The most difficult thing about the role of Brünnhilde for me was memorising it – it’s just so long. The hardest notes technically are the ‘Hojotohos’ – it’s the first thing that you have to do and it’s the most difficult, most iconic music.
But Brünnhilde would be my desert-island role. I’m sure that every time I have the opportunity to sing her in the future, I’m going to find new aspects of her character – it’s just such a rich role. I really try to pay close attention to the entire arc of her journey through the cycle because she changes so much from when we see her in, as I call it, her ‘tomboy’ phase with her dad at the start, to the end where she’s a fully mature woman and feels an enormous burden of responsibility.
Wagner seems to have a good insight into the way that women think. Like, for instance, when Brünnhilde feels that she’s been betrayed by Siegfried. A complete, almost Tosca-like jealousy comes flying out – something we haven’t seen in her character prior to that moment. And it’s a pretty big change of personality and direction. You know, I can certainly relate to the whole jealousy thing, as well as the falling in love and the discovery of one’s self.
I have to be a little bit careful in the moments when Brünnhilde is full of anger. It is important that I don’t let my emotional side take over. It’s really a fine balance because those emotions are what really kicks the voice in. I’ve always noticed that if I’m angry about something before a performance, or something happens during a performance that makes me mad, there is nothing that makes me sing better. The first night of Die Walküre at the Met, I ran on to the stage and immediately stepped on my dress and fell and slid down one of the planks. Bryn Terfel offered me a hand to help me back up on to the platform but I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going back up on that thing again right now!’ So we just acted it out. A lot of people just thought it was part of the shtick, but I can assure you it was not!
I’m not Flagstad and I’m not Nilsson, but I think I bring something different to Brünnhilde. It’s difficult when you sing these roles that are so famous because you leave yourself open to comparison so much more than if you sang some obscure Handel opera. But the beauty of it is that there are lots of people out there who are seeing their first Ring cycle all the time, and they’ll never forget their first Brünnhilde.
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone magazine and the Gramophone Reviews Database, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe