Clay Hilley: A place of serenity for my soul … my suitcase

Tenor Clay Hilley sings the title role in Wagner’s SIEGFRIED. Here he describes his transient life – and how he can feel at home wherever he hangs his hat.

My suitcase is the place I feel most comfortable. That may sound strange, but it’s true on two counts. I live out of a suitcase for my job, because I’m constantly globe-trotting. And in my downtime I live in what I call my »giant suitcase«. My wife and I bought a 13-metre-long mobile home four years ago. It’s usually parked in a small wood in Georgia, but whenever we get the chance – my wife’s an opera singer, too – we rent a truck, hook up to the trailer, and away we go. We’ve already done three road trips across the States, from New York to San Francisco and back. It’s the best nomadic life you can imagine.

Right now I’m travelling with my wife’s suitcase. It’s small and light and I like the bright mauve colour. It’s got these amazing multi-directional wheels, and it’s great for agility in a crowd when I’m trying to catch a plane. Because I’m always on the move I’ve come up with my own packing routine. I always used to forget something or pack too many things. Now I sit down a few days before my trip and write a list of all the things I really need, and it’s better that way. There are three things I can’t do without: my headphones, my mobile tv antenna and – over the last year – a small tube of disinfectant for my hands. Actually four things: I forgot my cushion. It goes with me everywhere. It’s amazingly soft and stuffs into the tiniest of gaps in my suitcase. Plus, it’s mine. Doesn’t matter where I am: if I’ve got that cushion, I feel at home.

The best kind of nomadic life: the mobile home of Hilley and his wife in a wood in the US state of Georgia, where the tenor grew up © Clay Hilley, private archive

In our trailer, too, we have to think carefully about what we need. 13 metres sounds like a lot, but you can’t hoard anything for the sake of it. That said, it really is our little home. We have electricity, three tellies, a king-size bed, a heating system for the winter. Three years back I had a spell in San Francisco doing the RING and we were parked up for three months in the Bay area. We might bring it to Europe in the foreseeable future. My wife’s Jewish grandparents survived the holocaust in Poland and emigrated to the US and she’s just applied for a Polish passport. When she gets it, it’ll be easier for us to live in Europe. By the way, I’m not the only opera singer who lives in a mobile home. I’ve heard there’s a tenor who sings in Bayreuth every year and camps quite close to the Festspielhaus.

I heard Wagner’s RING for the first time in 2014. I was booked to sing Siegfried in Jonathan Dove’s abridged version. I looked at all the text and thought: ‘Cripes!’ And that was only the abbreviated version. My next thought was: ‘Wow, it’s perfect for my voice.’ But it’s not just the pitch that fits; there’s a lot of stuff that Siegfried and me have in common: I grew up in the country around cows and horses. Like him, I don’t take life too seriously. Both of us have a healthy scepticism, so we don’t swallow everything people tell us. And maybe most important: I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. A lot of people have said I’m too young to do Wagner or I could never sing Verdi or Puccini roles. Rubbish. When I hear statements like that, I go all out to prove the people wrong.

Clay Hilley sings amidst suitcases at the Deutsche Oper Berlin: Suitcases play a key role in Stefan Herheim’s production of SIEGFRIED © Max Zerrahn

Obviously there are differences, too. Siegfried is the prototypical hero, quite impulsive, very direct and forthright, quite childlike, actually. My idea of heroism is completely different. For me, heroes do good deeds behind the scenes and stick up for minorities and are part of the struggle for a better world on a daily basis. They’re not in the limelight and don’t expect thanks for doing what they do. It could be a nurse on the night shift, a teacher helping a child progress, someone raising money for a good cause. Then there’s the fact that Siegfried isn’t scared of anything. I feel his fearlessness when I’m singing, especially in the final words of the work when he sings about »shining love / laughing death!« Not even death is frightening to him, whereas I know very well what fear is. It hit me in the stomach last year when the theatres and opera houses closed down due to the pandemic. This time last year I’d signed up as understudy for Siegfried in Chicago – and the entire run was cancelled. That really pulled the carpet from under my feet for a while. So you can guess what it feels like to be able to pack my bags and go singing again.


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Adventskalender im Foyer: Das 1. Fensterchen

Today in the foyer: "An American Christmas"
Favourite songs from North and South America
with Julie Wyma, Valeria Delmé and Jamison Livsey
5.00 p.m. / Rank foyer on the right
Duration: approx. 25 minutes / free admission

From the frosty north of Alaska to the southernmost tip of Chile, from Buenos Aires to New York City - the Advent season is celebrated across the entire American double continent. But there are huge differences in how Christmas is celebrated. This diversity is also reflected in the music that precedes and accompanies the festivities. While the Argentinian composer Ariel Ramírez takes up the lively rhythms of South American dances in his cantata "Navidad Nuestra" ("Our Christmas"), songs such as "White Christmas" or "I'll Be Home for Christmas" succeed in translating the contemplative into the popular in a unique way. Join sopranos Julie Wyma and Valeria Delmé and pianist Jamison Livsey on a journey through the musical realms on the other side of the Atlantic.

Julie Wyma comes from the USA and studied at the universities of Indiana, Missouri and Arizona. Numerous performances on the opera and concert stage have taken her throughout the USA and Europe. Since the 2021/22 season, she has been a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin chorus as 1st soprano, where she not only sings in the major choral operas with her colleagues, but also takes on a solo role as La Conversa in SUOR ANGELICA. In addition to her work as a singer, Julie Wyma is also active as a singing teacher, costume designer and director.

Valeria Delmé was born in Buenos Aires and gained her first musical experience at an early age, including as a soloist in the children's chorus of the Teatro Colón. This was followed by further opera performances on various stages in Argentina and training at the Conservatorio Superior de Música "Manuel de Falla" before she began performing regularly in Germany in 2017. Valeria Delmé now sings as 2nd soprano in the chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

The pianist and conductor Jamison Livsey studied at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 2016, he conducted a premiere of TURN OF THE SCREW in Tel Aviv. He has worked as a répétiteur with conducting engagements at many opera companies, including Minnesota Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Sarasota Opera, Opera Cleveland, Anchorage Opera, Opera in Williamsburg, Toledo Opera, Sugar Creek Symphony and Song, Pine Mountain Music Festival and Opera North. He has also appeared with these opera companies as a harpsichordist and orchestral pianist with a repertoire ranging from Monteverdi and Rossini to the present day. He has worked as a guest conductor at Opera Santa Barbara. He is also active as a Lied accompanist, including for Vivica Genaux. At the Deutsche Oper Berlin, he works as a répétiteur in the chorus.