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A New Heldentenor for a New Decade

January 5, 2010 | By Shirley Apthorp
MusicalAmerica.com
BERLIN -- The first time I can remember hearing Irish tenor Paul McNamara was as Erik in a "Fliegende Holländer" in Görlitz, a pretty Renaissance town on the German-Polish border. I was struck by his charisma, intelligent phrasing and his big, open voice. But when he repeated the role in Neustrelitz some three years later, in 2006, I was even more impressed. The development had been remarkable. This was a tenor who produced a sound that commanded instant attention. There was something electrifying in the voice, and something about his performance that ratcheted up the tension in the rest of the evening several notches.

April 2008 saw McNamara tackle the role of Saint Michael in Christoph Schlingensief's headline-grabbing production of Braunfels' "Jeanne d'Arc" for the Deutsche Oper Berlin. This was a short but demanding role, with meaty passages at both the beginning and the end of the opera, and no ambiguity about the kind of voice required. McNamara, reported Berlin's Morgenpost, sang "with a vividness and beauty of tone that gives one the impression that there are also excellent schools of singing in Heaven and not only in Ireland." In a frenetically hyped production of an important work at one of the German capital's leading houses, McNamara pulled off his part flawlessly, night after night.

But it was as Tannhäuser in Würzburg last Spring that McNamara definitively arrived on the German scene as tomorrow's Heldentenor. Everything required in a Wagner tenor was solidly in place: a big range, a formidable technique, an effortless top, musicality, expressive power and stamina.

McNamara's Tannhäuser earned him a nomination as "Singer of the Year" in Germany's prestigious Opernwelt.

"Seldom does one hear Tannhäuser sung with such sensitive fragility," declared radio station Bayern 5. Das Opernglas praised his "charismatic, expressive timbre and robust power," the Fränkischer Tag enthused that "one could almost believe oneself to be in Wagner-tenor heaven."

It was a triumph for the 41-year-old Heldentenor, who has been quietly climbing the rungs of the Wagnerian ladder for the past decade.

For a real tenor, there is no such thing as an overnight miracle. Success comes from hard work, sacrifice, determination, talent, skill and more hard work. McNamara points with pride to the fact that the small German houses where he has earned his professional stripes have turned out some major stars before him. Neustrelitz, a small town north of Berlin where he has sung several roles, produced the legendary Danish tenor Helge Rosvaenge; in Würzburg, where his Tannhäuser caused such a stir, the great Wagnerian soprano Waltraud Meier began her career and, more recently, Diana Damrau (the 2008 Opernwelt "Singer of the Year") began her rise to fame.

In March, McNamara makes his debut as Parsifal in Münster. He repeats the role in Würzburg the following season, and takes his Tannhäuser to Halle. Debuts as Tristan and Siegfried are in discussion.

"I couldn't be happier," McNamara admits. "My motto is to make haste slowly -- of course I'm impatient and I want things to happen, but I am also philosophical, and time has taught me that things do tend to happen at the right time.

"The first challenge with Wagner is to be able to sing it at all, and the second challenge is to protect yourself so that you can sing it for a long time. Singers come and go so quickly.

"Often people are just trying to survive. I'm getting to the stage now where I find I have the freedom to express things, and I feel like a duck in water. For me a career means still singing when I am in my 60s. I am a huge fan of Philip Langridge, who at 70 is still singing at the Met."

McNamara feels comfortable within the traditional German system, where a role in a new production brings with it a solid two months' rehearsal time, and the sheer number of companies means that there is always a chance to take a role further. But he also enjoys the opportunities to stretch his wings in other repertoire.

"One of the main questions for a singer destined to sing the heavier dramatic repertoire is how to spend your time while you are waiting for your voice to settle and mature. A great deal of your time is spent waiting.

"Of course, you have to be able to separate aspiration from delusion. The Tannhäuser debut in Würzburg was both a turning point and a huge relief for me. It's not an end in itself so much as a welcome sign that I am indeed on the right road.

"But I try to keep my repertoire as broad as possible, which is why I'm singing Canio in Weimar, and also as much operetta as possible. Erik in 'Dutchman' is much easier to sing after you've mastered Barinkay in 'The Gypsy Baron.' Johann Strauss demands a flexibility in the voice which is ideal in Wagner, but which you don't often get to hear."

In addition to other such roles as Max in "Der Freischütz," Lenski in "Eugene Onegin" and the Prince in "Rusalka," McNamara is a keen recitalist; later in the season, he takes a program of settings of Irish poetry on tour in Ireland, England and Germany.

But Wagner has become his main playing-field. He has sung Erik in four different productions, Loge in Weimar, Froh for Opera Ireland, Melot in Chemnitz and Wiesbaden.

It's all a long way from Ireland's Limerick, where McNamara first discovered his thirst for opera. "I remember as a child on a wet rainy day putting on Karajan's recording of "Tosca" with Leontyne Price, and that was it," he says.

Studies in Cork and London lead him to the opera stage, first as a baritone, later as a tenor. He changed "Fach" with his characteristic caution, taking things step by step. His move to Berlin in 2000 was a calculated gamble.

The risk proved worth taking; McNamara clearly can look forward to a bright future as a Wagnerian Heldentenor.

"Siegfried is about somebody who has not yet learned to fear," he says. "To me, that's one of the big secrets of singing the Wagner tenor roles -- you just can't be afraid. You have to make sure that the fear doesn't interfere. That's why I'm hugely grateful to my current teacher in Berlin, Gundula Hintz, who has enabled me to replace the sense of fear with a sense of joy. With that comes a wonderful sense of freedom."

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