Born in Denmark, he began his career in opera as a baritone, turned heldentenor, started gaining international attention as Siegmund and Parsifal in Wagner's own Festspielhaus...
Poul Elming, the artist in question, knows what you are thinking, and wishes you weren't.
"When I came to Bayreuth," he says, "there was a lot of talk of a new Melchior. And that's awful, to be compared to someone who's such a phenomenon -- barely even human! He'd go bear-hunting in the morning, show up at the Met for Tristan half an hour before the show, have a party afterward, then get up the next morning and do the same."
Apart from the bear-hunting, there are other differences to note. Melchior was born and made his debut in Copenhagen, the royal capital; Elming in quiet Aalborg. Melchior introduced himself as a tenor at twenty-eight, in the role of Tannhäuser. When Elming was twenty-eight, he was making his recital debut. His opera debut followed a year later, in a new Danish piece, Bent Lorentven's I Think This Was by Mozart. Copenhagen's Royal Opera House, to whose ensemble Elming still belongs, supported him for the several months of study preceding his "birthday as a tenor," in spring 1989. The move, he says, was risky but inevitable. "I said to myself, I know what I have -- leave it alone. But as a baritone I was darkening my voice artificially. It was becoming more and more difficult."
He proceeded with care, making his bow as a tenor in the part of the false Dmitri in the original Boris Godunov, with its comparatively low tessitura and no Polish act. He was by now thirty-nine, a time of life when Melchior already had conquered the world as Tannhäuser, Siegfried and Tristan. If, as many experts lament, we are living in an age of tragically foreshortened careers, do not look at Elming.
Peter Hofmann, on the other hand, only five years Elming's senior, was at this point hanging on vocally by a thread, and Harry Kupfer, who directed the Copenhagen Boris, was on the lookout for a Siegmund to replace Hofmann in his Bayreuth Ring. No one satisfactory was on the horizon. Kupfer, among others, suggested that Elming audition at Bayreuth, and that summer Elming went south with "Winterstürme" and the final pages of Parsifal, thinking the festival might consider him for some minor role. He sang, worked briefly with Daniel Barenboim, Kupfer's musical counterpart on the Ring, and that day received an invitation to return in 1990 for Siegmund. "He was very good," Barenboim recalls. "Very green, but good. So we took him." A Bayreuth engagement as Parsifal followed. This summer, his holy fool opened the festival, while his Siegmund returned in the new Ring, staged by Alfred Kirchner and conducted by James Levine.
Since his Bayreuth debut, Elming has been heard in these roles and as Erik in Der Fliegende Holländer in London, Berlin, Antwerp and other European cities. (San Francisco and Chicago have engaged him for Siegmund in 1995.) Copenhagen has seen his first Lohengrin, which he was invited to repeat at Bayreuth last summer. He accepted, despite misgivings, and withdrew, to his own great relief, fulfilling his previous commitment for double duty as the Sailor and Melot in the new Tristan und Isolde starring Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier. He repeats those cameos this year. Who says the ensemble spirit is dead? But isn't this pushing it a little far?
"Wolfgang Wagner asked me to do Melot so I could learn the piece, and I thought that was a good idea," Elming replies. "I might be able to sing Tristan someday." It was Barenboim who requested that Elming also sing the Sailor. The tenor is in no hurry to tackle the starring part. Witnessing Jerusalem in rehearsal and in performance impressed on him just how frightening the job is. Instead, Elming turned his attention to Florestan, another assignment commanding his full respect. "It's a killer, as everybody knows," he said while still preparing the role. "I know too, now that I've tried it. But a year ago, that was my attitude toward Lohengrin. You have to try to push yourself -- not only sing the roles you know you can do without too much effort. It helps to have some difficult goals."
Elming's discography to date is short, and the singer is ambivalent about it. His Siegmund may be heard and seen in parallel CD and laserdisc albums of the KupferBarenboim Ring cycle, and a companion video Parsifal is in the can (all on Teldec). He also has recorded Siegmund with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra (forthcoming from London Records), as well as the King in Denmark's classic Drot og Marsk (King and Marshal), recently released on Chandos, by Peter Heise. "I'm bad at recordings," he protests. "I'm not so experienced. You focus on details. With a headset on, you hear your voice differently, and you start to panic. It sounds worse and worse. Onstage is where it happens for me."
According to reliable reports, Elming's first outings at Bayreuth seemed promising rather than authoritative, but by 1992, the KupferBarenboim Ring's last season, his Siegmund belonged in the class of rare portrayals that fuse word, song and gesture into a whole that transcends them all. It was an athletic production: Siegmund's first business was to stagger forward from the back of the stage, roll on the floor as it slowly tilted to become the roof of Hunding's bunker, then hang from a pipe in a cutout for the ash tree and finally drop several feet to the floor. Tall and Bunyanesque, Elming had the body language to convey both the hero's power and his fatigue. The sound, of a distinctive bronze coloration, flowed powerfully, with ease. Like Jon Vickers and Hofmann in his brief glory, Elming seemed inevitable in the role, yet nothing like either, untouched by either Vickers' fierce, destructive joy or Hofmann's bone-deep melancholy.
He played a born warrior, vehement in his line-readings, fearless. Yet between Elming and Nadine Secunde's Sieglinde the instant erotic charge was electric, and the air he conveyed toward her was gracious, protective. The way Elming and Matthias Hölle's Hunding slammed their plates and ripped their bread into flying crumbs, eyes locked across the length of the long dinner table, was as mesmerizing for its danger as for its high-macho absurdity. And the frank joy with which Elming threw open his arms to John Tomlinson's Wotan, a split second before Wotan thrust him backward, halfway across the stage, into Hunding's spear, made this most sickening moment of the cycle all but unendurable.
Where does this portrayal come from? "My Siegmund is a result of working with Barenboim and Kupfer and my own ideas," Elming answers in fluent English. "He's a fighter, on the run -- always suspicious, and with good reason. In Bayreuth they always say that Siegmund is like Rambo, and I don't think that's against Wagner's intentions. But with Sieglinde he's very gentle and soft. The challenge of this production was to have both sides in your character and to project them from the stage."
He does not mind admitting that the results did not come easily. "Barenboim was very tough on me, and also his assistant, Antonio Pappano [currently music director of Brussels' Théâtre de la Monnaie]. They made me so mad sometimes, but I'm glad they did it. For my debut, I was as well prepared as I could have been without actually having performed the part before. They tortured me! I didn't understand then how good that is."
Tortured him? "It had a lot to do with singing clear and correct German, which is not so easy. In Denmark, we learn German at school, and I had studied in Germany, so the language wasn't strange to me. But if you're forced to make the text so clear and the consonants so strong, you can hurt your voice. And I sometimes left rehearsals with no voice at all. They wouldn't compromise, so I had to learn to sing clearly without ruining my voice. And because I'm a stubborn person, they never heard me say 'I can't do that.' I wouldn't surrender!"
For Elming, Wagner is a recent enthusiasm. The son of a policeman who played the snare drum in the police band, and the younger of two brothers, Elming grew up listening to music of all kinds. "I have a theory," he says, "that the reason I became a musician and my pals didn't was that we had a gramophone. I listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones -- what every teenager listened to. It's a part of my musical life that I still enjoy thinking about. I get sentimental when I hear those songs. When I listened to opera, it was Verdi and Puccini, not Wagner. With Wagner, you have to do your homework. You can't just go and have a good time. I never liked his music until I started singing it, and now I love it."
Like so many future soloists, he sang in a church choir, where he was heard by a woman who was studying voice privately. She brought the sixteen-year-old to the attention of her teacher, who in turn invited him to apply to the local conservatory. Elming, auditioning with "Ol' Man River" and music of Carl Nielsen, was accepted despite the fact that he could neither play the piano nor sight-read. He still cannot play the piano, he says, though he knows where the notes are. "I had to learn everything from scratch," he recalls. "I went to high school and the conservatory at the same time. And I went through the conservatory at half-speed."
All of which may help explain a personality that offstage seems unassuming, cheerful and relaxed. He claims, implausibly, that he is lazy, and quotes with approval an interview with Håkan Hagegård, who when asked why he still spent so much time in Sweden, where taxes are so high, answered that if life were only money, it would be different, but why give up all one's friends for a little more money?
Like Hagegård, Elming is determined to maintain the balance between family life and an international career. One great attraction of Bayreuth, apart from the music, is the atmosphere. "We have a lot of work to do," he says, "but people bring their families, and it's still half-vacation." Last summer, Elming and his wife, soprano Eva Hess Thaysen, were showing off their new baby daughter, Julie.
The only clue the general audience is likely to catch of Elming's offstage personality comes in bows that verge on the bashful. "I've always thought curtain calls are difficult," Elming says. "If people love you, it's wonderful to go out and see that they're pleased. But I get embarrassed. I try to get away as quickly as possible. I think it's terrible when people stay out too long."
Except in that context, Elming intends to continue taking one deliberate step at a time. Not that opportunities to rush are lacking. Even before he switched to tenor parts, impresarios weighed in with offers for Tristan. The list of parts he has turned down includes Gherman in Queen of Spades, Waldemar in Gurrelieder and the Verdi Requiem. "I've seen people do everything quickly and retire early," Elming says. "I don't want the whole thing to burn out in four or five years. Often my agent calls and says 'I'm sure you agree you shouldn't sing this,' and I say yes."
What is his deepest wish for his career? "That I'll survive. That I don't do anything stupid to ruin my voice. That I can go on singing a long time."
Melchior, you will recall, marked his seventieth birthday with a concert performance of the first act of Die Walküre. That's something to shoot for.