In the history of opera, the invention of the phonograph marks the great schism. Before, the record was written in memories. From that moment on, a separate history started to unfold. In its infancy, the new medium afforded little more than snapshots in sound, like singing postcards. Since then, the empire of the media has grown so powerful, so global in its reach, that a career undocumented by recordings almost seems like one that never happened.
Think of Robert Hale, a native of San Antonio, and thank heaven for "almost." Europe has afforded him frequent occasion to assert his claim as a Heldenbariton of the first rank: new productions and festival appearances as Wotan, the Dutchman, Jochanaan, Orest and Barak under Wolfgang Sawallisch (Munich), Georg Solti (London, Salzburg), Christoph von Dohnányi (Vienna) and much more. Record collectors, however, have known him pretty much only from John Eliot Gardiner's fine recent Messiah (Philips). And his appearances in American opera houses since the eighties have been sparse: a Ring and a half with Deutsche Oper Berlin at Kennedy Center; one more in the last series by San Francisco Opera, where he also has clocked in with some Escamillos; and two Dutchmen at the Met, which sees his first local Wotan and Wanderer in this season's final Ring cycle.
Four years after the fact, my notes on Hale's Washington performances reflect impressions that in my mind are still vivid: "Here was an artist whose voice, good face, noble bearing and telling gestures expressed the promptings of a deep imagination, an artist who commanded not just the notes of his part but the spirit, from tragic grandeur to ironic detachment, from flooding tenderness to grim rage, all breaking forth with the immediacy of real life. It was almost too much to hope for. Even his silences were eloquent. Before he made a sound, he was making music."
To judge from the ovations and most of the reviews, this was not an isolated reaction. Last fall, at Severance Hall in Cleveland, at a concert performance of Die Walküre under Dohnányi, Hale came up to his own standard again in a reading as authoritative as it seemed spontaneous. In the following days it was preserved when engineers for London Records committed the opera to disc as stage one of a complete Cleveland Ring.
At long last, a discography of Hale's core repertory is taking shape, in all the pertinent media. Der Fliegende Holländer with the Vienna Philharmonic, also under Dohnányi, is due for release next year on CD (London). A video of the Munich Ring under Sawallisch made its appearance in Europe in time for Christmas, with a companion Holländer announced for this year (conversion to American systems, for release on EMI videocassettes and Pioneer LaserDisc, has been delayed). In addition to capturing the concentration and sweep of Hale's live portrayals, these sets offer the not altogether incidental pleasure of observing the remarkably Wagnerian stamp of Hale's profile. And while Hale lost Solti's studio recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten to José van Dam, he got Solti's production in Salzburg, which was broadcast live during last summer's festival and in time will make its way onto video.
"Permanence," says Hale, having had a long time to think about it, "is a curse and a blessing. A live performance is gone forever. You want something that remains -- a legacy, hopefully good enough to be cherished or thought fondly of. A recording is the ultimate achievement. Unless you have it, you never feel you've quite made it."
In an age of forced, foreshortened careers, Hale has taken his time. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists his debut in 1966 with the Goldovsky Opera, with a move the following year to New York City Opera, where he sang, among much else, both Figaro and the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Enrico to the Anna Bolena of Beverly Sills. (He is also Count des Grieux in her video of Manon.) His current repertory includes such favorites as Méphistophélès (frequently sung opposite the Marguerite of his wife, Inga Nielsen), Scarpia and Escamillo, for which he still has the trim, athletic silhouette. (If the Nurse's description of Barak is to be trusted -- she calls him thick-set, stooped and low of brow -- Die Frau ohne Schatten is one opera in which Hale is physically miscast.) As to his German parts, he has a special fondness for Orest. "If you're going to have a short role," he remarks, "that's the one to have. It's at the center -- at the heart -- of the opera. If you only sing Wotan and Barak, you have some pretty long evenings."
A role Hale still covets is Boris Godunov, and he thinks about Verdi's King Philip. He turns down Mandryka, because he feels it lies too high; and he has abandoned Die Meistersinger, which he was to have sung for Giuseppe Sinopoli at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, because he has found, after intensive study, that Hans Sachs simply does not suit his personality. (Admirers of his Wanderer -- one so superior in intelligence, so mercurial of temperament, now so conversational and playful, now so majestic in his soul's turbulence -- may wish he would reconsider, but the prospect is dim.)
Hale first ventured into Wagner twenty-one years ago, in concert programs with the Boston Symphony under William Steinberg. Eileen Farrell had come out of retirement to sing Act II of Tristan und Isolde with James King. Hale sang King Marke and, on the same program, Wotan's farewell.
"It was," Hale remembers, "the beginning of a dream." Good counselors urged him onward. Steinberg told Hale he had the right color and sound for the Heldenbariton repertory, as did Robert Schulz, doyen of German artist managers, who had heard him at Carnegie Hall.
Against these voices of encouragement, many spoke up for the other side. "People warned me that singing excerpts was one thing, an entire Walküre another, not to mention the whole Ring. Jerome Hines told me the worst decision he ever made was to sing Wotan -- and he didn't do it all. And people thought it made George London lose his voice."
Hale proceeded with caution. In 1978 he dropped anchor in Wuppertal for his first Dutchman. "It was a tryout," he says. "I wanted a small house. I did eight performances of a new production, and it didn't feel like the answer to my career." The next year, in Frankfurt, it did. "In the meantime, I had done my first Mefistofele, in San Diego. It helped stretch the voice out. After that, the Dutchman felt entirely different. The voice rose to the occasion. It could pour out all it needed all the way through." Hale's calendar filled up quickly with guest performances as the Dutchman throughout Germany.
Over a period of a year and a half, beginning in 1984, Wiesbaden witnessed Hale's first Wotan, in a new production directed by Nicolas Joël, who had been an assistant of Patrice Chéreau's on the centennial Ring at Bayreuth. Unlike singers for whom directors, especially challenging ones, are the enemy, Hale acknowledges their influence gladly. "Joël's direction was strong, clear, concise, related directly to the text. I'll be forever grateful for having my first experience of the Ring with him."
Later Wotan outings on the German repertory circuit, of course, often have involved conditions rather more chaotic. With some fifty complete Ring cycles, dozens of extra Walküres and over 150 Dutchmen to his credit, Hale takes chaos in stride. "Going in without much rehearsal brings out your professionalism," he says. "You need to know your craft. They're depending on you."
Through all this, Hale has maintained an image of Wotan that embraces both light and shadow. "One colleague of mine says Wotan is a scoundrel, and that's how he's going to play him," he remarks. "That's so naive. It's true that Wotan is greedy, he wants power, he's had so many women. But you can't deliver this gorgeous, inspirational music -- the Rheingold finale or the Walküre monologue or the Abschied, music that makes grown men weep! -- without compassion and tenderness and love. If you can't bring that warmth to it, you're not catching what Wotan is."
Has Hale's understanding of Wotan undergone any fundamental change since Wiesbaden? "The fundamental change," he replies, "is growing into a deeper knowledge of the work. Nothing can take the place of working with different régisseurs. With experience, you're freed from the anxieties of newness, the unknown. You look into different corners. Earlier, maybe I would fight directors more than I should have. Now I'm ready to plunge in."
Hale's experience with Götz Friedrich on the Berlin Ring bears him out. Friedrich lets Wagner's characters get away with nothing. He has likened the Rheingold gods to gangsters, goading the singers to more savage expression with cries of "Chicago! Chicago!" A considerable remove, one might suppose, from Hale's own conception, yet the singer's word for Friedrich is "genius." "His preparation is so thorough -- the way he deals with character relationships."
The critics have not been kind to Adolf Dresen, whose Ring-in-progress in Vienna receives its first performance as a cycle this June, but Hale appreciated the note of light charm Dresen brought to the interactions between Wotan and Fricka ("They're fun to play"). Even in Der Fliegende Holländer, which Hale has performed every which way, including on the floating stage of the Bregenz Festival with a Senta soaked to the skin by the waters of Lake Constance, the singer is open to new influences. "Willy Decker's new staging for Cologne was phenomenal," he says. "He is so patient, so thorough, so well prepared. And he utilizes practically every bar. There's not a loophole or pause that is not thought about, planned dramatically. The final effect is a security, a depth of immersion into the character I've almost never experienced before."
Like many others before him and no doubt since, Hale once knocked on the door of Hans Hotter, the dominant midcentury Wotan, for study and counsel. One gathers the encounter was not altogether fulfilling on either side. By many accounts, Hotter is the Norma Desmond of Heldenbaritons, immured in memories of his past glories, damning all successors by their failure to be him. Hale, who first heard Wagner's call in Hotter's recordings, speaks of his distinguished elder with respect. "He has a fine mind. He's fascinating when he tells of his experience and about the personalities of conductors and other people he worked with. It was a marvelous voice. But what affected me most was his power of meaning in words. He made meaning as important as voice. I wanted to do that so much -- not to copy him."
In Dohnányi, Hale has found a kindred spirit and a champion. "His phrasing is so fine and clean," Hale says. "You hear things you've never heard before -- and some people don't want to. But it's so well thought out. It's not for one moment cool or lacking in emotion! I feel I gave the most effective Abschied I've ever done with him, and that's the key to Wotan. Dohnányi is constantly in contact with you. He listens, and if he hears something worthy happening, he'll wait to let things happen. He gives you freedom to express."
Dohnányi's enthusiasm for his chosen Wotan is hardly less ardent. "Interpretation must go to the roots," the maestro says. "You must ask, how did this work grow? It took Wagner four to five years to write the libretto of the Ring. During this time -- 1848 to 1852 or 1853 -- he didn't compose. The music always follows the text, as in really good lieder. You have to know how the words translate into music. You can't sing for the sake of singing. Robert's voice is a beautiful voice, an outstanding voice, and the big notes sound right. But he's not concerned only with vocal things. There's a total fusion of words and music."
Much has been said of late about the necessity of allying the Wagner repertory to bel canto, away from the "Bayreuth bark." As Dohnányi suggests, Hale's example proposes a different ideal. His sound is neither bladelike in its thrust nor flooding in the basso cantante fashion. It is ample, round, smooth, dark and rich; where bite is needed, vivacity of expression does the work, not a harsh edge. As Barak, Hale delivers the big tune "Mir anvertraut" in cantabile phrases that tug shamelessly at the heartstrings. And why not? This is practically Lehár territory. But like the Dutchman and Wotan, too, Hale is on his guard against the appeal of sensuous vocal effects: the throb, the sob, the "Italianate" portamento. His voice, in short, is an instrument, not a phenomenon.
So maybe it stands to reason that when DG and AngelEMI began tooling up their simultaneous Ring cycles with James Levine and Bernard Haitink in the mid-eighties, a different artist was preferred. To recording executives preparing a product for worldwide distribution, James Morris seemed the glamorous choice -- so much so that both companies waived the usual exclusivity requirements.
Back then, Hale had little choice but to face the likelihood that opportunity had passed him by. Yet his time has come. Though Hale does not say so, there may be a special satisfaction in the fact that his video Ring from Munich documents Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production, in which he was not first-cast; it was the occasion of Morris' first integral Wotan/Wanderer. Hale acknowledges no rivalries. "The world is big enough for all of us," he says. "In no way have I lacked for work."
Does he have any regrets about the timing of his recent recording boom? "I wish it could have been earlier," Hale answers, "but now maybe I can bring more depth from the experience on the stage. There are always pluses and minuses. All things in their season! It's a time I certainly can feel confident."
The Met Ring cycle adds to his sense of achievement. "It's important for me to perform in the United States, with my countrymen in the audience. When you've made it with your own, you've really made it. To have won success in a far-off land, to be taking it home with pride -- I'm grateful to be making that circle complete."