Countertenor  Christopher  Robson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Christopher Robson was born in Scotland in 1953 and is today widely regarded as one of the foremost exponents of the Countertenor voice of his generation, with a repertoire ranging from Medieval monody to the Avant-Garde. Since his debut with the English National Opera in 1981 in Monteverdi's "L'ORFEO" he has made a unique contribution to the world of Opera and Music-Theatre, being highly respected for the energy and commitment of his performances as well as his skill as an actor. Over a period of 17 years he won critical acclaim for his performances with the ENO, notably in a series of Handel operas ("XERXES" Arsamenes, "ARIODANTE" Polinesso, and the title role in "JULIUS CAESAR"), Britten's "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM" (Oberon) and the UK Premieres of Reimann’s "LEAR" (Edgar/Mad Tom) and Philip Glass’s "AKHNATEN" (title role). In 2008 he returned to ENO after a 10 year absence to play the Mystery Man in the UK premiere of Olga Neuwirth's "LOST HIGHWAY". He has also sung with the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Scottish Opera, Opera North, Glyndebourne Festival and Touring Opera, and the Opera Factory in the UK. Abroad he has appeared at Houston Grand Opera (American premiere Akhnaten & Giulio Cesare), New York City Opera (Akhnaten), Chicago Lyric Opera (Xerxes), Sao Paulo Opera (Xerxes), and Moscow's Bolshoi Theater (Xerxes) as well as many of the leading European opera companies.


He has worked with many of the world’s leading conductors and stage directors, including Claudio Abbado, Gary Bertini, Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Roger Norrington, Nicklaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Zubin Mehta, Mark Elder, Ivor Bolton, Friedrich Haider, Alexander Joel, Richard Hickox, Richard Jones, Nicholas Hytner, David Freeman, John Copley, Willy Decker, Eike Gramms, Pierre Audi, David McVicar, Robert Carsen, Leander Hausmann, Dominic Mentha, Peter Sellars, Diane Paulus, David Alden and Martin Duncan. He has also appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, Concerto Köln, English Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Academy of Ancient Music, London Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, Münchener Rundfunk and Academy of St.Martin in the Fields orchestras at festivals in Perth, New York, Rochester, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Berlin, Zurich, Geneva, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Ravenna, Paris, Lyon, Athens, etc.
World Premieres have included the creation of the Angel in John Tavener’s "APOCALYPSE", St Paul in Tavener's "TOTAL ECLIPSE", Claire in John Lunn’s "THE MAIDS" (an adaptation of Genet’s play of the same name written specially for Christopher and his brother, the tenor Nigel Robson), Ometh in John Casken’s "GOLEM", and the Refugee in Jonathan Dove’s "FLIGHT". In concert he has also premiered new works by Xavier Dayer, John Woolrich, Alfred Zimmerlin, Rene Clemencic, Hans-Jürgen von Bose and Hans Ulrich Lehmann.

Christopher Robson has broadcast extensively on radio and television, and his many recordings for Decca, Virgin, Chandos, Farao, EMI, Meridian, Harmonia Mundi etc. include performances of Handel’s "MESSIAH", "BELSHAZZAR", "ARIODANTE" & "SERSE", Bach’s "MAGNIFICAT", Arne's "ARTAXERXES", Casken’s "GOLEM", Vivaldi’s "NISI DOMINUS & GLORIA", and Monteverdi’s "L'ORFEO". On DVD he has recorded Handel’s "XERXES", "GIULIO CESARE", "ARIODANTE" & "RODELINDA", Jonathan Dove’s "FLIGHT", Purcell’s "St. CECILIA ODE 1692", and a compilation of Handel arias, "A NIGHT WITH HANDEL". 


Christopher Robson’s engagements between 2009 and 2014 include: the role of Sir Thomas More/Raphael in the world premiere of “” (written for him by composer Alexander Strauch and director Martina Veh) at the Dresden Semperoper; Trinculo in the European premiere of Thomas Adés’s “TEMPEST” with Frankfurt Oper (directed by Keith Warner);  "Singer-Mephisto Shadow" in a new production of Goethe's "FAUST" for the Badisches Staatstheater Schauspielhaus in Karlsruhe (directed by Thomas Krupa); a European tour of Purcell's "THE FAIRY QUEEN" with Philip Pickett and the New London Consort; the world premiere at the Munich Gasteig of a Music-Theatre piece called “GLENN GOULD vs GLENN GOULD”, a collaboration with director Gert Pfafferodt, actor Danny Exnar, and the artist Bernd Zimmer; the world premiere of Damon Albarn’s “DOCTOR DEE” in which Christopher creates the role of Edward Kelley at the Manchester International Festival and later at the Coliseum for English National Opera; the world premiere of a new Music-Theatre piece “PRESIDENT JEKYLL” by Christoph Reiserer and Martina Veh at the Amerikahaus in Munich; return visits to the Frankfurt Oper for a new production of Cavalli’s “LA CALISTO” (Satirino & Furie) and a revival of Thomas Adés’s “TEMPEST”.

From 1994-2006 Christopher Robson was a principal guest artist with the Bavarian State Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper) in Munich, taking part in productions of Handel’s "GIULIO CESARE" (title role & Tolomeo), "SERSE" (Arsamenes), "ARIODANTE" (Polinesso), RINALDO (Mago Christiano), "RODELINDA" (Unulfo), Monteverdi's "L’INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA" (Arnalta) and Strauss's "DIE FLEDERMAUS" (Orlofsky). In 2002 he played Baba the Turk in Martin Duncan's new production of Stravinky’s "THE RAKE’S PROGRESS", and created a plethora of roles in the World Premiere of Hans-Jürgen von Bose’s "KAFKA PROJEKT 12/14" (an adaptation of “Metamorphoses” and letters by Kafka), a “one-man” opera especially commissioned for him by the Bayerische Staatsoper to open the 2002 Opernfestspiele. At the 2005 Opernfestspiele he played the Sorceress in Andy Ammer's unique production of Purcell's "DIDO & AENEAS" at the Prinzregententheater, and later that year made his debut in Tokyo in Handel's ARIODANTE on tour to Japan with the Bayerische Staatsoper.

In 1999 with the Swiss pianist Petra Ronner he instigated a series of annual recitals at the Munich Opera Festival exploring the relationships between Old and New music, bringing to many listeners ears the riches of Medieval dramatic monody for the first time, as well as music of the Baroque & Modern eras. In 2004 he premiered a new music/theatre piece revolving around Monteverdi's character Arianna, "CORPORALITA", in collaboration with the director Martina Veh and choreographer & Butoh dancer Yvonne Pouget, further strengthening his artistic ties with Munich. In 2008 CORPORALITA was revived and performed to great critical acclaim at the Europäisches Kirchenmusik Festival in Schwäbische Gmünd.

In 1997 and 2002 Christopher Robson was awarded the Opernfestspiel Preis (the only person ever to have received the award twice in the history of the Munich Opera Festival), and in 2003 was honoured by the Bavarian Minister for Arts & Culture with the title of “Bayerischer Kammersänger” (Ks) in recognition of his achievements at the Bayerische Staatsoper and his contribution generally to music and the Arts in Munich & Bavaria. His ties to Munich were so strong that he eventually settled there, moving to Munich from his home in East Sussex in late 2007.

 --From Christopher Robson's official website (2018)  [Text only - photos added]  
--  In the box above and throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


See my interview with Gwynne Howell

In September of 1995, Christopher Robson appeared with Lyric Opera of Chicago as Arsamenes in their first-ever production of Xerxes by Handel.  Also in the cast were Ann Murray in the title role, Alison Hagley as Atalanta, Elisabeth Futural as Romilda, Kathleen Kuhlmann as Amastris, George Hogan as Elviro, and Kevin Langan as Ariodates.  
John Nelson conducted, Nicholas Hytner directed the production by David Feilding, which was lit by Duane Schuler.

A few days before the first performance, Robson took time from his rehearsals to speak with me.  The conversation ranged over many topics, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of being a countertenor in the late 1990s.

Christopher Robson:   The joys are at least I’m quite successful.  The sorrows are it’s more competitive than it used to be because the voice is much more common now.

BD:   Is it a good thing that this voice is becoming more well-known and more common?

CR:   Yes it is, because it’s being treated more commonly now as a genuine singing voice, and because there are so many more countertenors there’s a greater variety of styles and techniques of singing.  So, it becomes more on a par with the other voices in terms of its versatility.  That’s the good thing about it.  For many years it was treated as something very special that could only be used in early music.  That was possibly exceptional, and nowadays it’s not so exceptional.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But aren’t all voices supposed to be exceptional?

CR:   No.  The individuals are often exceptional, and the individuals make what we would possibly consider the exceptional voices, but you get into a different argument there.  As far as the actual noise and the quality of falsetto singing, it’s now become much more accessible to other people because there are so many more people doing it.  Therefore, it’s more acceptable as well, which is a good thing.

BD:   Do you hearken back to Alfred Deller (1912-1979) and the few in that era that did it?

CR:   Sometimes.  I have to say the people that influenced me more were Paul Esswood (1942 -  ) and James Bowman (1941 -  ) because they were almost my generation.  But Alfred Deller was possibly very much a known star, being the beginning of the revival.  In its time, his was a great discovery of a voice, and in many respects a unique sound, which some people have tried to imitate rather unsuccessfully.

robson BD:   Was he particularly good at it, or was he just the only one doing it and we’ve gotten much better?

CR:   Certainly in the
50s he was the only one of maybe three or four doing it, and he was the best at it in terms of the music that he tried to do.  For what he recorded, and the ensemble music that he did in concerts with his Consort, he was the only person.  You could say he was the only exponent of falsetto singing at that time who was in any way worth listening to and who had a voice which was interesting, and, in many respects, very expressive and sometimes incredibly beautiful.  However, I personally am not a great fan of his singing.  I find it very mannered and actually sometimes very unmusical.

BD:   That’s because we’re made progress?

CR:   Yes, and it’s because countertenors are now more into developing the voice as a real singing instrument as to something which is out of the ordinary.  It’s truthful to say Deller had a very small voice.  It carried well because it had a particular quality to it, but when you listen to some of his recordings
compared to people nowadays like Michael Chance (1955 -  ), or Jochen Kowalski (1954 -  ), and other people of my generationit becomes clear that possibly there were a great deal of shortcomings.  Certainly when you sing things like A Midsummer Night’s Dream [of Britten], which was written specifically for Deller, you become very much aware of the limitations of his voice because the vocal writing is quite limited in its range and its expressive style.

BD:   This was something I was going to come to later, but let’s deal with it now.  Are you glad that modern composers are writing for this voice rather than just ignoring it?

CR:   Oh, absolutely.  I think it’s great because, on the one hand, someone might use it as a special effect voice - that’s fair enough.  A man singing falsetto is a sort of special effect, and some composers also use it as another instrument in the range of voices and write for it accordingly.  Instead of writing special countertenor music, they write music for countertenors, and I think that’s really wonderful.  John Casken (1949 -  ) was one, Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) to an extent was another, although he uses it very much more in caricature.  This is really exciting because it has begun to establish the voice as a real voice, as opposed to a special voice, and the more music that is written for it, the more the number of countertenors who will be singing it.  Therefore, you get a greater concept of the different ways that different countertenors sing
the different noises they make, the different qualities of expression they havejust as you do with any soprano or mezzo-soprano, or tenor, or baritone.  The understanding becomes much greater, and the chance of developing the voice more becomes greater.  It’s true to say that over time, by the demands they make on the voice, the composers have pushed the voice to discover more technique and more ways of performing, more ways of expressing a vocal sound, and now that’s beginning to happen with countertenors.  There was a time in the 60s when everybody thought a countertenor had to sound like Alfred Deller, or James Bowman, or Paul Esswood, and that was it.  Now, in Europe alone there are fifteen or sixteen very successful countertenors, and you can’t any longer say it has to sound like this or it has to sound like that.  Therefore the composers are also pushing the technique of the individual singers that they write for, which in turn, in another generation, will mean there’ll be singers who come along who don’t find that technique at all difficult, and, in turn, they can be pushed with more new music again to expand the voice, just as happened through the Renaissance and the Baroque and into the Classical era and the Romantic era.

BD:   It seems that countertenors sing music of the Baroque and pre-Baroque, and then they jump to the modern era, and there’s this great big gaping hole in the middle.

CR:   Yes, there is a gaping hole, and academically there’s a very good reason for that, because in the Nineteenth Century the voice died out.  There is also a problem that we have to consider that countertenors have now begun to take up what used to be castrato repertoire.  At the same time, we also have to remember that doing the Baroque period there were falsetto singers
not just castrati, but also men who sang in falsetto.  That’s certainly well documented, and possibly the academic reason why we have that hole is because in the Nineteenth Century the voice did die out.  It was no longer popular because castrati became virtually extinctexcept within the churchand by the turn of the Nineteenth into the Twentieth century, men singing falsetto were very, very rare indeed.  The only place where it really survived was in England, in the English Anglican church tradition.  But the problem was that the music written for those church choirs by the end of the Nineteenth Century was so bland and uninteresting that the voices themselves lost any ability to really project themselves, or be expressive, or indeed be technically accomplished.

BD:   Which came first
the revival of Baroque music, or the revival of the countertenor voice?

CR:   Oh, very much the revival of the Baroque music.  That goes way back to the beginning of this [Twentieth] century, or the middle of the last [Nineteenth] century.  It was Mendelssohn who instigated the great revival of Bach
ironically in England, where he lived for many yearsby writing his own massive oratorios.  There also was a major revival of Handel in the Nineteenth Century.

BD:   Was this with the Göttingen Festival?

CR:   Yes, the Göttingen and the Halle Festivals.  This was a major step forward, and then it continued in France with Boulanger’s pioneering of Monteverdi, and people like that.

BD:   So they were doing the repertoire, and they needed the voices?

CR:   Yes.  When you hear the old recordings of Monteverdi which were made in the
20s and 30s by Boulanger, on the one hand they’re quite comical, but what’s wonderful is you do have the sense of them discovering new musicwhich is quite extraordinary, and it’s very exciting to listen to.

BD:   Is there still a problem today hearing the falsetto voice in a heroic role, such as Julius Caesar?

CR:   It depends on the singer.  That very much depends on the individual.  There are some singers I would not like to hear singing Julius Caesar, and if I had to lay my cards on the table, I would much rather hear a fantastic mezzo than a bad countertenor.  Equally, I would much rather hear a fantastic mezzo than a baritone because, again, that’s an academic thing.  The problem with tenors and baritones singing the soprano and alto castrati roles is that they just sound wrong.  Of course, earlier in this century one didn’t have falsettos who were any good to do it.  For some inexplicable reason, women weren’t allowed to wear trousers unless they were singing Octavian or Cherubino, so men took on the male roles.  But at the same time, the music never sounded right transposed down an octave.  It’s fair enough to suit an alto or a soprano, but to transpose a whole octave
is poor — to my earand when you get to duets and ensembles, singing in sixths is not much fun!  Singing in thirds always sounds much better.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re offered a part, how do you decide if you’re going to accept it or turn it down?

CR:   [Laughs]  In the majority of cases I accept work because I need the work.

robson BD:   Without regard to whether it’s good for the voice or not?

CR:   Oh, no!  I would certainly look at it, particularly if it’s new work.  I would look very carefully to see if I could sing it, and also if it’s a composer who is available to me, who I can actually be in contact with.  Then it’s possible to rewrite and actually collaborate more.  But I certainly wouldn’t sing the role of Xerxes.  It’s too high for me.  If somebody asks if I can you sing Xerxes on condition that it the arias would be transposed down one tone or a third, it might be better to have a woman do it, and I’ll sing Arsamene!  In that sense I choose what I sing, but I’m also in a world where I’m unfortunately not able to choose when and where I work.  Therefore, when something comes up that I know I can do, I will do it regardless.

BD:   [Gently pressing the point]  This is what I’m getting at
how do you know that you can do it?

CR:   It’s interesting...  There’s some music which, when you just see it on the page you know whether you can do it or not.  You just know.  As soon as you start seeing notes which you wouldn’t normally sing, the question marks start appearing in your head.  There have been a couple of modern pieces which I recently did turn down.  They were very fine pieces, but I just knew they would not be possible for me to learn in the time that was expected.  They also would have needed a certain amount of rewriting, which, because of the limitations in production time between when I was shown the score and when they would want to put it on, the composer would not have had time to adjust.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  He couldn’t rewrite the thing in a weekend???

CR:   [Laughs]  Any composer would have his jaw drop if you said that!  Sometimes, it might only be a matter of slightly altering a line to adjust the tessitura, or transposing something down an octave, which, in a new piece would sound just as good.  Rather than screaming out top As, you would scream middle As, and it actually sounds all right.  Knowing many composers, I am aware that when they write things, a lot of them do know what they’re doing, and they’re looking for particular colors and sounds, and sometimes you just have to say you can’t do that, and they’ll have to look for somebody else.  Fortunately, there are people around who can do it, so it’s my bad luck if I can’t.  But then I get the chance to do other things, so it’s fine. 

BD:   Do you get enough work?

CR:   Some of my colleagues do much more work than I do.  Because I do more opera, I do three to four productions a year, and for some reason I always get lumbered into productions that take a lot of rehearsal time, and that really cuts a lot of the possibilities for other work.

BD:   I wonder if that will help to extend your career...  Perhaps you will keep going more years than some of the others who are working perhaps too much.

CR:   Not necessarily.  It’s possibly more to do with specializing.  Some of the others who do a lot of work may be doing more concert work all the time.  I know some singers whose voices just aren’t suited to opera
because either they’re not big enough, or not flexible enoughbut they’re fine on disc, so they make a lot of records, or they’re more in demand as concert singers than opera singers.  They can actually make a better living doing seventy concerts a year instead of thirty performances of an opera.

BD:   When we talk about the size of the voice, you’re singing in houses that were not designed for Baroque opera, and you’re singing over an orchestra which may or may not been cut back to Baroque size.

CR:   Yes.  You’re also singing in a house that wasn’t designed, really, for opera, if you really think about it.  Verdi’s operas weren’t written for houses that big.  We’re singing in houses which were designed for a very Twentieth Century tradition.  It’s not that big a problem
certainly as far as Chicago is concernedbecause the acoustics are just so extraordinary in the Lyric Theater.  The sound will carry.  Some of the text may get lost, but I don’t think that’s really important.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  May I quote you on that?

CR:   [Laughs]  Most of the text will come across.  It is important that the text does come across, and it’s important that we have to persuade people that you don’t need surtitles if you’re doing the opera in a language of their own country.  But getting text across is often not to do with how loud you sing; it’s to do with the clarity of your enunciation, or articulation, or the way you project your voice, as opposed to belting it.  And, of course, it’s to do with balancing between an orchestra and singers on a stage.  Singers are always at a disadvantage in a theater
a modern theater anywaybecause the orchestra is often much bigger than it needs to be, and it’s often raised to enough height that it will drown the voices no matter how big they are.

BD:   Is there a complete difference if you’re singing over an orchestra with so-called original instruments, as opposed to singing with an orchestra that is even the same size playing on modern instruments?

CR:   [Thinks a moment]  Not necessarily.  I know Baroque bands that are put in similar circumstances as a modern pit band which could also drown out singers.  The size of orchestra is not more important than the amount of volume they produce.  The modern tradition is for a large string section.  In Xerxes here in Chicago, the orchestra is reduced slightly, but I was quite surprised that it’s still much bigger than I would have
expected to use — even if I was a modern conductor.  I would probably have cut it by another third as far as the number of strings go, but I haven’t talked with John [Nelson, the conductor] about that because it’s not really my business!  But then again, the size of the hall possibly warrants a larger band, and most of us, although we may all sing Baroque music a lot, we’re not the sort of Early Music Baroque Style singers that one hears sometimes.  We’re much more in a modern operatic tradition, so we’re used to giving a lot more volume, perhaps.

BD:   How much authenticity should we strive for in performance
or on a recording?

CR:   Musically one should always strive as far as possible for authenticity, but that does not necessarily mean having Baroque instruments.  Authenticity is a frame of mind.  Authenticity is trying to be faithful to the text and to the music, just as one would strive to be authentic with Verdi or with Stockhausen.  Even with modern forces in a Handel opera, it’s good that we that we try to reduce the number of players so that one can bring out the subtleties of the music.  The music is, indeed, subtle, and demands often a different type of articulation.  If one was talking academically, I would just have to say everything about Baroque music is so well documented that there is no excuse not to pay attention to it.  Unfortunately, a lot of modern players don’t believe that.  They refuse to understand that they can play Baroque music on a modern instrument in a Baroque manner.  It doesn’t necessarily mean with exactly the same type of bowing, or whatever.  It is possible not to recreate the Baroque sound, but to recreate the feel of a Baroque orchestra with modern instruments.  If one can get a really finely tuned Baroque orchestra, then it’s just so exciting to hear that color.  It’s a different world, and it sometimes can be so enlightening when it’s done well.  If you take something like the Bach ‘Chaconne’, you can hear it played brilliantly well by a player like Simon Standage, or even more so with somebody like Monica Huggett.  Sometimes it can be so good that you discover a new musical world which has been clouded by those modern attitudes and the mid-Twentieth Century modern techniques that have come down to orchestral instrumentalists.  This is something which every modern player should be willing to explore.  It doesn’t mean that they have to go out and buy a new instrument and make it authentic in the way the instrument is strung, but it’s more to do with the attitude to the music.  There’s such a great attachment to artistry, which has come down through a very modern recording industry, that we’ve lost touch with the music, and it’s become more about the players.

robson BD:   This brings us to one of my favorite questions.  In opera, where is the balance between the art and the entertainment?

CR:   My belief is that opera is theater, and theater is principally about communication and storytelling.  Therefore, there is no place for entertainment.  It’s a form which requires members of the audience to commit themselves as much as the performers.  When it becomes entertainment, then an audience goes away without real satisfaction.  They go away satisfied because possibly they don’t know any better, or they go away satisfied because they’re not willing to accept any more.  Instead, they should go away touched in some way, genuinely touched, even questioning what they seen and questioning things around them that have been stimulated by what they’ve seen.  For the story they’ve been through in those three or four hours, they have an equal responsibility as the performers.  The terrible thing about opera when it comes to performers
and again, it’s very much due to the recording industryis the constellation of stars.  This sometimes detracts from what is great about opera, because then it becomes about the individual personality.  It’s not about Callas performing Tosca, it’s about Callas performing Callas.  So many people misunderstand this.  Personally, I feel she was a really fine actress, having watched a few filmed moments of her performance, but it’s still about Callas and not about Tosca, and so for me it becomes rather distasteful.  This is possibly because of my belief, as performer, that performing needs more commitment than just thinking about singing.  It needs something more than just making a beautiful sound on the stage, and having an audience cry because you move them in that way.  It is for me really about storytelling and creating a character, and if it means taking vocal risks sometimes, then you do it.  So many opera stars nowadays have these fantastic voices that make your hair stand on end, but because of the world they live in, they end up in productions that are not actually storytelling, but, to put it crudely, sometimes like semaphore acting.  Sometimes productions have no real communication to tell the story at all.  Rather, it’s to do with the vehicle for which the singer can impress their audience.

BD:   So you’re making a real distinction between the singer and the singing-actor?

CR:   Not necessarily.  I’m making a distinction between the modern ideal of an opera singer, and what I believe is the ideal of why one is an opera singer, or why one wants to be an opera singer.

BD:   OK, then why do you want to be an opera singer?

CR:   I want to be an opera singer because I feel that every time I walk on the stage, I can probably say things that I could never find a way of expressing in real life.  The idea of storytelling is a millennium-old tradition dating back to caveman times, and the medium of opera has an added ability because of its expression in music as well.  At the same time, one has to remember this is storytelling, and storytelling is something which deals not just with history, but our modern lives as well.  Therefore, one can bring into perspective a historical story like Otello by the way one expresses it in theater or in opera.  One can bring it to a modern perspective that an audience can actually look at somebody like Otello and know somebody who was murdered last week by her husband because he was jealous for no reason at all.  It
s not as explicit as that, but there are always things that one can relate to in our own lives.

BD:   Yet, it’s more than just storytelling.  It’s storytelling with lots of florid melismas.

CR:   Yes, but again, music is the added sugar on the medium, just as one could say that film, by the idea of almost realistic or fantastical image-making, is another way of expressing or telling a story and of touching their audience.  It’s incredibly exciting that we have all these different mediums, but essentially what it comes down to in the end
just as listening to somebody reading a story on the radioit’s not just about voice, it’s about what’s going on inside the person who’s doing it, and if the person that’s doing it is so completely committed to it, then it challenges the audience to commit themselves as well, and that’s when the communication begins.  If an audience just sits back and enjoys the lovely music or a wonderful voice, then they haven’t learned anything at all.  Possibly it’s to do with the fact that they’re not willing to sit and take what’s being offered, as opposed to just enjoying what they would like to enjoy.

BD:   It’s really an audience-participatory sport?

CR:   Absolutely!  [Both laugh]  Perhaps not an easy sport, but a very dangerous participatory sport, because some things can be so hard-hitting that you can be very shocked by them, and indeed, people switch off because of that.  They’re not willing to accept that they possibly live in a quite horrendous and polluted and murderous time, and perhaps they don’t want to try and make it better by understanding it more.

BD:   They just want to get by?

CR:   Yes, they want to survive, which I think is a bit of shame, really.  We should fight for what we want, for what we believe is right, and performing is another way of expressing that.

*     *     *     *     *

robson BD:   When you get out on stage, are you portraying these characters or do you actually go out there and become the character?

CR:   On a technical level, I’d say that I become it.  Most of my early operatic career was working with a producer called David Freeman, who uses very much a ‘method acting-style’ of work, with intense exploration of minuscule things and improvising.  [Biography and photo of Freeman appear at the end of this interview.]  I don’t really do that when I work with more conventional producers, but in fact the process is not that much different.  It’s just approached from a different direction.  It’s more that I become a character on stage because I spent an awful lot of time finding it in myself.  In the end, how one plays a character can only come from what’s in you.  No matter what the director is like, he can make certain moves.  If he’s a really good director, he’ll stick his hand into your body and pull out what really ought to be seen.  When I first did Arsamenes [Xerxes’s brother] with Nick Hytner in London, it occurred at a time of my life which was very unstable and emotionally quite volatile, and this all went into Arsamenes.  When one reads through the story and the text, the surface of the character is quite obvious, but what was strange was because it’s so obvious, he’s always been played in other productions by other people as a wimp, someone who was weak-willed, who completely did everything on a whim, and had no inner strength to fight back at all.  On working on it with Nick as we went through the weeks of rehearsal leading up to the premiere, I found it was actually a much stronger character, and because of what had been happening to me, it had a certain amount of relationship to what happens to Arsamenes.  It was also the little things, as well as the way he just loses his temper because he can’t control it when he can’t get what he wants, or the fact that he’s so passionate that he actually loses what he’s striving to hold onto.  I found these sorts of things, and with the emotional volatility, the potential for violence is quite extraordinary.

BD:   Did you bring all that to Chicago?

CR:   Yes.  This is the sixth time I’ve done this production.  It’s been done four times at the English National Opera, plus once on tour in Russia with English National Opera.  So, that’s five, and I’m about to do it the seventh time in Antwerp later this year.  But I’ve also done another production of the opera in Innsbruck by another director some years ago, so I’ve had plenty of chance to explore.  In this production, of course, it’s developed over the years.  It’s become more sophisticated, much less obvious, perhaps, and sometimes, depending on my mood, more comic.  It’s interesting playing with Ann, [Murray, who sang the title role of Xerxes].  Her character has become so incredibly sophisticated that it’s quite extraordinary, and it was also very interesting.  The last time we did it at English National Opera, nearly two years ago, Ann wasn’t available, so the girl who took over the role for that run came to it with everything that Ann had the first time in 1985.  So, it was a much more straightforward, fiery performance, whereas Ann now is much more subtle than she was when we first did it ten years ago.

BD:   And yet the audience that comes on any night in Chicago is going to be a first night audience, rather than a tenth night audience.

CR:   Yes.  I hope that if they come several times it’s always a first night, because there will always be slight differences.  The production in itself is very finely wrought.  The basic structure of it as a directed performance is quite fine, but the really deep detail is slightly different from show to show.  It’s inevitable.

BD:   I wonder if it’s perhaps too subtle for someone who hasn’t seen it several times?

CR:   No, no, no, because the basic level of it is always very clear.  Possibly it’s only myself and other performers who notice in each performance how different it becomes... or people who’ve seen in it ’85 and then in ’88 and then in ’90, and then in ’92 might notice how it grows.  Indeed, I suppose there must come a point where I shouldn’t be singing the role in this production anymore because there would be no more to find in it.

BD:   Or at least retire it for ten years and come back to it?

CR:   Yes, but that’s also why it’s quite exciting that I’ve done one other production, and in January, Ann and I are both doing a new production in Munich.  So, we have a chance to start again from scratch, and maybe look at it from a completely different viewpoint.  We can try and find something new in the characters which is unrelated to this production.

BD:   Is there another role that you’ve sung as much as this role?

CR:   [Thinks a moment]  No, nothing near as much.  I’ve sung Akhnaten [in the opera of the same name by Philip Glass] a bit.  I did the American premiere in Houston and New York City Opera, and New York revived it, and we did it and revived it in London, so that’s five runs.  [See program below.]

BD:   But you’re not on the recording?  [Paul Esswood sings the title role, and it is conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.]

CR:   No, the company that commissioned it recorded it at the Stuttgart Staatsoper.  After all sorts of tricky negotiations, they ended up getting it, which I thought was a shame, but that was my loss, nothing else.  I would have loved to have recorded it.

BD:   In doing that role, are you able to keep the count, with all of the repetition?

CR:   There’s actually not that much repetition.  It sounds as if there’s a lot of repetition, but in fact it often goes in one stanza, which is repeated, and then it’s another stanza, which is repeated, and there’s always slight difference in them.  What’s difficult for the orchestral players is sustaining the concentration when they have to play quite simple figurations for lots of the time.


BD:   I’m not as familiar with Akhnaten.  We had Satyagraha at Lyric Opera, and that is very repetitious.

CR:   Yes, and in many ways, Satyagraha is much more restrained.  Akhnaten was, in some ways, much more expressive, much more free particularly in its vocal writing.  By then, Philip had learned a lot about how much more conventional singers can be used.  Musically, the difficulty of learning it was not to do with the way it was written.  It was to do with just how exhausting it was to sing.  It was very tiring.

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BD:   Let us come back to the voice just a little bit.  At some point you’re singing in school, and you must decide to change the technique of voice to become a countertenor rather than a tenor or a baritone, or wherever the voice naturally lies.

robson CR:   With me it was an accident really.  I said that to a woman once, and she went white because she misunderstood what I meant!  [Both laugh]  My parents lived in Cambridge for two years, just at the time when I was age sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, doing what we call ‘A’ Levels, which is finishing up at school the last two years.  In fact, in the previous term, when I had finished my ‘O’ Level examinations at sixteen, the headmaster said,
“When you move to Cambridge, don’t go to school, go to the technical college,which is like a Polytechnic Further Education collegebecause they had a very large music department.  At ‘A’ Level, you study anything from one to four subjects, and you specialize because it the precursor of going to college or to a university.  So, I went I went to the technical college to do my two-year ‘A’ Level course, and specialized in music.  I did English and History as well, which I dropped out of after about seven months.  My principal instrumental study at the time was trumpet, but I also had a singing tradition from my family.  I grew up in a family of the Salvation Army, and my parents were officers, which is why we had to move around from town to town every couple of years.  So, there was a long tradition of singing for me from when I was eight or nine years old, and by the time I was sixteen, I still had a quite big soprano voice.  From about sixteen years and three months onwards, it began to slide down quite slowly, and I sang alto for about six months.  Then, by the time I was in the middle of my first year at technical college, I was singing tenor.  The reason for me singing tenor was because my older brother was beginning to sing as a tenor, and studying it as a serious career option, but trumpet was still my principal study.  I took up singing lessons with the local peripatetic teacher at the college, a man called Nigel Wickens.  He decided that maybe I should be a baritone, but in a lot of tenor and baritone music, when you’re reading quite simple music, or even Lieder, it’s written in the soprano clef, or what we call a G clef, the treble clef.  You just sing it an octave lower.  After about six weeks of this, one day my trumpet lesson came immediately before my singing lesson, and I went from my trumpet lesson to my singing lesson, and I opened the page of this Schumann song, and I started singing it an octave too high because I saw treble clef.  My mind went into the octave that it was actually written in, and it was especially because I had been playing in that octave for the last hour.  I got about ten notes into it, and I remarked to my teacher that I didn’t know what’s gone wrong with it.  He said my voice hadn’t settled down.  I was nearly seventeen and a half by then, so he said that maybe I shouldn’t sing for a few weeks.  I wasn’t satisfied with that, so I went away and practiced secretly, and didn’t tell him anything about it.

BD:   Did you practice in the higher octave, or practice where it should be?

CR:   In the higher octave because I explored how to produce the sound, whether I should hoot or whether I should use the throat more.  After about six weeks, something was really working, so I went back to him and asked him to listen to me because maybe it’s something new.  I sang a song to him, and he took it seriously from then on.  So, when I went to music college at eighteen and half years old, I went as a joint principal study trumpet and singing.  Then, at the end of my first term I dropped the trumpet.  I had problems technically because of changing of teachers in the two years I was at Cambridge.  I was lumbered with really bad peripatetic teachers, and it was a great tragedy because my trumpet teacher where I had lived before, was just so brilliant, and the potential for the career just went down the toilet.  But because of that background, I was also an almost faultless sight-reader, so the idea of making a career as a singer became a very easy option.  So, I dropped the trumpet and concentrated on singing, but they made me take piano lessons!

BD:   But even from the first, you must have realized that you were doing countertenor rather than just figuring out how to produce the voice.

CR:   Yes, because I was aware of Alfred Deller and James Bowman.  I listened to a lot, and because I was a brass player, I listened to a lot of baroque music, everything from early music, what we call brass ensemble or wind ensemble music from the Renaissance right through.  There were these amazing trumpet parts which I used to sometimes get paid to play in Bach oratorios and Passions.

BD:   You didn’t use natural (valveless) trumpets did you?

CR:   Oh, no, not in those days.  I was trained on and had a good old American Conn trumpet.  It was lovely because it had three valves which were configurated to fit the length of the finger, which was quite interesting.  The middle valve was slightly off-set from the other two.  But I was familiar with Baroque music and very enthusiastic about it.  I even used to set up little groups to play in church concerts, things by Gabrieli and that crowd, and get singers together and do Monteverdi.  But there was no choice in the matter by the time I stopped playing trumpet.  It was clear that I wasn’t going to make a career on it.  Funnily enough, I didn’t think I’d make a career in singing until I got thrown out of college about two months after that.  I lasted one and half terms, which is equivalent to five months.  The only thing I could do then was sing, so I did some temporary work for a while, for about six months, and then I rang up James Bowman at the instigation of my singing teacher at the time, and talked to him.  He gave me the telephone number of six fixers who fix choirs, chamber ensembles, and fix TV jingles, radio jingles, and also cathedral concerts.  You would call them contractors, but we call them fixers because they fix people to do the dates.  I also spoke to a couple of organists of the cathedrals in London.  I went and did auditions, and started working, and within a couple of years I was working six or seven days a week most of the year, actually learning my trade in a much better way than I would have ever learned it at college.

robson BD:   On-the-job training?

CR:   Yes, and then studying the voice privately.

BD:   Do you have any regrets about being a countertenor?

CR:   No, no, none at all.  When I hear good trumpet playing, I often wish I could still play, and when I hear my brother [Nigel (1955 -  )] singing I sometimes think maybe I should have been a tenor.  It’s going to be very exciting and great here in Chicago.  One of the things that frightens me most doing a Baroque opera with a modern orchestra who don’t play Baroque music much is sometimes it can be awfully bad, but this orchestra has been so fantastic.  I’ve been to three orchestra rehearsals to sing along because we don’t have much time, and it’s really good.  The more they hear what the singer is doing, the easier it is for them to understand what we want them to do with the music.

BD:   We’ve had Handel works several times in the last few years, so there is a little bit of style built up.

CR:   Yes, and it’s really great.  They don’t argue when John asks them to play with less vibrato, and they’re really willing to approach the music from a different angle.  They’re willing to really look at it anew, rather than trying just do it any old way, which is great.  They seem to like the music very much, which is also great.

BD:   Do you have you any advice for young countertenors coming along?

CR:   [Thinks a moment]  Yes!  It would be to find a very good teacher, and it would be not to think they can get a lot of work quickly because the voice ain’t so unique anymore!  [Both laugh]  There’s a lot of people out there to compete with, so it’s hard, it’s really hard.  Also, maybe not to
how could I put this politely?jerk off on their own voice, as it were, because it’s a very easy thing to do.  People come up and say, My God, you’re a countertenor!  Such a wonderful noise!  I never liked countertenors until I heard you!  Then you sort of begin to just retreat into your own ego and voice, rather than concentrate on what’s important about singing and performing.

BD:   I’m surprised that we haven’t had someone who’s been in a motorcycle accident or something, who has revived the castrato sound.

CR:   Well, they would have been too old if they were riding a motor cycle.

BD:   That’s true, but I’m just surprised someone hasn’t had some kind of accident right at age twelve or thirteen, and then been able to sing those roles.

CR:   Yes, it’s interesting.  Maybe one day there might well be a castrato out there somewhere.  It’s possible.  It would be interesting to hear it, and it’s fascinating when you hear the old recordings of Moreschi [(1858-1922) who made a few recordings in 1902 & 04].  He was older when he recorded them in Rome, and yet you still hear this extraordinary range and flexibility of the voice.  It’s not a very beautiful sound, but you can hear that it must have been really beautiful at one time, and obviously quite big.

BD:   Right, and especially making such a good impression on an acoustical record.

CR:   Yes, absolutely, and it’s great that modern technology can clean them up in such a way as to get a much clearer picture of the sound.   It’s fantastic.

BD:   Thank for chatting with me today.

CR:   It’s a pleasure, thank you.


© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on September 15, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two weeks later, and again in 1998.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.

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.