When I first met him in Esztergom, in the summer of 2012, he had all the students under the spell of his teaching. As an author of music history, he knew by practice how to draw their interest. However, his plans are at a standstill due to the pandemic. Still, he has the spirit to create. A hopeful romantic.
What have you been working on recently?
During the last few years I’ve done quite a lot of programme-note writing for recordings, artists’ biographies, that sort of thing, and most recently did some of the latter for a new festival, Bayreuth Baroque, that has just had a big success (even under present circumstances). This kind of work keeps my brain ticking over, but I have bigger plans: for a book on “our” voice, the countertenor (the interviewer is one of them, too – Ed), not least since there are still so many misconceptions about it. A friend and pupil of mine is also keen for me to collaborate with him on a book about “The Countertenor on Disc”, which will keep us both off the streets for months, maybe years! Otherwise I am busy, in this strange world we live in, with on-line teaching: I gave a master-class for American students during the summer, and my newest pupil is a 23-year-old soprano from Bulgaria.
You seem to have undergone a long professional evolution from singing through teaching to becoming a successful author. Was this a conscious plan?
Not in the least: about thirty years ago I was asked by a few people to give them lessons, so I thought I’d give it a try. This really took off, however, when I changed my own teacher to the wonderful Diane Forlano, who is still very much my mentor. Her way of teaching, so direct and straightforward, opened so many doors for me as a singer, but also transformed my teaching completely. Basically, we have to teach the means whereby we get a result, and so many singing teachers know the result they want to get, but don’t have sufficient idea of how to get it.
As a countertenor, you are both endeavouring to preserve traditions from previous generations and building new standards for the future. Please tell us about your books. How did that all come about?
People are sometimes amazed that singers have enough brain to write their names, let alone write a book (laughs). I suppose my first book came from a long-time fascination with the castrato voice, those strange, first “rock stars” of opera. At a party after a concert I’d given in London I met the lovely Barbara Schwepke, who runs a great publishers called “Haus”. At the time she was particularly interested in biographies, and asked me to name a few people who deserved to be written about, but hadn’t been. At once Alessandro Moreschi came into my mind, “the last castrato”, as he is called. I told her what I already knew about him, and she said straight out, “Let’s do it!” Within a week I had a contract, and within a year there it was, my first book on the shelves of bookshops – I even got some good reviews, which are always welcome! Then a couple of years later, Barbara started a travel series and asked me to write a book about Budapest from a musician’s point-of-view. That was such fun to do: as an outsider it’s perhaps a bit difficult to write about Hungary. Hungarians are people of strong opinions, which they are not afraid to share, but at least with music, I was on pretty safe ground, since Hungary seems to have music in its very guts! Now, of course, it needs revising, but such is the life of an author – as soon as the ink is dry your book is out-of-date!
How did you become a countertenor and what made you to choose singing as a profession?
I sang very late as a boy soprano, with my voice only starting to “break” when I was about fifteen. I loved singing high, and could sing right off the top of the piano when I was a boy. So when my adolescent baritone, with about six notes, “arrived”, I thought “this is awful”. I more-or-less stopped singing for a while, but slowly realised that I did have a viable falsetto voice, and wondered whether I might make something of it. This was the ‘70s, remember, there was a lot going on in the “early music revival”. I’d played the oboe at school, and took up baroque oboe at university – that was really difficult, and I loathed all the business of making reeds from scratch. To cut a long story short, I went to a concert given by one of the young early music sopranos coming to prominence at that time, namely Mary Beverley. I found her singing a revelation, and started taking lessons from her – quite strange lessons they were, but no harm was done, and I had really been bitten by the singing bug, as it were. Another revelation came with the lessons I started taking from David Mason in about 1984: within a year I’d won some prizes at the big Viñas Competition in Barcelona, and I was off singing full-time all over the place. 1984: that was only eight years after Alfred Deller died, the countertenor “situation” then was very different from what it is now. We were still a long way from the “cover boy” status achieved by Andreas Scholl on the front of “Gramophone” magazine in, I think, 1998. Now perhaps things are changing again. Assumptions about the countertenor voice being THE voice for early music have been shown to be quite false. From a scholar’s point-of-view we have no business singing a great deal of what we like to think of as our core repertoire: Dowland, Purcell, Bach, Handel, Baroque opera. Falsettists “should” stick to Gabrielli and other late Renaissance and early Baroque Italian music, Spanish 16th-century polyphony, maybe some later medieval stuff from the Low Countries, a bit of Purcell (but not a lot), and, of course, the modern repertoire written during the last sixty years. That only matters if we ARE worried about what we ”should” sing. Frankly, that worries me less than whether people sing well, whatever they sing, be it Bach or Bartók.
Who are your favourite composers and why?
Oh that’s hard! Sometimes it’s whoever I’m singing at a particular moment, sometimes it depends on my general mood or even the weather. I’m more and more drawn to English music of the earlier 20th century: I’ve loved Vaughan Williams’ music since I was a child, and listen to him a lot: it speaks to me very deeply – all those people do: Butterworth, Finzi, Moeran, Ireland, they’re very special to me. I love to sing Purcell, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schubert: who doesn’t? But then, if I’m hearing great singers like Tebaldi or Callas or Corelli singing Puccini, who could not love that?
Ah, Schubert: let’s talk about “Winterreise”, which was a big project for you fairly recently.
Well, for one thing, why did I think I could sing it? A very good question, since it’s hardly what countertenors “do”. I’d sung a lot of unconventional repertoire throughout my career, and had the great good fortune to have Jennifer Partridge as my accompanist for the best part of thirty years. She was a huge help, a great motivator and supporter: that piece is one hell of a journey. With every page turned it just gets blacker and blacker, and you end up standing there completely drained of everything. Why do we do this?
How have public attitudes to classical music changed during your career?
In this country? Classical music is still oddly regarded here by many people, somehow we’re not really civilised about such things. I think, in some ways at least, we are still living with the legacy of the 19th century, when music was something foreigners did, with performers cordoned off from “decent people” behind a red silk cord. Nowadays the media fall over themselves trying to make out that classical music isn’t elitist (to some extent it has to be, since it’s complicated). Therefore, everything has to be about entertainment instead, as if that’s all there is to it. This is simply depressing nonsense. Winterreise, Mahler’s 8th Symphony., Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion: they’re not entertainment. I’m reminded of what Handel said about his “Messiah”: ‘I should be sorry if I only entertained them: I wished to make them better!’ He meant to make us better as human beings. Sadly, in Britain music has almost completely disappeared from the state education system. When I was a child I got all my music lessons at school free, I got instrumental lessons free, played in an orchestra free, my music education at the university was free. Education has changed hugely since then, of course, but music is sidelined, it’s not important. Politically in Britain, culture goes with media and sport. Do you know any other country which puts music with football, and regards the latter as more important? It tells you something about the bad side of populism.
Art and history clearly matter to you a great deal. Do you surround yourself with old things at home?
I wish I could afford to! There is one mezzo-soprano I know, now retired: she has a wonderful collection of old English pottery, lucky woman! It doesn’t stop me looking, of course, and going to Hungary was a real revelation, with the artistic “axis” there so strongly based around the 19th century, Secessionism and Art Nouveau: beautiful things, and antique shops like museums!
I know you are also interested in plants and gardening. How did that become a passion for you?
My grandfather was a very keen gardener. I remember going around in his garden when I was only three or four years old, but had no garden of my own till moving to a little house in Oxford in 1985. I made a garden there out of nothing and became totally obsessed. I still am. Getting dirt under one’s fingernails is also very therapeutic, and plants usually behave themselves. My present garden has very stony soil, so I’m forever digging muck into it, and an overshadowing sycamore adds to the challenges. Making a garden never ends: it’s good for the soul!
Have you found more time for gardening during lockdown? Has this been a positive?
Oh yes, definitely. When the weather is good I have to get out there and do things: watering, planting, moving something to, hopefully, a better place. I usually have so many plants, I don’t know what to do with them all. It’s a real mania.
How has self-isolation affected you otherwise?
Motivation to do little things, organising stuff, bits of writing, some teaching, that’s been easy. Thinking about the long-term has been much harder, as I think it has for many people. Fortunately, I have friends to help me with shopping and things like the Post Office, since I need to keep myself to myself very much. Our last visitors were good friends from Budapest, but nobody else has been in the house since March 13th, apart from a man who came to service our central heating, swathed in a mask and plastic gloves.
You are an artist, you care about “beauty”, you have read a lot and thought a lot. What do you think will come of this pandemic for the arts in general – and for countertenors?
What a big, big question! In all seriousness, I’m not really very optimistic. I’ve heard many discouraging things: singers giving up on their careers just to survive, artists’ agents closing down because of lack of income, that sort of thing. It’ll be hard to get back to what we came to think of as normal. Big houses, big concert organisers and festivals already, and with reason, use the most prestigious names to attract the public, but when times are tougher, what will be left for the rest of us? It’s always been a problem in the performing arts that the top people get the big money and the 99% are left scrambling for the crumbs under the table. Some European countries have been truly supportive of the arts during the pandemic, but the UK has not done so well. As for what happens when we leave the European Union next year, don’t get me started! How many of the superb touring companies existing on shoe-string budgets will survive? How many “baby Glyndebourne” festivals will go to the wall? I fear the country will be in such turmoil just “getting by”, that much that is good and beautiful will disappear. In brief: I’m glad I’m not a young singer just starting a career.
I see your point, we’ve all known days with fewer clouds in the sky than there seem to be at the moment. But perhaps every cloud can still have a silver lining. By way of cheering you up at the end of our conversation, I have one more question: of what are you most proud?
Personally, a close relationship with a wonderful person for more than forty years. Professionally, still being able to learn, to do what I most love to do as a singer and teacher.
Thank you for this heartfelt interview, and for being the man of deep thoughts and feelings that your friends and audiences have always known you to be. Never forget that!
We all shall wait as a seed under the snow, as that great Magyar Endre Ady once wrote. Moreover, nothing bad lasts forever! As for me, the garden is gasping for water, so I need to get the hose out. Good luck, you “young ‘uns”, with your new magazine!