Bass ERIC HALFVARSON
By Bruce Duffie
After a number of years doing leading bass roles in the U.S. and Europe, Eric Halfvarson is making his move to even wider fame. Known for Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier and Sarastro in The Magic Flute, he has recently been turning up in major productions of The Ring including the stagings at Bayreuth and Chicago.
Besides the many operas, Halfvarson makes time each season for some concerts including the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, the C Minor Mass of Mozart, and recently the Mahler 8th with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He returns to the Windy City in September for the Opening Night Don Carlo.
It was in 1995 that Halfvarson was in Chicago for both Fafner in
and Don Basilio in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. During that
period, I had a chance to chat with him, and here is much of what was
Bruce Duffie: Do you like the life of a wandering singer?
Eric Halfvarson: Well, my God, that's a difficult question to start out with. Yes and no. For a long time, it was quite solitary, and I came to the conclusion that it would be more or less impossible to sustain a personal relationship the way I thought it ought to be done, and be an absentee partner. Then in 1990, I met my wife in Dallas and she convinced me that I was wrong. Now we travel together 90% of the time.
BD: If she can travel with you, that would be ideal.
EH: That was the original idea, but the economy makes it increasingly difficult. Basses, you might be interested in knowing, don't make the salary that leading tenors and sopranos make. So we make some adjustments.
BD: Should the bass be paid the same as the tenor and the soprano?
EH: I suppose not. It's impossible to imagine that Friar Laurence would get the same as Romeo and Juliet.
BD: But shouldn't Philip II get the same as Don Carlo and Elisabeth?
EH: In that particular opera, perhaps, and in some houses there is more of an equality being established. But the reality is that a certain few individuals make an enormous amount, and the rest of us are getting by. It's difficult.
BD: Now without getting into specifics, does the amount of payment depend on the length of the role?
EH: Oh yes, usually. Also the amount you've been spending on PR has something to do with it. But that's kind of a touchy subject.
* * * * *
BD: I want to talk mostly about vocal artistry. You are a bass and your voice dictates which roles you will sing. Are you pleased with these roles, or would you rather be the romantic lead?
EH: There's something about the character of a personality that goes (usually) right along appropriately with the voice-type. I enjoy being fathers and priests and bad guys, and occasionally funny guys. In my younger days, I did Mozart's Figaro a lot, and that's the only one I can think of offhand where the bass actually does get the girl. Nowadays I've been doing an awful lot of bad guys, particularly in Bayreuth where I do Hagen. He's one of my favorites because I get to kill both the tenor and the baritone! I feel a certain justice in that one. But it's been a great deal of fun to go back to my old friend Don Basilio here in Chicago. I hadn't sung him since '87, and I'm having a glorious time being very silly on the great stage.
BD: Is it very difficult to move from the declamatory style of Wagner to the recitative style of Rossini?
EH: Yes. It's been an interesting combination because the schedule has been quite tight. Doing two shows together is hard anyway. I'm an American singer, so I can sing in five languages, but in recent years I've had a lot of success in German parts. I've done three or four of the Strauss characters, and almost all of the big Wagner bass guys, and so a lot of people have begun to type-cast me into that particular repertoire. I'm delighted to sing in Italian because when I was growing up, my ideal was to be an Italianate basso cantante and do Philip II, Guardiano, Zaccaria and all those lovely singing parts in the Verdi repertoire. Until this season, I hadn't sung in Italian for more than two years. Recently I did Sparafucile at the Met, and now the Basilio, so it was a bit of an adjustment to go into the Italian language, and the pitter-patter of Rossini. Of course, that's not such a challenge as Basilio. Bartolo has all the famous patter. Basilio is still considered part of the "serious bass" fach. I'm having a good time.
BD: We've talked a bit about style. Do you adjust your vocal technique for the size of the house?
EH: I have a sense of acoustics in my own work. I'm a person who listens and I have a technique of understanding the acoustics of the particular situation and adjusting a little bit to it. That doesn't mean that I sing softer for a smaller house. Sometimes smaller houses have much drier acoustics and you have to work that much harder to make things clear. Chicago is one of the most frightening-looking houses of any that I've been in. There's that long, extended proscenium on both sides, and it's long and deep and high. From the point of view of the stage, it looks just like the Grand Canyon. Standing on the stage of the Met, even though there are a few more seats, it's not as intimidating because the balconies are a bit closer to you. But the acoustics here in Chicago are superb, so it's not necessary to work harder to try and fill up this place. If a voice is well-focused, you can do wonderful pianissimos that will sail through into the house. It's a marvelous acoustic. I'm from Aurora, which is a near-west suburb of Chicago, and when I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, I used to come here with a group every Friday, so I've heard quite a lot of operas here.
BD: Does that give you a sense of satisfaction to now be singing on that stage?
EH: I feel like I've been part of this family for a long time. As a student, I came up for the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air and won second place one year. They were very nice - sort of patted me on the head and told me to go home and grow up. It takes a bass longer than any other voice type to mature. I knew I'd eventually do Philip II, and started learning the aria at age 19, even though I knew I wouldn't do the role until age 35 or so. Now I'm 43 and well into the main stream. But it is a wonderful feeling to stand on this stage.
BD: Do you like being part of the international community of opera singers?
Halfvarson as Hunding in Die Walküre in Dallas
EH: Oh very much. It's a wonderful camaraderie. Its a relatively small family, especially when you get into the Wagnerians. There's only about 2 1/2 casts of the Ring in the world, and we kind of mix around the arrangements from one city to another, but generally you keep running into the same people all the time. It's a wonderful kind of warm and supportive atmosphere in our relationships and a rather nice consolation against our otherwise pretty solitary lives.
* * * * *
BD: Is there any competition amongst basses?
EH: Oh very little. For a long time, some of us have joked about the "Fraternal Order of Basses." There are so few of us around that generally there is enough work for everybody. All the basses I know are friends of mine. We communicate, but we hardly ever actually work together because there's usually only one basso in the cast.
BD: As I said before, your voice dictates the roles you will sing. When you're offered a role, how do you decide whether to say yes, or no, or perhaps later but not now?
EH: For the most part it's not a problem because the repertoire is set out for you and you become familiar with it over years. Only now am I getting to the last reaches of my life's work where I may question whether or not I will ever do Hans Sachs, for example. I've done Pogner, but there are a few dream parts that I've not had an opportunity to do. Boris is one, and I've not done Pimen. But I have a good knack for the Russian language. I've done Galitzky and Konchak in Prince Igor, I've done Gremin in Eugene Onegin several limes. It's nice to come in, sing the aria and leave, But I'm fascinated with repertoire. I'd like to do more recital work and get into the Michelangelo Songs of Shostakovich. So I will pursue that into the next decade.
BD: How do you divide your career between concerts and operas?
EH: Presently I'm doing mostly opera. Recitals are something new I'm going to try and bring in during the next few years as time is available. The roles get bigger and harder. I'm working now on Gurnemanz which is perfect for me and feels wonderful. I just need an opportunity that is set far enough in advance that I will be sure to have finished learning the part by then. I've turned it down about four times already because I just haven't had the time to finish it. Then I'll be happy having done just about everything I can do.
BD: Is there something special about how Wagner wrote for the voice in general and the bass voice in particular?
Halfvarson (center) as King Henry in Lohengrin at the Met
with Deborah Voigt, Deborah Polaski and Ben Heppner
EH: It's very Italianate like the basso cantante actually, particularly in these parts like Gurnemanz. It's like a voice lesson. Wagner was very wise about how he wrote for the voice. It's absolutely beautiful to sing. He created a lower version of the "Verdi Baritone" called the "German Bass-Baritone" and it's really difficult to find the right voice for it. Wotan and the Wanderer are the main examples. Some have suggested that I learn those parts, and that's where it becomes a hard call. I have to try some of it and see how it feels under difficult conditions. The high notes are there, but it's a matter of tessitura - the amount of time during a piece that you spend up there. Wotan in Die Walküre has almost as big a range as Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. It doesn't go quite as low as Ochs, but in the monologue it is at the bottom of the range and sometimes baritones have trouble with it.
As Ochs (left) with Renée Fleming and Susanne Mentzer in Houston
BD: Maybe sing the "Farewell" on a few concerts first to see how it goes.
EH: Oh to have a few concert opportunities. Presently there aren't that many. The business is leaning more towards opera. Without a big recording career - which I have not had launched as yet - there is not a lot of demand. It's all about marketing and advertising.
BD: Well, how can you be sure to keep the artistry among the marketing and P.R.?
EH: That's an interesting question and you might pose it to some of the singers who are "chosen." It's a mystery to me how that happens. I have seen some rise up in a flame of glory and then burn out. It's unfortunate that they get pushed much too hard by the recording industry and then get more demands for live concerts and so on. In the last few years, it seems to be happening to younger and younger artists as the marketing systems seems to choose the cult of young. And it helps if they are photogenic. One has to worry that individuals take care along the way.
BD: Well, what advice do you have for audiences who come to hear names they know well from recordings, and then also hear names that are much less familiar?
EH: To be cynical about it, the audience must try to resist marketing and advertising. Seriously, you've got to go and hear live performances. Get away from your stereo sets. Put your CDs away. Go to the live theater where there is no microphone nor voice-enhancement system. You must understand that a live performance involves a lot of peculiar idiosyncrasies of that particular time. It's a moment of history that is absolutely unrepeatable. Going into a theater should be like going into a church - you're going to honor the artform and participate with the performer in an exchange of energy. It's as important to the performer to have your presence there as vice versa. You will be enlivened by something. Sometimes it will be imperfect, but that's the nature of the processes of life. A live performance hasn't been edited in a room with computers and sound boards. In a concert, the oboe soloist doesn't step out of the orchestra and into your living room to play right in your ear, and then move back. In my opinion, recordings have gone overboard in being over-produced, and I hope we can cycle back around toward the notion of recordings sounding more like live theater. The listener should have an idea of what the music sounds like in a very good room with a bit of reverberation of the voice that's designed to be heard in an acoustic situation, not as though your ear was next to the microphone less than a foot from their mouth. As I said earlier, I use the acoustics to my advantage and work with the sound in the hall. I don't want someone right next to me listening from one foot away. I boom out a wide sound that goes out of my chest like a blanket and fills up the auditorium, and the desired effect isn't really achieved until it's way out in the middle of the space somewhere.
BD: So you plant it in row Z rather than in row B.
EH: Exactly. And it mixes with the sound from the orchestra which is out some distance from the stage.
BD: Your voice is particularly large, and seems, in fact, to be larger than the others on the stage.
EH: That's one reason I'm particularly sensitive to the recording industry which seems to strive for the driest possible sound with absolutely no reverberation at all. To the engineers, that's distortion, and I have to quarrel with guys who use oscilloscopes and graphs and flow charts to evaluate artistic sound.
* * * * *
BD: I often ask about the purpose of opera, so let me ask you that and follow it with how that purpose is changing through the years.
EH: The purpose of opera is what it always was - a form of theatrical entertainment that ultimately combines several art forms into one. It hasn't changed, but it's getting more complicated as we do modern pieces with modern instrumentation and even electronic music. We do multimedia presentations that involve even more art forms all together in one statement. Opera is an art form that is alive and well and thriving and growing. It continues to exist, and as it changes, the type of singing that I do (acoustic as opposed to electronic) can become problematic particularly when it combines, in the same performance, elements that are strictly acoustical and elements that are magnified electronically. It usually doesn't work very well unless you take the time to work out balances. I'm amazed at what seems to be sort of a naïve attitude on the part of managements and companies about doing new composers' works that involve this problem. They should work from the very beginning to try and solve to the composers' satisfaction the right balance of recorded sound portion vs. the acoustical component. I was involved in a Tosca on the West Coast - a vintage Ponnelle production where the audience is actually looking at the back of an altar that's on the front of the stage so you saw the chapel on into the stage. In the Te Deum that ended the first act, the chorus was rather far up into the stage, and they weren't projecting as well as the conductor wanted, so he had them amplified along with the gigantically amplified pretend pipe organ. There were three or four speakers hanging in the air way upstage and each was as big as two refrigerators together. There were also sound effects of cannons as well. Three huge elements, all amplified, and the Scarpia was down on the front of the stage without any microphone opening his mouth in time to the music. I'm afraid that was not successful. There are increasing technological problems to be overcome. If a person wants to write an acoustical form of music to be sung in a classical manner by voices which are trained and designed to be heard without microphones, they should leave it that way.
BD: Well, are you optimistic about the whole future of opera?
EH: Oh very much so. There's a lot of exciting things going on. There's a lot of opera in this country. We need continued support. I'm concerned about the general political trend that denigrates the whole notion of a National Endowment for the Arts.
BD: Is the performance practice that you aspire to for everyone?
EH: I don't say that, by no means. It shouldn't be expected to be. However, the nature of culture needs to be supported. The nature of artistic expression in various different means needs to be supported outside of the necessities of the marketing system. I feel, in fact, that we're in trouble in this country as it's harder and harder for pure arts to exist. Arts that we are fed are generally tightly controlled and watered-down and simplified by the exigencies of the marketing and advertising industry. Why do we give all of our power away to those people who say, "Gee, we'll never lose our core audience, but we're really concerned about building new audience." You see this in radio - so as not to alienate the truckers driving into town, stations limit classical singing to five minutes per week, and that in the off hours. I've heard people say that there are studies to that effect. Here in Chicago, we're spoiled with the two stations that broadcast full operas and many vocal excerpts throughout the schedule. There are many other cities which are hurting - particularly New York City right now. I think it's a scandal. If I may stay on my soap box a bit more, the United States really should feel itself connected to the rich European history of the arts. We should not neglect our combined cultural ethnic histories, and that's a problem with the educational system right now. It's extremely important if we're to remain at least conversant with the rest of the people on this planet who are still deeply immersed in a cultural attitude that can encompass knowledge of philosophical and artistic history as well as the latest fashion-fad of how to make still a new noise out of an electric guitar. We've got to fight against that someway. I almost feel that this culture is too drawn into its narcissistic pursuit of how to spend the next dollar that it makes. We're actually in some trouble. We're developing some oddly based class structure culturally and artistically as well as economically that doesn't bode well for the democratic process. Then I observe the advertising process which is becoming more and more simplistic and almost insulting to the intelligent person's observations.
BD: So how should opera be marketed?
EH: I think it should be made available to everyone and that the educational system in this country needs to be supported so that people are aware of what opera is. I had a cab driver in New York who asked if I was a singer, where was my band? How could I sing without a microphone? He didn't have the slightest notion of what I was talking about. He'd never experienced it.
BD: Ignoring the range difference, couldn't you have said, "Like Pavarotti"?
EH: Pavarotti has actually made himself useful to the culture to have become as famous as he has. But there is so much about him that doesn't pertain to the rest of us or to the totality of the art form. I'm not saying that everyone should be able to go to Rigoletto and be able to hum the tunes on the way out, but there are times there to be remembered.
BD: Would it be feasible for you and two other basses to sing in Dodger Stadium as "The Three Basses?"
(As noted above, this interview took place in 1995!)
EH: I've often felt that some of us should get together and provide some sort of answer to the overwhelming wave of power that is projected by those three guys. I'm not sure what we could do, but we'd have a lot of fun trying.
* * * * *
BD: Are you at the point in your career that you expect to be at this age?
EH: Yes. I think so. Since I'm now singing the Ring at Bayreuth, that's a very prestigious position to be in.
BD: Do you like having the roar of the orchestra come up at you from under that hood?
EH: Oh it's fantastic, and it's not so intimidating as you might think. That's a good lesson in acoustics for everybody about when in the distance from the stage to listen to the sound: after it's all mixed together. I don't understand why anyone would want to sit in the front row of any theater. They spend a lot of money to sit there and I'm delighted that they do, but the best sound is it little farther back after the mixing has occurred. I also sat in the audience at Bayreuth and it's a softer textured sound than you might think. We've gotten used to hearing rather hard-edged brassy sounds in some of the halls in this country, and the orchestras play with an incredibly aggressive and powerful sound. Although, that has its effect and one likes it in certain pieces actually.
BD: Are you more careful with your diction or stage presence in Bayreuth where the entire audience knows every note and word - perhaps even better than you do?
EH: It's a little intimidating, I must say, and I've worked very hard for many years to speak German. But yes, you have to work extremely carefully. The long rehearsal process includes people who observe and whose sole job is to catch you on your diction. It's been quite an education.
BD: What advice do you have for the young singer coming along?
EH: Be patient; don't go too fast; don't let the industry pick you up and push you too fast. Grow up slowly if you can - particularly the lower and more dramatic voices, big mezzos and contraltos as well as heavyweight tenors and baritones.
BD: Does it take a bass to teach a bass?
EH: No, not at all. As it happened, I studied with Mark Allen, a bass at the U of I in the early '70s, and later went to Cologne to take a "fest" contract in the same house and same "fach" as he had done in the '60s. For a long time I didn't study with anyone and learned to rely on myself. Nowadays, I go to a friend of mine who happens to be a tenor to have a checkup once in awhile. It can be helpful for some things to study with the same voice type, but there can also be a problem if there's too much imitation, so it might be advisable to go even to the opposite sex.
BD: Perhaps have one teacher for technique and another for repertoire?
EH: It's helpful to get a different perspective, but there's also something to be said for loyalty and sticking with a good thing. I also would encourage young singers to become independent. I've observed in institutions all over the world that some promote a kind of attitude in young singers that causes them to be insecure, and they become quite dependent and can hardly make any gesture on the stage vocally or dramatically unless they run to their teacher and see if it's OK. But when you get out into a job situation, and you get a little cold or a cough, or if you're particularly tired, or if the theater is being reconstructed around you as you work and there's a lot of very fine construction dust and powerfully heated hallways because of the cold air outside, you better know what to do for yourself and know how to get out of trouble if you get into it.
BD: I've always felt the best teachers are the ones who make themselves become superfluous.
BD: What advice do you have for composers who want to write music for the voice these days?
EH: It would be nice for them to get away from the text books that give graphic illustrations of what the voice ranges are supposed to be, and understand something, about the notion of tessitura.
BD: You don't want to be treated like a bassoon?
EH: I've been presented with scores by eager young musicians where the notes are all below the staff accompanied by bassoons and cellos. They have no concept whatsoever of sound-in-space. They don't know what the sound is of a bass voice projecting a low C, and what the effect is in a space. Granted, there is a great deal to be explored and it depends on what their aesthetic choices are. But in those cases, I asked them to seek a different singer.
BD: One last question - is singing fun?
EH: Absolutely. Sometimes, it's better than sex. When an
singer goes up for a big climactic phrase with a humongous kind of
energy of the body being projected strictly through the voice, when the
top note comes out perfectly, we have a feeling of supreme ecstasy.
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Costumed-photos (unlabeled) are Halfvarson as the Grand
in Don Carlo, Claggart in Billy Budd, and Hagen at
Bruce Duffie is beginning his 22nd year as announcer/producer
WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, one of the very few stations in the US
still presents complete performances of new operatic recordings each
His interviews are usually featured along with the CDs.
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Here are a few of the recordings which feature Eric Halfvarson . . . . .
© 1995 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 16, 1995. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1997 and 1998. This transcription was made in 1996, and published in The Opera Journal in September of that year. It was later posted on this website, with additional material added in 2016.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.