Travel on a Winter’s Journey with Opera QLD’s Gregory Massingham
Opera Queensland and Gregory Massingham will take audiences away on a winter’s trip in the latest installment of their Studio Series this weekend.
Acclaimed tenor Gregory Massingham will present Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, accompanied by pianist Stephen Emmerson. The music will be complimented by majestic winter landscape paintings by German painter Casper David Friedrich.
Winterreise tells a classic Romantic story, following a young man, who, in the throes of unrequited love, sets out into the winter wilderness on a journey of self-discovery. We had a chat with Gregory on bringing a winter wonderland to life.
The Creative Issue: How does it feel to present Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle as part of Opera Qld’s Studio Series?
Gregory Massingham: We were most pleased to be asked to do that. It’s a lovely recital series that they have there. It started because of COVID, which is fortuitous because it’s not something that an opera company can usually do. There’s some lovely programs and we were pleased to fall in with our colleagues and produce music. Ours is probably the most serious of the presentations. The Schubert song cycle is a long and sad cycle, but it’s still recognised as one of the greatest song cycles. So it’s apt that we do it in this series.
TCI: What are some challenges and highlights in the repertoire?
GM: Well, it’s a long cycle. It’s 24 songs, which Schubert wrote at the end of his life. It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to perform. So, it’s the stamina that’s required physically, from both the pianist and the singer. More so, it’s the journey. It is called Winter’s Journey not a summer’s journey, so it’s rather an inward-looking dark journey. It turns out really being a journey of the soul. That presents challenges to performers, to find the arc Schubert so masterfully creates in his architecture. So I suppose it’s the length of the work, maintaining and sustaining over that time, and also making the narrative speak to the audience.
TCI: What can audiences expect in the recital?
GM: Well, they’ll hear probably the greatest song cycle ever written. It’s one of Schubert’s greatest works and one of the masterworks in the Western Canon. We’re presenting it with slides which will project translations of the German songs, which is important for the audience to see.
They’ll also see, accompanying those translations, paintings by the great German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. Most people might not know who the painter was, but they’d know that famous painting, Wanderer on the Sea of Fog. It’s very much associated with the Romantic movement. It’s amazing how closely these landscapes echo the sentiments within the poems of Müller, and the songs of Winterreise. In the past when we’ve done it, audiences have been very grateful that the accompaniment is there.
TCI: Your performance of Schubert’s Winterreise is accompanied by winter landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich. How do the paintings complement Schubert’s work?
GM: I’m currently writing a paper on it! The symbolism in Friedrich’s paintings has so many layers, it’s astounding. Just seeing the paintings, there’s a real resonance of the visual with the aural landscape of the songs. Many of his landscapes are winter landscapes, and that of course accompanies the winter landscapes that are implicit in the poems of Muller and the music of Schubert. So, they have an immediacy of complementation, and if people want to go further, as I’ve discovered, there’s a lot of under laying similarities as well.
The catalyst for the song cycle is a lost love, and so he leaves his place and goes into the wilderness in the midst of winter, so it’s cold, dark, gloomy. It soon becomes not a physical journey, but a journey of the soul. Many of Friedrich’s paintings also have that inner psychological arc.
TCI: What is it like to perform with Stephen Emmerson?
GM: Always a great, great pleasure. We’ve performed this work together a dozen times now. As young music students, we knew about it, we worked on it, we played through it. But as a cycle of the soul, it’s not a young person’s cycle, it’s more an old person’s cycle. I didn’t perform it until I was fifty, back in 2002.
When we decided to do it, we met every week to work on it for a whole year. So even though we had individual responses to it from our youth, we took time to work slowly and develop an interpretation that was shared by both of us. I’ve known Stephen for many years, he’s always an absolute joy to work with and a wonderful musician. He’s the ideal person to play these songs. If you look at the music on the page for Winterreise there’s not a lot of notes, it’s very sparse. It takes a real great musician to make those notes sing.
What: Gregory Massingham present’s Winterreise
When: Fri 7 May 7pm & Sat 8 May 2pm
Where: Opera Queensland Studio, 140 Grey St South Brisbane
Tickets: $85 adult, $77 concession, $43 child. Book here.
Feature image: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Wanderer above the Mist or Mountaineer in a Misty Landscape) c. 1818 by Caspar David Friedrich