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Feature Article - "An Interview with Ian Bostridge, Lyric Tenor" - November, 2000


Jason Serinus

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Introduction 

In the five years since singer Ian Bostridge embarked on a full-time career, he has become the world’s most sought after lyric tenor in the art song repertoire. With a voice, intelligence, and sensitivity capable of expressing the heart and soul of a composer as expressed in music, Bostridge has received consistent praise and numerous awards for his performances and recordings. (Photo © Copyright Ian Bostridge.) 

Ian Bostridge studied both philosophy and history at Cambridge and Oxford, and wrote his 1990 Ph.D. dissertation on witchcraft. At the same time, he found himself increasingly drawn to singing, winning Great Britain’s 1991 National Federation of Music Societies/Esso Award. Keeping one foot in the door of academia, he rewrote his dissertation into a book, and was literally correcting the proofs of his Witchcraft and its Transformations 1650-1750 as his singing career moved into full gear in 1995. By the time the book was published in 1997, Bostridge was already known throughout the classical music world.

One listen to Bostridge’s 1996 Gramophone Solo Vocal Award-winning recording of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Die schone Mullerin, reveals what so rapidly brought the tenor to international attention. The voice is irresistibly fresh and youthful, combining a fragile innocence (reflected in Bostridge’s wan countenance) with a power of declamation that uncannily conveys the young miller’s pain over his failed love affair.

On Sunday, October 29, 2000, Bostridge presented a sold out solo recital in UC Berkeley’s wood walled, acoustically ideal, 800 or so seat Hertz Hall. Accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, the tenor performed twelve lieder by Schubert and 11 of the Morike lieder of Hugo Wolf.

Eleven days before the concert, I conducted an extensive phone interview with the singer for San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter. Bostridge was in Los Angeles at the time, singing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with the LA Philharmonic. He was about to perform a chamber recital with members of the LA Philharmonic members, after which he was heading to Orange County to present the same recital program he was planning for Berkeley.

Only a small portion of my Bostridge interview was used in the feature I penned for the Bay Area Reporter. Below is an edited version of the complete interview, followed by a review of the Berkeley recital.

The Conversation 

(Jason's comments are in italics, and Ian's are in quotation marks.)

When did you first decide to pursue a singing career?

“I’d been singing in school, but hadn’t any intention of becoming a professional singer until my late twenties. I began doing some opera and realized I really enjoyed it, and it was something I could get involved in and be happy with. I think opera is always an important part of any singer’s career.”

What do you wish to convey when you sing?

“I wish to share universal concerns about why we’re here, and our anxieties about life and the passing of time and our emotional life … love lost. There’s a lot of affinity, at least in Europe, between popular music and what’s covered in the lieder repertoire. It shares a similar concern about life that’s different from dance music. There is a degree of celebration in the lieder repertoire as well, but it’s mainly a way of coping with the big things in life, I suppose.”

I’m wondering about the alchemy of turning notes on the printed page into something that touches people. How do you experience that as an artist?

“I suppose that because I wasn’t trained as a musician, I’m more aware than I otherwise might be of the sort of theatrical, non-musical elements of singing: the performance elements of how you communicate with an audience that are not necessarily just in the music. The music is on the page, but in the end, there are things written into the music that you have to convey. This is something that composers have always been very aware of. It’s something Benjamin Britten wrote about. There’s a whole range of expression in the human voice that one as a composer can’t write down, and has to trust to the interpreter for that to come across.

I’m also more and more fascinated by the musical means for conveying emotion: how people use classical harmony to convey emotion. But a lot of the things that are miraculous in Schubert aren’t really explicable in musical terms.”

Do you have favorite singers of the past whom you listen to?

“I listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau a lot, but he’s a baritone. A tenor I listen to a lot is Fritz Wunderlich, not so much as a lieder singer but more as a singer of Mozart opera. Those are my two favorites. Among women singers, I really like Irmgard Seefried singing lieder.”

I’m curious about Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schumann, two of my favorites.

“I don’t really listen to them so much. I find the way they use their voices quite sort of distant rhetorically. I don’t know why that is. The person I do find approachable as a singer of that generation is John McCormack, but I think that’s because of the simplicity in the way he approaches things.”

And the fineness of the voice, certainly in the earlier period.

“Yes, Absolutely.”

 What do you feel about the relevance of Schubert and Wolf to our lives in the year 2000?

“This music speaks to universal emotions. It has its historical context, which is interesting to look at, but ultimately it’s all about things we’re all familiar with: life and death, love and loss. These composers have an incredibly powerful way of treating those subjects. I don’t think they’ve been treated in a more powerful way.”

I was listening to some of your Britten on your Hyperion Red Cockatoo album. I was really touched by the beauty of your voice, and how it spoke to me. Especially impressive was one of the Auden settings, which called a markedly different approach than the other Auden settings, and how you were able to summon up the sort of seductiveness that song calls for.

“It’s been such a long time ago that I recorded those songs that I can’t really remember them. But there’s certainly some very fine stuff there, very different from other vocal works in Britten’s output because they were written before the mature Britten style crystallized. There’s a degree of more repression in Britten’s later work. One of the most interesting things in a way about Britten’s mature songs is that they cover such a wide range of subject matter; they’re not just about lost love or whatever. He has an incredibly imaginative approach to choosing poetic material.”

 But you said there was more of a repression in the later songs?

“Perhaps. When Britten was in Auden’s circle [in his younger years], in one sense his sexuality was more repressed, but on the other hand, he was mixing with more of a self-consciously homosexual group of people, whereas later on he was much more isolated, and much more grand in a way. I don’t know for certain, but his position in the 1950s was perhaps a more difficult one. He was living with Peter Pears, and in one sense pursuing an openly homosexual relationship, but it was illegal, and there is a story that there were forces that were quite keen to clamp down and lock them up. So maybe there was more repression in the ‘50s than in the ‘30s. I’m not really sure about it.”

I’ve always wondered about the tension between Britten’s orthodox Christianity and his homosexuality. I can see how Christianity’s judgments and repression of homosexuality, the religion’s equation of homosexual acts with sin, and the guilt that is often felt by gay Christians, could lead Britten to talk a lot about the dark side of humanity.

“Yes. But having said all that about his sexuality, I think one of the unfortunate diversions in Britten criticism is an over-concern with his sexuality, whereas in fact in the operas I think he’s talking far more about universal issues of life and death.

I’ve recently been in a production of Britten’s opera A Turn of the Screw. A lot of the criticism of that opera focuses on it being somehow to do with Britten’s obsession with children. It obviously in one sense is, but there’s far more going on in A Turn of the Screw than that. He was a great artist; he wasn’t just getting out his own anxieties by composing, I don’t think."

What new releases of yours are in the works?

“A recording of Bach arias, and another of Handel’s L’Allegro, il penseroso, il moderato with countertenor David Daniels and John Nelson. It’s a fantastic piece, wonderful poetry. David Daniels is a great singer.”

Who are you recording with these days?

“I’m not working much with Hyperion any more. I’m exclusively working with EMI for song repertoire, and increasingly working with EMI for opera and oratorio. I’m recording Mozart’s Idomeneo with them next year, and we’ve got a lot of plans for doing other things. They’re a good label to be with at the moment. In terms of A&R, they’re very committed to producing mainstream classical music recordings. I don’t think they’ve sold out to the degree that some of the other record companies have.

At the moment, I’m working on the Britten War Requiem with Tony Pappano. The fact that EMI has been recording mainstream 19th century verismo and bel canto opera with him, and will be recording Idomeneo with me next year -- the range that EMI is still prepared to commit to -- is extraordinary, coming at a time when we’re endlessly being told about the death of the classical recording industry, and we’ve got companies that have basically said they’re only going to produce backlist and crossover from now on.”

What do you feel about the announced death of classical music?

“I think it’s greatly exaggerated. Everywhere I go, I encounter a lot of interesting classical music. I see young people at my concerts. In terms of lieder, I was always being told that lieder was a dead art form, but if you can go to Paris and rustle up 1600 people to hear you give quite a challenging lieder recital, then I think things are okay. I was being told about the death of lieder recital in America. My experience is there are a lot of interesting lieder recitals all over America, and many series of chamber music recitals as well.

Whether it’s based on a comparison with a sort of Golden Age in the 1950s, which I didn’t experience, when things were much, much better, I don’t know. But I think there’s a lot of interest in classical music at present.”

Of the composers whose works you record and perform, whose music touches you the most?

"I suppose Schubert speaks to me the deepest. It’s Schubert’s music I listen to most outside the repertoire I’m actually singing; his piano music and chamber music are very close to my heart. Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle is to me the ultimate work that I perform. It’s the work that ranks with the greatest in the operatic and symphonic repertoire.

I suppose I feel a connection with Britten’s operatic and song writing because of his approach to text and his ability to set such a wide range of texts. To be able to set the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, for example, or to set Hardy in the way he set him. evidences an incredible literary imagination which I relate to strongly. It’s also great that Britten supplies, for a tenor of my sort, a range of operatic roles which are actually interesting, rather than being the rather cardboard cutout figures you generally get in some of the lyric repertoire."

How much time are you spending these days in opera and how much in recital?

“My year is split three ways: a third opera, a third recitals, and a third concert work. Sometimes the opera takes a form that is not strictly speaking opera. I’ve just done a staging with a great English director, Deborah Warner, of the Janacek cycle, Diary of When he Vanished, in an English translation by Seamus Heaney. I’m interested in that sort of crossover work, theatrical projects that aren’t necessarily old-fashioned grand opera. But on the other hand, getting involved in Monteverdi, Verdi, or Britten is very important to me.”

Where do you see yourself five or ten years from now? Do you have certain long-range goals?

“In one sense, not. I’m happy to go on gradually extending what I do. Certainly in the lieder repertoire there’s a lot I haven’t done, and I’m just arriving at the place where I’m beginning to do it. I just want to make sure I get better at what I do, and change, and mature and develop.

I don’t necessarily have a hit list of what I’d like to do. On the other hand, there are certain roles that maybe form the outer limit of what I see myself capable of doing in the long run – things I wouldn’t necessarily do now. Maybe in 10 or 15 years I might do Britten’s Peter Grimes in the right circumstances with the right orchestra and conductor. Maybe I’d do Loge in Wagner’s Das Rheingold when I’m about 50, about 15 years from now. These are things I think about for the future. But I’ve still got a lot of operatic repertoire that lies well for me that I haven’t managed to do much of yet; I haven’t done that much Mozart or Monteverdi. I so enjoyed doing Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea in Munich with David Auden. It was such a fantastic experience.”

What about twentieth century art song and opera?

"Last year, Hans Werner Henze wrote me a substantial piano/voice song cycle lasting about 50 minutes, setting his own text. I’ve performed it about eight times since, and it’s formed an important part of my repertoire this year. I’ve recorded the cycle, which will be released in England in January. (I’m not sure when it will hit the States). I’ve gotten to know Hans quite well from that, and he’s now writing a role for me in his latest opera, The Up Up, or The Triumph of Filial Love, [pronounced Oop Oop] which will debut in Salzburg in 2003. It will be my first experience with contemporary opera."

Have you sung any American 20th century works?

“Not yet. I’ve sung a little bit a Barber. It’s an area I haven’t touched much that I’d like to get into. Barber and Ives and Rorem. I’m looking forward to listening to Susan Graham’s disc of Ned Rorem songs, because I haven’t listened to enough of that.

Thank you so much, Ian. It has been a pleasure talking with you.

Ian Bostridge Lieder Recital

at Hertz Hall, University of California at Berkeley

Sunday, October 29, 2000 (Program © Copyright Cal Performances.) 

If you didn’t know your music history, you might have come out of Ian Bostridge’s superb song recital thinking that Franz Schubert was still alive. So complete was the lyric tenor’s identification with Schubert’s lieder (songs) that the sense that the great composer has been dead over 170 years was supplanted by the illusion that his music was literally being born anew as Bostridge sang.

Bostridge devoted the first half of his recital to twelve lieder by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). The first three lied were set to poetry by Matthaus von Collin. The next four, all written on the same piece of manuscript paper to poetry by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, were possibly intended by Schubert to form a sort of mini-cycle. The last three were composed to poetry by Franz von Bruchmann.

The second half of the program consisted of eleven lieder by Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) set to the poetry of Eduard Friedrich Morike.

Each set was presented without break, often with Bostridge’s totally in synch, self-effacing, nigh perfect accompanist Julius Drake starting the next song within seconds of the end of the song that preceded it. Except for a few pauses when Bostridge walked behind the piano for a sip of bottled water, the tenor sustained his mood of complete concentration and devotion even into his three Schubert encores, uttering no words other than those set by his composers.

As someone who has spent more years listening to lieder recordings than feels wise to print, I feel safe in saying that Bostridge’s beauty of tone, clarity of enunciation, and identification with his music rank him with the best of Golden Age recitalists. In fact, judging from what I heard, it feels as though the Golden Age remains with us.

In his first Schubert song, “Wehmut,” Bostridge emitted wondrously pure tones while singing “…when I behold/The meadows in the fullness of their beauty.” Most passages were more declamatory in nature, while the ends of  “Nacht und Traume” and “Wandrers Nachtlied II” were floated on slender threads of sound. “An die Leier” was marked by near miraculous transitions from declamation to hushed inwardness, with the recapitulation starting with “So lebt” sung in the softest tones imaginable. The only minor disappointment was the final song of the set, “Erlkonig,” which despite a perfectly calculated final phrase, revealed powers of characterization that could not match the best of Bostridge’s recorded predecessors.

Highlights of the second Wolf set included accompanist Drake’s superb skipping from note to note during “Der Knabe und das Immlein,” more absolutely beautiful soft singing in “An dem Schlaf,” and a performance of “An die Geliebte” that began with Bostridge's voice almost trembling with feeling. The song ended with a magical melding  of phrasing and tone as the singer described himself gazing upward toward heaven, kneeling to hearken the smiling stars' song of light. The final lied, “Storchenbotschaft,” was a bit of an anti-climax; Bostridge lacked both the ability to convey the last degree of humor of the ending and the strength needed to ring out on the glorious final note (the highest he sang during the recital). Taken as a whole, while much of Bostridge’s Wolf was quite wonderful, it was clear that Schubert spoke to him the deepest.

Bostridge often leaned over to one side while singing, sometimes slumped on the piano, leaving it only for the happier songs or those that spoke of wandering. The lighting, which served to emphasize his thin and wan features, added to the feeling that we were listening to a man who, if he had not decided to become a professional singer just five years ago, might have spent the rest of his life slumped over esoteric tomes at Cambridge.

The audience called Bostridge back for three encores, all by Schubert. The delightful “Heidenroslein” was followed by “Uber Wildermann” and “Die Gotter Griechenlands,” the final encore receiving a most deserved standing ovation. Within minutes of leaving the stage, Bostridge and Drake were found in the “Green Room,” looking remarkably fresh, seated behind a very classroom-like table so they could autograph programs and CDs for a long line of enthusiastic well-wishers. A check with the woman selling CDs for A Musical Offering, the only independent classical music store left in the United States, revealed that between 75 and 100 discs had sold.

Was Bostridge perfect? No. He lacks the joy and humor that Elly Ameling and Elisabeth Schumann brought to “Der Musensohn” and “Heidenroslein,” or the four voices that Marian Anderson and Lotte Lehmann brought to “Erlkonig.” The serenity of a potentially perfect  “Nacht und Traume” was spoiled by overemphasis on the world “rufen” (“crying”). But when Bostridge sang his final encore, “Die Gotter Griechenlands” (“Beautiful world, where are you? …Ah, only in the magic land of song lives still your richly-fabled trace”), there was no question that, for two hours, the world had been made beautiful for those in attendance.

 

- Jason Serinus -

 

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