Matthew Rose takes centre stage, appropriately enough, in the Royal Opera's new production of Der Rosenkavalier - and it's not going to be a pink, fluffy one. The British bass talks to me about Baron Ochs, Bottom and Brexit...
|Matthew Rose rehearsing for Der Rosenkavalier, with Helene Schneiderman as Annina. Photo: Catherine Ashmore|
If I’ve arrived at the Royal Opera House stage door expecting the kindly, bearded presence of a King Marke, I’m in for a surprise. The new version of Matthew Rose instead boasts sideburns, a hefty moustache and a military demeanour. The British bass may be as imposing as the Wagnerian monarch he sang last summer at ENO, but today he is still virtually in character from ongoing intense rehearsals for Covent Garden's new Der Rosenkavalier. Singing Baron Ochs, he remarks, settling into the tallest chair we can find, is “like doing seven operas at once”.
“Robert Carsen, our director, said just now that Baron Ochs is probably the most brilliant character ever invented in opera, with such bravado and such belief in himself,” Rose declares. People often see Ochs as a bit of a buffoon, he adds, but it’s not necessarily so: “He speaks French and Italian, he knows about the world, he’s very educated – but he happens to act in a way that is very different from everyone else in Vienna. He’s from a house in the middle of nowhere where he can behave as he wants, so that’s what he does and he comes to Vienna thinking he can get away with it there too: meeting his bride-to-be, with the Marschallin, who’s his cousin, he just says exactly what he wants to say. This staging has him as a soldier as well, though, so there must be some kind of discipline there. And he’s very entertained by himself. He’s a very entertaining character.”
|Matthew Rose, with the former look|
Carsen has set the production in 1911, the year of the opera’s composition, rather than the Mozartian era envisaged by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. “It’s pre World War I, pre change of everything, Austria before everything went tits-up there: a very important time both historically and artistically,” says Rose. “It fits in very well with how things are here.”
Indeed, the primary purpose of historical fiction is arguably not only to explore a bygone era, but to reflect back crucial elements of our own through its prism – and this opera is no exception. Rose has little doubt that “things here” are about to go very tits-up indeed. On the morning the Brexit decision was announced, he made for Westminster with a takeaway coffee, expecting a demonstration in protest to materialise. He was astonished when it didn’t. “Why are we allowing this to happen?” he growls. “Brexit is going to ruin this country in a way I think people don’t understand. I don’t see how anybody could think any good could come out of it.”
|Rose as Sparafucile in the ROH's Rigoletto|
Photo: Johan Persson/ROH
Rose has a foot in both countries: he has been living more or less in mid-Atlantic, between New York and Blackheath, south-east London, for some years. Though he grew up in Seaford, five miles down the road from Glyndebourne, he came to the idea of professional singing relatively late.
“Singing has always been part of my life, though I didn’t take it seriously at first,” he says. “In my last year at school I was singing in the choir, but there were lots of other people doing things seriously and I wasn’t one of them. A new music teacher arrived at the school and he was the first person who suggested to me that I might consider becoming a professional opera singer. I’d never even thought about it before. Then I went to university at Canterbury and Benjamin Luxon and his wife were there and they took me to the next step.”
|As Bottom in Glyndebourne's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Robert Workman|
Attending a summer course in Italy, he met Mikael Eliasen, artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theatre at the Curtis Institute, who invited him to Philadelphia to audition. He spent five years there, though at first, he remarks, “it was quite embarrassing. I think I went in the same year as Lang Lang. He went in being already this world-class star and I was starting from scratch, so it was quite an intimidating situation.”
The department was relatively small, with around 25 singers, yet put on five operas a year, Rose recounts – a preparation for stage life more hands-on and intensive than most. His teacher was Marlena Malas, who was based at the Juilliard School in New York, and whom he still consults. “I had my lessons every Monday at five o’clock, looking straight across to the Met,” he remembers, “and whenever I did something wrong, she’d say: ‘Do you wanna sing there or not?’”
He certainly did, especially after he started attending performances every week after his lesson. “The Met has always been a shrine to me,” he remarks. “Now I do two or three operas there a season and it’s a wonderful family to be part of. There are lots of friends around, people in the orchestra with whom I went to college, and I feel very at home there.”
His most recent Met stint was as Leporello in Don Giovanni: “Leporello is my favourite role in the world,” he declares. “He’s an amazing character. Da Ponte wrote some of the greatest librettos in history – as did Hofmannsthal – and Leporello’s journey through the opera, especially the second half, is just miraculous.”
After five years at Curtis, Rose felt “ready to go out and have a career”. Back in London he auditioned, and was accepted, for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. Next thing he knew, he was on stage with Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel in David McVicar’s production of Faust. “At that point you have to up your game,” he considers, “and there’s no better way to do it than standing on stage with these people.”
|Rehearsing the ROH's La Bohème. Photo: Yuri Vorobiev|
Coming back to Covent Garden some 14 years later, he notes, it is hard to shake off the association – “up to a point I’m still ‘Matthew Rose who was on the Young Artists’ Programme…’” But now he has travelled full circle and himself coaches the young singers on the scheme: “It’s a nice role reversal. I feel so grateful for things that have been passed to me. We all absorb these things that we distill within ourselves and hopefully can pass them on again. I’ve done lots of teaching these past few years and I really enjoy that.”
To various teaching activities, Rose adds a strong commitment to the Blackheath Concert Halls near his London home: “I’ve been heavily involved in activities there for ten years – we’ve done wonderful community projects, started a children’s choir and have a new children’s opera commissioned for next year from Kate Whitley. I’d love to be part of making it into a really wonderful centre for the arts in south-east London, though of course it’s easier said than done…”
Another favourite London location is the Wigmore Hall: here he sings Schubert’s Winterreise in February 2017. And then there’s Schwanengesang a few months later at Carnegie Hall, New York. “How lucky am I to do that!” he remarks. “Schubert was my first great passion that really got me into singing, when I went to a Schubert Day at the Royal College of Music in his bicentenary year, 1997.
“I love Lieder, making music with one pianist, being in control of what one wants to do – whereas in opera one is told by many people what to do. And I love orchestral concerts. Of course I also love being on stage, but you’re compromising so much when you sing opera: you’re trying to do 17 different things at once and you’re rarely going to be satisfied. But I love standing there with an orchestra, making music. At the end of the day, I’m a musician and I love to make music. And if there’s a bit of acting or being a bit silly involved,” he adds, “that’s OK.”
Rose certainly has risen to fame with in roles that are comic, yet with an undertow of complexity: “I’m quite a silly person, so being on stage being silly comes quite naturally,” he suggests. Besides Leporello, he has been particularly lauded as Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Glyndebourne and beyond; he will be singing the role at a new Aldeburgh Festival staging by Netia Jones in summer 2017. He is a long-standing devotee of Aldeburgh, having attended many courses there as a student and nursing a passion for the musicality and dramatic excellence of Britten’s operas. “Bottom in particular has been very good to me,” he notes.
One does sense, though, that underneath there is little about this perceptive and down-to-earth artist that is remotely silly. Even golf is a serious matter for him: “It’s not for unwinding,” he says. “It’s something I love to do well and in many ways it is like singing: concentrating hard, switching that concentration on and off.”
As for his dream roles that remain, those aren’t so silly either. “I’d love to have a crack at Philip II,” he says. “Gurnemanz in Parsifal will hopefully happen next year, and certain other Wagnery things would be nice… But I’m having the most incredible year at the moment, doing Leporello, Bottom and Baron Ochs, and the song recitals. I probably ought to retire after it! What I’ve done so far has far surpassed everything I ever dreamed of and I’m so lucky to have done what I’ve done. If I stop now, I’ve had a very nice time and a very nice career and maybe it’s time to go and have a very nice sleep.”
Now he really is being silly, or so one hopes. There is the whole of Der Rosenkavalier to look forward to, with a dream cast and Andris Nelsons in the pit: “There’s no one classier in the world than Renée Fleming,” Rose enthuses. “Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan I know very well, and it’s nice to be reunited with Jochen Schmeckenbecher [singing Faninal], who was in the first opera I ever did as a student in Philadelphia – it was The Magic Flute, I was a priest and he was Papageno.” As for Nelsons, “The orchestra sounds unbelievable with him. He’s got it all. This is the hardest role I’ll ever do,” he adds, “and everyone’s being so nice to me. It’s a huge honour and I’m very grateful for this situation.”
Curtain up is this Saturday at 6pm: and the appropriately-named Rose is set to be a cavalier of a whole new kind. Beg, borrow, or ninja a ticket.
Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera House, from 17 December. Book here.