David Webb on his ENO debut, being a cathedral chorister, his charity work and more

A graduate of the international opera course at the Royal College of Music, tenor David Webb was recently selected for the Harewood Artist Programme at English National Opera. It is under this scheme that he makes his ENO debut in a new production of ‘Tristan and Isolde’, conducted by Edward Gardner, that opens on 9 June. He talks to Toby Deller.

You’re playing the part of the young sailor. That’s appropriate for a boy from Plymouth.
It is, yes, and they’ve given me Frederic in Pirates of Penzance at ENO next year too, it’s as if they are only giving me sailing roles! I’m really looking forward to it, it’s the perfect start to being a Harewood Artist. It’s a sea shanty kind of sound and I thought it would be quite easy and not too stressful, but actually the first rehearsal, Ed Gardner sat with all the others and made me sing and it’s probably one of the most nerve-racking experiences I’ve ever felt. But it’s been great and I can’t wait.

Are there any particular challenges?
The only challenge was whether they were going to put me offstage so that they could get the right sound that Ed wanted, which is what we’ve done. I laughed to my friends: I go to the gym, I train really hard and now they’ve put me offstage. All that work for nothing!

I’m sure the backstage guys will appreciate it. You’ve also been singing in Glyndebourne on Tour’s production of Handel’s Saul and you’ve also been doing some Bach in Canada. That’s very different music from Wagner, so how do approach singing them?
I like to think, that having had a good musical upbringing – I was a cathedral chorister – and very good coaching that you sing with the same voice and that you make it work. I like doing Evangelists and when I do, I sing in the same way I’ll sing the sailor, if that makes sense. You add stylistic qualities rather than the vocal qualities and try and sing with the same voice for everything. I think that’s the most healthy. If I try and sing Wagner with a heavier voice then I’m probably going to do myself damage rather than singing with my voice. If I try and sing Bach in what some people call a slightly more ‘vegetarian’ way, then I’m probably not going to do very well.

Did that view come from advice you received?
I think it’s just through experience. You see what happens to young singers when they get given opportunities. The young singers who were great when I left college are not necessarily the young singers who are doing well now, the singers who were in competitions are not necessarily the ones doing well now. It’s about choosing the right options for you and you can’t recreate what someone else has done, do you know what I mean?

You took a bit of time out from singing in the classical world. Can you tell us about that?
It was doing an opera group called Amore. I left college and was doing ‘Owen Wingrave’ in Nuremberg and then an opportunity arose that I thought was a good one. I spoke to my teacher and the head of vocal faculty at college at the time who said that as long as I sang well it would be ok. We signed to Warner Brothers. It’s a very different world but I would never change it, I loved doing the gigs, I loved singing at venues that I would probably never have the chance to sing at in the classical world, I met some amazing people. The main thing for me is I became ambassador for a number of charities and I still do a lot of work with those organisations. It’s very important that classical music does that sort of thing, that it does wake up to the fact that it can’t just sit there, it has to get out there and do things.

What are those charities?
Well Child, which is a national charity for sick children, Operation Smile, which helps children with cleft lip and cleft palate and other facial conditions. And more recently I’ve created my own charity thing that’s called #Carols4Cancer. For the past two years, every Advent, I do something every day. The first time I did it, a friend had died and decided I’d try and do something in her memory. So I thought, when I wake up every morning  the first thing I’m going to do rather than talk to anyone is try and sing a carol, then nominate some other people and put it online, it’ll be quite funny. We raised £3000 doing that. Then last year I rowed the equivalent of the English channel nine times for Advent: I rowed 1000 metres on December the first, 2000 metres on December the second and onwards, which is obviously quite tough when you’ve got concerts to do as well. After I’d done the rowing, I nominated three people to sing a carol. It became quite a big thing, we had some fantastic singers doing it.

This year I’ve got a little something up my sleeve for what I’m going to be doing every day. Hopefully we’ll get £5000 this year. We had people from the press on it, it went quite international – more and more people were hearing about it and saying: can you nominate me? It’s good to know that people want to do it.

Better than having buckets of water thrown over you…
It’s better than that, yes! Although my girlfriend did do a combination, sang a carol while she did the ice bucket challenge, which I thought was very impressive of her.

You mentioned that you were a chorister as a boy. What was that like, and what did you get out of it musically?
My brother and I were given very good scholarships to go to Exeter Cathedral. We weren’t really of the same stock, as it were, as other people at the school who were paying full fees, and grew up in a pretty rough area. For us it was quite a change. Musically, it was something I’d never experienced before: polyphony and Byrd and Palestrina, Stanford and all that. But also mentally, and as a human being, it taught me a lot. I learnt how to talk to different people from different walks of life – at the end of the service when you have congregation members come up and talking to you, you realise how to talk to them. Lucian Nethsingha, who was the organist at Exeter, he was an amazingly inspiring man who wanted everything very precise – he let the music breathe but had a very clear idea of what he wanted. I carried that with me as a choral scholar at Truro Cathedral under Robert Sharpe and Christopher Gray.

For me as a tenor, that’s kind of where I started. They said I should start having lessons, and that’s when things started to kick in. People started to say, you’re not that bad; maybe you should go and apply for the Royal College of Music. So I went and auditioned there. Midway through my second aria, they stopped me. I thought: oh no, they must think I’m really bad. But they offered me a scholarship on the spot. For me it was a big shock. I do now feel like I belong and I love the classical world and everything about it, but at the start I felt a bit nervous about it: I didn’t go to music school, I’m not the brightest spark when it comes to certain stuff. But I love singing and I’m very passionate about it, and I think that came across.

Did you have singing idols?
My brother took me to see Pavarotti in the park when I was 18, one of my first visits to London. I remember beforehand they had all these warm-up acts like Charlotte Church and Russell Watson and people were talking. But when it came to Pavarotti, Hyde Park was quiet. I remember looking around: some people were smiling, some people were crying when he was singing, he was giving them this kind of out-of-body experience where they weren’t worried about if they had paid their phone bill or left the gas on or anything, they were just in the moment. And I thought that’s what I want to do, I want to be able to sing so that people forget bad stuff that’s happened, or for five minutes of their life they are taken away. I think that’s what opera does, that’s what fantastic oratorio music does – it has you in the moment.

Away from music, what do you do on your days off?
I mentioned that I go training at the gym and I love that because fitness and health is important for me as an artist. I used to want to be a sportsman and sports journalist but I turned up once to a concert with a black eye and cracked ribs to do a St John Passion and realised that I couldn’t look as bad as I was illustrating Jesus to be! So I had to stop playing rugby. But I love rugby, I love watching it with mates. And I love cooking. So just being with my mates and loved ones really. That’s the most important thing, if I’ve got spare time, to do that. Live sport or live music, going and seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing or seeing the Foo Fighters, that’s what I like. I love going to watch Man United playing, or a big football match. Obviously I’ve got to be careful not to shout too much!

You were born in Plymouth, but do you still live around there?
No I’m in London now, but I have gone back recently to do a few singing things down there, and I’ve done a few workshops with kids in the area who might not necessarily have had the opportunity to do music. I really enjoy getting kids to sing and play instruments.

Do you still consider yourself a Devon lad, then?
Actually I always say I’m more from the south west, really, because my family’s all from Cornwall, since the 1600s – although a few of them went off to Australia, at Her Majesty’s pleasure! But my mum went to school there and my dad’s a Cornishman. I always say I’m a bit of a hybrid, although they wouldn’t say that down there, they would say: pick a side!

So you’re a diplomat…
Ha ha, I’m a diplomat, yes. Maybe there are some diplomatic roles I could be considered for!

Tristan und Isolde’ at English National Opera opens on 9 June 2016 and runs until 9 July. Find out more here

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