For the first time in over twenty years English National Opera is going to unveil a new production of Verdi's quintessential grand opera, Aida. It's part of the company's ongoing plans to rejuvenate the repertoire through focusing on the big Italian works of the nineteenth century, particularly Verdi, and is notable for its lavish designs by British fashion icon Zandra Rhodes. I met up with the stars of the show - soprano Claire Rutter (Aida) and tenor John Hudson (Radamès) - to find out how ENO is going to tackle this most beloved of operas.
'The funny thing about Aida', says Rutter, 'is that although it's one of the most popular operas, it isn't performed all that often.' Hudson agrees: 'I think it's because it's on such a massive scale. You need a huge chorus, the full orchestration, a massive set, extras and animals. And you need a good cast. It's not the ceremonial parts that are difficult to sing, it's the small intimate moments.'
Rutter feels the same. 'Speaking from my point of view, it's because you're coming from such huge moments down to the smallest moments. It's quite daunting when you're out there onstage. Suddenly you find yourself alone almost whispering after a massive scene before that with a hundred and fifty people on the stage. That's the difficulty: making the contrast effective. If everything was huge it wouldn't be so difficult.' Hudson also sees part of the challenge in the way that Verdi writes for the voice. 'He gives you only the bare essentials to sit on. When you get an aria, for instance, there's almost nothing underneath it, because he wants you - the character - to shine. Puccini puts the singer as part of the orchestra, but Verdi doesn't do that. There may be a bit of string pizzicato, but there's nowhere to hide: it's up to you.'
Some productions of Aida concentrate only on the grand aspect of the piece, but Rutter explains that the director, Jo Davies, is just as interested in the intimate moments. 'It's very easy with an opera like this to be artificial, but she's taken away the artifice by making us into real people and real characters. We've gone into it like actors in a play, and in fact most of the rehearsal has not been singing. We've talked through every moment and every angle of it. So when you see us in a big scene with everyone else, we're on show: I am a slave girl but really a princess, John's a warrior. Then you see our real personalities when everything else has gone.'
'That's the case even in the grand moments', continues Hudson. 'We've spent as much time discovering our characters in ceremony as we have in intimate corners. The human drama is foregrounded all the time.'
Clearly Davies' production is basically traditional. 'But it has a modern twist', insists Rutter. 'It's very realistic and not updated in time. Yet it has a contemporary edge, not least because of Zandra's designs - she's not going to be totally traditional!' Hudson also feels that the director has a particular focus. 'She's seen the love triangle between Aida, Amneris and Radamès and made it the single most important thing. It bounces off other things, too. The King is not a strong king, because he's sent someone else to go to war whereas Egyptian kings would go and fight in a big chariot generally. Verdi's King is not losing his power - he's still Osiris on earth, he's god - but he's coming to the end of his dynasty, and he knows it, and everyone else knows it too. So people are holding their breath waiting for his successor, which should be Radamès. That's the whole point of the story: the fact that he blows it big time by choosing Aida over Amneris. Amneris is always there in the background saying "There's me, why are you being stupid? You've fought your way through the ranks of the army, my father looks on you as a son - you should marry me and we will rule Egypt together!" So without Radamès' love for Aida it would just be a normal Egyptian story. I think Jo is playing all of that. She's given us real people to work with and made me choose between Aida and Amneris realistically. Even during the death scene at the end, there are issues and choices.'
Rutter also places emphasis on the sympathetic working relationship between the production team and the singers. 'It's been a real collaboration. Jo first of all got us to improvise, then she would choose from that what was good and bad. That way, we work more naturally because we're just doing things that come into our heads. She would rather go with that than be too prescriptive. As long as the intention is there in the action, she's happy. And she's always willing to sort out problems and help us change what we're doing if it doesn't work when we've left the rehearsal room and we're singing or in costume. We have very heavy head dresses to wear so it's not always easy!'
Aida is the second opera of the season to be conducted by ENO's new Music Director, Ed Gardner. It's with genuine enthusiasm that the singers speak of him. 'Again, it's been very collaborative', says Rutter. 'It's his first time of doing it, so it's a case of him learning from us as well as the other way round. He tells us what he wants, we see if it works, then we tell him what we want. It's a very good relationship.' 'And because it's his first Aida', adds Hudson, 'it's very fresh. There are places where he's doing something completely new, but it really works. I've had a great time with him.'
The critics have been gunning for ENO in recent months, with some of them awarding only one or two stars to productions such as Kismet, Carmen and The Coronation of Poppea. Is this new Aida going to be a production to last for years? 'I'm going to lay my cards on the table and say it's going to be fantastic!' declares Rutter. 'And I think that this is a production that not only ENO has been waiting for, but London as well. I think the traditionalists are going to love it because it's true to the story, but the modernists will love it because Zandra's designs are so wonderful. People are going to come and see it just for the costumes - if they can get a ticket, that is! All ten performances are nearly sold out and we both wish we were doing more shows. I could go on until Christmas!'
'It's a proper Aida', avers Hudson. 'It's not set in Paris during the war or anything silly like that. And just look at the cast: we've got Gwynne Howell singing the King. It's luxury casting. Brindley Sherratt is wonderful as Ramfis. Yesterday we were doing the Judgement scene, which is usually done offstage but Jo has set it onstage. All the priests are lined up behind me singing and one of them really stood out - when I turned round it was Brindley! He has a great voice.' Rutter is equally enthusiastic and says 'We all want it to be good, for ENO's sake. They take lots of risks and sometimes it doesn't work, but often it does. If they didn't do new things it would just be boring. And sometimes you've got to appreciate it as a piece of theatre, not just as an opera.'
Both Rutter and Hudson go back a long way with ENO having sung there as very young singers, and the tenor even relates how he used to be an usher as a student. 'Let me tell you what they've done for me', says Hudson. 'About fifteen years ago, I was in the Welsh National Opera chorus and they were auditioning for a Rodolfo. They offered me a Company Principal job. At the time they had reps coming out of their ears and their musical fallback was second to none. You could get a session with Tony Legge for nothing. The guy's worked with everybody - he could give you things that nobody else in the world could give you. It was brilliant. You got to do fairly major roles in relative obscurity. There was a lot of background support - opera classes, coaching. I learned my trade here, and it's still good for that - there's still a fine Young Singers programme. Andy Rees, who's singing the Messenger in this Aida, went through a similar process to me and I've seen him grow as an artist on this stage. You don't always see that because it's a use and abuse and throw away kind of business. How many singers have you seen disappear like mist on a sunny morning? People get overworked and pushed and suddenly it's over.'
Rutter's story about ENO is also positive: 'They sponsored my year at the National Opera Studio. The Friends of ENO paid for me to be there, then in about 1994 I was offered a contract here. But at the same time, Sir Richard Armstrong at Scottish Opera offered me a contract, and because I wanted to sing my repertoire in Italian first of all I decided to go there. It was the best move for me to do it in the original language first - then I came back down and did lots of roles in English.'
Hudson also feels that singing Italian opera in English is 'a different job. They hire Italianate singers to make it sound informed but English is very different. I don't mind singing in English though; we get a chance to change things that don't work, such as vowels that aren't right in certain parts of the voice.'
Neither singer has plans to return to ENO at the moment, though they would both like to. After Christmas, Hudson will sing Cavaradossi at the Royal Albert Hall in Raymond Gubbay's production of Tosca and will perform Dick Johnson in Puccini's La fanciulla del West at Grange Park next summer. Rutter is setting her sights on her first Norma, also for Grange Park, in 2009, as well as doing Alice Ford in Sante Fe opposite Anthony Michaels-Moore's Falstaff next year. She also has some concert engagements, including a performance of Carmina Burana at the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting the Philharmonia. But Rutter bemoans the lack of opera work in the UK: 'There is so little work around that I haven't worked here for three and a half years. And apart from the Norma, I don't know when my next job here is going to be. It's not unusual, sadly.' Hudson adds that 'one of the best things at ENO is that they employ so many English singers. It can be difficult to prove to people that you can sing Italian opera in Italian. So many conductors come over and say, with surprise, "There are so many great singers in this country". Well, yes!'
'ENO is so important', Hudson continues, 'because it's a second opera house for London and opera is one of the most truthful art forms. We always try to be truthful and honest in our performances. The giants who wrote the great pieces understood the fundamental truth that if you mean it, it will work, and if you don't mean it, it won't work. People say it's dead music, but it's brand spanking new every night! Every performance is different. In musicals, you can send people home smiling. But with opera, you can touch people's shiny bits. The bit inside you that drives you psychologically can be touched in a second.'
Claire Rutter and John Hudson appear in Verdi's Aida at the London Coliseum from 8 November to 7 December 2007.
Read other recent interviews with singers such as Rosalind Plowright, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.