Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) about the 2010 San Francisco Opera Production of Die Walküre

Material from the Classical Music Column for the June 4, 2010 Preview Section and Inside Bay Area, Bay Area News Group, under the headlines, "Delavan dives back into his robber-baron Wotan" A few sentences material submitted but not run in the column have been added back in.

By Cheryl North

How do you portray a god?

That was a question a fan recently asked handsome, linebacker-built baritone Mark Delavan, who will portray Wotan, Nordic king of the gods, in San Francisco Opera's upcoming production of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre."

"You don't!" said Delavan."What you do is play up the god's human-like qualities," he added.

Delavan's Wotan — a character he first stepped into when S.F. Opera began its so-called "American" take on the Wagner Ring Cycle with a production of Das Rheingold in 2008 — "is just as messed up as we ordinary people are."

During a recent phone chat, amiable, bronze-voiced Delavan explained he portrays Wotan as passionate, emotional, quick to anger when disobeyed, incredibly duplicitous and greedy — "a little like one of the big financial moguls during the first part of the last century in the United States."

"He's also terrifically henpecked by his wife, the goddess Fricka, and deeply loves and trusts his favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde," he continued. (The Valkyries were the flying godlike maidens resulting from Wotan's previous coupling with the Earth goddess Erda.)

Delavan, who also has sung the title role in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman throughout the world, quips that "I'm just a rookie Wotan," but he does seem to have found his niche.

A deeply committed family man, he revealed that he fights tears when the point in the opera comes for Wotan to kill his son, Sigmund.

"It's a moment when I can't help but think how I feel about my own four sons, he said. "I'm sure it shows up in my singing."

Another commonality shared by Wotan and Delavan is that both carve wood and work with metal. Wotan is supposed to have crafted his own spear, Delavan explained.

"I love to carve wood, especially knife, dirk and dagger handles, as well as to etch the metal of the blades. I even carved my own spear for Die Walküre's premiere in Washington, D.C. But the director/designer, Francesca Zambello, replaced the staff part with something more raw and rough-hewn."

His passion for carving and design almost rivals his love for opera. He even has a website displaying his artistic creations,

"But, I generally carve for relaxation and satisfaction, sometimes even during rehearsal breaks," he said. "A lot of pieces of wood have saved my sanity!"

According to Delavan, Wagner's ingenious use of the leitmotif technique in his Ring operas has contributed to their popularity. (A leitmotif is a specific musical theme played throughout the opera to signify a particular idea, emotion, or person.)

"Somehow, a leitmotif can penetrate your brain, even if you don't know music that well. That's one reason why there are so many 'Ringheads' around," he said, adding that one middle-aged fan told him after a recent performance that it was his 85th Ring.

As an example, Delavan singled out the Valhalla theme, especially as it is played by a choir of brass instruments, as his choice for the most noble, profound music in Wagner's operas. When I asked him if he could remind me of that particular theme, he said, "Just a minute — I'll try to find my horn voice."

Then, right over the phone, he proceeded to replicate the timbre of a French horn to illustrate the soaring theme. I almost cried.

I suppose I would have, had soprano Nina Stemme, the production's Brünnhilde, not appeared at the door for our scheduled interview.

Petite, fit and dark-haired, Swedish-born Stemme can dazzle at first sight with her incandescent blue eyes. But the alto-pitched warmth of her speaking voice put me completely at ease.

Although she is seasoned in many roles, the San Francisco performance represents her debut as Brünnhilde. According to a talk conductor Donald Runnicles gave at the Opera House later that evening, Stemme is on the fast track to becoming one of the greatest Brünnhildes ever.

When I asked her how she perceives the character, she replied, "Brünnhilde is the son Wotan never got. He trusts her to carry out his will and together, they create a sort of team."

She elaborated that Wotan, as ruler of the gods, is expected to follow the rules. Brünnhilde, on the other hand, is driven by a will of her own and strong emotions. In "Walküre," she is a very undeveloped persona, a teenager. By the end of the Ring," in Götterdämmerung, the mature Brünnhilde becomes civilization's savior by casting the Rhine gold back into the river from which it was wrongly stolen.

When I asked her if she always wanted to be a singer, she replied that although she had played violin, viola and piano and sang in school choirs as a child, she actually had planned to become an engineer or an economist. After a year as an exchange student in a Virginia high school, she was converted to music. When she returned to Sweden, she had to go through three auditions at a college where she could study opera before she was finally admitted.

Now she is in demand in the greatest opera houses of the world. However, despite her fame and acclaim, she says, "I devote most of my non-singing time to my family -- my stage-designer husband, two daughters and a son." The smile accompanying these words told me she means it.