Alan Oke

Author: Andrew Mellor

You’re in the midst of playing both Gandhi and Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach – two of the most complex and fascinating characters in all opera…
They are, and they’re also particularly significant for me as I sang both roles for the first time and in close proximity in 2007 and I’ve been living with them both ever since, with multiple repetitions of both productions. I feel very close to both of them; one a historical figure the other fictional but no less real to me.

…in that sense, you’re becoming known as a character actor – a sort of operatic Michael Sheen…is there a new emphasis on character portrayal in opera?
That’s interesting. When you say ‘character’ people tend to think of Basilio, Monostatos and the like, but I think Aschenbach, Gandhi and [Peter] Grimes are characters just as much. They require exactly the same skills. When I first became a tenor there was a physical thrill in just singing Puccini for instance. I don’t get so much of that now, but what I do experience is maybe more interesting. I savour the experience of discovering these characters with the help of magicians like Yoshi Oida [director of Death in Venice] and Phelim McDermott [director of Satyagraha].

Every singing part in Philip Glass’s Gandhi opera Satyagraha is tough, all the circular repetition…is it hard to learn?
At first it’s very, very hard. There are times when you think ‘It’s taken me two days to learn three pages, how on earth am I going to manage?’ But somehow it goes in. I did leave myself plenty of time but it’s certainly easier to pick up now, as the whole company [ENO] is performing it for the third time. It wasn’t completely in my memory, I’ve had to do a bit of brushing up, unlike Death in Venice which I also last sang three years ago but that’s easier to remember because obviously it’s in English and there’s a clear narrative. Also Glass asks a lot of the voice; the music often sits quite relentlessly in a tiring part of the voice.

..and singing in a whole new language, Sanskrit…
Glass just wanted it to function as sound really, so we’re not thinking about the meaning of the text or any ‘echt’ pronunciation; the important thing is that it’s not in English. The audience aren’t supposed to be engaged the whole time in listening to the text, it’s about creating an atmosphere as opposed to conventional story-telling.

…the opposite to Britten’s plotting of Aschenbach’s very acute decline in Death in Venice – you’ve been praised for your portrayal of that decline in Leeds…
All I can say is that I enjoy playing him very much and after something like 40 shows feel I might be getting somewhere!

Is Aschenbach a hopeless character?
I don’t think there’s any hope for him, right from the start. He commits suicide. Whether it’s completely intentional or not, it is suicide – he does have a choice, he is warned to leave Venice several times, and can’t – or won’t. And that’s interesting, because Peter Grimes, who I played in Aldeburgh this summer, does exactly the same thing but for different reasons. You might say that Grimes does it in the absence of love. His problem is that he can’t love – boys, Ellen, people, life, he can’t love anything, especially himself. So it’s his only way out. Aschenbach is committing suicide because of an excess of love.

What do the two characters tell you about Britten?
I think there are strong parallels between Aschenbach and Britten, this thing about being completely successful but maybe not content with life, and maybe Britten having a slightly repressed personality. I’m sure Britten sensed death in the air when he was writing Death in Venice, and then of course he was very ill and couldn’t conduct it, so there are obvious parallels there. With Grimes it’s more complicated; in Crabbe’s poem Grimes is just a bad lot and not much more than that. Britten and Pears had more sympathy for him as an outcast and that perhaps reflected what they felt about themselves.

Has 2013 been good for Britten?
I think we should remember Britten all the time as a true genius but his centenary is certainly an opportunity to hear more performances of his works in more places than ever. At a personal level it’s given me the chance to sing two of his greatest creations – Aschenbach and Grimes – in the same year.  To do Peter Grimes on the beach was very exciting – a sort of life event, I’ll probably never do anything like that again.

Click here for more information about Satyagraha at the ENO.
For further information about Death in Venice, please click here.

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