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Singing out

An encounter with celebrated Heldentenor Robert Dean Smith,


It happens rarely that a journalist is stuck for words, but Robert Dean Smith achieved just that when he asked me to sing the opening lines of Tosti's In the hush of the night. He'd momentarily been unable to recall the tune and this shut me right up. I had the tune right there, playing in my head, but to sing in front of one of the hottest young generation Heldentenors, who is just about to go off the Bayreuth for the Festspiele, is something only few would dare. So there we sat in a Munich coffee shop, a day after Smith had been celebrated for his top-class performance of Walter von Stolzing, and I had my lips firmly sealed shut. In the end, we made a deal: he got the words to 'Hush of the Night', less singing, and I got the interview.

Tess Crebbin: Kansas-born, you now live in Lugano, Switzerland. Yet you don't seem to get a lot of time at home, being in demand as you are. How long have you been in Munich this time?

Robert Dean Smith: From the middle of May. Alongside the rehearsals of Wagner's Meistersinger [listen -- 'Am stillen Herd'], I had some performances of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Juggling the two pieces was quite something. Switching characters is not so much of a problem. It's the musical side that's tricky. But in this case it was not too bad. They are both pretty tough tenor pieces and so it is basically the same technique, you just have to stick to the idiosyncrasies of the styles.

TC: Do you practice a lot, even when there are no rehearsals?

RDS: Yes. There are days when I wake up and start practising and think: I am having a bad day and I don't feel like it. But I always say to myself: what if I had to sing tonight? Then I would have to do it. So that makes me practice, regardless of how I feel. When I sit in the audience and listen to someone, it doesn't interest me what they feel like that day. The quality of the performance interests me. I always keep that in mind, even when going to the theatre for a performance. When I don't feel one hundred percent, I still deliver the best I can.

TC: That's a good attitude.

RDS: I am not interested in being the best. I want to be the best that I can be. I try to take in performances of my colleagues because I learn a lot from this. Recently, Ben Heppner was here for some performances of Lohengrin. I got the opportunity to see him and it was amazing. We sing a lot of the same things. It is just such an enrichment to see my colleagues.

TC: Bayreuth, where you also spend a lot of time, is a real meeting hub for singers.

Robert Dean Smith
Robert Dean Smith

RDS: True. Bayreuth is a place where colleagues sit around the table, drink coffee, eat lunch and talk shop, because the operas are all going on at the same time. We talk about the difficulties of certain roles or whatever. The special Bayreuth atmosphere people go on about happens because everyone is there voluntarily, the orchestra members, the chorus, and the singers. They come because they want to be there not because they have a contract that obliges them to be. This makes the extra difference people notice and I notice it, too.

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Copyright © 20 July 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


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