Benjamin Britten and the Challenge of Singing

 

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Portrait of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten  by Kenneth Green 1943

 

The voice is an extraordinary thing. Air pumped from our lungs, passes over the fleshy folds in our throat, to emit a full spectrum of sounds. Some more pleasing than others.

Last weekend I shouted and screamed so hard at a football match that I I woke up hoarse!

Professional singers cannot afford to lose their most precious asset – their money spinning, life-enhancing, voice. They will go to great lengths to protect it and spend decades training it to be as versatile as possible; to weather all musical challenges.

And even then they worry: When I interviewed star baritone, Jacques Imbrailo, at the Royal Opera House recently Interview: Star Baritone Jacques Imbrailo , Imbrailo talked about what many professional singers at all levels feel about contemporary music, that it has to be handled with great care. 

New operas are sometimes frustrating to prepare for, rhythmically and harmonically. For him the old composers wrote better for the voice. This didn’t stop him earning himself great reviews in Britten’s Billy Budd both at Glynebourne and at the Royal Opera House.

Benjamin Britten, although not absolutely modern (he died in December 1976) had a way of testing his singers, notably tenor Peter Pears, who was also his life partner.

On September 21st, I attended the opening of the Kensington Olympia Music Festival of Music and the Arts  (KOFMA) where an ambitious programme of Britten Song Cycles had been chosen to wet our palates this season. It was an interesting choice of programme, for not only are Britten’s songs a challenging sing, but they are not always easy for audiences, unfamiliar with the work.

I had never heard Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, which Britten wrote in 1940 during his time in the United States. Britten dedicated it to Peter Pears, who was much daunted by the prospect of singing the work which required formidable agility in the vocal range. Pears, who was at the beginning of his career, gave himself time to prepare, and didn’t sing Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo in public until September 1942 at the Wigmore Hall. 

At the KOFMA opening I attended, James Black’s tenor voice, with its warm, rich tones, were gorgeousness incarnate. Perfectly suited to sing Britten’s extended love letter to Peter Pears, Black’s performance had however two tiny chinks. Several squeaks after he had hit certain notes cleanly. I am no expert on why this happened but these so-called slips added authenticity to the anguished emotions Britten was endeavouring to express. Black’s performance is one which I will remember – it was so emotionally charged.

Young soprano (22 years of age) Bonnie Callaghan sang On This Island. Of note was the achingly beautiful Nocturne which she sang to perfection.

The high point of the evening was Britten’s late work Phaedra which he dedicated to Dame Janet Baker. Its full title is Op.93 Dramatic Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano. And dramatic it is. It not only requires virtuosity with the voice but fine acting skills. The audience needs to believe that the singer is Phaedra, married to Theseus and in love with her step son Hippolytus, and suffering much on account of the shame she feels for transgressing social mores.

If anyone was going to pull off the work, it was Irish mezzo-soprano Laura Lamph. I have been following her career with interest for the past five years. As a solo artist she has taken on operatic roles such as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Dido must have prepared her psychologically for Phaedra, (Dido and Phaedra are tormented queens who both decide to take their own lives). Dido however is an easier sing. 

On the evening in question in St Peter’s Church, Lamph’s performance was quite mesmerising. She came to the stage, her face whitened, her black eye-liner accentuating Phaedra’s mad, staring eyes. Without stage props or orchestra, simply a piano to accompany her (the accompanist Miles Lallement is the best in the business) the audience was transported inside her tormented mind.

Meanwhile here is Janet Baker’s Phaedra live recording with orchestra.

 

There is no doubt, Phaedra is an exciting challenge for the mezzo willing to throw herself into the role. It is not for the faint-hearted.

In the end, it is up to singers to decide what roles they want to take on and how they want to sing them. Or is it? Singers are not always in a position to choose. They need to earn a living and put food on the table.

Curious to see how one prepares for a virtuosic, ‘difficult sing’ in this case, Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra, I went to talk about it with Laura Lamph the following day of her performance.

Why did you decide to sing Britten’s Phaedra?

I had originally thought of singing a selection of Britten folk songs but it was suggested by my teacher (Ashley Stafford) and accompanist Miles Lallemant that I should think about singing Phaedra. I thought, why not use the opportunity to challenge myself and the audience. 

What did you think of it at first and what made you think you could do it?

I listened to Janet Baker and Sarah Connolly perform it and I thought, Wow, that is class – I need to sing it. I had a few concerns about the fact that it is quite high as I am not always keen to use the upper limits of my voice. My other thought was whether it would work with piano but I chatted with Miles and we decided that for this particular occasion it would work.

Do you like singing difficult repertoire?

Interesting question, It depends on why it is difficult. Because I am not always in control of the repertoire I perform, I sing quite a lot of difficult music, sometimes I don’t love it all. Basically, I like it if it is worth the effort involved in learning it! Phaedra is an amazing work, so cleverly written and was 100% worth it!

Did you receive help in your preparation? 

Yes, I rehearsed with Miles and the piano and had some lessons working specifically on this piece.

What are the particular difficulties of the piece?

Some people might not find it difficult but for me I would say the extremes of range, the chromatic passages and the frequent changes in time. I worked quite a lot on my character as the presentation in a piece like this makes such a difference.

Did just having the piano for accompaniment make it harder?

I am not sure really as I have not tried it with the orchestra but I would say that I probably had a lot more opportunity to practice with the piano than I would have otherwise. I would definitely like to try it with the other instruments at some point.

Are you protective of your voice?

In my own way I am but you have to live and singing is a big part of my life but not my whole life. I don’t do anything weird and I try not to worry about it too much as I am convinced you can worry yourself into frequent vocal crisis. I am not always at 100% but I always sing unless I am in a bad way, if I didn’t I would be in financial crisis! However, I do try not to party or be wild before a big performance.

Is there some repertoire you refuse to sing because it’s not healthy for the voice?

There have been a couple of occasions were composers ask for strange things to create a certain effect and I know they are not great for my voice, particularly if I have to do them repeatedly.  I usually try and find a cheat or assure the director that I will do it in performance but can certainly not sustain it in days of rehearsal. 

Would you like to perform Phaedra again?

I definitely want to do it again! I am already thinking about a programme I could make it work as part of or possibly even recording it at some point.

KH

 

Interview: Star Baritone Jacques Imbrailo

 

ROYAL OPERA

 

Jacques Imbrailo is singing in Jules Massenet’s Werther (see our review here) at the Royal Opera House and then he is off around the world on various singing engagements through 2020. In April this year, this rising star among baritones earned great reviews in Billy Budd and his Albert in Werther is another step forward in his accelerating career.

Karine Hetherington met the 40-year-old South African at the Royal Opera House.

Any opera singers in your family?

No – no classical music whatsoever. I grew up on a farm. My parents are not musical at all.

I went to a boys’ choir school at a young age and that’s where the classical music started.

Did you have a mentor somewhere along the line?

At different stages, different people. Probably the biggest influence that persuaded me to take singing seriously and follow it as a career, was my first singing teacher in South Africa, Professor Werner Nel. He was a wonderful singer, a wonderful teacher. He gave me lessons when I was about sixteen and I carried with him when I was at university.

Did you study music?

At first I studied law. I was a very lazy law student. It went in one ear, onto the paper and out the other ear. I didn’t care much about it.

Was the law useful?

No use whatsoever!

What was your first real break?

I was taken on the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Royal Opera House. So that helped. I sang in the title role of Owen Wingrave in the Linbury Theatre which got well received. On the strength of that I got an audition for Billy Budd at Glynebourne.

At what point did you know you were a tenor or a baritone?

My voice broke very late. I could still sing the Queen of the Night at sixteen! But shortly after my sixteenth birthday, my voice started to slide down. At seventeen I was still a school boy tenor. By the time I was taking lessons at university my voice slid down to a baritone.

High baritones often get nudged by people saying ‘aren’t you a tenor’? but it’s not just a matter of singing higher notes. It’s the whole range.

What are your favourite operas to listen to – or do you tend to only concentrate on the operas you are working on?

Only to operas I’m working on. When I’m not working, I listen to my children’s music. So it’s the The Lion King and Aladdin at the moment. That’s what’s on in the car most of the time.

Otherwise, rather than listen to operas, I tend to listen to singers that I like. From the baritones I love Battistini, the “King of Baritones” from the nineteenth century. I also love Robert Merrill and at the moment I’m listening to the Swedish tenor Nikolai Gedda.

You have taken on very different roles. How important is the acting process for you?

I love that part very much. Sometimes to my detriment. It can get in the way of singing if you get too emotionally involved, like in Billy Budd. It makes it hard to sing as well as you would like to.

Do you find with getting older, your voice changes?

My voice changes a lot but it’s not to do with age. It depends on my emotional state. Whether I’m tired, my kids have kept me up a lot. You try however to consistently produce the same voice all the time.

So what do you do to relax?

The kids take up all my spare time. Singing abroad I haven’t had a lot of time in the past few years as the roles have been large. But I like to catch up on all the sports. I like to watch rugby.

Have you sung in any contemporary opera?

Yes. I did the Brett Dean Hamlet last year. Another opera called Brothers. I like the end product but I find it very frustrating to learn, rhythmically and harmonically. It takes a long time.

When I first start working on a modern piece I hate it. I’m a grumpy bear for the first few weeks. As I get on top of it, I start to enjoy more or admire more and usually by the time it’s on stage it’s fine.

But for the most part I prefer to sing traditional works. They are safer for the voice.

Favourite city to visit? 

I really enjoyed Madrid because I worked with a great bunch of people there. Chicago. And my wife and I enjoy Amsterdam.

Favourite language to sing in?

I quite like French. It tends to keep the voice in a nice high position. It might not be the one I’m best in, but it suits my voice. I don’t mind Italian or German. Russian is quite nice.

Any mad projects?

You know they do Peter Grimes on the beach in Suffolk. I would love to do Billy Budd on a ship. Cutty Sark. It would be great fun!

What are you next singing?

I’m off to Moscow, end October, to sing Aeneas in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. I go to Washington for a few days to sing the part of Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. After that I’ve got La Favorite and then my first Marcello in la Bohème in Berlin. And Merry Widow in Mumbai of all places which should be interesting. Cose von Tutte in Seville.

A very packed schedule

Yes. I’m having to learn four to five new operas a year at the moment.

I do admire opera singers for their hard work from a young age. Like premiership footballers. Is it really like that?

In some ways yes. It never stops. You have to learn new music, new skills and new repertoire.

Did you have a childhood though?

Yes. I had a glorious childhood on the farm in South Africa. We could run around everywhere without our parents knowing where we were. We’d fish in the river in our spare time at school and in the holidays slept outside under the stars. Rode horses. It saddens me that my kids won’t have what I had.

 

KH

If you want to catch Jacques Imbrailo in Werther, performances are : Sept 24th and 27th. 1st and 5th October 2019

Werther: A Romance Worthy of Revival

ROYAL OPERA

Isabel Leonard, Charlotte. Juan Diego Flórez, Werther.

 

As I step into the  Royal Opera House’s stylish new café, there is the familiar Covent Garden buzz. It’s the opening night of Werther, and also the start of the new opera season. The talking points are Joyce di Donato’s upcoming title role in Agrippina. She was also in the last 2016 performance of Werther, alongside the flamboyant Italian tenor, Vittoria Grigolo. Would the 2019 Werther, sung by Juan Diego Flórez, match Grigolo’s high octane performance in 2016?

 I had been gripped by Grigolo’s ROH debut in Werther, a broadcast of  which I saw at the cinema. The camera angles were daring: I remember a close up of Grigolo’s pulsating vocal folds as he hit the high notes.

Werther is all psychological drama. The narrative is bare but doesn’t feel so because of the richness of the music. In parts Jules Massenet, the French composer, shows his love for Wagner, in others, sorrowful and heart-rending music of great delicacy . 

On the September 17th opening of the latest Werther, it took me a while to warm to Flórez’s Werther. While Grigolo’s performance had a Hollywoodian appeal, Flórez brought a quieter, more anguished, interpretation of the role. But I believe it was more effective. True, the voice didn’t have the heft of Grigolo’s. In parts it seemed to be competing with the orchestra. In Act III however I was won over by his rendering of the blood-tingling Pourquoi me réveiller’/What is the use of waking me. There, his silken voice and wonderfully nuanced interpretation earned him huge applause.

But leading tenors do not act alone. Fresh from the Met was the ROH debut of mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard. What a voice she has with acting skills to boot. The role of Charlotte is difficult because the character is dutiful, prosaic, and perhaps even slightly dull. She’s a magistrate’s daughter with maternal responsibilities enforced on her from an early age, due to the death of her mother. She is sister to Sophie, sung and played confidently by Heather Engebretson, who also performed the role with Joyce Di Donato. She is also promised to the worthy Albert.

When Leonard mourned her mother, she did so to perfection in Act I. The scene reveals all the emotion she has held back. Werther, however, has the key to her heart. In Act III, when Charlotte  reads Werther’s letters, she is overcome. The timing is tragic. She has married Albert.

 

ROYAL OPERA

Isabel Leonard and Jacques Imbrailo

So for several reasons, Jacques Imbrailo has a job on his hands singing Albert. Projecting dog-like devotion for your wife is hard to do in opera. He could have come across as a smug fool in Act II, sitting proudly beside his new wife. And yet he doesn’t. For one thing he cuts a dashing figure as a young man in a burgundy frock coat (he has no paunch, he is not old). Two, the sky above Albert and Charlotte is a pale blue Joshua Reynolds’s sky with beautiful white cotton wool clouds of harmony disappearing into infinity. Soon to disappear of course. We feel pity for the one who sees beauty, where in fact there is unhappiness.

Finally Imbrailo’s mellifluous, expressive voice. One well-known opera reviewer behind me said to his neighbour: ‘Imbrailo’s up with the best of French baritones.’ 

Imbrailo is in fact South African, a rising star, who enjoyed rave reviews in ROH’s Billy Budd in April this year. He is set for great things. (See my interview with Jacques Imbrailo here)

Werther is a compelling opera. It’s not one which is played very often, perhaps because it is both spare in story-line and also demanding of its voices.

Massenet based his work on Göethe’s novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers/The sorrows of young Werther. When it was published in 1774, it was a signal of the start of the Romantic movement and helped spawn a generation of young men determined to live according to their most deeply-held desires; for sensitivity equalled truth. 

While the movement produced great poets, writers and new political thought, it encouraged egotistical behaviour, dangerous hedonism and premature suicide.

These are of course the paradoxes of romanticism that continue to resonate with us. And in this revival of Werther, we have both a story and performances well worth seeing. Visually arresting – especially in the final act – this is a production that should appeal most of all to a youthful audience. Including the young at heart.

 

KH

Performances of Werther left : 24 and 27th September. 1 and 5 October 2019