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Anything goes – Interview with Michael Nagy
On 19th February the Deutsche Oper will be reviving a fascinating and complex historical character: Edward II, a man of high drama, a gay icon and a major player in determining the fortunes of his English homeland in the Middle Ages. Swiss composer Andrea Scartazzini has teamed up with librettist Thomas Jonigk and written an opera about the man, his affair with Piers de Gaveston and his adversary, Roger Mortimer. And Munich-born baritone Michael Nagy now has an opportunity to explore this iridescent personality from a very different perspective, namely as an actor portraying him onstage. But first off, the all-important question: team Edward or team Mortimer?

On quality of friendship I’d go for Mortimer. He may be square, but with Edward you never know if he’s your friend or foe. He’s unpredictable. Ok, people on all sides nowadays are crying out for politicians with a little edge and bite to their character, and hey, with Edward, it’s all there…

Sounds like we’re dealing with mediaeval England’s Donald Trump.

Unfortunately it does look that way, yes. He’s a despot, a dictator - or let’s just say he’s uncertain in his role as monarch and remains uncertain to the bitter end. No, I prefer friendships with depth to them, ones that aren’t continually knife-edging and being analysed. And with Edward I’m not sure if it would work.

So Edward has to go on ploughing his lonely furrow. What’s it like, slipping into that kind of character onstage?

Very exciting. As a hetero you have to dig deep to play this kind of gay ruler.

Especially as Edward’s homosexuality is a pretty important aspect of this production, right?

Yes. Edward isn’t being presented as just any old outsider - his gay orientation is real and obvious. The opera is looking at sexuality, passion, jealousy and everything that’s linked to that. Edward does not distinguish between his sexual practices and the power of his office. And in the end that’s what makes him so terribly lonely. He spurns anything that smacks of convention and is outraged that he’s not allowed to be openly gay. At least this is the message he’s getting, and he does what he wants anyway. As a narcissist, he grabs what he wants, like a child in a toy shop. Someone or other will pay for it. But it’s an attitude that also threatens his very existence. By propounding his own way of life with less and less inhibition he ends up destroying it. That’s a hugely complex personality to have to convey. When you’re playing Edward onstage, pretty much anything goes.

And how do you go about addressing the task? What’s more of a help, the music or the words?

Hard to say. I like to start with the physical material, i.e. the text and the score, which you can draw certain things from and which rules out certain other things. So for me the first thing to get straight is what the libretto actually wants me to sing. The run-up to the first rehearsal with the orchestra - and afterwards, too - is an exciting time because of all the synthetic elements that the score is peppered with. There are audio tape overlays that haven’t been recorded yet, there are bits of synthesizer… You only have a rough idea of how it’ll all sound. But it’s already clear that the composer, Andrea Scartazzini, had a dramatic trajectory in mind from the very beginning. Each of the ten stand-alone scenes has its own musical identity. Scartazzini is meticulous in his approach to the atmosphere and mood that he wants to serve as the cradle for each scene. So in answer to your question I can say that text and music are both a help.

What do you actually prefer: singing a part that no one’s ever sung before, or taking on a role where everyone probably has their own favourite singer in mind?

In the best-case scenario there’s no difference. It goes without saying that people are influenced by conventions that dictate how opera should be heard. Maybe their own wishes come into play, too. And as a singer, of course, you have the maestros as points of reference. But both situations have their plus points. If you’re in a position to lend your voice to a brand-new work, that’s just as exciting as tackling a work from the repertoire, where you’re bringing the same curiosity and maybe also a touch of naiveté to the piece.

World Premiere on 19. February; Performances on 24. February; 1. March; 4. March; 9. March

Interview: Renske Steen
(c) Monika Rittershaus