Editor’s note: A few weeks after announcing his retirement from the opera stage due to incurable bile duct cancer, tenor Stephen Gould died at the age of 61 on September 19, 2023. Gould met with VAN writer Volker Hagedorn in early 2019 while headlining “Tannhäuser” at the Dresden Semperoper. In honor of the singer, much-loved by audiences and colleagues alike, we’re offering that interview from the German archives, now translated into English.
“I first saw Stephen perform in 2015, in Katharina Wagner’s dubious staging of ‘Tristan und Isolde’ at Bayreuth,” Hagedorn recalls. “I’ve never seen another Tristan who was so human and who really loved Isolde.”
He wears heavy shoes with spikes so that he doesn’t slip on the slush in front of the Semperoper. A man of this size and with this important a job can’t afford a fall. Tall and broad, Stephen Gould is, like his voice, large. The technical term for his fach is Heldentenor: dramatic, massive, and German. Only a few singers have made an international career with this repertoire, singing the likes of Tannhäuser, Tristan, and Siegfried from Dresden to New York. Fewer still treat the texts of these Wagnerian heroes as sensitively as Gould does.
We head to the popular Café Schinkelwache. It’s packed, even on a Tuesday afternoon, but there’s a free table in the back. When our waitress asks if he would like some cake, Gould laughs with a deep, booming voice. “Absolutely! One has to have it!” He opts for the Waldfruchtbuttermilchtorte, a buttermilk cake dotted with mixed berries.
VAN: You’re here in Dresden to sing Tannhäuser in Peter Konwitschny’s production, before going on to sing the same role in Harry Kupfer’s staging in Zurich. Both are…
Stephen Gould: …warhorses! Konwitschny’s production has been here for 22 years. A little old, but the third act is especially strong. So many directors have stolen bits and pieces from it. He’s showing the decay of society: Everyone is sick, and the tenor is looking for something outside of himself. Konwitschny is also making fun of the childish side of society. I see it as a forerunner for his Hamburg “Lohengrin,” which is set in a school. The first time I sang this “Lohengrin,” I was skeptical. By the end of it, I thought it was one of the best productions. It really focused on the infantile.
Do you feel like you’ve developed something like your own interpretation of Tannhäuser over the years?
I think so. You always take something with you everywhere you go. There’s the question: Did he really go to Rome? How can the Pope or God forgive you if you can’t forgive yourself? Sin only exists within yourself! I think Claus Guth gave me that. And I learned a lot from Robert Carsen. He portrayed Tannhäuser as a painter spending most of his time working on a portrait of Venus, of her soul; it was all about the difference between carnal and spiritual love. And I loved Philippe Arlaud’s Bayreuth staging. It was a fantastic ensemble with great cohesion. If you get to do something with people like that, it stays with you. Arlaud was interested in everyone, even in the chorus, down to the smallest detail. Kupfer is said to work in a similar way. Incidentally, I’ll sing my hundredth performance of the role in Zurich.
And how do you see Tannhäuser?
To me, the role is like Tristan: very Shakespearean. Many famous actors have played King Lear, and they all say that, once you’ve lived with the role for 20 years, you no longer understand it. I feel the same way about Wagner’s roles, and yet: There is always something new if you’re open and daring enough to try it. And it doesn’t always have to work! Wagner said: “Create something new.” Directors often use that as justification to bend the piece until it breaks. But what he meant was, “Recreate the work within you every time.” Not, “Take my work and let it mean something totally different than what I intended.” You’re not creating anything new that way, you’re just destroying something old.
The slice of Waldfruchtbuttermilchtorte, which has gone largely untouched, suddenly disappears. The tinkling of Mozart from the café’s speakers and the clattering of dishes seem to be getting louder and louder, but they are no match for Stephen Gould’s stentorian voice.
How did you first come to Wagner?
Wagner came to me. Very late! I never aspired to take on the heavy German roles. But I always wanted to be an opera singer.
That’s not what you’d expect from the son of a Methodist minister from Virginia…
My father had a voice that was bigger than mine. My mother was a good classical pianist and brought me to my first opera.
You then studied voice in Boston and were accepted into the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s young artist program.
I was trying to be a dramatic Rossini tenor, because that’s what they thought I was. I could do that with the head voice, almost a falsetto, unfortunately. I realized too late that I was in the wrong fach. I fell behind, and had to become a lyric baritone for a time, but nobody needed that. Then I went into musical theater to earn money, singing supporting roles in the “Phantom of the Opera” tour. Eight years of touring the bigger theaters in the United States, spending between six weeks and a year in each place. But with the wrong technique, I couldn’t even continue with musical theater.
It almost seems like a Wagnerian exile…
One that ended with the teacher John Fiorito. He’s the father of my voice. He sang at the Met for a long time, and is still teaching at 82! He told me, “We can make you into a dramatic baritone—but those are a dime a dozen—or we can let the voice decide where it wants to go.”
And it went towards Wagner?
He was always like that. He found the singers who could do his music. I had to give up a lot in order to become a Heldentenor. For a time, I couldn’t sing in the old way or the new. I got an office job with New York Telecom, and spent three days a week with my coach. Six months became nine months, then three years. Then he told me: “Go get a job in Europe. Go to a German-speaking house. You’ll learn by doing what you can’t learn through study.”
In the summer of 1999, the 37-year-old Gould flew across the Atlantic and spent six weeks auditioning at smaller houses. Outside of his roles, he didn’t speak a word of German.
By the last week of my auditions that June, I hadn’t been accepted anywhere. I had sung a thousand performances of “Phantom” and didn’t want that anymore. I would rather have taken a really good job at Telecom, you know? I wanted to find my place in life. Then came the offer from Linz, and that was that.
In 1998, a young, ambitious artistic director took over the Landestheater Linz. Dr. Michael Klügl, born in Offenbach, Germany in 1952, made Stephen Gould a permanent ensemble member with the company. After Gould’s debut as Florestan in “Fidelio,” he was cast in the title role in a new production of “Tannhäuser,” directed by an unknown Norwegian director named Stefan Herheim. Under Herheim’s direction, Gould became a breakout star. Other houses sent their scouts to Linz, and the American tenor began a series of guest appearances. Klügl later left Linz for Hannover, where he served as artistic director from 2006 to 2019.
Doctor Klügl was an unusual artistic director. He liked singers. He arranged it so that I could do all of my performances in Linz while also singing with other houses. There aren’t that many people who understand that singers need to develop. Sometimes, you don’t even get to choose the roles that are best for you.
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Five years after your first role in Linz, you debuted in Dresden as Erik in “Der fliegende Holländer,” and as Tannhäuser in Bayreuth. Was it just one success after the next?
No. The Bayreuth “Ring” in 2006 was a disaster. I sang both Siegfrieds, first in “Siegfried” and then in “Götterdämmerung.” I didn’t realize that you had to completely shift technique to do this. The “Ring” has an awful lot of recitatives with full voice and full orchestra. You have to learn to make the middle register and the passagios a bit brighter and more open—but carefully, not too open, because then you’ll kill your voice. I figured that out too late. I should have tried it at a smaller house. My agents told me much later that, up until then, there had been two or three inquiries a week for me. Afterwards, nothing for six long months. If I hadn’t booked three years’ of work in advance, that would have been it.
I heard you in Bayreuth in 2015 as Tristan and found that you performed the role—particularly the text—with incredible sensitivity and intelligence.
Thank you. I’m sometimes criticized for shifting my legato or changing the color on certain words. I don’t care. As long as you’re centering the text, Wagner is forgiving of the little imperfections in the legato. With Tannhäuser’s “Romerzählung” in Act I, people ask me: “Why was it so ugly?” That’s interesting. What does it say in the score? Mit matter Stimme: in a weary voice. And in Wagner’s rehearsal notes, it becomes clear that the singing is intended to reflect this man’s devastation. It isn’t bel canto. Tannhäuser is bitter, tired, world-weary, exhausted, angry, spiteful, at times nasty, and, yes, cynical. All of this is on the verge of madness. You have to hear that in the voice, in the vocal colors… I tell them, “If you have no idea what you’re talking about, save yourselves the commentary.” [Laughs deeply.] I wouldn’t have said that 15 years ago. But I’m 57 now, and in the Helden-world I have about five years left…
Were you able to use your experience in “Phantom” in the Helden-world?
Musical theater protected my voice at the right time and gave me an unbelievable amount of stage experience. That’s helpful no matter where you end up.
Do other singers take on big roles too early?
[Nods.] More and more. Opera as an artform has been changing. It’s been changing for a long time and becoming more cinematic. People want younger, more beautiful singers. Highly dramatic roles are going to people who… well, even with Mozart you can’t hear a voice like you would 20 years ago. At the very least, indirect amplification is already being used in many houses. The day will come when, for the sake of youth, we’ll have a Radamès who looks fantastic: 25 years old, muscles and all, wearing only a loincloth and a tiny microphone on his head, singing “Celeste Aida” with the voice of an early music expert. Fine, but that’s not where opera’s strengths lie.
Lise Davidsen, your Elisabeth in the Zurich “Tannhäuser,” is 32 and started out as a Baroque mezzo, but definitely doesn’t need a microphone…
She’s going to be the next act. Really high-dramatic. Very strong, very smart—also in how she’s developing her voice. She’s about to become one of the greats. But there are fewer and fewer opportunities to develop such a voice. In the past, German houses especially offered a sense of security to excellent singers. You could debut in Aachen, then go to Dortmund, then maybe be ready for an international house. Or you could spend the major part of your career working at just one house. That’s all different now. There are singers who learn 50 different roles and when a new artistic director comes in, they’re fired. The older singers are also more expensive! Before, it wasn’t uncommon to be part of an ensemble for 30 years. If you had a family, it was a lot easier.
Do you have a family?
No. It’s not possible with this type of career. I have a few commitments in the U.S.… [Laughs.] But none that travel or live with me. I live in Vienna and have a house in Connecticut. I’m in Vienna for eight weeks and in the U.S. for four. The rest is travel. I just got back from a three-day trip to Abu Dhabi. My connecting flight from Frankfurt was canceled due to a snowstorm, so I took a five-hour train ride to Dresden. I had rehearsal at 10 the next morning.
The heroic life of a Heldentenor…
[With a very deep voice.] That’s the way this business works.
We say goodbye in front of the cafe and Gould, a head taller than me, looks across the square facing the opera house with his bright, clear, turquoise eyes. As if he were somewhere else entirely; in front of a wide horizon. As if the entire Helden-world was contained within him; all the great characters. Imagine such a man sitting in front of a computer screen at New York Telecom! Impossible. Perhaps, I think, all of these roles—Siegfried, Tristan, Tannhäuser—were written so that the world wouldn’t become too narrow for people like him. ¶
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