Tenor ROBIN LEGGATE
talks with Bruce Duffie
A stalwart at Covent Garden for a quarter-century, tenor Robin Leggate has, in the last few years, made the leap to an international career. Singing a few well-chosen and well-suited roles, he has found success in this arena, particularly in characters of Benjamin Britten. Two of these he has brought to Chicago: Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw (2003), and Aschenbach in Death in Venice (2004), both with the Chicago Opera Theater.
On his first visit to the Windy City, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Robin Leggate about these roles and other insights he has gleaned in his distinguished career. Balancing the joy of a new-found freedom with the wisdom that comes from such a seasoned professional, he was forthcoming about his views and thoughtful when prodded for new visions.
Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Is it special for you, as an English tenor, to be doing Britten operas?
Robin Leggate: Definitely, yes. It's likely to be special for an Italian to be singing an Italian opera. We don't have much British or English opera, and what we do have in Britain, for the most part, is Benjamin Britten. Of course, I love his operas, I love his music. Very early on, when I was at college, I went to Aldeburgh, in the summer vacations, for a couple of courses there, and actually worked with Pears, and sung with him as well, and met Britten, in his last days before he died. I know the area, and funny enough, just knowing the place somehow gets you in touch with the music, certainly with Peter Grimes. There's an awful lot of that countryside in Britten's music.
BD: Does it make your performance more authentic, or just more confident?
RL: I'm not sure what authentic means, really, musically. And I don't know even about confidence; we're all very, very insecure, we singers.
BD: Was Pears helpful and encouraging to you?
RL: Oh, he was, yes, and a very nice teacher and very nice man too. The danger is to try and copy Peter Pears. He had a unique voice which you could love or hate. What he was, primarily, was a great communicator, and an artist. But to try and copy what he does would be a great mistake. One has to find one's own way of doing it.
BD: One's own way of Britten?
RL: One's own way of singing Britten's music. Although it was written for Pears, there aren't many people who can do just what Pears did, and in fact, it's not even, perhaps, what people would want, nowadays. Jon Vickers, for instance, has made Peter Grimes world famous as a Heldentenor, and in no way did he do it like Peter Pears did it. But today one generally casts Peter Grimes from a far heavier tenor than Peter Pears ever was.
BD: You've been singing a lot of Mozart, and now you're moving into some of the Wagner repertoire. Is your voice particularly suited to all of these roles?
RL: I stopped singing the major Mozart roles some years ago.
BD: By choice?
RL: Just by the natural progression of one's voice, and one's age. If you go to Così fan tutte, for instance, or even to Zauberflöte, or you want to hear a young, fresh, sweet voice. I'm getting on. I like to think my voice is still fresh, but it is not a young voice. And I've been able to move on. To be a professional, you have to do the things that you can do better than other people. A youngster of 32 who can sing well, can do Mozart better than I can now. But he can't come near Siegmund, or Loge, or Herod, in particular, which I've done also recently. So I go into what they can't do, and what I can do.
BD: Of course, Siegmund is a younger fellow. He might need to have a huge voice but he's a younger fellow.
RL: Absolutely. Salome is a very, very young girl, but you can't get a 13-year-old sing it! [Laughter.]
BD: Were the composers out of their minds in writing such heavy parts for these characters?
RL: That's an interesting question. I don't think so at all. Take Brünnhilde, for instance. She shouldn't be an old person, but you have to be a 40-year-old (at least) before you should start singing that role. But then it's just such wonderful music. In the theater, one suspends belief, or one suspends disbelief, rather, and you look at a large lady, which any Brünnhilde will be, or a very large lady doing Salome. Singers are fairly big people. They have to be, because of the nature of what we do.
BD: Is what you are asked to do too much?
RL: No. No, not at all. It's amazing what you can do, and you grow into it. I remember I sang Cassio in one of Plácido Domingo's earlier Otellos, at Covent Garden. Lots of people at the time said, "Oh, he shouldn't be going into Otello; it's too heavy for him." But, you know, within two or three or four years, he's the greatest Otello of his generation.
Leggate (right) as Cassio, with Sergei Leiferkus as Iago
BD: But he's unique. If you give that precautionary advice to most people, it would be right.
RL: No, I don't think he is unique. I think he did the right thing, and I think that singers' voices tend to strengthen with age, and tend to mature in a particular way. If you try and stick to the same repertoire that you sang as a very young person, you can only do that if you are supremely good, like Alfredo Kraus, for instance.
BD: I was going to mention Kraus, or Léopold Simoneau.
RL: Yes. But nowadays, if you are second rung of the ladder, no one really wants to hire a 55-year-old Ferrando, unless he sings at the Met or Covent Garden, or perhaps Vienna, and is so very, very, very good, and very, very famous. But for the rest of us, we have to move on.
BD: Is your career going the way you want it to?
RL: I decided two years ago to make a big career change. I've made a living, and I've made a reputation in England as a house tenor at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, doing the Cassios and the Narraboths, and the second line tenors, as well as the odd big role as well, but mainly the second line tenor. I notched up 25 years there a year or two ago, and I thought I've only got so many years singing. I want to get out and I want to sing a few more major roles, and I want to travel a bit more, and I want to give my career a different direction before I retire, in a few years' time. So that is why I'm here. I have sung Quint before, but I've sort of gone in halfway through the run and taken over from someone else. I wanted to come and do things like this, do Death in Venice, do more Herods, play around with Siegmund, Loge, things like that.
Leggate as Herod in Salome
BD: Lohengrin, perhaps?
RL: No, I think I'm too old to do a first Lohengrin, to be honest. I don't think I would be cast in it, and I think it's too late for me to build up that sort of stamina. I don't want to be just sitting on top "A"s all night. I think if I'd gone for that when I was 45, perhaps, it would be different, and I'd now have gotten it under my belt. But at my age now I think it's too late to start on a thing like that. Siegmund is different. That's a lower voice, it's a lower tessitura, it suits me very well, though I am a more lyric Siegmund than many people would imagine it should be. But nevertheless I do not get drowned at all by the orchestra, and I've got plenty of edge to the voice to get through, and enough stamina that I have absolutely no problems, and I love to sing it.
* * * * *
BD: Let's talk a little bit about Covent Garden for the moment. Most singers that travel around and come to Chicago can select their roles, and decide which roles they want to sing. If you were a house tenor at Covent Garden I assume you were assigned roles and you had very little choice.
RL: Yes, that's right, you are assigned roles. I have, once or twice over the years, said, "No, I'm sorry, but I just think that role is wrong for me" vocally and/or professionally, and they accepted it. But generally you go and see the casting director towards the end, or halfway through a season, and he tells you the six or seven or eight roles he wants you to do the next season, and either it's a good or a bad season.
BD: But I assume that most of the time someone would've heard that in your voice and not just plugged you in because you happen to be there.
RL: Absolutely. Peter Katona is the guy who does the casting at Covent Garden, and he's been in the business man and boy. He has an idea of my voice, which he and I might disagree on slightly over one or two things as any singer will. But he knows what he's doing.
BD: And I assume that he doesn't want to put someone in a role that's not going to do well. He wants success.
RL: Absolutely. Absolutely.
BD: Were you mostly pleased with the roles you were offered, and the roles you did?
RL: [Pauses, then chuckles somewhat tentatively, as if taken off guard by the question.] If you mean pleased in the roles I was offered, then yes. I would, of course, have liked other roles that he didn't offer me.
BD: Were you able to go to him and say, "How about, in a season or two, I could do..."
RL: Yes, and, in fact, very often it worked. But he is bound, of course, by the sheer number of operas which are actually coming up. I might say to him, "I think it's time I did Herod," but there might not be a Salome coming up for six or seven years.
BD: Not as a house singer but as a tenor of the world, how do you decide, yes or no, when you're offered a part, especially a leading part?
RL: It's an awful compromise between what you think is right artistically and professionally, and how much money you've got in the bank and how full your dowry is, to be perfectly blunt. [Thinks for a moment.] I'm not really a very good expert on this subject, because it's something for the first time in my life I'm having now to do. I'm having to decide. For instance, a casting director came the other day and had heard me sing in Khovanshchina at the Coliseum with the English National Opera. It was a role that I've done before and it went very well. He wanted to use me, but all he had going was Blind in Fledermaus and asked if I'd consider it. I thought, and I said no. It is just too small, and that's not why I left Covent Garden. When I was a house singer at Covent Garden, if they put on Fledermaus and asked, or told me to do Blind, I'd have done it very happily. But that's not what I want to do now. I want to do Quints, and Aschenbachs, and the like.
BD: Are there some roles that you have let your management know you are looking for, and they're trying to find a production for you?
[Photo at left: Leggate as the Scribe in Khovanshchina]
RL: Oh, absolutely. Oh, yes. I keep needling my management, and asking, "Why can't you get me another Herod?" because the last one went very well.
BD: What about new roles?
RL: There are two new roles that I would like to do, or three, perhaps. One is Grimes, which I have covered a couple of times, once at the Garden and at Amsterdam, and I would like to actually sing it because I know could I do it. And the others which I haven't done are Aschenbach and Loge. I've covered Loge, but I've never really worked on Aschenbach at all, and I very much want to do it.
BD: Are you at the point now where, if you just simply have them in your throat and in your mind, you could almost step in?
RL: No, it's too long a learning process. I don't think it's realistic to expect people to learn roles unless there's a performance coming. And apart from Aschenbach I know the others since I've covered them. I've looked through Aschenbach, and, of course, I've seen the opera and seen Philip Langridge do it, and I've seen Peter Pears do it. And I've read the story; I know what it's all about; I've researched it. And I know it's a role I want to do.
[Note: This interview was done in April of 2003. The following season, the Chicago Opera Theater produced Death in Venice and Leggate had a wonderful success in the role of Aschenbach, as seen in the photo below.]
* * * * *
BD: Being a British tenor and doing several of the Britten roles, I would assume, then, that opera companies might look to you perhaps as a natural successor of Pears and Langridge.
RL: One would hope so. If they want to put on a Britten opera, they will look to England, and they'll say "Who are the tenors around who might do that?" And I would hope to be counted, or thought of in one of the half dozen or so that are around.
BD: Is there a special way of singing Benjamin Britten?
RL: No. No, and I say that fairly firmly. One of the things I'm doing here is master classes in Britten song. And also I'm doing a little bit of Britten opera with one of the sopranos. Britten is just another composer. Okay, there are problems that Britten throws up more than others, but basically you're still a singer, and you're still singing music, and you're still singing what I would like to think of as bel canto singing. You're still singing properly. The English language itself poses various problems in singing, but it's the same in Handel and anyone else who writes in English... or sings in translation.
BD: Are they the same kinds of problems you would get in German rather than Italian because of all the consonants?
RL: It's not the consonants, actually, it's the diphthongs, and the swallowed vowels. Those are the two biggest problems.
BD: As opposed to Italian or French?
RL: As opposed to Italian, certainly. French has its own problems. In Italian, of course, you're singing pure vowels all the time. That's the wonderful thing about Italian, why it is the singer's language. In English you are on diphthongs the whole time, so it does pose many problems, but it is not unique. To an American, funny enough, singing Benjamin Britten is also tricky because you have to sing in English and not in "American." I've been giving my students here, the young artists in the company, various rhymes, in English, to help them... ones that I was given myself when I was young, though I didn't need them so much. Like, "Fancy asking Alice to dance to that brass band in the stand; she'd rather sit on a grassy bank with a brandy glass in her hand." And, "Put a bit of butter in the pudding." That is very, very difficult for an American to say. They say, [speaks in exaggerated American accent, overemphasizing the final "r" in "butter"]: "Put a bitta butter in the pudding." [Laughter.]
BD: [Attempting to speak with an English accent]: "Put a bit of butter in the pudding."
RL: That's right. That's right. But it's the vowel on the second syllable, [speaks with English accent, dropping final "r"]: "buttuh." "Er," is really quite difficult for an American.
BD: Yeah, we say [speaks with American accent, overemphasizing final "r"]: "errrr."
RL: You say [with American accent]: "butter," instead of [with English accent]: "buttuh."
BD: [With English accent]: Buttuh.
RL:. That's right. You do it very well. You should be a singer. [Riotous laughter.]
BD: [With English accent]: A singuh. [More laughter.]
RL: So to an American, Britten does pose that problem. For a tenor, the problem is that the music was written for Peter Pears, who had a particular facility to do certain things, and therefore there is an awful lot of these things, and you just have to learn to do them. So that might be a problem, but otherwise it's just good singing.
BD: But if those things are in your voice and in your head, I would think they would make singing the Pears repertoire easier for you.
RL: Well, yes and no - if they're in your voice. But if you listen to what Pears does, and then try to imitate him, you'll come unstuck. But if you look at the music, and look at the dynamics, and look at the marks that Britten has put in, and then try and do it with your voice, properly, then you will do it all right. But you will not do quite what Pears did, because you don't have Pears's voice.
BD: Do you think Britten is happy with other tenors singing his roles?
RL: [Thinks for a moment.] He's dead. [Chuckles.] And it doesn't matter. [Laughs heartily.]
BD: Yeah, but speculate.
RL: Actually, I think he probably would've turned in his grave at some of the things that Jon Vickers did to Peter Grimes, and yet they do work well. It was frightfully flip to say "He's dead and it doesn't matter," but it's actually more or less what I believe. The music is there now, and the music will live on, and I don't think we have to reproduce what Pears did.
BD: But do we have to reproduce what Britten wanted?
RL: We have to interpret the music by today's standards. I think if you were to go out and sing exactly like Peter Pears sang at some stages of his career now, you wouldn't get work. People do not like that sound, nowadays. It was acceptable then, and I think in some ways Pears put English tenors back by quite a few years in world acceptance, because a generation of English tenors copied him. They ended up singing, I think, badly, and without a proper round tone.
BD: I'm trying to remember what else he did besides Britten.
RL: He did Purcell and Bach. He was a very, very fine Bach singer, and of course he did a lot of Schubert. He did quite a lot of Lieder. In his early days he sang Ferrando and things like that with the Sadler's Wells Opera. But he very quickly became associated with Britten. I heard him sing when I was at university; I heard him sing Dichterliebe when he came to Oxford. And he was superb. If you want to listen to a Schöne Müllerin, his recording is wonderful, and his final song is just magic. But people can't do that today. He was unique.
BD: Are you unique?
RL: [Answers emphatically, and without hesitation]: Yes. Yes, I am.
BD: Is that a good feeling?
[Photo at left: Leggate in The Cunning Little Vixen]
RL: Yes. Yes. I'm a firm believer that you should do it your way as a singer, and consequently, when I learn a role, I will very often listen to something once, just to get a rough idea of how it goes. And then I very specifically do not listen to records. I want it to be mine, and I like to work from the notes on the page. Obviously you have to have to have a good idea of what Britten was after, but he's put most of it down on the page.
BD: I was going to ask if he was clear about what he wanted?
RL: Oh, he put an enormous amount on the page.
BD: Too much?
RL: No, I don't think so, because it was all meant. But what you have to do, in an opera, is to find a reason. If he gives a dynamic, if he has a decrescendo, for instance, you have to find a dramatic reason to do that. But that's the same with any composer. Conductors and musicologists, and répétiteurs will sometimes say, "Oh, you've got to do a decrescendo there," or "This has to be forte, and that has to be piano." What the singer has to do is find out why it has to be forte or piano, why he has to do a decrescendo, dramatically, because then he's got to communicate something to the audience. And he's not just got to communicate music, he's got to communicate drama.
BD: Where is the balance between the drama and perhaps an entertainment in these operas?
RL: [Thinks for a moment.] Well, I think drama is entertainment. I don't think it's anything less for that. I don't quite know what you mean by "entertain." The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story, and it's very spooky, and it's quite moving. On the other hand, you could hardly say that Death in Venice or King Lear was sort of entertainment. In a way it is. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe entertainment is not the right word. We are in show business, but we're also in art. But I don't want to be sort of too sort of toughy-nosed about it, you know. An audience has got to want to come again, for whatever reason. They have to have a good time, even if it's a harrowing experience.
BD: They like to be thrilled, or scared.
RL: They like to be moved one way or another - moved to laughter, moved to tears, moved to horror, moved to fright. They like to be moved. They come for an emotional experience. I think that's what it is. One has to touch an audience's emotions, one way or another.
BD: Well, we're kind of dancing around this; let me ask the question straight on: what's the purpose of music? Is this what we're talking about, the moving and the being moved?
RL: What's the purpose of art? What's the purpose of a picture on a wall? [Laughs.] Dear, oh dear. I should've had notice of this question. It is part of the human experience. I like to think it is something higher than the day-to-day life that we have to live in getting enough food. Once we have enough food, and we have a roof over our heads, we need more. And I think human beings are not unique in this. Some animals have their own art. Some birds build beautiful nests to attract other birds. On the whole, people who go to the theater, who listen to music, become better people because of it.
BD: Is the music that you sing for everyone?
RL: No. No. I'm very skeptical about some education programs. My mother, for instance, can't stand the soprano voice, and my brother can't stand it. They think of them as screaming women. No amount of education will make them like it. It is the same way that I'm not particularly attracted by motor racing, for instance, or football. I don't go to football matches. It does nothing to me. But music always has done something to me. We are all different. We are all touched by different things. Some people are touched by music and some people aren't.
BD: Being a singer, you are always involved with text. Does that help or hinder?
Leggate (left) as Bob Boles with Bryn Terfel as Balstrode
RL: Helps. But it's very interesting. I have sung Bob Boles in Peter Grimes many times. I have sung it with Tony Rolfe Johnson, and I have sung it with Philip Langridge. Now Tony comes to his work from the notes, and Philip comes to his from the words, and they do different Peter Grimeses because of it. I've listened to them closely and wondered at how different they are because of the way they approach. Of course both do both, but one is predominantly drama and one is predominantly music.
BD: And both are right?
RL: Yes! Absolutely. That is why we perform. That is why we don't make a film of it and say, "Right. Turn of the Screw has now been done. There's the film, and we don't need to do it again." Every night is different, and every cast is different, with every conductor.
BD: So a perfect performance is impossible.
RL: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But there'll always be one or two performances you remember in your life that you've seen or been in, and you say, "Well, that came pretty close to it." And then it's very difficult, as an opera-goer, once you've seen, or in my case, once you've been in, say, Otello, with Plácido Domingo, Margaret Price, and Carlos Kleiber conducting, it's very difficult to really be as excited again by Otello. But we do our best.
BD: You have to convince the next night's audience, because they have not seen that one that you were in previously.
RL: Well, yes. Obviously one gets carried away. But when people come on round and say, "Oh, that was absolutely fantastic," you think, but you never say, "Ah, yes, but you should've seen..." [Chuckles.]
BD: Well, being a house singer you would be involved in a long run, perhaps, with a couple of different casts, in various operas. How do you keep the third, and the seventh, and the ninth performance bright and sparkling?
RL: Oh, that's not too difficult, because the different casts make everything different.
BD: Then suppose you have the same cast throughout. Maybe you're going out on tour and do 30 performances of it?
RL: Just the sheer business of standing up in front of two and a half thousand people makes you so terrified that you give of your best every time. I've been in many hundreds of performances, and can remember only once being on stage and thinking, "This is a really silly way to earn a living." I was behind a mask dancing around as Pang in Turandot. And just momentarily this thought crossed my mind, "This is really stupid," you know? [Laughter.] But for the rest of the time one is really keyed up and giving of one's best, almost out of sheer fear, but out of just the adrenaline, the nerves of performing.
BD: Do you find the same kinds of energies and let-downs doing major roles as doing smaller parts?
[Photo at right: Leggate (right) as Peter Quint]
RL: It's bigger. It's much bigger. More depends on you. There's no doubt about it. I'm always nervous when I go on stage. Every singer is nervous. Some admit to it more than others, but every singer is nervous. If I do something that is really, really easily within my capability, and it's very small, then, okay, you're nervous before you go on stage because you never quite know what's going to come out of your mouth every time you open it. Mostly the right thing comes out. But you get over nerves fairly quickly. Quint is not an enormous role, but it's a big enough role, and it is tricky. Certainly I don't relax. I can't relax until the interval and then I relax and really start to enjoy it. But you're still keyed up. I share a dressing room with the boy who sings Miles, and once, in performance, halfway through the second act, he said, "Why are you staring at me like that?" He said, "It's spooky." And I said, "I'm very sorry. In this role, I just can't quite get out of character." Even when I'm down in my dressing room, I just sort of sit there, and it just rather takes you over for a bit, and you stay in it. So you are more committed to a big role, I think, than a small role. Or more of you is committed to it. Perhaps that is a better way of saying it.
* * * * *
BD: Now as you do more and more of the larger roles, are there any that are a little too close to the real Robin?
RL: [Thinks for a moment.] I haven't found it yet. I found one role that, funny enough, got to me. I have done many evil people, and it's great fun being evil on stage.
BD: A tenor isn't usually evil, is he?
RL: No, but the small comprimario roles quite often are. In Tosca is the obvious one - Spoletta. I creep around the stage leering at everything and torturing people, and it was really great fun. But I was in an opera called The Greek Passion, and I was singing the role of the guy who plays Judas. This man was not only nasty but he knew he was nasty, and he felt guilty about it, and he hated himself.
BD: Ahhh... self loathing!
RL: Absolutely. And I really found this got to me. I quite literally had to go around apologizing to my dresser, and my wig man and people like that because I was really quite nasty while I was doing it. I felt this guy really get to me, and it really surprised me, because I could normally slip in and out of a role very quickly. [Snaps fingers.] But this one I couldn't. And I figured it out -- it was because he hated himself. He wasn't just evil and enjoyed being evil; he hated being evil.
BD: Right now you're appearing in The Turn of the Screw doing the role of Quint. Is he at all like Claggart in Billy Budd? Your part in there is Captain Vere, but you must know and understand Claggart.
RL: Yes, I would say the answer is almost certainly yes. And the Governess in Turn of the Screw, I suppose, is like Vere. They're the two sides of the coin. The simple answer is probably yes, though it's never spelled out. That's the wonderful thing about The Turn of the Screw, nothing is ever made clear. And that's not just because Britten is hiding something, but James himself hid it. That is the whole point of the ghost story. That is why a ghost story is frightening. That's why Hitchcock made such frightening films, because he never showed you what you were frightened of. It was just off-screen, or just behind you.
[Photo at left: Leggate as Captain Vere]
BD: Do you ever wish that you had the voice for Claggart?
RL: [Thinks for a moment.] No. No, I don't. I enjoy doing Vere. Personally speaking, I enjoy Vere very much. There's a lot of me in Vere.
BD: Could you have been a Claggart, though?
RL: [Without hesitation.] Oh, yes. There's one thing I've learned, having been this long in the business and doing so many different roles, I can turn my dramatic skills to just about anything. And dramatic skills are something you gather over the years. When I started, I couldn't act. I couldn't act my way out of a paper bag. I went on stage and I made my debut at Covent Garden as Cassio, and they put me in a blonde wig because the last Cassio had worn a blonde wig. I looked like a drag artist. I couldn't move. I was dreadful. But, you know, over the years you learn.
BD: Do you have any preference for being evil or being happy?
RL: Evil's more fun. [Hearty laughter.] Or at least more troubled.
BD: When I talk to baritones, they say they love their roles because they're more interesting.
RL: Yes. I did a master class when I was at college, many years ago, with Gérard Souzay. I sang some songs from La bonne chanson. And I can't remember now how many songs there are, five or six or so. He said, "Oh, how lovely to do these. They're not very often done because they're such happy songs." He said, "People will go to Winterreise, you know, one miserable song after another, and they'll go time and time again, but they don't want to hear happy songs."
BD: I like Schöne Müllerin because some of those are happy, at least. [Chuckles.]
RL: Some of them are.
* * * * *
BD: Are you at the point in the career that you want to be now?
RL: I am what I am. Whatever's happened in the past has happened. Purely professionally, I should have left Covent Garden ten or fifteen years ago. But ten or fifteen years ago I was not singing very well and knew it, so I held on for safety, because in the roles I was doing then it wasn't so obvious that I wasn't singing well. And so had I left then, I think my career might've just hit a brick wall. But now I'm singing okay, which is why I took the decision a couple of years ago to leave, and enjoy myself a bit, and throw up the security of a very good job at Covent Garden.
BD: Was it pleasant, working at Covent Garden day after day, or rather, night after night?
RL: Oh, wonderful. Yes. Wonderful place to work. In the new theater, you've lost something of the small family atmosphere, but the physical facilities, are just fantastic.
Leggate (left) as Count Elemer with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in Arabella
BD: Have you also sung at small places like Glyndebourne?
RL: Yes, I've sung just about most places in Europe.
BD: Do you change your technique at all if you're singing at a large house or a small house?
RL: No. No. I don't think you change your technique for a big or small house, or from Wagner to Mozart. Your technique is the same. In a small house, of course, like we are singing in now, you sing softer. I sing softer, anyway, because I'm basically a large house singer, because I've made my career, and my voice has developed for large houses. I can sing in any house and be heard. And this opera is quite a luxury. For about one bar in the whole evening I sing forte, and the rest is really quite light for me. If I sang louder, it would just not sound very pleasant in such a small space, and it wouldn't be right with the music.
BD: You've got to make sure that you fit in with the rest of the cast.
RL: The rest of the cast and the music and the theater and the orchestra and everything else. You have to blend. There's one moment in the beginning of the second act where I have to sing with Miss Jessel, and the director has put her right at the back of the stage, and I'm right at the front. I have to sing that very softly indeed, because if I sang it even as it's marked, you would hear me and you wouldn't hear her, simply because she's so far back on the stage. So of course, you have to be aware of what's going on around you.
BD: Was that a mistake on the part of the director, or is that something you just have to get around?
RL: It's something you have to get around. No, it wasn't a mistake, because dramatically it works very well. But musically it's a problem, and we have to put it right by having me sing softer.
* * * * *
BD: I understand you're giving some master classes, helping students learn to sing.
BD: Have you done any stage directing at all?
RL: [Dismissively]: No, I haven't. I'm very wary of singers going into other things. Of course I could do many good things if I decided to direct, with my knowledge of design, my knowledge of the intellectual side of what directors have to bring to a piece. I'm quite intelligent for a tenor, but that's not the same as being able to direct something. I could coach singers. I could coach scenes and tell them how to move around the stage, but I don't think I would be right. There are professionals who spent their whole life directing, and what right have I to come and say, "Well, I can do it better than you."
BD: With your long theatrical experience, I assume there were some directors you really, really liked, and some that you really, really hated.
RL: Yes. [Chuckles.]. I fell out spectacularly with one, and one conductor, too... So much so I actually told the management of Covent Garden that I would rather not sing with that conductor again. That's not something a young singer can do, but I felt old enough to say it! I suppose it shows how good my relationship was with the casting man was that I could say that.
BD: Now that you're working with young singers, is there some general bit of advice that you can give them?
RL: I find I've been repeating myself time and time again to these young singers, and basically I've been telling them to keep singing and keep the air flowing. Maybe it's my hobby horse, but I've been able to help all of them. I don't think I'm kidding myself. I think they appreciate it, and certainly I have loved working with them, because I've heard tremendous differences. So many singing teachers do not really teach people how to breathe. One of the young artists said to me, "You know, you're the first person who's been able to tell me how to sing softly."
BD: I assume it has to do with a lot of support from the diaphragm.
RL: It does, indeed. But the thing about singing softly is what you hear other people do gives you the impression it's quite the opposite of what they're doing. You get the impression that they're letting everything go. Actually they're doing quite the opposite. Anyway, she then asked me where to go for more advice, and I said, "Speak to middle-aged singers whose singing you admire. People who've been doing it for a few years and are still doing it well, and you like what they do. Ask them." I added, "Any singer is very flattered to be asked." Singers don't ask each other enough. We don't. Ballet dancers are constantly talking to each other about what they're doing. Singers don't. We're all far too terrified of giving ourselves away, of lowering our defensive barriers around us, which we carry, vocally speaking, because we're so vulnerable, vocally.
[Photo at right: Leggate in Verdi's Stiffelio]
BD: You're all out there almost literally naked every time you open your mouth.
RL: That's right. Once your confidence in your ability to do it is knocked, it's very difficult to get back. There is a bit of gamesmanship that goes on. If you say to a golfer who is playing very well, "Gosh, I do like the way you cock your right wrist just halfway up on the backswing," just before he takes a swing, you know exactly what will happen! I once did the most dreadful thing, and it was not on purpose, I swear to God it was not on purpose. I was making a recording for television of the Armed Man scene from Zauberflöte. I was singing Tamino, and a colleague was singing the First Armed Man. He was a very clever singer, and he more or less cracked open his score at the first take, and sight-read his way through it. After the first take, I said, "Gosh, you're awfully good at that. Most tenors find that A so difficult." And I really didn't mean to do it, but he could never sing it again. He never really sang it as well again. Some people I'm sure do it on purpose. I don't. I think women have a worse reputation than men, for that. Sopranos are more competitive. They have to be; there are more of them.
BD: Is it beneficial to you to be a tenor in the times of The Three Tenors?
RL: No, I don't think so. I sing different music than those three. But it is beneficial to be a tenor, because there are few tenors around.
BD: I just wondered if you hop into a cab and the guy says, [in New York accent]: "Whaddaya do?" And you say, "I'm a tenor."
RL: Oh! If people ask you what you do in England, and you say you're a singer, they ask, "What sort of singer?" If you say you're an opera singer, they will ask, "Well, what do you do in the day?" I mean, educated people are saying this. You have to go to Germany for them to respond, "Oh, Das ist Wunderschön!" In England, a singer is pretty low-life, I'm sorry to say. [Chuckles.]
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of opera?
RL: Yes. Yes, I am. It's an art form
tend to come to late in life, when they have the time and the
But to listen to the singing voice, unamplified, is a visceral
and I don't believe that human beings have changed. There's
more opera going on than ever before. Some companies are finding
difficulty in filling their houses. But if you look at the COT,
is a growing company. It's in a renaissance. And people are
going to out-of-the-way operas. The Turn of the Screw is
mainstream, especially in America, but audiences are building over the
run by word of mouth. And people will get into the habit of
every season, and maybe coming to everything. They might like
out of five, or four out of five, and hate the fifth. But they
come, because it's worthwhile.
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For more information and photos of Robin Leggate, visit his website .
Bruce Duffie has conducted over 1600 interviews with classical musicians during his 30+ years as a broadcaster and lecturer. For a quarter-century, he was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, where he won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Broadcast Award in 1991. Transcripts, such as this one, have been published in various magazines and journals since 1980, and now they also appear on the internet.
You are invited to visit his website , where you can view other interviews, find information about WNIB, as well as photos of his professional and personal life. You may also send him E-Mail , but please put "opera interview" in the subject line to differentiate it from spam.
© 2003 Bruce Duffie
Published in The Opera Journal in September, 2006, and posted on this site at that time.