From Libretto #6 (2023/24)

Irene Roberts – My private place of peace … Grunewald forest

Irene Roberts loves to speed through the Grunewald on her racing bike. And cycling is not as alien to Kundry in PARSIFAL as one might imagine

The Grunewald is the place where I can really touch base with my soul. I’ve discovered this amazing loop for cyclists which runs parallel to the straight stretch of motorway and then follows the curves of the Havelchaussee, constant uphill or downhill gradients. Racing bikes are my thing, so it’s great for me. I love nature, the speed and the sense of freedom – and the element of risk. Most of the artists I know need the buzz of adrenalin; we’re hooked on the endorphins that are released when we’re on stage. I limit myself to 36 mph, though. I could easily go faster, and it’s not a question of fear or anything, but faster would be irresponsible! I have children to care for and operas to sing; I can’t be in hospital.

I ride an old Fuji that’s notched up quite a few miles over the years, but I wouldn’t switch to a lighter bike that looks cooler. I bought this one with my first pay cheque as a singer, when I appeared as Rosina in Rossini’s IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA with a small company in northern California. I took it with me wherever I went in the States, including New York, where the loop in Central Park was my regular training track. All the tourists and horse-drawn carriages made it a bit hairy at times. And then when I moved to Berlin, obviously I had my bike shipped there too.

Racing bikes run in the family. I got the bug from my dad and my brothers, and it was them who inspired me to do my first »century ride«, in Napa Valley, California. It’s a 100-mile route that is all about stamina, not about speed or placing. It tests you physically and mentally because you have to stay focused and overcome your weaknesses. Same goes for a Wagner opera: both activities amount to a journey dotted with challenges that call for a high degree of stamina.


A need for speed. The mezzo-soprano gets an adrenalin rush from powering through the greenery on her Fuji bike © Max Zerrahn

Although I’ve been preparing to sing Kundry in PARSIFAL in Berlin for around three years now, I’m still only just starting to get a proper feel for the depth and darkness of Wagner’s world, for its fantasy and mystery. Everything’s pregnant with meaning. It has that special, quasi-religious tone to it that people in Germany adopt when talk turns to the woods. When I was new here, I didn’t really get it. We have some pretty awesome landscapes in the States too, but when you’re deep in the forest there’s not this idea that you’re ritually cleansing yourself and thirsting for spiritual renewal. But now, riding through Grunewald, I kind of get it. I wipe my head clean of worries and my ‘to-do’ lists for two and a half hours and just focus on my breathing and my pedal power.

For me the attribute that best describes Kundry is ‘strong’. Obviously, the character is a product of the 19th century, and the effect she has on audiences today is different to how she was perceived back in the day, which would have been as a contrarian, strong-willed, even untamed woman. I don’t see it like that. She yearns for freedom to choose – and strives to attain it – but it's not granted her.

It probably can’t hurt if a director adds a dash of feminism to a Wagner work, by which I mean any of his operas apart from maybe THE VALKYRIE. Not that I think he disparages women. I’m not particular conservative by nature, but I still think there is value in staying true to the story as it was written. The lyrics and music are interwoven. All the feelings conveyed in the singing are purveyed by the words.

Kundry suffers, is burdened by guilt and thirsts for redemption. Essentially she’s driven by sheer desperation, whether she’s trying to seduce Parsifal or bucking the instructions of Klingsor. She does her level best to find a way out of her predicament. Her only option seems to be to do her utmost and always give a hundred percent. I can relate to that, even though I don’t incline towards despair. But if we’re talking about pulling out all the stops to achieve an objective, it conjures up mental images of my sport and how my cycling has become an integral part of my being. And how much of a kick I get out of it.


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