An interview with Gregory Massingham
15th April, 2021

An interview with Gregory Massingham

Ahead of his performance of 'Winterreise' with pianist Stephen Emmerson, we spoke to acclaimed tenor Gregory Massingham to hear more about their rare staging of Schubert’s seminal work. Here Gregory shares more on the origins of the piece composed just prior to Schubert’s death.

What made your select Winterreise for your recital – is there a personal story or connection you can share with our audiences?

Obviously the quality of the work itself is a reason for the choice. It is also a work where an older performer may be able to provide a different point of view. Of course, young artists do it and indeed Schubert’s protagonist is a young man, however that perspective is a transitory one and it soon becomes clear that the struggle we are witness to is a life-long journey. Consequently, grey hair may be an advantage!

Because all the performances are so different and so personal we like to paint a picture for the audience. What can audiences expect from your upcoming performance with Opera Queensland?

Winterreise (Winter Journey) is a cycle of twenty-four songs by the greatest of all Lieder composers, Franz Schubert. The poems are by Wilhelm Müller, the same poet whose texts Schubert used in his only other song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin. Winterreise is quite different from that earlier work and, being written at the very end of his short life, predictably it is sombre in tone, yet insightful in character. Winterreise is universally regarded as one of the great works in the classical canon and to experience the work in a live performance can greatly enhance its impact.

How did you and Stephen come to know each other? How long have you been performing together?

Stephen and I have known each other for at least thirty years and have been colleagues at the Queensland Conservatorium for much of that time. We have collaborated on many performance projects over the years, usually Lieder and Art Song but also contemporary works and premiere performances.

How will you and Stephen prepare for your recitals?

Stephen Emmerson and I first performed Winterreise in 2002 and have done it about a dozen times since. Being the masterpiece that it is, we were both already well acquainted with it, however, its status in that hierarchy meant that the prospect of taking on its challenges was accompanied by a sense of awe. So, when we felt that we were sufficiently mature and finally decided to perform it, we each brought to our rehearsal sessions, decades of listening, study and opinions formed over that time. For a full year before our planned performance of the work, we met often and regularly to study and rehearse the work together so that we might form a cohesive and, hopefully, compelling reading.

Your performance of Schubert’s Winterreise in the Opera Queensland Studio Series is accompanied by a presentation of majestic winter landscapes by the German painter, Caspar David Friedrich. How do the paintings complement Schubert’s work?

Of course, Friedrich’s landscapes have long been a symbol of German Romanticism but I have also been astounded how so many of his canvases complement the songs of Winterreise. The brooding, introspective character of his canvases seems to share a similar spirit to that of the wanderer in Schubert’s cycle and become more like (self) portraiture than landscapes. I recommend a splendid book, recently published, entitled Caspar David Friedrich: Nature and the Self by Nina Amstutz, which has revealed even closer associations than I could ever have imagined.

I should add that while the majority of the images that will accompany our performance are by Friedrich, I have also used images by other artists, often contemporaries and acquaintances of Friedrich.

Above: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Wanderer above the Mist or Mountaineer in a Misty Landscape) c. 1818 by Caspar David Friedrich (detail) (supplied)

Is there a particular part of the song-cycle or a specific piece that is more difficult or rewarding to perform?

While there are specific challenges with individual songs, I think the most difficult task for the performers is to create and sustain an empathy with Schubert’s protagonist. Unlike his earlier cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, there is no narrative or even chronology to direct the action. There is the catalyst of a failed relationship that initiates his journey, however it soon becomes clear that we are witness to, and taking part in, a more universal journey of the soul.

What would you say to some who has never been to the opera to encourage them to attend a performance?

While Winterreise invites its listeners into a rather melancholy world, it can be a remarkably cathartic experience. Prophetically, Schubert knew this when he composed the work at the end of his life. His friend, Joseph von Spaun, reported the following on hearing Schubert sing through the work for the first time:

[Schubert said] “Come over to Schober’s today and I will sing you a cycle of horrifying [schauerlicher] songs… they have cost me more effort than any of my other songs.” So he sang the entire Winterreise through to us in a voice full of emotion. We were utterly dumbfounded by the mournful, gloomy tone of these songs. To this Schubert replied, “I like these songs more than all the rest, and you will come to like them as well”.

I hope audiences will agree.

What are you listening to or inspired by right now?

Actually, (and appropriately!) I’m researching and writing a paper on the confluence of ideas between Schubert’s Winterreise and the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. This has been a long term project and still has a while until completion but I will post it on my website when done, if people are interested in reading it.

Gregory Massingham performed Schubert’s ‘Der Leiermann’ for Opera Queensland’s An Aria A Day in May 2020. Re-watch this performance below ahead of seeing the complete song-cycle performed as part of the Opera Queensland Studio Series.

Winterreise by Franz Schubert
Performed by Gregory Massingham and Stephen Emmerson
7 & 8 May 2021
Opera Queensland Studio, South Bank
Tickets from $85

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