Feature Article -
"An Interview with Ian Bostridge, Lyric Tenor" - November, 2000
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
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
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.
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.
comments are in italics, and Ian's are in quotation marks.)
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.”
you said there was more of a repression in the later songs?
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.”
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
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."
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
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
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
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."
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
about twentieth century art song and opera?
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
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.
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
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,
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
- Jason Serinus -
© Copyright 2000 Secrets of Home
Theater & High Fidelity
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