In the world of opera, few roles are as daunting and revered as those in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. For Daniel Sumegi, a Sydney-born bass singer, the journey to playing Wotan/Wanderer in the upcoming 2023 production of the Ring Cycle in Brisbane is both a professional milestone and a nostalgic homecoming.
Sumegi’s professional journey in opera began in Brisbane in 1988, following his triumph in the Australian Singing Competition (now IFAC), which led to a contract with the Lyric Opera of Queensland (LOQ). His inaugural role was that of Joe in “Showboat,” performed on the River Stage during World Expo ’88. This marked the beginning of several performances with the LOQ, before he embarked on an international career in the early 1990s.
Sumegi faces the colossal task of bringing to life a character who, if his phrases were strung together, would sing for at least three hours in a 15-hour musical saga. “The most obvious challenge with this set of roles is simply memorising them, and then keeping them fresh in the memory,” Sumegi shares. He also highlights the challenge of maintaining vocal freshness throughout the extensive stage time, especially as some of Wotan’s most nuanced music arrives towards the end of Die Walküre.
As you make your role debut as Wotan/Wanderer in the Ring Cycle, what have been the most challenging aspects of preparing for this complex character, and how does this role differ from your previous experiences in opera?
In the cycle, Wotan sings for a minimum of 3 hours, out of the 15 or so of music. That is if you put all of his phrases back-to-back, it doesn’t account for total stage time which is immensely more. Then you have to keep the voice fresh over the course of up to 6 hours. In Die Walküre, the most finessed and famous music occurs at the very end. That’s a giant challenge.
For Sumegi, returning to Brisbane, where he made his professional debut in 1988, evokes a profound sense of nostalgia. He recounts his early performances with the Lyric Opera of Queensland and reflects on the city’s transformation over the years. “From a professional debut to tackling the Mount Everest of my repertoire for the first time is like a full-circle moment, dare I say like a Ring?”
Your career has come full circle, returning to Brisbane where you made your professional debut in 1988. How do you reflect on your journey from then to now, and how does it feel to be back in Brisbane for such a landmark role?
It’s very nostalgic to be back here since those early days. I sang for Lyric Opera of Queensland a few times between 1988 and 1990, firstly in a concert performance of Show Boat singing the iconic ‘Ol’ Man River’. A huge thrill for me, obviously. But then I wasn’t here again until about 2012, when I sang in Bluebeard’s Castle with Lisa Gasteen for QSO. 11 years ago, I thought the city was unrecognisable, but now it is exponentially more so.
The 2023 production is marked by its cutting-edge digital technology, yet Sumegi points out that this modern approach doesn’t directly impact his performance. The performers, on a relatively bare stage, must trust in their immersion into a larger, digitally-enhanced story-world that they cannot fully perceive. “What the audience sees is beyond spectacular,” he says, emphasising the imagination-triggering potential of this digital opera.
The 2023 production of the Ring Cycle is noted for its cutting-edge digital technology. How do you think this modern approach to staging and design impacts your performance and the audience’s experience of the opera?
The technology doesn’t really impact my performance, in that what the audience sees is primarily on large screens around us. I don’t get to see, or feel, most of that so as performers on an essentially bare stage, from our point-of-view we have to trust we are in a larger story-world, without quite feeling it in the moment. What the audience sees is beyond spectacular, where the imagination can be triggered to make a myriad of worlds within the mind.
Discussing Wagner’s storytelling, Sumegi draws parallels between the flawed character of Wotan and contemporary world leaders. Wotan’s story, filled with adultery, deceit, and moral contradictions, echoes the complexities of real-world governance and relationships. “At the heart of the story he makes rules which he thinks only he can break,” Sumegi observes, highlighting the universal relevance of the character.
Wagner’s Ring Cycle is known for its depth and complexity. Is there a particular aspect of Wagner’s music or storytelling that resonates with you personally or has influenced your approach to the role of Wotan/Wanderer?
We see the flawed character of Wotan played out every day, embodied in most world leaders you could name. He is an adulterer, tries to get out of contracts through chicanery, and endorses frowned upon behaviour which goes against social norms, to name a few character traits. At the heart of the story he makes rules which he thinks only he can break, expecting his daughter, whom he loves most in the world, to understand and follow. She doesn’t and the downfall of the God Empire crumbles.
Reflecting on his successful career, Sumegi offers advice to those aiming to conquer Wagner’s works. “An opera career is a marathon, not a sprint,” he advises. He emphasises the importance of patience, preparation, and seizing the right opportunities. “They say success is when opportunity and preparation meet. So, do the hard work, be patient, and take your time,” he counsels.
Having achieved great success in your career, including taking on one of the most challenging roles in the operatic repertoire, what advice would you give to aspiring opera singers, especially those who aim to tackle Wagner’s works?
I always knew I would sing these roles, since I was 19. I didn’t rush it or seek it out, however. It did take longer to come my way than I would have expected, though I may not have been ready for it sooner. I can’t know. I am certainly glad to be doing it now. They say success is when opportunity and preparation meet. So, my advice is do the hard work, be patient and take your time.
As the curtain rises on this production, Daniel epitomises enduring power of patience, hard work, and the magic of returning to one’s roots. His journey from a young singer on the banks of the Brisbane River to a seasoned artist tackling opera’s most challenging roles inspires both awe and admiration.
Dates: December 1-21st 2023
For more information and to book click HERE.