger”. Rusalka runs for six performances at the Royal Opera House from 27th February. Please see the Royal Opera House website for more.

Anne Ozorio

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