Tenor  Ian  Bostridge
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ian Bostridge was a post-doctoral fellow in history at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, before embarking on a full-time career as a singer. His international recital career includes the world’s major concert halls and the Edinburgh, Munich, Vienna, Aldeburgh and Schubertiade Festivals.

He made his operatic debut in 1994 as Lysander in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream with Opera Australia at the Edinburgh Festival; in 1996 he made his debut as Tamino at the English National Opera; in 1997 he sang Quint in Deborah Warner's award-winning production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw for the Royal Opera; in 1998 he made his debut at the Munich Festival singing Nerone in David Alden's production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea and he returned to the Royal Opera as Vasek in The Bartered Bride under Bernard Haitink. He sang Janácek's Diary of one who Vanished in a new translation by Seamus Heaney, staged by Deborah Warner in London, Paris, Munich, Amsterdam and New York.

His recordings include Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin with Graham Johnson (Gramophone Award 1996); Tom Rakewell with Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Grammy Award, 1999); and Belmonte with William Christie. Under an exclusive contract with EMI Classics, he has recorded Schubert Lieder and Schumann Lieder (Gramophone Award 1998), English song and Henze Lieder with Julius Drake, Britten's Our Hunting Fathers with Daniel Harding, Idomeneo with Sir Charles Mackerras, Janácek with Thomas Ades, Schubert with Leif Ove Andsnes, Noel Coward with Jeffrey Tate and, for EMI/Virgin, Bach cantatas with Fabio Biondi, Britten’s Canticles and The Turn of the Screw (Gramophone Award, 2003).

His concert engagements include the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw, New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras and the Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera under Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Colin Davis, Sir Andrew Davis, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Mstislav Rostropovich, Daniel Barenboim, Daniel Harding, Donald Runnicles, James Levine and Antonio Pappano.

In 2001 he was elected an honorary fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and in 2003 he was made an Honorary Doctor of Music by the University of St Andrew’s. He was created a CBE in the 2004 New Year’s Honours.

In the fall of 2000, Bostridge was giving a recital at the University of Chicago, and we met just offstage at Mandel Hall.  He had just finished a rehearsal and graciously took a few minutes to speak with me . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You sing both concert and opera.  How do you divide your career between those two?

Ian Bostridge:    It’s roughly a three-way split between recitals, concerts with orchestra, and opera in any one year.  It works out as, you know, off and on, one or two operas a year.

BD:    Do you like that balance?

bostridgeIB:    Yes, that’s a balance I set out to achieve when I started out as a singer, not really expecting to be able to achieve it.  But because my recital career has gone well and I got a record contract and things like that, it means that I am able to do that.

BD:    Does it surprise you that your recital career has gone so well?  Recitals seem to have been a little less popular in the last twenty or thirty years.

IB:    It has surprised me, but if you really like something and you love it and you stick to it, then people will like it because you’re committed to it, and that commitment shows.  I’ve benefited from a historical conjunction, which is that my career as a recording artist with lieder and wanting to sing lieder in public has coincided with a desire for the record companies to make lieder records.  Their two reasons are because the symphonic repertoire is over-recorded and too expensive, and I think it’s conceived that conductors don’t have enough of a distinct image because they don’t make a noise.  Whereas every singer is very obviously different, so you’ve got that sort of identity problem sorted out.  Also lieder records are very cheap to make compared to symphonic records or opera records!  [Both laugh]  So at a time of crisis for the record industry, some records are quite a handy thing.

BD:    Are you pleased, then, that you’re also filling the houses for your lieder recitals?

IB:    Yes.  I don’t know what it’s like in the States, but in London the Wigmore Hall certainly for the past twenty years has basically sold out every song recital that’s on.  So there has been an audience there, but I think it has been patchy.  In Germany, Berlin doesn’t really have a regular song recital series, which is a great pity.  It seems to happen city by city if you get a good presenter.  Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, who was at Cologne, set up a fantastic lieder series which got very good audiences.  He’s now at Carnegie Hall, and is having to do the same in the new hall they have there.

BD:    You’re an English singer.  Do you strive to bring English songs in some balance, or is it strictly German lieder and French chansons?

IB:    I love a lot of English song, but whether I’d do a whole recital...  Britten, I think, is certainly in the same league as these great lieder composers, the great French melody composers, and the great German lieder composers, and I’ve done whole evenings of Britten.  I’ve done the first half of Winterreise combined with Britten’s Winter Words as a program, and that’s worked nicely.  But for the rest of the English repertory, I’d say the problem is it’s a little bit bitty.  There are some fantastic songs which are as good as any songs in the repertory, but there isn’t a lot per composer.  There might be five Gurney songs that I love above all, but I wouldn’t want to do a whole evening of Gurney.

BD:    Maybe even just a set within a mixed recital?

IB:    Yes, but the other thing is I tend not to do mixed recitals.  Anything more broken up than a whole half of one composer I find a little bit unfocused.  But again, in order to program minor lieder composers, I’m going to have to get over that.  If I want to do some Mendelssohn lieder, which I think some of them are fantastic, I’m not going to do a whole evening of Mendelssohn lieder!

BD:    From the lieder repertoire, how do you decide yes I will sing this, no I will not sing that?

IB:    I have very clear ambitions as to what I definitely want to sing, because I want to sing more than anything else Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, and to a lesser extent, but almost as much, Brahms.

BD:    Why?

IB:    I just think they’re the greatest song composers.  With Schubert and Schumann you have a very obvious basis in the cycles.  They’re the famous cycles.  Next year I’m trying to build up a whole evening of Schubert, so trying to find the songs that balance a program is the real challenge now.

BD:    Balance in text or balance in music or both?

IB:    Both.  Balance in text, balance in thematic material, musically getting the key transitions right and getting the variety right in terms of basic tempo.  All those things are very important in song recital because I think you should really be striving to achieve the effect of a song cycle within at least each half of a song recital.

BD:    Do you expect the audience to grasp this, or is it your task to allow them to grasp it?

IB:    It’s my task to allow them to grasp it.  What you ideally do is take the audience with you, and they don’t really notice.  That’s one of the reasons pacing is very important in a song recital.  It is the theatricality of it, not allowing people to do that classical-music-background thing of sitting back and letting it wash over them.  You really ought to engage them and tell them something.

bostridgeBD:    Music as a participatory sport?

IB:    Or social, yes.

BD:    Do you expect anything more on the part of the audience?

IB:    It’s nice when the audience studies the text and even listens to the song before they come to the concert.  That’s often the counsel of perfection I need myself, because I don’t always have time to do that before I go to a concert.  But that would be the ideal lieder audience, an audience that either is German-speaking that has studied it a little bit.

BD:    You don’t like to have the text in the program book?

IB:    I do and I think it’s essential because as I said, it’s rather a counsel of perfection to expect people to go off and sort of mug up before they go and do their leisure activity.

BD:    You wouldn’t want to have supertitles like in the opera theater?

IB:    Not supertitles.  I wouldn’t mind having these things they’ve got at the Met on the back of the chairs.  But whether anybody’s going to pay for that for lieder recitals, I don’t know!  The problem with supertitles is they’re very distracting.  Theatrically they can be a disaster because you get people sort of up, down, up, down, up, down.

BD:    So you don’t even like them when you’re doing opera?

IB:    Not really, no.

BD:    And yet they bring the audience much closer.

IB:    They do, but they bring the audience closer at the same time as pushing them away as well.  Again, I’d say the ideal would be to go away and study the libretto before you go to the opera, and take art seriously.  But we’re living in an age where the idea of improving yourself and studying something for pleasure is rather out of the window.  There’s more of an idea out there that everything is entertainment in a way.

BD:    How much in a lieder recital is art, and how much is entertainment?

IB:    I think it’s both.  It depends on what you mean by entertainment.  I don’t think that art is supposed to be improving, but the more you put into something, the more you get out of it.  I would have thought that’s a very obvious human feature in anything.  The more you put into human relationships the more you get out of them, and the more you put into your engagement with a work of art the more you will get out of it.  If you just go to an art gallery and look at a picture without really learning anything about it beforehand, you get far less out of it and enjoy it far less than if you think about it beforehand.  Go back lots of times and look at the sketches for it to learn something about the artist.

BD:    Are you conscious of the fact that in the audience there’ll be someone coming to their first recital and someone coming to their thousandth recital?

IB:    I try not to think about that.  I try just to give the performance.  But I suppose I am aware of that, yes, but I hope that the art form speaks for itself and doesn’t need special pleading.  If you show sufficient respect for the audience, you don’t need to mollycoddle them.  You just present them with what you’re presenting them, and hope that they’ll like it.

BD:    Do you want them to like it?

IB:    Oh yes, I want them to like it.  They’ve got to like it — that’s the whole point.  But in classical music there’s a lot of anxiety about making material palatable, and the idea that somehow the way to do that is to sort of jazz it up, somehow.

BD:    So you want to present it pure?

IB:    Yes.  My aesthetic is quite austere, I would say, in terms of a lieder recital.  One of the great charms of the lieder recital is its austerity of means.  The theater of it is very limited
the space you move in, the limitation of gesture, that sort of thing.

BD:    It’s never off-putting to know it’s just you and the piano?

IB:    No, it’s a great challenge.  One of the great things about doing it is you feel so much, so pure in that way.  You’re so much in control of your own destiny.

BD:    You’re the composer’s advocate?

IB:    Yes.  You’re the composer’s advocate, though
advocate makes it sound as if you’re trying to persuade people to like.  You’re the composer’s collaborator, in a sense.  Music is performance art, and it doesn’t really live outside performance; it changes in performance.  The great creative artists write the music and put it on the page, but on the other hand, the music doesn’t really exist on the page because we don’t actually have a language for writing down all the things that performers will do.  Sensible composers in the past have recognized that you let the performer get on with it.  Benjamin Britten said the colors that a great singer like a Fischer-Dieskau or a Peter Pears will bring to a piece that they’re singing are not something that the composer writes down.  He trusts that to the particular talents of the performer.

BD:    So you bring all of those talents.  How far is too far?

IB:    [Thinks a moment]  You never really know until you do it, and then you realize you’ve gone too far and you pull back.  But one shouldn’t be afraid of taking liberties.  We’re sort of lumbered, in the early twenty-first century, with a notion of authenticity and text and textuality, which in fact the composers of the early nineteenth century really wouldn’t have recognized.  The idea of faithfulness to the composer’s intention and to the written text was not one that was actually an authentic nineteenth century notion.  I’m not going to mess around with it too much, but I might occasionally stick a decoration in a Schubert song which is a bit unorthodox.

BD:    Then, are you trying to convey the idea of the composer, or your idea of the idea of the composer?

IB:    It’s trying to communicate.  The ideology of music is the performer is the humble servant of the composer and mustn’t let himself get in the way of the composer, but actually as a singer you’re rather like an actor, and what you’re really doing is you’re using the material at your disposal to communicate what you have to communicate.  The way I feel about it, you urgently communicate the things you want to say through the music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you leave most of the songs in their original keys, or do you move them to where they’re comfortable?

IB:    Up to now I usually have left most of them in the original keys.  Occasionally there are songs I want to sing that are too low, and I will nudge them up a bit, which is actually more difficult to transpose up than to transpose down.

bostridgeBD:    They get too bright?

IB:    They get too bright, and it may be to do with the fact that the pitch in Schubert’s time was lower anyway.  It may be something to do with the nature of transposition and the nature of the modern piano, and losing the bass register.  I don’t really know, but I am more and more tempted to take some of the songs down a half a notch.  I only recently learned that Elisabeth Schumann used to take all Schubert lieder down a semi-tone, not because she didn’t have the high notes
she had fantastic high notes as an opera singer — but because she felt you could do more with the words, and you have more flexibility at that pitch.  I think that may well be true, and the fact that the pitch in Schubert’s piano was lower might make this more like the way he heard it.  For example, I do Heidenröslein down a semi-tone.  That’s something I’m considering.  It doesn’t happen much in this program, but it’s something I’m considering for other programs that I’m doing.

BD:    Do you change your technique at all for the size of the house
if you’re in a much more intimate hall, or a much larger one?

IB:    Not really, no.  I suppose I change my attitude to the audience, which probably makes me sing in a different way.  But in a good hall the voice will always carry.  That’s not so much the problem.  The problem is more one that big halls are difficult for facial communication.  You lose an awful lot in a lieder recital if you’re singing in a three thousand seat hall.

BD:    Now you say you enjoy doing a lot of Schubert.

IB:    Mm-hm.

BD:    Eventually are you going to do all six hundred songs?

IB:    As many as I can.  I probably have about two hundred fifty or three hundred that I know, so I’ll work on it.  But some of them are not that wonderful.  I’m not a complete-ist in that sense.  There’s one about a dog, a silly story about a dog, a very long ballad which I wouldn’t want to do, and I’m not that keen on doing Der Taucher, a Schiller ballad which lasts twenty-five minutes.  It is in some ways a very fine achievement, but I’m not that interested in doing it, and I think the audience aren’t interested in me doing it, either!  [Laughs]

BD:    [With a slight nudge]  How do you know what the audience is going to be interested in you doing, until you do it?

IB:    That’s true.  But I have my doubts.  I think long ballads are very difficult to bring off.

BD:    Put that as one half of the program?

IB:    People have done that, but I think that’s a very uncompromising attitude.  I’d probably be a bit scared to do that!

BD:    I asked you about different halls.  You’ve made a number of records, so do you sing differently for the microphone?

IB:    Sometimes, yes.  I would sometimes think that you can sing more intimately with a microphone.  The great virtue of recorded sound for the lieder repertoire is it allows us to re-domesticate the lieder genre, which has become a concert genre but started life as a domestic genre.  That is a great thing in recording.  So we’re taking Schubert lieder back into people’s living rooms, which is nice.

bostridgeBD:    But it’s no longer participatory, then.  You’re strictly listening.

IB:    I suppose then you’re losing an awful lot in losing the body of the performer.  But you win things, you lose things.

BD:    Do you sing any brand new songs?  Have there been songs written for you?

IB:    Yes.  Hans Werner Henze recently wrote me a fifty minute long song cycle for voice and piano, the first big work for voice and piano he’s ever written.  But that’s my only experience to date of having a piece written for me.

BD:    Did you ask him to do that, or did he just present it to you?

IB:    He had written three voice-piano settings of W. H. Auden and he had me sing those.  On the basis of that he wanted to write me a song cycle, so he initiated it and he wrote the poetry himself.

BD:    Do you have advice for others who want to write lieder in this new millennium?

IB:    I think it’s very difficult, because to find a voice in the lieder repertoire is very difficult.  The lieder repertoire was so much founded, initially, on domestic music, which is something we’ve lost.  That, obviously, has gone, and it’s very difficult when people talk about the new tonality in writing music that is appealing and easy to the ear, because it’s very easy for it to be banal.  So I don’t really have any advice because I don’t feel qualified to give advice, but I certainly don’t think the answer with the lieder repertoire is to go back to some sort of quasi-naïve, melodic, pretty style.  I often find that sort of thing unbearable to listen to.  It is too saccharine.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of musical composition, especially for the voice?

IB:    Yes.  I think there are some fantastic composers around.  In England we have Thomas Adès and Julian Anderson, but that’s the very young generation of people, in their twenties.  Mark-Anthony Turnage just wrote a fantastic opera; he’s probably in his late thirties.  I don’t know about the American scene, but I’m very optimistic.  In England we’ve got a lot of fantastic composers, but it takes a long time for the audience to take the music on board.  It now seems to take fifty to a hundred years for audiences to get used to the music!  [Laughs]  Stravinsky and Shostakovich are at the core of orchestral repertoire, and they wow audiences, in a way, more than Beethoven symphonies do now.  It’s taken a very long time for that to be the case.

BD:    Do we have time to wait for new lieder?

IB:    I hope so!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Let me ask the real easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

IB:    The purpose of music is to express the inexpressible.  It has the form of language but it has not the content, and as a result it can gesture towards all those things that we are aware of but unable to talk rationally about
the nature of existence, the inevitability of death, personal identity, the poignancy of the passing of time, reminiscence.  Things that we find it very difficult to talk about in ordinary language, music makes them very present to us, and it’s a very important part of our lives in that way.  That’s one of the great achievements of western classical music, particularly, discovering the tension-release mechanism of diatonic harmony and then complicating that and bringing it into great pieces of music.  I think that’s a great technical accomplishment, rather than seeing it relativistically and saying there’s all sorts of music and western music is just one sort of music.  That’s true up to a point and there are other wonderful musics, but I do think western music and western harmony has been a particular achievement to express human longing in a very amazing way.


© 2000 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at Mandel Hall of the University of Chicago on October 12, 2000.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB three months later.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.