In the context of Opera Lively's upcoming guidebook to the phenomenal contemporary opera Written on Skin by George Benjamin (it should be published by year end, or in January 2015), we interviewed countertenor Tim Mead who performed the roles of The Boy/First Angel in two runs of the opera (Toulouse and Lisbon) and will be singing these roles again in a future performance (details still to be announced). This is the Opera Lively interview # 151.
In addition to several questions about Written on Skin, the interview addresses other aspects of the singer's career and artistry - such as comments on Baroque opera, the countertenor voice, and the use of Historically Informed orchestras with period instruments. His answers are very intelligent and interesting, making of this piece one of the best Opera Lively interviews.
Singer: Tim Mead
Born in: Chelmsford, England (1981)
Recently in: Rinaldo (Goffredo) at Glyndebourne; Handel's Messiah in Boston's Symphony Hall (starting on November 15, still current; continues on November 28, 29, and 30)
Next in: more Messiah performances as above and also in London (Barbican, Dec 10), Madrid (Dec 16, 17), and Ghent (Dec 19); a solo recital in Rome with the Accademia Filharmonica Romana (Jan 22), as well as Akhnaten (title role) in Antwerpen (Vlaamse Opera) on Feb 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 22, 2015, and Ghent (March 2, 6, 8, and 10).
Photo Credit B. Ealovega - fair promotional use
Countertenor Tim Mead was born in Chelmsford, England. He began singing as a treble in the choir of Chelmsford Cathedral under the direction of Dr. Graham Elliott, who later encouraged him to return to the choir as a countertenor. After leaving school he read Music at Cambridge University, where he was a choral scholar at King’s College under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. Whilst at university he began to study singing with countertenor Charles Brett. He went on to win a number of scholarships to the Royal College of Music, London where he studied with countertenor Robin Blaze.
In the final year of his studies, Tim made his professional opera debut singing the role of Ottone in L’incoronazione di Poppea at Opéra de Lyon under William Christie, a role he has since performed at English National Opera, Den Norske Opera, Opéra de Lille and Opéra de Dijon. In 2006 he made an unscheduled debut at Glyndebourne Festival Opera singing the title role in David McVicar’s celebrated production of Giulio Cesare under Emmanuelle Haim, replacing an indisposed David Daniels. Other roles for Glyndebourne include Eustazio and Goffredo in Rinaldo. In 2008 Tim made his debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden singing the role of Innocent in the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur. He sang the role of Clearte in Steffani’s Niobe for the same company.
Amongst his roles are the title roles in Handel’s Orlando, Admeto, Siroe, Ezio and Rinaldo and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Other roles include Endimione in La Calisto, Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare, Ottone in Agrippina, Bertarido in Rodelinda, Andronico in Tamerlano, Trasimede in Admeto, Melo in Sosarme, Athamas in Semele, Oronte in Riccardo Primo, Idelberto in Lotario, Licida in L’Olympiade, Paggio in Ercole Amante and Farnace in Mitridate. Tim’s roles in contemporary works include The Boy/First Angel in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, Voice of Apollo in Britten’s Death in Venice, Ometh in John Casken’s Golem and the various countertenor roles in the world premiere of Julian Philips’ Varjak Paw.
Tim has performed at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, English National Opera, Opera North, Scottish Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, De Nederlandse Opera, Opéra de Lille, Opéra de Dijon, Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse, Chicago Opera Theater, Deustche Oper am Rhein, Opernhaus Halle, Opera de Rennes, Angers-Nantes Opera and Garsington Opera and at the International Handel Festspiele Göttingen, the Handel-Festspiele Halle, the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International Festival.
In concert, Tim has appeared at the Wigmore Hall, Barbican, Théatre Champs-Elysées, Salle Pleyel, Concertgebouw and the concert halls of Berlin and Vienna. He has sung with the New York Philharmonic, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Academy of Ancient Music, Les Arts Florissants, Le Concert d’Astrée, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, Concerto Köln, Akademie für Alte Musik, Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, Accademia Bizantina, Bach Collegium Japan, Mercury Baroque (Houston), the Nederlandse Bachvereniging, Combattimento Consort Amsterdam and regularly performs alongside the RIAS Kammerchor.
Tim Mead's extensive discography boasts no fewer than 29 items, which is remarkable for a singer who is only 33 years old. It includes DVDs of The Minotaur, Death in Venice, Ercole Amante, Admeto (two productions), Rinaldo, and L'Incoronazione di Poppea (two productions), and 21 CDs. For the complete list and cover pictures, click [here].
His Chandos recording of Handel's opera Flavio was nominated for a Gramophone Award.
His most recent, in November 2014:
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Tim Mead
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit including the website's URL and the name of the journalist, and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization. Questions by Opera Lively journalist Luiz Gazzola. All known photo credits were given; we'll be happy to add the correct ones to those marked unknown, if we're told what they should be. Fair promotional use.
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Please explain to us how you view the psychology of the character The Boy in Written on Skin.
Tim Mead - When we first meet the Boy he is an ambiguous and unnerving presence. There’s a purity in his outward appearance that provides an almost blank canvas, onto which the suspicions of others are easily painted. But one thing is certain, there is something within this mysterious stranger that draws everyone irresistibly and tragically towards him.
He is a carefully drawn character, who reveals himself little by little, holding our fascination throughout. What strikes me most about the Boy is that he maintains a certain cold detachment throughout the story - his seemingly insolent responses to his employers, his icy manipulation/seduction of Agnes, the ease of his lies in his confrontation with the Protector. Most telling, perhaps, is the conclusion of the scene in which he presents the finished book containing the secret page that condemns Agnes: “My work – smiles the Boy – is done”. This is a character who has clearly taken some pleasure from turning this small, sheltered family unit upside down.
Barbara Hannigan and Tim Mead in Written on Skin in Toulouse - photo credit unknown, fair promotional use
Because of this, it’s hard to develop much sympathy for him. But herein lies the conflict. He produces these ravishingly drawn pages and speaks/sings with such purity and beauty that we find ourselves under his spell. The sympathy really lies with the Angel who plays him. The Angel, who wishes to experience humanity to find meaning to existence, yet sees such pain and unhappiness, ending with the awful reality of a gruesome death.
OL - Any considerations to make about the scene in which The Protector seems to be erotically attracted to The Boy as well (right before he murders him)?
TM - I would say that The Protector only ‘seems’ to be erotically attracted to The Boy. I’ve never viewed this scene as being sexually motivated.
There is a suffocating tension in this confrontation, which feels quite unbearable in performance. The Protector is clearly affected by the Boy in ways he may not understand and feels the need to take control of the situation through reasserting his sense of ownership of him. This is the first point in which these two manipulators are faced by a situation in which neither of them is in control.
To break the tension of the scene with a kiss is strong statement that surprises both the characters and audience alike. I’ve always found the strangely intense music that follows the kiss an opportunity to allow the character of the Angel to break through the shell of the Boy he is playing. It is a feeling of shock, surprise, even a sense of pity for the Protector that he has been pushed to this point and one of relief that the knife, so prominent in the opening of the scene, has not been used to engineer his end.
I’m sure that all of us who have played the scene have viewed it slightly differently. But this is one of the joys of a role being interpreted by a number of different artists and what ultimately gives any piece of work life.
OL - Is the experience of interpreting a role such as The Boy, which includes a fairly long psychological arc, in some way psychologically difficult for the performer? Does it get to be intense? Do you need to unwind after the show?
TM - One of the things I really enjoyed about playing the role in Katie’s production is that the character of the Boy is on stage at all times. You have no choice but to be immersed in the role from the first notes until the final chord. Such continued focus in such an intense piece of work is, obviously, exhausting. But I’m not sure that I’d want it any other way!
In watching back the DVD taken from the Covent Garden run I was interested to experience the strength of my reactions to some of the most intense moments of the work. That this feeling still exists is testament to the power of the opera and this production.
Of course, you need to unwind after any performance, especially one as intense as this, but that’s nothing a few pints with some friendly faces can’t fix!
OL - Tell us about the vocal challenges in singing this role. What is the range? Is it difficult to learn? What parts are the biggest hurdles?
TM - For the most part, the role sits in the middle to the bottom of my voice. Excursions to the upper extremes of the voice are reserved for moments of highest drama (for example, the scene in which Agnes accuses the Boy of lying). So in terms of range, it’s a fairly comfortable sing. George’s orchestration is incredibly sensitive, so the singer never feels challenged by the orchestra. All these factors really help the singer to deliver the music and text in as naturalistic a way as possible.
The music is far from simple, but because George’s music responds so instinctively to the contours and rhythm of Martin Crimp’s libretto it seems to cement itself in the brain with surprising ease, as if there were no other way of singing these words.
What is very challenging is trying to reproduce all the small detail that George has lovingly put into his score. The slightest subtlety of rhythm or dynamic might not seem such a big deal but is absolutely vital to the naturalism or the color of the line. George has never settled for anything less than total accuracy when I’ve worked with him on it. While this can make rehearsal grueling at times, the benefits of this sort of attention to detail are huge when it comes to live performance. He really has given us everything we need to paint these characters and tell this story.
OL - The role was created for another countertenor, Mr. Bejun Mehta. Was there any needed adaptation when you sang the role, or are your ranges very similar?
TM - I think that Bejun and I have similar ranges and George certainly didn't need to make any adjustments for me. Bejun has real strength at the bottom of his voice and George has clearly exploited this in the way he has written the role, with frequent dips to the very bottom of the range. This will make the role unsuitable for some countertenors, but I didn't find it to be a problem. Whilst Bejun and I have quite different sounding voices, I think the role works equally well for both of us. It’s a role that I feel fits my voice and artistic personality as well as if it had been written with me in mind. For me, it really is a gift of a role.
OL - Did you watch the video recording of the world premiere in Aix-en-Provence (at the time, available on Medici TV on pay-per-view) before you sang the role? If yes, how did you plan your performance; any different take from your predecessor’s?
TM - Before the rehearsals in Toulouse I watched the video from Aix repeatedly. I also went to see a performance during the run in Amsterdam. It was really important that I was able to absorb as much of the production’s detail as possible before rehearsals began, as rehearsal time in Toulouse was very limited. Fortunately for me, Bejun is a very clear performer and I was able to understand much of what the role required. The important thing in these situations is to take as much information as possible about the production from your predecessor in the role without becoming a mimic.
My natural instinct with the role was to focus on the incredible beauty George had written into it, and to use the sound of the words and musical line to seduce and affect the course of the story, rather than impose myself in a more physical way. I felt it important that the other characters were drawn to the Boy in a way that was subtle and quiet, but unavoidable.
My performance is, obviously, based on the great work that Bejun did at Aix in creating the role, but I’m sure our performances are different. We are different people, so our performances are naturally colored by our different personalities.
OL - Considering your performances of this role in two different occasions – in Lisbon and Toulouse, would you please describe briefly any differences in public reaction in these two runs? Maybe there were no differences.
TM - My experience of performing this opera (both the fully staged production in Toulouse and the semi-staged version in Lisbon) is that audiences appear to be gripped by the music and the story from the very start. As a performer I’ve sensed very little restlessness amongst the audience, which suggests a high level of attention and concentration. Feeling that sort of concentration from your audience only helps fuel the focus of those on stage.
OL - What is the feeling you have, as an artist, regarding being part of the first few runs of such a formidable contemporary masterpiece like Written on Skin?
TM - From my very first encounter with the production I was fascinated by the score and the story it told. Something about it really spoke to me as an artist.
Taking my place amongst such a wonderful cast was a particular joy. The high level at which Barbara Hannigan and Chris Purves operate, both vocally and dramatically, was incredible to experience at such close quarters. My scenes with both of them easily rank amongst the most intense and dramatically satisfying moments of my career so far.
I just feel very fortunate to be part of such an incredible piece of work and to be given the opportunity to share it with audiences, many of whom will be experiencing it for the first time. I already see it as one of the real highlights of my artistic life and, were I to sing for 50 years more, I’m sure this wouldn’t change.
OL - When you revisit the role, is there anything you are planning to change in your performance?
TM - For me, it’s a case of continuing to learn more about the character and striving to convey all the wonderful detail that George has written. Finding that aspect of the Boy’s character that is quietly irresistible is a constant challenge. I’m hoping that it will also offer me the chance to work with Katie more directly (as yet, we’ve only had the opportunity to discuss the role/production rather than work on it in the rehearsal studio).
OL - Now, let’s move on from this piece and address other parts of your career, since this interview won’t be used exclusively for the Written on Skin guidebook but will also appear on our website, for the general public. So, here we go: We have interviewed maestro Leon Botstein who expressed an opinion similar to that of the late Sir Colin Davis, arguing that historically informed orchestras using period instruments are what he called “creative history” since nobody can really know how the orchestras really sounded back then, which would be akin to redesigning an ancient vase from a small fragment. He sustains that modern orchestras shouldn’t be bumped out of the Baroque repertoire under what he believes is a somewhat arrogant stance from the HIP orchestras that pretend that they know best. On the other end of the spectrum there is Vivica Genaux who also granted us an interview, saying that she loves HIP orchestras and ensembles so much that she wishes that even more recent music could be played on period instruments. Where do you situate yourself in this controversy?
TM - All the views you’ve offered in your question are equally valid. The most important thing is that talented artists with a love of this repertoire and a desire to communicate it are able to perform it. The idea that any particular group of musicians should ‘own’ corners of the repertoire is ridiculous! As with most things in music, there is no right way to do anything and it is the variety of approach that keeps things interesting!
The many great baroque ensembles on the scene today offer vivid and delicately nuanced performances, informed by research, but not dictated by it. Within their relatively modest proportions, music making is intimate and full of the sort of detail that might get lost in larger ensembles.
This isn’t to say that this music doesn’t benefit from performances by larger, modern orchestras. Such ensembles are used to playing a range of different styles, so there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to adapt their playing to the requirements of the Baroque. It is rare that I get the opportunity to perform with modern orchestras, one recent example being a run of Messiah’s with the New York Philharmonic. With my ears tuned to the sound of period instruments, I find experiences such as this fascinating. It’s like seeing the music through a different lens. They also present me with the opportunity to work with great musicians that I might never have contact with if I stayed within the confines of the Historical Informed world.
OL - Countertenors have a natural placement in Baroque, but are increasingly featured in contemporary opera as well. You have extensive Baroque experience but you are now being featured in these contemporary pieces. What period of operatic production you feel is the most comfortable for you? How do you compare them, for the performer? For example, you do a lot of Handel but then you did Birtwistle’s The Minotaur (an opera I love); would you compare and contrast these eras, for the countertenor?
TM - The countertenor will always have his operatic home in the baroque period. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to focus so much of my energy on one period, allowing me a far deeper understanding of the style than I might have achieved if my concentration had been spread across a broader spectrum of music. Other singers often comment that I must get bored of singing baroque music all the time, but I’ve never felt this way. I’ve always found great variety within the genre. I really don’t see how you can consider Monteverdi and Handel to be ‘the same sort of thing’. Opera of this period provides the performer with huge interpretative scope. Other than the basic notes on the page, the composer tends to leave few other directions as to how the music is to be performed. With a composer that I know well, such as Handel, I find myself constantly looking for clues within the score to inform my interpretation of, not only the music, but the operatic characters he is portraying. There are always a multitude of answers and constructing a complete interpretation of a role is a never-ending process.
There’s no doubting that, however flamboyant the written vocal line or ornamentation applied to it may be, singing baroque music requires considerable vocal control. The moment I sing contemporary music, I feel a certain degree of freedom. I feel freed from the deftly crafted shapes that give baroque music its distinctive character. It could also be the case that I feel freed from the burden of stylistic information that I have accumulated in my years of singing music of the 17th century. Contemporary music helps me explore other aspects of my musical personality and allows me to express myself in different ways.
What binds the very earliest opera with the most contemporary work is the importance and focus on text and the desire to communicate the words of a story as well as make beautiful noises. Maybe this is why many artists (not just countertenors) find themselves specializing in both eras.
The problem I find with much of the contemporary writing for the countertenor is that so much of it sits at the very top of the vocal range. This leads to parts that can be ungrateful and amount to little more than sustained screaming! This is why the role in ‘Written on Skin’ is such a welcome addition to the countertenor repertoire. Whilst notes at the upper extremes of the voice might be thrilling to hear, they provide little opportunity for the singer to communicate his full palette of colors and emotions.
Being involved in the premiere of Birtwistle’s The Minotaur was a great experience (and an event that also marked my debut at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden!). Harrison was with us for the whole rehearsal process, providing insight where necessary whilst allowing the artists to discover the score for themselves. My overriding memory of the work is the elemental force that fills the orchestra pit. Birtwistle certainly holds nothing back in his creation of the labyrinth. In the end, my role as Innocent number 5 wasn’t so extensive, but it was wonderful to see such a significant opera premiere showcase the countertenor voice in 3 roles.
OL - Italian and English opera, especially, favored the use of castrati. Obviously, for all our efforts at historical authenticity, this is one element truly beyond our scope. What are your thoughts then with regards to the use of female singers vs. young choir boys vs. countertenors?
TM - I don’t really have a preference when it comes to who sings what, although for the purposes of self-preservation I’m probably supposed to say that only countertenors should be cast to sing the castrati roles! The most important thing is that we have the best artists for the job. In this respect, that is the authentic option. Handel seems to have used the best of the vocal resources available to him at any given time, using both castrati and mezzos or even rewriting parts for different vocal ranges, substituting singers as the circumstances required. There are plenty of countertenors today who sound like mezzos and vice versa, so I’m not sure that it’s always an issue of the timbre of the voice.
However, when casting a baroque opera I think it’s important that every effort is made to provide a varied and distinctive palette of vocal timbre to define the characters. Often a cast full of countertenors in castrati roles may be less interesting than if some of these roles were to be assigned to mezzos.
The issue of gender is, perhaps, now more a theatrical issue. There have been some wonderfully insightful baroque productions that really make this type of opera as natural as you could hope for. Some feel that trouser roles work less well in this kind of setting. I guess it’s a personal preference. I think most people would prefer to have the role performed well than cast on the basis of gender or a preference for once voice category over another.
OL - On the same token, how do countertenors produce their sound?
TM - I don’t really think that the basics of how we produce sound are that different from any other voice type. Most male singers will possess some form of head voice or falsetto, it’s just that we countertenors have chosen to develop and strengthen this part of the voice.
OL - After the strong Handel operatic revival, we’ve been seeing more operas by Vivaldi (you’ve done one, L’Olympiade, and the occasional other operatic work from the period). What works and composers you’d like to see revived?
TM - I’d love to do more Cavalli! Having performed Endimione in La Calisto at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and Paggio in Ercole Amante in Amsterdam, I’m always struck by the beauty and creativeness of his writing. Theatrically he has the same sort of immediacy as Monteverdi but with greater opportunity for more lyrical reflections.
Fortunately I have a new Cavalli production in the diary for the 2015/16 season, Xerxes. I’ve recently got a taste for the operas of Francesco Conti and have recording plans for L’Issipile with La Nuova Musica under their fantastic young director (and my good friend!), David Bates. Having done some initial work on a few of the arias I’m excited by the possibilities of his music. It’s similar in style to Handel, with some surprises! He seems to have particular skill in painting characters through music, so I’m looking forward to exploring his work in more depth.
One of the biggest problems with reviving forgotten operas is finding works that are consistently high in quality and do not just rely on one or two stand-out arias. In terms of staging it’s also important to have a plot that stands up to theatrical treatment. Too many librettos are convoluted nonsense and are difficult to make sense of, let alone make relevant for a modern audience. In some cases it might be preferable to cherry pick the best arias and use them as show pieces rather than attempt full operas.
OL - What do you like best, and why – performing a cycle of songs or a song mix in a recital, performing in an oratorio or concert opera, or a fully staged opera? What are particular challenges of each of these modalities?
TM - I don’t really have a preference. I’ve always felt that a balance between all forms of performance is important, as each informs the other. At the start of my career I was almost exclusively involved in staged operas. This was great as it gave me some much needed time to concentrate on my stagecraft and work as an actor.
I remember coming back to Handel’s Messiah (now a regular fixture in my schedule and a recent CD release) after years of opera and finding so much more dramatic sense in it than I had during my time as a student. I also think that the exposed and intimate nature of the recital platform brings story-telling into sharp focus, which can only be a plus when you return to telling stories on the much larger scale of an opera stage.
OL - Who do you look up to, in the world of countertenor singing?
TM - I have to confess to being something of a countertenor geek with a CD collection stacked full of discs by a variety of singers, which I think is a common occurrence in the world of countertenor singing!
While I was an undergraduate, I was absolutely obsessed with the Bach cantata recordings of Andreas Scholl. The elegance of his singing is something that I have always prized. Having now had the opportunity to perform alongside him, I’m struck by what an instinctive, musical and generous artist he is.
I grew to admire the work of David Daniels slightly later. This probably coincided with a shift in my own focus from concert to operatic repertoire. One of the most informative experiences of my early career was to understudy David in the title role of Cesare at Glyndebourne. Watching him rehearse taught me so much about what it is to do this job and how to navigate such lengthy roles. Listening to him sing ‘Aure, deh, per pieta’ within the intimate confines of a rehearsal room was a moment I felt privileged to experience.
More recently I’ve been drawn to the work of Bejun Metha, Lawrence Zazzo and Christophe Dumaux. All these artists show such commitment to using their voices in service of the dramatic intentions of the music. I admire them for their willingness to take risks and inhabit roles so fully. In the hands of such artists, the countertenor voice can no longer be perceived as merely a vehicle for pretty noises.
I often find myself looking up repertoire and being surprised and inspired by a vast array of different countertenor voices: the delicacy of line Alfred Deller brings to a Robert Johnson song, the emotional intelligence with which Michael Chance delivers Dowland, the simple beauty with which Domique Visse (a wonderful colleague, more known for his comic roles) sings a lullaby and many, many more, too numerous to mention.
Above all I admire the two countertenors that I’ve been fortunate enough to have as teachers, Charles Brett and Robin Blaze. For their music, their invaluable wisdom and advice, and, above all, their patience with me, a most impatient student!
OL - Andreas Scholl has recorded J.S. Bach's cantata "Ich habe genug" BWV 82, originally scored for bass, while Philippe Jaroussky recorded a disc of 19th century French mélodie by Faure, Debussy, etc... Do you have any plans to perform works outside the usual realm of the countertenor?
TM - Over the years I’ve often sung German lieder (Schubert, Schumann and Brahms) as well as English art song. I’ve never really considered this to be particularly unusual, given that when I was a student countertenor David Daniels was performing and recording this sort of repertoire regularly. I believe that I’m the only countertenor to have recorded the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, but I’m sure I’ll not be the only one for very long!
I’m always open to trying repertoire that might be slightly unexpected for countertenors. It’s a case of being honest about what you can sing and what suits you. Just because you are physically able to sing the notes of a piece doesn’t necessarily mean you should!
OL - You are featured in two DVDs of Admeto. I confess that I have mixed feelings about how successful the Japanese Samurai theme was, in Doris Dörrie’s production for which you sang the title role. You were Trasimede in the one directed by Axel Köhler, which updates the opera to a modern hospital. Please contrast and compare the two productions, and tell us what you think of the directorial efforts to present Handel in creative and original ways. How should Handel’s operas be staged? (I usually like updates but sometimes I feel a little dizzy with all the extremes and all the wild settings these directors employ with Handel and I almost crave a traditionally staged one – what is up with Handel that attracts all these Regie productions?)
TM - Given that Admeto is fairly unknown and rarely performed it’s rather surprising that I’ve been involved in 2 staged productions and 2 recordings of the opera. (There are only 3 recordings of the work, so I’m on 66% of them!).
Any attempt to update Handel’s operas in a way that helps in the telling of the story is a good thing. To date, I’ve only been involved in one ‘period’ production, which probably reflects the current fashion for modern productions in Europe rather than what is necessarily ‘best’ for the material. The human stories that these operas tell can be clearly portrayed whatever the setting, costuming or governing concept, as long as the story is at the heart of all the directorial decisions made.
These two Admeto productions are markedly different. Axel Kohler’s updating is actually quite straightforward. A hospital is an obvious place to locate the drama as the opera opens with Admeto on his deathbed. Within this realistic setting the family drama plays out in a quite natural way, with the slightly curious addition of baroque-style gesture in some of the arias, the whole thing being colored by Axel’s particularly infectious humour!
Tim Mead as Admeto - credit unknown, fair promotional use
Doris Dorrie, on the other hand, offered something incredibly stylized. Doris has a great fascination with Japan, the samurai and the movement of butoh. The physical language that this imposed on the production was very interesting. We spent many afternoons in butoh workshops working on the movement that would inform the physicality of the whole production. As the process continued I began to see parallels between this micro-control of movement (so central to butoh) and the gestural language of baroque theatre. In fact, Doris saw this as a period piece, in that she located the production in the baroque period, but in Japan not Europe. I found it fascinating to define a character so clearly through movement.
OL - You also had two DVDs of L’Incoronazione di Poppea, both in the role of Ottone, one at Den Norske Opera and the other one at Opéra de Lille. The former was a quite, let’s say, bloody one (laughs…), and the latter had a mix of ancient and contemporary costumes. Again, please contrast and compare these two approaches to the piece. The former was visually interesting in my opinion, with the contrasting colors white, red, and black. The latter was theatrically intriguing.
TM - This opera, and the role of Ottone, has been central to my career from the very start. Having made my professional debut in the role at the Opéra de Lyon in 2005 under William Christie, I went on to create new productions at English National Opera, Den Norske Opera, Opéra de Lille and Opéra de Dijon (and I’m sure there will be more new productions in my future!) As a result it’s been the role that has occupied my thoughts the most over the years.
Tim as Ottone at Opéra de Lyon, with Danielle de Niese as Poppea. Photo credit unknown, fair promotional use
It’s a very difficult opera to stage and few productions are fully satisfying. There is just so much detail in the music and libretto that it has to be rehearsed as if a piece of straight theatre. There is absolutely no place in the score where standing at the front and simply singing beautifully will be anywhere near enough.
The two productions that I’ve recorded, I love. Working with Ole Anders Tandberg in Oslo was a complete joy. He treated the libretto like Shakespeare and wouldn’t let any detail pass. Together we developed the sort of Ottone that had been forming in my mind for some time. It’s a characterization that focuses on his strengths rather than his weaknesses and vulnerability. The desperate situation the character finds himself in from the first few pages often leads to interpretations that show him to be a whiner and a wimp. But this man is a decorated soldier recently returned from war, who has enough about him to attract the affections of the much-desired Poppea. So at every turn we looked to deliver his complaints as challenges to his situation. He remained the fighter in love that he was on the battlefield. On watching back the results some years later, I have to say, the character we created was a very angry man! Perhaps we took it too far, but this experience has certainly strengthened my subsequent interpretations.
The production in Lille was a more sensitive affair. Jean Francois Sivadier is a wonderful actor/director and we worked again at revising my characterization of Ottone. What I wanted to achieve here (following the Oslo production) was to find a way to reintegrate some of Ottone’s beauty, to make him someone that we could believe Poppea would genuinely have fallen in love with (believing, against the norm, that Poppea is a character capable of genuine love). We hoped to use this as a balance to his strength and anger and make a character with whom we have a chance of feeling some sympathy. As is so often the case, the clues to how we might do this lay in the music Monteverdi has written and Emmanuelle Haim was the perfect musical partner to guide and shape this detail. There was something very natural about this production and the character relationships that we created that will stay with me each time I play Ottone in the future.
OL - That Ercole Amante by DNO was lots of fun. Any interesting memories of that production?
Tim in Ercole Amante at DNO, photo credit unknown, fair promotional use
TM - It was a fun production! I’m glad it comes across so well on the DVD. David Alden really let his incredible imagination go wild with this one. There were so many fantastical ideas that eventually didn’t make it into the show and, as you can see, the show is stuffed full of them! I wonder how the opera would work without such imaginative stage direction…
OL - I’m very impressed with your discography, with 29 items, by a still quite young singer (you are 33, right?). How did you manage to be so prolific? What are the pieces you like best in your discography/videography, and why?
TM - Ha! Yes, I am 33. But seeing as I made my professional operatic debut at the age of 23, I guess I’ve been around a bit longer than many other singers my age.
I’m often surprised at the size of my discography too! It’s certainly not the norm these days, so I feel incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to record so frequently.
Like many artists, I’m not sure I love any of my recordings. I find it impossible to listen to any of my work without criticizing the minutest details. So I will leave it to other ears to judge what they might consider the best!
What I am proud of is that I’ve recorded many works that have either never been recorded or have been recorded very rarely, such as Cavalli’s Ercole Amante, Handel’s Flavio, Riccardo Primo, Admeto, Triumph of Time and Truth, JC Smith’s Paradise Lost and The Seasons.
My overly critical ear is generally more pleased with my most recent work, which I guess is obvious seeing as I’m constantly striving to progress. But I’m often surprised on occasional hearings of my earlier recordings at the slightly less refined freedom of my ‘youth’ and there is definitely some merit in that. In my retirement I’m sure I’ll be glad to be able to see this record of my journey as a singer and an artist preserved on disc.
OL - Let’s talk future performances a bit. Do you look forward to Glass’ Akhnaten at Vlaamse Opera in 2015? What do you think of his music? (I personally love it).
TM - I’m preparing Akhnaten right now. I can’t say that I had much exposure to Glass’ work before this project came along. At the moment I’m listening to passages of the opera regularly to help me become more acquainted with his musical world. The thing that really strikes me is that the music constantly conjures images in my mind. I see endless possibilities for the staging of this music and I really can’t wait to see what the director, Nigel Lowrey, has in store for us! There’s a relentless nature to the score that propels the story along, emphasizing that time passes whether you pay attention to it or not. But there are also moments of real beauty. The scenes between Akhnaten and his wife may initially appear to be rather cold and clinical, but in the formal structures of their interweaving lines you hear and feel a couple existing completely as one. It’s the purity of their union that is so striking.
This is one of the projects that I’m most looking forward to as I see it as something totally different from anything I’ve done before, both musically and theatrically.
OL - Then you’ll be in Saint Louis for Riccardo Primo. I like the director very much, Lee Blakely. I shall tryk to attend it. Anything to tell us about that one?
TM - It’s an opera that I’ve previously performed in concert and recorded, although in the secondary role of Oronte. I don’t yet know anything about the production. But in a more idle moment the other day, I was googling images of Richard I and I noticed he shares a remarkable likeness to my bearded self… so maybe it’s time to ditch the razor again!
Here is a ridiculous photo for your own amusement:
I worked with Lee years ago while I was understudying on David McVicar’s Cesare at Glyndebourne, so it will be great to be reunited! The conductor, Christian Curnyn, is someone I have worked with a great deal over the years. Christian has a keen sense of what is required to communicate the drama of baroque opera in an unfussy and natural way, so I’m looking forward to creating something interesting with him. This is a US premiere, which is always exciting, showing an audience something new.
OL - Finally, another world premiere - the title role of Theo Loevendie’s The Rise of Spinoza at the Concertgebouw. Please tell us about this one.
TM - A major new role for the countertenor voice is always welcome, and to have some involvement in its creation was fantastic. I met with Theo when the opera was still a series of sketches and we went through it all, seeing how his music fit my voice. He was incredibly sensitive and accommodating of my requirements.
The work is relatively short and its four scenes cover the climactic moments of the life of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Loevendie’s music creates varying landscapes, from a bustling market place to the more intimate setting of Spinoza’s study, with big philosophical questions being balanced with more personal moments.
The premiere was a concert performance, in front of an enthusiastic, sold out Concertgebouw audience. I know that Theo envisages a staged production and it will be interesting to see how the work develops once it’s in a theatre.
OL - As a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, you studied musicology. How did your academic pursuits influence you as a singer and performer?
TM - My time at Cambridge has had a huge influence on everything I’ve done since, although I’m not sure how much of this is due to my academic pursuits. Very little of my study focused on the Baroque repertoire that forms the basis of my career.
I took all sorts of courses during my time there, finding myself drawn to those that weren’t necessarily focused 100% on the music. Courses such as ‘Music and Politics in Soviet Russia’, ‘Music and the English Reformation’, ‘The representation of music in art’ and ‘Notation in 13th century France’ (my personal favorite!) provided a more rounded education than a more practical course of study might have. Opera is about so much more than just singing and music, so any study that broadens horizons is clearly of benefit.
OL - Why did you switch from cello and piano to operatic singing? In what way does your cello and piano background inform your singing?
TM - It wasn’t really the case that I made a conscious decision to stop being a cellist/pianist and become a singer. Up until the time I began my undergraduate degree I was primarily a cellist, but with the commitment required by the choir at King’s, Cambridge there left little time for my cello playing. In any case, it was becoming clear to me that singing was to be a far more serious part of my life.
I think you can always tell a singer who has an instrumental background from one who hasn’t. The years spent in orchestras playing amongst so many musicians or within the more intimate surroundings of a string quartet really hone your skills as a collaborative musician, rather than someone who just stands out the front and does their own thing.
OL - Please if you don’t mind let’s switch a bit to the man underneath the artist, so that our readers get to know you a bit more. How was your encounter with classical music in general, and opera in particular, growing up? Where you from a musical family?
TM - I’m not from a particularly musical family, although neither of my parents were very shy about singing around the house at the top of their voices!
Like many children, I started playing the recorder at an early age and was a chorister at my local cathedral in Chelmsford by the time I was 7. From there I went on to study piano, cello and oboe, as well as trying my hand at any instrument that happened to be lying around!
I got my first taste of opera at the age of 12 when I was asked to sing the role of the Spirit of the Boy in Britten’s Curlew River at the Royal Scottish Academy and on tour in Japan, under the late Sir Philip Ledger. It’s a small role within this chamber scale piece, but it’s full of intensity. It was a totally new experience for me to be on stage and in costume under the glare of the lights. I remember enjoying the experience very much. But after it was over I returned to my other musical studies, certain that focusing on my cello was the most useful thing for me to do.
It wasn’t until I was at university that I really gave opera another thought and sang in some plucky student productions of Cesare and Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista. But it was really only after I saw professional productions in London when I was coming to the end of my undergraduate days that I was gripped by the excitement of what opera could be.
OL - How do you describe your take on life and personality?
TM - I probably take life a little too seriously at times, whilst being prone to regular bouts of silliness, which probably sums up what colleagues see of me in the rehearsal studio! I’ve always been rather shy, a trait that is necessarily swallowed up once you’re on stage, but is still definitely part of my personality, and one that people often misinterpret!
I do think of a few more things to say in answer to this question, but then I won’t, because I’d be sounding a bit like an awkward dating profile! I think I’m a pretty open book on stage, so despite the layers of costume, make-up and characterization, that’s probably where you’ll find the most telling clues as to who I am.
Photo credit B. Ealovega, fair promotional use
Let's listen to a sample of the singer's voice, singing a duet from Handel's Rodelinda, Io t'abbraccio, with Nathalie Paulin and the Mercury Baroque Ensemble conducted by Antoine Plante, in Houston, TX, Nov 19, 2011:
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