Tenor-turned-baritone Simon Wallfisch shares his voice-changing experiences at Zurich Opera Studio.
Being accepted in 2009 as a Tenor in the Opera Studio of the Zürich Opera House was in itself a great achievement, not to mention a huge surprise after having had only one year’s experience of experimenting with the new Fach. At that time, I was ‘getting away’ with it by swindling a light heady voice which sailed up easily to a top C so long as it was light and preferably within a coloratura passage. I was most successful singing baroque repertoire, light Rossini and late classical early romantic lieder. Being heard over an large orchestra meant pushing the voice and sounding strained and uncomfortable. The following story occurred in Zurich in 2009, but could have happened anywhere in any theatre and is a very personal account of what one would call “trial by fire” and was a catalyst to a chain of events that eventually ended in warm sunshine but the journey was many months of darkness and despair. It taught me very much professionally not to mention personally.
Within the first two months of my contract in Zürich as a student on the Young Artist Programme, I was cast as Nathaniel in “les contes d’Hoffmann” singing alongside the tenor superstar Vittorio Grigolo and heartbreaker baritone Laurent Naouri. Nathaniel is a small role in the large scale of the opera, but a huge undertaking for a member of the Opera Studio, usually used to a few bars here or there announcing dinner or delivering a love letter. The rehearsals were intense and very stimulating, except that I started to feel increasingly unconfident as the rehearsals went on, being vocally criticised from every angle, to the point where I no longer trusted my own musical instincts or what would come out of my mouth. Having approached the role from a musical, linguistic and dramatic standpoint, I became completely unconfident in the actual vocal instrument. The final week of rehearsals coincided with several other performances of other obligations including singing Tamino for the Children’s production of Die Zauberflöte and concerts for involving late nights of singing top of the pops opera and then going into rehearsals at 10am with a team who expected nothing less than 100%.
Now I know that this situation is nothing more than what is a normal expectation of a Young Artist in a theatre, it’s what we were being paid a generous scholarship for. But at that time I had no tools to deal with the pressure. Where it went very wrong for me is that underneath all of this was the fact that I felt that I was not a “tenor” but a baritone, and I was trying to fit into shoes which simply were too small for me. And so it came to the first rehearsal with orchestra. I felt the voice simply drift away from me, the more I willed it into being, the less it came. It was a living nightmare, and the kindness of Vittorio Grigolo, going over vocal exercises with me in his dressing room before rehearsals did nothing to mitigate the horrific events which unfolded:
Feeling totally run down from a week of over-singing and under-supporting (now I know that my ‘tenor’ voice was a lot of faking), I was too naive and scared to do the right and professional thing and speak to the conductor and director and say that I was very sorry but I would have to mark (sing quietly and down the octave) the rehearsal. I thought “suck it up and get on with it”, but the tiredness and lack of strength in the voice was there for all to hear. The next day, I noticed my name was not on the rehearsal plan. Strange, but of course I went to the theatre anyway, but my name was not called by the stage manager at the usual moment and something inside told me to hang back.
Sure enough when it came to my cue, nobody was looking for me – a member of the chorus sang my role. Nobody from the theatre had actually spoken to me directly informing me of my being fired, I had been dropped simply by deleting my name from the rehearsal plan. There was no communication between human beings. This was the most wrenching painful experience in my professional life as a singer and it set me on a spiraling cascade which tainted my whole experience at the Opera Studio. Many weeks later I did receive a very kind letter from the director apologising, and offering encouragement which was very thoughtful. But at the time and long after it was a pain that I since know all opera singers have felt at some point.
It taught me a lot about how theatres work and how, as an individual you have to protect yourself and find a way of being an expressive artist in the face of cold hard concrete adversity. Looking back, I am glad I was spared the experience of a very public failure. The brutal striking off of my name on the rehearsal plan was in actual fact protection from far worse. I know now it was right that I shouldn’t have gone on and sung that very exposed role in the state I was in, but at the time this was not explained to me. I was just dropped like a burnt match-stick. The feedback I received at the time from the Opera Director (having met him in the lift the next day, holding back angry tears to ask what was going on) was “It sounds too baritonal”. At the time I was crushed by this, now it makes me smile.
It took another year of struggle, painful singing lessons and many many rejections to lead me to what I already knew inside: I AM A BARITONE! It was only after leaving Zurich in the summer of 2011, and failing every competition and audition I entered, when I decided “now the pretence has to stop, I can no longer continue to be something I am not”. Overnight I decided quite simply that this animal inside me had to be let loose. I must listen to myself and myself only. It was like ripping through the ropes tying me to a sinking ship and splashing up to the surface. First and foremost, I am a musician, secondly I am a communicator, far, far, far down the list I am a “singer”. My world had been upside-down for nearly three years, and the depression and infantile emotions of being a walking voice had driven me to bitter distraction and in the process made me a worse singer and a blocked artist. How can I best express myself in the most open and honest way? How can I move people to feel what I feel? How can I communicate the music of the composer in the most honest and ego-free way possible? These are the questions I ask.
During the year 2012 it took time to let the voice calmly come down to earth and I rediscovered my joy in music. I have composed and arranged several works, one a satirical work entitled “The Inner Voice of the Opera Singer”. I spent time working intesively with vulnerable, elderly, and disabled people making music and leading workshops coming back to the bare bones and truth and power in music making, and I have come back to cello playing, my original and most loved instrument, I have simply re-opened my life. And all of this has lead me back to singing as a real human being with real honesty and no pretense. Now the voice itself is on a natural free and honest journey as a lyric baritone with all the strength and power that these very tough experiences have given me. I was born a versatile musician and will never again deny this. People often say it’s impossible to be accomplished at more than one instrument, but they are missing the point. I play the cello as a singer and sing as I play. I am better and more free at both because of the other. As young musicians rarely are we allowed to follow our own instincts, we have people on all sides imposing their own insecurities and fears. It is only when you let go and do what the Fach you want when you can truly grow as a performer.