Catch up with Benjamin Hulett; plans for the future and his latest recordings.
So let’s talk records: you’ve got various discs out or being released over the next few weeks, including the world premiere of Johannes Kalitzke’s opera Die Besessenen from Theater an der Wien. But there’s also Mendelssohn’s Acis and Galatea, a Missa Solemnis with Philipe Herreweghe and a rare disc of Maurice Greene’s settings of Spenser’s Amoretti for Naxos. Sounds like you’ve been rather busy!
It’s funny, they were recorded over the course of a whole year but then they all come out at once! The Greene Amoretti is particularly interesting, because it’s music most people won’t know. The whole set has never been recorded before, but they’re an early example of the song cycle, or at least, a well thought-out song collection. They were new to me, too; it was the harpsichordist Luke Green who first came to me with the idea. It was great to get Naxos on board as they have such a diverse catalogue and I like their ‘completionist’ outlook – how they will do a complete series of all sorts of composers and repertoire possibly considered niche.
Less niche perhaps is the Missa Solemnis and Acis & Galatea…?
The Missa Solemnis is with Philipe Herreweghe. He made a very celebrated recording of this piece a while back so I hope people will be interested to hear why he’s returned to it. The Mendelssohn Acis & Galatea was an Oxford-based project with Stephen Darlington, Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford Philhomusica and Brindley Sherratt – who is always a treat to work with. It’s a funny beast: there is a German version, but Mendelssohn himself conducted it in English in Oxford so ours is done in English. It’s a great piece and is really livened up by different instrumentation. Having an obbligato clarinet, for example, is strange but ravishing in this kind of baroque music.
And that’s not even all you’ve got up your sleeve, recordings-wise?
Yes, I’m also doing Handel’s Jephtha as a couple of performances turned into a live disc. Recording companies have less time and money to spend these days, so even some studio recordings are coming out with a relatively live feel. But to do an actual live recording is… well, ‘honest’ is one way of putting it; ‘naked’ is another! I’m also doing Handel’s L’Allegro with the Cologne Chamber Choir, and trying to get to the bottom of that piece is really wonderful, it’s just stunningly beautiful music from the beginning to the end. I was also lucky enough to take part in the Oxford Lieder Festival for the first time recently, where we did a live recording of Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch, which is also pretty rare, even though it’s Wolf. So it’s safe to say I’m staying on the fringes!
Is that deliberate? Do you enjoy seeking out less-known repertoire?
I’m not exactly out looking for rarities, but they do seem to come my way. I often do all sorts of music that is not central repertoire, and then once in a while I have the luxury of doing something more canonical as well. I’d like to say it keeps me fresh, keeps me young! It can of course be stressful with so many unknown pieces to get to know and prepare, but it’s always a voyage of discovery…
Is there any musical period or composer you think best suits your voice?
I am hypercritical, and I’ve learned that what I may feel may be completely different to what others have heard! One day I might well feel I’m in the mood for some Handel but it turns out Mozart will work better that day. As singers we have to cover such a large repertoire, there will obviously be elements of crossover in the way I sing all music, and there are certainly times when one thing feels momentarily better than another. This morning, for example, I was rehearsing the Maurice Greene for some launch concerts for the CD and it was lovely. But then I moved onto some J.C. Bach and I felt like a warm blanket had been put over my shoulders; suddenly I was singing in Italian, ‘classical’ music rather than the texty baroque of the Greene. In an ideal world I would bring all music to a sort of happy medium – I don’t mean, a compromise, but a point at which your worst day is still something enjoyable; for both you and whoever is listening!
Apart from all these recordings, what else is coming up for you this season?
I’ve got some nice recitals, including Britten concerts with [pianist] Joseph Middleton, and Les Illuminations with Paul Goodwin. And I’m singing the title role in Lucio Silla at the Salzburg Mozartwoche with Ivor Bolton, although it’s not Mozart’s but J.C. Bach’s version. Then there’s a long Magic Flute project which culminates in singing Tamino in concert with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, along with Kate Royal, Magdalena Kožená – a cast to die for, really, so I feel very happy and lucky indeed to be doing that. And I have more work coming up with Philippe Herreweghe next spring. I really enjoy working with him; there’s a lot of trust and flexibility there.
Are there other conductors you particularly enjoy working with?
Oh, there are conductors I would trip over myself to work with again – Markus Stenz in Cologne, for example. He too is always relaxed and trusting even when the music is mental! I’ve always enjoyed working with Roger Norrington as well. And I did three months work with Sir John Eliot Gardiner a few years ago, a Mozart project and a Monteverdi consort project. That was extremely rewarding, I enjoyed working with him very much.
You’ve got a flourishing recital and recording career; how important is opera in that mix?
When people ask what I do, I say I’m an opera singer. I’ve never had a season without operas in it, and one way or another, I tend to base my work around operatic opportunities. Even with concert work, most of the time there’s a dramatic element to it; a narrative to be portrayed; a role to play. Just think of the Handel oratorios, or the St. Matthew Passion [Hulett appeared in Jonathan Miller’s acclaimed staged production at the National Theatre last year]. I often think dramatically – I find myself sitting in concert performances wondering how something could be staged. I think if I became just a concert performer and recitalist I would miss dressing up and being ‘pretendy’. That’s kind of where I come alive, and where I think my heart and my abilities lie.
What do you think it is about opera that particularly appeals to you?
As an opera singer you have a lot of material to work with – your voice, the sound world of the piece, the orchestra, the conductor, your colleagues, the director giving you ideas. (At least, you hope they give you ideas – it’s when they don’t that it gets really stressful!) With all that information to react to, I really enjoy the process. I love working hard, creating something, being somebody else; I love the rehearsals and turning up in my dressing room before a show. And it’s just nice to be able to sing beautiful music while doing it!
Well, yes, you clearly do love working hard…
There are so many of us. It’s not a cloying false modesty, but if I don’t worry about what I do and really make sure that I’m prepared and doing it to the very best of my abilities, then there are so many others who will. This is a vocation, but professionally it’s also a job. That’s probably a very British way of looking at it – as both a way of life and a way of living. If you only have the way of life you run the risk of looking like a crusty Miss Havisham-esque diva. There’s also the fact that when things go well you have to start saying yes less often – everybody wants a full diary but every job involves sacrifices.
What are those sacrifices?
Well it’s a cliché, of course, but travelling a lot and being away from home and family is one. I have a wife, Alice [a choral soprano] and two boys, Freddie  and George  so it’s always a big wrench to be away from them. I’m quite strict about checking Alice’s diary so we can both see what’s happening, because we try not to work at the same time. The upside to that is there’s very little time when the boys have to be with grandparents or babysitters. The downside is that there’s a bit of a parental revolving door. Opera projects are long, and often my concerts are abroad, so I’m really pleased there are some more UK based opportunities coming up. That’s new for me. I set up shop in Germany, pretty much, once I’d left the Guildhall, so a lot of my invitations are from Central Europe. So any opportunities I get to do operas in the UK I jump at!
Well, on that note, you have a pretty major UK opera debut coming up in 2013-14..?
Yes! I’m doing Manon Lescaut, directed by Jonathan Kent and conducted by Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House. It’s a multiple delight: it’s a house debut, a role debut, and a chance to delve further into the Italian repertoire. I have sung lots in English amd German, so the idea there’s another sound world, this vast repertoire that might become available to me is excellent. I’m 35, but I always think of myself a bit as an ingénue: every project is new, I try to be as wide-eyed as possible and drink in the experience, get the most out of it that I can. And hey, it’s Covent Garden. It’s Covent Garden! They wouldn’t want to rest on their laurels and neither do I, but it’s really kid-in-a-sweetshop time; why wouldn’t I have a smile on my face?
You’re also juggling all this with a Masters in Music from Oxford Brookes, having already read Music at Oxford University and done a three-year postgrad at Guildhall.
I know… You put all that training together, not only could you be a doctor, you could be an elective surgeon! Sometimes I think: it would be nice to do something that really changes people’s lives. Then my wife will say to me: “music and opera do make a difference to people’s lives, so shut up!” The Masters is very much a hobby, to get more involved in the things I didn’t know enough about after my BA degree, such as burying myself in the 19th-Century sound world. It’s not about changing the way I sing. People have this idea of the cerebral English tenor, but I think it’s important not to disappear into mental smugness either. As a performer there’s got to be an element of openness because as a character on the opera stage you are that character; as recitalist you are creating a world in which these things are heard. But I remember being surprised last year on the Matthew Passion. Apparently the Guildhall had a sign-up sheet for the chorus saying ‘Matthew Passion, great opportunity to work with Jonathan Miller – Google him’! I mean, if you have to Google Jonathan Miller and you’re studying opera…? Of course you don’t need to know everything, but a wider appreciation of the world around you – and the world before you – can only serve to make you a better artist. Otherwise you are just a vacuous noise machine.
Who’s your greatest inspiration?
My dad, who passed away 9 years ago. He was interested in music, but not musical – I’m not from a musical family at all. But the warmth and support he would give to those around him, that generous, magnanimous spirit is something I aspire to. It’s not a musical aspiration, it’s a human one.
What’s on your iPod?
A lot of Queen! I also listen on my phone to the stuff I’m learning, and I love the sound of Fritz Wunderlich, the singing of Peter Schreier, Peter Pears. They’re not necessarily voices everybody agrees with, but their approach to text and music I find excellent. I also greatly admire many of our younger singers around at the moment – we have some terrific sopranos like Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan, Christiane Karg, Anna Prohaska. I love listening to tenors like Maximilian Schmitt, Allan Clayton. People are saying the ‘great’ voices are not there at the moment – you see it in journals, blogs, they say the day of ‘The Voice’ is over. But the demands on the voices now are so much greater – the schedules, the variety, the need to be a master of trades when the trades are getting more and more demanding. I don’t think young performers are at all lacking in vocal beauty, technique or interpretation. I think with the right choices we’ve got the material for a fairly good future. We just need generous philanthropists to ensure there is a future!
Thame, near Oxford. Alice and I both went to Oxford as undergrads, and when coming back from living in Hamburg, we could pretty much stick a pin in a map. This is good for Heathrow and London, it’s pretty central, and it’s a lovely, beautiful area with lots of nice countryside with leafy walks. Except now those ‘leafy walks’ are more about muddy walks. Life these days is often about extracting our kids from waist-deep squelch…