Toby Spence makes his role debut in our new production of Parsifal next month. With rehearsals now underway, we were keen to discover his thoughts on Wagner’s remarkable final work and what it’s like playing the opera’s unlikely hero.
How have you found coming to this work for the first time?
In a word, daunting! The scope, complexity and ambition with which Wagner wrought Parsifal is a lot to grapple with, particularly when you haven’t sung the role before.
It was Wagner’s last opera and, after a gestation of 20 years, he poured all his theories about humanity, physics, belief, morality and more into the work. Through it, he prefigures many of the societal developments and scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. As performers, we are entrusted to do justice to the music, the story and to this amazing vision.
Tell us about the character of Parsifal
In a nutshell, Parsifal is prophesied to be the “pure fool” who through compassion becomes wise. He enters the narrative as a naïf, a nature boy unaffected by artifice or societal norms. His first act within the drama is to shoot a swan. As Gurnemanz draws his attention to the unfeeling, disrespectful manner with which he kills the majestic bird, Parsifal feels the shame of his action and starts his journey towards heroism and manhood through the acknowledgement of emotion as the wellspring of wisdom.
Parsifal embodies Schopenhauer’s ideal of the hero as one who fights against unequal odds for the good of others. He pursues his quest to retrieve the Holy Spear with unflinching zeal, denying himself physical pleasure in the arms of Kundry in order to outwit Klingsor’s man-trap. On delivering the Spear of Destiny to the Brotherhood of the Grail, he heals Amfortas and assumes the role of rightful leader of the realm. I told you it’s a lot to live up to!
Debate still rages over the meaning of Parsifal; what’s your opinion?
I think Wagner meant to convey many things by writing Parsifal. The web-like narrative in which everything connects to everything else affords him a world where he can speculate about complex theories and put them to the test. It’s worth remembering that it was completed in 1882, a time when rationalism, science and commerce held sway over Europe.
Today, my focus is on the message of emotion, feeling and morality being a source of wisdom and purpose over and above anything else. Now, having written and re-read these words, that seems trite and reductive, but it is only the start of rehearsals and there’s a long way to go before we open. Ask me again in a few weeks’ time!
Do you have a favourite moment?
Since I heard Parsifal for the first time when I was 20, I have always been thrilled by the scene in which Gurnemanz and Parsifal are transported through space and time to the Temple of the Grail in another dimension beyond our own reality. That remains one of my favourite moments to this day.
How can the music best be described?
Epic! There really is no more to be said. You definitely need to experience it to feel the full power and skill behind the score – and it’s great that we have Richard Farnes here ensuring full justice is done to Wagner’s intentions.
Why should people take the plunge and give Parsifal a go?
Pack your sandwiches, get comfortable, settle in and let us do the work for you! After all, this is a rare chance to just sit back and bask in one of the great achievements of creative humanity.