Interview: renowned opera singer Iestyn Davies

Cambridge, choirs, colleges and everything else

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Iestyn Davies sits in front of a grey wall
CREDIT: Chris Sorensen for The Wall Street Journal

International opera singer Iestyn Davies, has had a glittering career to date; I speak to him as he is about to sing Messiah at Saffron Hall as part of his season as Artist in Residence for 2018-19. He has recently given solo recitals to great acclaim at Wigmore Hall, Milton Court at the Barbican, and King’s Place. He rounded off his 2018 season with performances at the BBC Proms, Boston Symphony Hall, and Carnegie Hall.

I was first privileged to hear Iestyn sing in Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne, and he has also starred in operas both ancient and modern at the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, and La Scala. He collaborates with contemporary composers such as Thomas Àdes, George Benjamin and Michael Nyman, and sung the title role in Claire van Kampen’s new play, Farinelli and the King, which also starred Mark Rylance, and transferred to Broadway from the Globe in late 2017, which earned him an Olivier Award nomination. Iestyn is a countertenor; he sings in his falsetto range above his regular speaking pitch.

You were a choral scholar at St John’s College Cambridge. Why did you decide to be a chorister instead of going straight to music college?

Being in a choir wasn’t new to me because I had been a boy chorister, also at St John’s – it felt like part of the DNA to go back there. I really wasn’t sure that I’d get in. When I applied to St John’s aged 18 to be a choral scholar, I was singing to the choir master who had been the choir director when I was a boy – Christopher Robinson – and so it was much more intimidating because I thought they would think “this isn’t the treble we remember from five years ago”.

I thought that if I can’t get into St John’s then maybe it’s a sign that the adult singer life wasn’t for me. I was quite straight-forward about it. If I don’t get in, I’ll go somewhere else and do Archeology. I applied to do music at Cambridge because I thought it showed interest, but when I got to Cambridge I changed to Archaeology anyway.

Singing in a choir, for a countertenor of that age, was the best thing I could have done – for me, my voice took time to settle in; it wasn’t something that came naturally to me when my voice broke. My natural speaking voice is bass, and I didn’t ever plan to be a countertenor. All I knew was choral music, so countertenors weren’t unfamiliar to me but singing countertenor as a professional job was something I hadn’t come across. When you’re singing in a choir every day, you learn so much musically anyway. My dad’s a cellist and he played in a string quartet for most of his career – he always said that chamber music is the best preparation for being a soloist and it’s the same for singing. If you sing in a choir which requires high-level listening skills, being able to sight-read, and perform consistently every night of the week – at St John’s where we had a high turnover of repertoire it was considered to be somewhere where you can’t do it by halves – it’s all or nothing.

I said to my singing teacher, David Lowe, that I wanted to apply to music college and he said he wasn’t sure about the idea, but I applied anyway against his better judgement and got in. Three years at Cambridge and then three years at music college gave me a chance to learn a lot rather than just show off as a singer – many young singers have naturally good voices but haven’t been particularly challenged so they don’t capitalise on their voices or push the limits of what they can do. It was always a bit of a struggle for me, so I always tried to prove myself. The choral scholar thing really helped some singers get annoyed about choral scholars becoming opera singers because they think we’re stuck in choir ways and don’t know how to act, but I think that’s nonsense. If that person wants to do it, they’ll find a way of taking everything that they’ve learned and applying it in a new way.

What’s the difference between opera singers who went straight to music college and those who were choristers?

In the early stages of music college, I was around people who had never really done any singing, apart from on their own in a room with a teacher. There’s lots of good things about that because they come at it from a technical point of view, but as a professional singer, you quickly realise that it’s like any job – it’s about getting on with people. If you’ve got good technique and you can look after yourself when you’re travelling, it’s great. It means you can focus on expressing yourself. Singing, whether it’s in an opera or recital, is about communication. If it’s not about communication, it’s just a beautiful noise which is what you can do standing in a choir singing polyphony and going “aah”. Lots of people like that, but it’s not necessarily communicating – if you listen to lots of choirs, they all sound the same.

I’m 39 now and I’ve done it for about 15 years and I think I’ve now got the choral scholar thing out of my system. Then you start to think it’s not much of an advantage being able to do things quickly and actually taking time to work on acting, on character, is much more crucial.

I saw you in two modern operas, Written on Skin (Benjamin) and The Exterminating Angel (Ades). How is contemporary opera different to singing Handel or Purcell?

People come to it thinking it’s really hard, but actually it’s kind of the opposite. It’s hard because you don’t know it that well but if you set out being scared of it, then it’s very difficult to get into it. If you go into it with the attitude that “I’m the only person that knows how this goes”, especially if the role has been written for you, and that there is only one way to go which is the way the composer’s written it, then it’s very freeing.
The Ades was like learning a new language.

Tom explains how he writes music: he starts off with a note on the page vibrating, going somewhere. Once you learn the grammar of it, it completely makes sense; you don’t go “that’s weird”, you go “that’s weird but it completely works”. If you walked up to me now and sung me a line, I could probably sing the rest of the opera to you. Much like reading a map, you learn to know the route.

But some contemporary opera isn’t like that, it’s much more about the subject; I’ve just done Nico Mulhy’s Marnie at the Met which is totally different; you can call it post-modern minimalism or whatever you want, it’s Nico’s music, but in a way it’s more baroque. For my part anyway, I had nice tunes, and that is more disarming; it’s harder to learn because his music has less variance in terms of tempo etc, so you found things like remembering how many rests there were between your two phrases much harder – there’s nothing telling you why it should be six beats instead of five beats. It’s disarmingly hard whereas with very difficult music there’s only one way to sing it.

Why is baroque music on the rise?

You’re not the only person to ask that question. To my mind it’s not something that’s recent – the resurgence of baroque music has been something that was happening well into the second half of the 20th century – if anything, when I was starting out ten years ago, there was a lot more. I think the popularity of baroque music has always been there, in terms of audiences in opera houses, and opera houses trying to put one on every year.

However, recently the music has found its groove and as a result it has opened people’s minds as to how they can be staged. Saul, who would have thought of staging that, it’s an oratorio! I think Glyndebourne staging Theodora back in 1998 gave everyone the green light. With this type of music you can choose, as a director, what the piece is trying to say, whereas with more traditional operas, like Wagner or Rossini, the story and music are intertwined much more strongly. It’s very difficult to divorce the material from the narrative, whereas with Handel it’s much more open to interpretation. In the 18th century, they would have been presented in a much more abstract, more allegorical way relating to politics of the time.

Directors and producers are trying to find reasons why opera is still valid and if you’ve got something that offers a much more modern interpretation or modern take or modern connection with the audience, then it goes a long way.

Why has acting and storytelling improved so much in opera recently?

It’s a lot to do with the modernisation of opera direction – finding directors who haven’t just worked in opera or aren’t just designers. People have been scared of opera because they think of it as being dominated by the music, dominated by the power of singers. But look at Richard Jones, Deborah Warner, Barrie [Kosky]. People who have worked a lot in theatre come along and look incredulous that people would just stand still and sing. Music colleges also have a lot to do with that. They don’t train their singers as actors – they do a bit of acting in the college but really it’s still a time when your voice is forming and you’re learning technique. It’s down to your own ingenuity to be relaxed enough to work with a director who’s going to push you.

What advice would you give your teenage self?

I had a really great time at Cambridge, but I didn’t do much work – I did enough to get a 2:1, but I wish looking back I would have been more organised. I talked to the Master of St John’s and he said that because students at school are under much more pressure now because of exams and getting into Oxbridge, they are all very good at being organised and doing revision, and often forget to enjoy themselves.

I suppose I enjoyed myself and got everything out of it that I could have done, but some people were more mature than me when they turned up to university, and I kind of felt like I knew it all because I’d been to school at St John’s. I watched people work really hard and I felt like they were missing out, so I suppose it’s ironic to say “be more organised” because I also want people to relax a bit, but they are the best years of your life.

Live every day fully at university because it goes so quickly. Also structure your day: if you’ve got work to do, do it, but also set yourself aside enough time to go out to the pub, sing, have fun.

Once it’s gone, you do miss the structure of “I have to go to the university library”. It’s funny that ten years later it only seems like yesterday that I left, and I would change a lot: I would be more organised, try and get loads more out of it, because there’s so much on your doorstep there that you’re not necessarily required to do. Get everything out of Oxford that you can, make every day really long and enjoyable – don’t spend days in bed.

Be hungover but also get up! Look around you and seize every opportunity that you get, because it goes so quickly.

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