07 October 2023

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: from Oz to Walhalla — Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble goes over the rainbow with rôle début as Fricka in Opera Australia's December 2023 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as Erda in Melbourne Opera's 2023 production of Richard Wagner's SIEGFRIED [Photograph © by Robin Halls]De profundis: mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Erda in Melbourne Opera’s 2023 production of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried
[Photograph © by Robin Halls]

Not even the finest conservatory education and most thoughtful private tutelage can thoroughly prepare a conscientious singer to manage the evolution that a voice experiences over the course of a career. For singers whose artistry incorporates cognizance of vocal metamorphoses, this is a continuous process of self-discovery, a trek along which one can receive guidance but for which there are no failsafe directions or templates. To today’s singers’ navigation of this consequential journey was added the unexpected obstacle of a global pandemic, a prolonged hiatus in which the rôles of Art in society and individual lives were imperiled, yet this time of involuntary silence compelled insightful singers to ask difficult but necessary questions, querying both themselves and the art form to which their lives are devoted. How will the Arts recover from the devastation of this crisis? Is mine the right path? Can I survive as a singer when there is no singing? Who am I as an artist and an individual?

Before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic, answering these questions has been an integral component of mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble’s artistic development. Recipient of the 2004 Dame Joan Sutherland Prize, she has cultivated a career that, during the past two decades, has encompassed performances of an expansive array of operatic, concert, and Art Song repertoire. Destined to shelter in her native Australia as COVID relentlessly ravaged the planet, Humble allayed the fears that plagued virtually all artists by focusing not on the losses imposed by the cancellation of performances but on how the time away from the stage could facilitate personal and artistic growth. With coveted engagements and momentous rôle débuts on the horizon, she has emerged from COVID’s exile with heightened self-awareness, both her vocal technique and her vision for the trajectory of her career refined with intelligence and intuitiveness.

Ever a resourceful artist possessing a voice of superlative quality, Humble entered the pandemic in the midst of an artistic journey along the course of which she has been heard in many of the world’s most prestigious venues. Extolled in the Voix des Arts
of the Hong Kong Philharmonic recording of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (Naxos) as a peer of Lili Chookasian and Oralia Domímguez who achieved ‘one of the most compelling recorded accounts’ of Wagner’s music for Erda, a part in which she is also heard in the Hong Kong Siegfried and the Oehms Classics recording of a Staatsoper Hamburg Ring conducted by Simone Young, she is widely acknowledged as one of her generation’s best-qualified Wagnerians.

Her meticulously-honed technique complementing the natural beauty, range, and security of the voice, her affinity for not merely singing but wholly inhabiting Wagner rôles shone in Melbourne Opera’s 2023 staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Writing in his review of Siegfried for Australian Book Review, Peter Rose commented that she ‘moved with grace [as Erda] – a bravura, almost balletic performance – and she sang magnificently.’ Later in this Ring, Australian Arts Review critic Paul Selar declared her ‘a luxury addition to Götterdämmerung in the role of Brünnhilde’s imploring sister Waltraute,’ commending her for ‘creating one of the great highlights of the cycle.’

Whether she is singing Schubert Lieder, Mahler symphonies, dramatic Italian rôles like Amneris in Verdi’s Aida, or Wagner characters, creating highlights of performances is a hallmark of Humble’s artistry. She achieves this distinction not by employing overwrought histrionics but by surrendering her vocal and interpretive gifts to serving composers and librettists and to interacting with colleagues in a manner that intensifies the theatrical impact of their performances. Humble cites this camaraderie with fellow artists as one of the fundamental motivations of her career. Reflecting on the solitude imposed by the pandemic, she said, ‘It’s really nice to be back with colleagues. It’s sociable, musically gratifying, and challenging.’

A particular challenge amongst recent assignments was finding the right niche within the cast of Victorian Opera’s semi-staged performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra for her portrayal of Klytämnestra, a characterization shaped, in part, by understudying the rôle in a Stastsoper Hamburg production in which the formidable queen—‘the architect of vengeance,’ Humble calls her—was sung by Agnes Baltsa. ‘When I was studying the rôle,’ she recalled, ‘I was told it must not be “beautiful” as it’s not a beautiful rôle. The challenge for me is to make it as characterful as possible without losing all the tonal beauty.’ She explained that she executes this strategy ‘by using the text and the consonants and running the storyline in my mind.’

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as Waltraute (left) and soprano ANTOINETTE HALLORAN as Brünnhilde (right) in Melbourne Opera's 2023 production of Richard Wagner's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG [Photograph © by Robin Halls]Die flehende Schwester: mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Erda (left) and soprano Antoinette Halloran as Brünnhilde (right) in Melbourne Opera’s 2023 production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung
[Photograph © by Robin Halls]

It is her emphasis on breathing life into music and words that fuels Humble’s performances of Wagner repertoire. Whereas some singers audibly approach the composer’s work with dangerous vocal abandon, Humble concentrates on the serenity that exists within even the most tumultuous pages of Wagner’s scores. ‘He composes the music with such stillness,’ she shared. Contemplating the ‘stillness’ in Wagner’s writing proved to be a critical element of her study during the pandemic—and a source of hope for the future. ‘I spent most of my adult life in Europe, studying and performing, so I feel very comfortable in the Northern Hemisphere,’ Humble stated. ‘Spending the pandemic years in Australia has been a true privilege, and working in Australia with colleagues and friends I have known for a lifetime has been rejuvenating and rewarding.’ These joys notwithstanding, an inexorable quest to probe the nuances of new characters—Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Saint-Saëns’s Dalila, Strauss’s Herodias in Salome and Die Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten—leads her back to Europe. ‘I miss the opportunities that operatic and musical life in Europe can provide, especially for my dramatic voice type,’ she noted. ‘I look forward to returning—and to utilizing the languages I spent so many years learning!’

Few rôles in the mezzo-soprano repertoire are more daunting than Fricka in Der Ring des Nibelungen. Over the course of Das Rheingold and a brief appearance in Die Walküre, the wronged consort of Wotan undergoes one of the most fascinating transformations in opera, from regal sensuality to ruthless pursuit of retribution. Preparing her inaugural portrayal of Fricka for Opera Australia’s December 2023 production of Der Ring, in which she will also appear as Waltraute in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, Humble has immersed herself in the musical depiction of the character’s complex emotional constitution. ‘There are moments in Das Rheingold [in which] I think she can still be perceived as a loving wife,’ Humble intimated. ‘Softer elements of her nature can be seen and heard in the music. By the end of the opera, however, she has reached her turning point, and, as soon as Act Two of Die Walküre begins, we know she is suffering and struggling.’ The anguish that afflicts the goddess is a product of the personal betrayal and societal irresponsibility of Wotan’s infidelity, she asserts. ‘Fricka is a very strong symbol of marriage in the Ring story and makes it clear from the beginning that she does not approve of Wotan’s desire for love and lust outside of their union. She makes her opinions on the institution clear in Das Rheingold, reminding Wotan to stay on the right path, and continues to advocate for marriage and its sanctity in Die Walküre.’

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as Amneris in Opera Australia's 2013 production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA [Photograph © by Jeff Busby]La principessa della gelosia: mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Amneris in Opera Australia’s 2013 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida
[Photograph © by Jeff Busby]

The mezzo-soprano’s holistic examination of Wagner’s music and text continues to reveal mesmerizing subtleties of Fricka’s psyche. ‘I’m still exploring the finer points of her character arc,’ Humble confided, ‘but I think she believes her actions are honorable. She works away at Wotan until he becomes torn between love and power. She firmly believes that, in order for the gods to survive and rule forever, they must follow the rules and regulations already laid out.’ The ways in which Fricka advances these ideals can be ferocious, Humble conceded. ‘As a character, she is somewhat rigid and unchanging, even unappealing at certain moments. She is severe, unbending, adamant, and blatantly honest. Unlike Wotan, who has already begun to imagine a new order, a new world where he might not be all-powerful, it seems that Fricka is still consumed with the old world and restoring family honor.

Acutely responsive to productions’ aesthetics and mindful of stagings’ effects on details of her characterizations, Humble is excited to introduce her Fricka in the context of Opera Australia’s Ring. ‘[This] Ring is directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and conducted by Philippe Augin. Shi-Zheng has been inspired by the five elements from Chinese philosophy—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—and has imagined a futuristic, timeless  space featuring numerous kinetic LED panels,’ she said. ‘These create an open space resembling a Greek amphitheater. Costumes for the gods, including Fricka, are white trench coats which interact with the set according to each character’s emotions and activity.’ She feels that these physical stimuli, augmented by Auguin’s handling of the music, will provide a setting in which her Fricka will embody timeless but engrossingly relevant sensibilities.

Three years ago, the prospect of singing Fricka seemed remote to Humble. ‘By the end of 2020, I realized, in a way I had never really had to confront before, just how much my personal self-worth and identity are tied up in my singing career,’ she admitted. ‘I really missed the adrenaline rush and excitement that performing always gives me, as well as the actual physical and mental benefits and challenges of singing itself; to say nothing of interacting with audiences and colleagues.’ As the imaginative vividness of her performances demonstrates, idleness is not part of Humble’s personality. ‘I found the unusual amount of free time I had on my hands [during the pandemic] the perfect space [in which] to think creatively and start other projects,’ she mused. ‘I opened Brycefield Estate, a bed and breakfast at my home in the Hunter Valley [in New South Wales’s trendy wine region], and initiated a local music festival. Both ventures were very well received, and, most importantly, gave me and many other local artists a forum for small-scale performance in those difficult times.’

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE. singing her first Fricka in Opera Australia's December 2023 production of Richard Wagner's DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN [Photograph © by Rachel Calvo]Heil, neue Fricka: mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble, whose inaugural portrayal of Fricka will be featured in Opera Australia’s December 2023 production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen
[Photograph © by Rachel Calvo]

As is so often the case, Art parallels life. In Humble’s life, Art after COVID has reawakened thrillingly. ‘2022 and 2023 have turned out to be the busiest time I’ve had as a singer since returning to Australia,’ she enthused. ‘I was surprised [by] how quickly music and opera returned to the stage—and, luckily for me, there was plenty of dramatic repertoire in local programming!’ Indeed, 2023 is a year of rôle débuts for Humble: in addition to Klytämnestra and Fricka, she sang her first La Cieca in Opera Australia’s production of Ponchielli’s La gioconda, opppsite Saioa Hernández, Jonas Kaufmann, and Ludovic Tézier, and Clairon in Victorian Opera’s concert performance of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, conducted by Simone Young.

Her description of a defining aspect of Fricka’s character is likewise an apt assessment of Deborah Humble’s artistry. Blatantly honest with collaborators, audiences, and, above all, herself, she is a beacon of truth in an art form that thrives on artifice.

To learn more about Deborah Humble, and for updates on her upcoming engagements, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook.

Click here to purchase tickets for Opera Australia’s December 2023 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, running 1 - 21 December at Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane.

Sincerest thanks to Ms. Humble for her time and perceptive responses.