Thursday, April 23, 2015

Find your voices?

The announcement of ENO's new season got off to a slightly flummoxed start yesterday at a press conference in which questions from the floor were short-circuited before they could begin. There was a determined speech from artistic director John Berry about leaving the past behind and looking to the future; a thoughtful and convincing defence of opera in English from the incoming music director Mark Wigglesworth; a few words from the acting CEO Cressida Pollock; and a short introductory film that began with blood being daubed upon someone's forehead, whether on or off I'm not sure. Then we were ushered out for tea and questions in corners. Berry was mobbed; the wonderful Wigglesworth was left hovering. Innovations for the season include price reductions on 50 per cent of tickets - some 60,000 seats priced at £20 or under - and a new partnership with Streetwise Opera, which works closely with vulnerable adults and community groups; and, of course, the new music director.

It's a fine spread of repertoire, beginning with a revival of The Magic Flute and featuring new productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, La forza del destino directed by Calixto Bieito, Glass's Akhnaten from Phelim McDermott, a new Boheme with Benedict Andrews in the driving seat and, best of all, a new Tristan (more of which in a moment). Revivals include Jenufa, The Mikado, Madam Butterfly, The Barber of Seville and an import of Opera North's Norma.

In a new season in which 88 per cent of the singers and conductors are either British, British trained or British resident, the 12 per cent who are not have attracted rather a lot of attention. Putting aside the reasons for which some people might consider this such a bad thing (mainly because I'm not sure what they are) I'm more curious about the match of operatic repertoire with the sort of voices that might be booked to sing in it, and how those voices come into being in the first place.

Stuart Skelton. Bring him on!
For me, the season highlight is the new Tristan and Isolde, in June 2016, to be conducted by Ed Gardner, designed by Anish Kapoor, directed by Daniel Kramer and starring Stuart Skelton (Australian) and Heidi Melton (American). Please forgive me if I'm missing something, but I would pretty much kill to hear Skelton sing Tristan and I don't give a four-x about where he comes from. Karen Cargill is Brangane and Matthew Rose King Marke, besides Gardner back in the pit, so it's not like no Brits are represented.

Besides, why should it be a bad thing to hear Xian Zhang conducting, or the glorious Corinne Winters as Mimi in La Boheme, or to explore the ever-controversial Bieito's concept for Forza (it's set, we're told, in the Spanish Civil War and features brilliant Rinat Shaham, liberated from her serial Carmens, as the mezzo-soprano who takes on that crazy war aria)? Opera is an international art. It always was, it always will be - deity-of-choice willing.

There are unquestionably some fine British singers who could take those roles. It's just that there don't appear to be very many of them. Longborough has been enjoying the voices of two remarkable British spinto-dramatic sopranos, Lee Bisset and Rachel Nicholls, in their Wagner productions; both are singing Isolde there this summer. I was lucky enough to hear a lovely young soprano with Wagnerian leanings, Lauren Fielder, in the Royal Northern College of Music's Gold Medal Competition last year, but she is still in her twenties and may not be ready for a full-blown Isolde for a while.

Ditto Ed Lyon and David Butt Philip, two notable and fantastic emerging voices, but ones who maybe could use more years under the belt before tackling a vocal marathon of that ilk, if indeed they ever grow to suit it. Longborough's Tristans are Peter Wedd (who had a fine impact as Lohengrin at WNO a couple of years ago) and Neal Cooper, whose uncle was apparently a heavyweight boxing champion. But to take on a whole run of Tristan in the biggest theatre in London, a singer has to be (a) ready, (b) willing and (c) free at the right time. Longborough is another story: a theatre that seats a modest 500-or-so, with a covered pit not quite a-la-Bayreuth and a reduced orchestra, puts less potential strain on the voice.

Dramatic-voiced singers don't grow on trees and not many appear to be growing in our indigenous woodland just now. A huge proportion of the advanced students - indeed, postgrads in general - in our conservatoires are from overseas. Meanwhile, young singers going through school and university are likely to be honed in the good old British choral tradition. This entails a pure, streamlined and rather small sound, with passion quelled in favour of spirituality and individuality in favour of blendability. It takes a very long time for a singer to get this tradition out of his/her system (usually 'his', because that's how the choirs are set up). Many British tenors seem to have started out this way, whether as boy choristers or choral scholars at Oxbridge.

Note that the really great British Wagnerites don't have that background. Bryn Terfel spent his childhood in farm gear rather than a cassock; Sir John Tomlinson was never exactly a choirboy type, training as a construction engineer before turning to singing at 21. Most of the other UK nationals who made a serious name in this repertoire are female - Anne Evans, Gwyneth Jones, Jane Eaglen...Today Catherine Foster, who sings leading Wagner roles at Bayreuth yet remains virtually unknown in her native UK, was a nurse and midwife for some 15 years before switching to music.

We do need more opportunities for young British singers, but we can't expect them to appear as if by magic, or to suit every opera that comes their way - and besides, having done our level best at conservatoire level to attract fine students from overseas to our expensive UK training, we can't then shut them out when it comes to professional engagements. And why should opera-lovers be denied the chance to hear singers such as Melton and Skelton just because they're not British? Perhaps we need to look at the entire picture of how our singers are raised and trained.

Back at ENO, more worth worrying about is the shortage of actual British repertoire in the new season. Beyond the ever-popular Gilbert and Sullivan, there's no other opera by a UK composer in the schedule. Not a Britten, a Delius, a Tippett. a Birtwistle, a Turnage, an Ades, an anything. If there really is an omission in the season, that is the one to grumble about. It's not like there's nothing out there to choose. If ENO is to continue to hold its own as British International Opera they could do worse than consistently support actual British music.

[update, 1.42pm: please see my post here for more on the British music programming - the situation is unfortunately worse than we thought...]

Here's Skelton in an extract from Britten's Peter Grimes.