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You’re in Chicago, about to open in Rinaldo. How’s it going?
It’s a really good production with a great cast, and the conductor Harry Bicket is brilliant, a very secure pair of hands. With a complete economy of language he has the ability to achieve something very special from a modern orchestra who don’t play period instruments.
You also made your debut at the Met last year – how are you finding working in America?
The Met was a revival so we didn’t have much time. Andreas Scholl told me: ‘it will be really, really intense, but you’ll be more prepared than you’ve ever been’, and he was right. Here, we’ve just had four days off before opening night which is very scary! America’s a funny place because it’s so unionised. There are such tight rules and it always favours time off. The flip side is you go to France and have two weeks to make a recording and everyone just hangs out smoking. [Chuckles.] I’m joking. But we seem to get it just about right in England…
You’re also doing a series of concerts with The Baroque Band while you’re there.
It’s dubbed ‘Handel for Altos’ and will cover the alto range, partly to dispel the myth that Handel only wrote for castrati. Quite a lot of his oratorios, especially in the later part of his life, were written with counter-tenors in mind – Jephtha, Saul, Semele, Israel in Egypt all have arias for counter-tenors.
Do you spend a lot of time dispelling such myths about the counter-tenor?
Well some people have got their own agenda and can be rather snooty – they say, ‘oh don’t do opera, Handel didn’t actually write for counter-tenors!’ It’s true that many singers focus heavily on opera, especially in the US where people don’t grow up in the choral tradition in the same way. Of course it’s important to look at the sacred repertoire too, but I think it’s more authentic to be flexible. In Handel’s day he would have been pragmatic: if a castrato wasn’t available, he would have had a woman doing it. If we’re striving for authenticity the best thing to do is be very adaptable rather than spending your life going: ‘well, he didn’t do that…’ which is very limiting. I don’t have too many qualms!
You must sing an awful lot of Handel… Were you always a fan?
I was actually a bit of a luddite about classical music, even though my dad was in a string quartet and I grew up singing. I read archaeology at Cambridge University, not music. But it was there that I started listening to Handel opera and suddenly this whole world of music that I could sing appeared before me. I became obsessed with finding every single aria written for counter-tenor!
Do you ever get bored of singing baroque music?
About 80% of what I sing is pre-1770, but we’re fortunate, people who sing baroque all the time, because we’re always doing stuff we love. It’s some of the hardest stuff to sing but it’s also the most naturally appealing of styles – it’s not hugely challenging to enjoy. It’s also the perfect music to do things to – the tax return, cooking dinner…
Oooh – Handel as background music to the tax return? Isn’t that a bit sacrilegious?
[laughs]. Well there’s not really enough time in the day to put a CD on and just stare at the hi-fi is there? I choose something in particular to listen to because I know it has an effect on me; I’m not just sticking on the radio in the background. And this music is appealing but it’s not shallow, there’s always something profound in it. Some recordings actually make you want to dance. That’s when baroque really succeeds.
Who are the baroque interpreters you’re most excited about?
When I was a boy chorister at St. John’s, Cambridge George Guest always told us that two notes next to each other should never be the same because it wouldn’t be truly expressive, and ever since I’ve always liked experimental, risk-taking playing from orchestras. Naïve Records have put out a lot of European ensembles that make a real effort to not let anything pass, and that kind of playing really gets me going. Ensembles like the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra seem to really love playing: they have unified their own interpretation; they breathe together as a choir do. If you listen to a choir sing and an orchestra play it’s usually very different because breath is involved.
Given the prevalence of baroque repertoire for the counter-tenor is it important to you to mix it up wherever possible?
Yes, I think all singers should embrace new music, otherwise you can become complacent. All the music I sing, when people sang it at the time, was brand new – it can be easy to forget that. I really like working with contemporary composers like Nico Muhly, who I’ve collaborated with a lot and is a mate. I try and get contemporary music into my recitals if I can, and I’m doing a new opera by George Benjamin next year called Written on Skin which premieres at Aix-en-Provence. Katie Mitchell’s directing it, which is brilliant, and it’s a major role for a counter-tenor which is rare and very nice!
Tell me something important you’ve learned about the music you sing.
The gestural phrase really needs to be demonstrated to the audience, accentuated, because it doesn’t carry as much as you think it does. You have to really persuade people. You have to communicate the words of the text, of course, but it’s more than just emphasizing a ‘t’ or something: you have to get it physically into your nature so that every time you sing, you are moving people. And in general, I think the big lesson in music is to be flexible and just be able to turn up and deal with life as it happens. And you have to be a great sight-reader!
As a post-grad you were originally turned down by the Royal Academy of Music; now they’ve just offered you a Fellowship. How does it feel to have such major success? You’re only 32, after all…
When I applied to the Academy I was rejected, and then I only got in because someone pulled out. But I actually think that was better than them telling me I was wonderful at 19 and had nowhere to go. I was convinced deep down I could do it, but I also knew I had a lot to learn. Counter-tenor, in a way, is like a whole other voice, it’s not your speaking voice, it’s something you have to engage with; and funny as this sounds, it doesn’t come naturally to me. So it was good, to bide my time and really learn to sing. In terms of what’s happening now, well, it’s different for counter-tenors: there aren’t that many around, it’s a youth thing. You have to make a name for yourself when you’re young, it’s not like being a tenor where you’ve got 20 years to butch yourself up and start doing the roles you want at 40. It’s a given that we tend to go downhill as we get older. So my version of a career high point, like a Met debut, will naturally happen much earlier – my job is to sustain that and have a long career rather than simply peak and disappear.
So how was it, working at the Met?
Well on the one hand it’s overwhelming to sing in an opera house to 4000 people, but the level at which they work, the professionalism and speed, I just loved all that. It’s good to be thrown in at the deep end. You’re put under huge pressure, but I work well like that, and the standards are so high – you don’t get that in many other opera houses! It makes it hard to sing anywhere else; you think, oh, I miss it! It’s also amazingly levelling – day one, you’re singing in front of Stephanie Blythe, day two there was Renée Fleming saying, ‘oh, you Cambridge guys, you’re so good, so quick’… It was very cool.
What’s your perfect opera house?
Probably Bordeaux. It’s a beautiful, miniature baroque theatre. And it’s in Bordeaux! I love collecting wine; I did an opera there and we went round the chateaus and vineyards and I just went crazy. You touch that terroir and you’re sold.
Do you have any great musical inspirations?
Well, I was given a CD aged 18 of Andreas Scholl singing Bach. Then I heard David Daniels. Those two had an impact, of course. I work with both of them now and it’s the loveliest thing because they’re normal people, not heroes! I was also very lucky to grow up singing in choirs under Christopher Robinson and George Guest.
Alongside the operatic career you’re extremely busy in the recital hall and recording studio: is it important to you to keep that balance?
Yes, I try to keep a balance of good, high-profile concerts and recitals alongside the opera, because opera can be quite a limiting art form: you spend a lot of time not performing. I also like the exhilaration and pain I put myself through to do a recital. It’s always like doing an exam – you come off thinking ‘yes! I did it!’ I’m returning to the Met in the autumn to do Thomas Adès’ The Tempest but I’ve also got a Wigmore residency coming up, and a new album coming out in June, which tells the story of Guadagni, the castrato that Handel wrote a lot of things for.
Your life sounds pretty crazy. Do you ever get a day off?
The difficult thing about being a counter-tenor is you can overload your diary; there are so few of you so you could be working every day of the year if you wanted. But that’s not healthy and doesn’t make for the happiest home life!
Talking of which, you’re on the road a huge amount; is that difficult?
Missing out on seeing someone every day, or not having a ‘normal’ life is definitely a flip side to what we do, but it’s only a downside if you decide it is. My girlfriend [a French teacher in a London school] gets to come to America and travel to places she’d never otherwise go, so a completely different avenue of interest and adventure opens up because of my job. That’s very exciting.
I hear you were in a pop band at school. Are you still into non-classical music?
Yeah, I still listen to lots of other music when I get the chance: Marvin Gaye, Led Zepellin… I was a Britpop fanatic when I was in my teens – I had a massive thing for Blur, the Stone Roses. I worked at Glastonbury Festival and I think that was the precursor to my obsession with baroque music: it’s clearly in my personality to get obsessive! I’ll throw myself into something I’m interested in. I bought NME and Melody Maker every week, I knew everything about that music. Those bands were really good. Now pop music is terrible – fact!
If that person hadn’t pulled out of the Academy and you hadn’t got in, what would you be doing now? Following up on your archaeology degree?
Who knows? I grew up watching Time Team! I love archaeology and history, I’m pretty nerdy, but I’m not sure there would have been a career there. But that’s why I live in York – it’s such a beautiful, historical place. I’m slightly obsessed with Georgian architecture. It’s lucky: I’m genuinely interested in the period I mostly sing!
Iestyn Davies will be singing the role of Eustazio in Handel’s Rinaldo at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on the following dates:
29th February 29, 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, 20th, 24th March 2012.
Also starring fellow Askonas Holt artists:
Harry Bicket (conductor)
David Daniels (Rinaldo)