For fans of Italian opera, the big event of the winter season in London is English National Opera's new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor which opens on February 16. Incredibly, this is the first time ENO has performed the piece and it represents a new artistic direction for the company. Following on from his acclaimed Jenufa in 2006, David Alden will direct the production; it will be conducted by former ENO Music Director Paul Daniel. Most excitingly of all, this Lucia will see the British opera debut of American soprano Anna Christy and the return to ENO of veteran bel canto tenor Barry Banks, a combination which promises to reap huge rewards. I chatted to the stars during rehearsals about their preparations for this new production - and discovered two singers with a passion for Donizetti.
For instance, when I ask them why the piece appeals to people so much, the answer is plain and simple. 'It's visceral, absolutely visceral,' says Banks. 'Although it's a bel canto opera, apart from the virtuosic singing and poise in the vocal line, there's nothing facile about what's happening onstage. It's real, raw emotion. That's part of its draw and charm.'
Christy goes on to explain the journey that Lucia goes on during the course of the opera. 'If you look at everything that's happened to her in her life thus far – her parents have died, her relationship with her brother has soured – you realise that she's already been through a lot,' she says. 'And now she has found this love for Edgardo, so she's in an interesting place. She's had a lot of sadness and loneliness; she hasn't quite reached despair yet, but we're getting there! She feels a sense of responsibility for her family, and is torn between her family and Edgardo. So she starts from a place of loneliness, then everything is suddenly kick-started, a lot of things happen really fast, then she thinks Edgardo has forsaken her and she agrees to marry another guy. In the end, I think that after all the restrictions her brother has enforced on her, she is driven to murder the other guy and at this point is finally a free person. She's been bound all this time and finds a way to free herself. Women had no power in those days.' Banks agrees: 'It was a completely patriarchal society: she had to stay within the bounds of what her brother decided.'
'Then, of course, she's completely lost it!' laughs Christy. 'But in a way, she's more lucid because she's fought her way out of this constricted life.'
Lucia's famous Mad Scene – a showpiece of most of the great divas of the past including Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas – is an inevitable topic of conversation. How does Christy deal with Lucia's lengthy and technically demanding descent into insanity? 'The music is what takes me there,' she says simply. 'The key to it is in what you're singing – the words, the structure, even the glass harmonica.' The latter is an eerie-sounding instrument which Donizetti prescribes in his score but has only been recently reintroduced into performances of Lucia. Banks enthuses: 'It makes an astonishing sound. A lot of the Mad Scene isn't mad, which is to say that the music isn't mad. I don't really have a mad scene – the mad scene I've done the most is Tom Rakewell's in The Rake's Progress, and again it's a placid, almost ethereal passage. It's a similar thing here. If you approach these things as 'two-dimensional mad', it doesn't work. It has to be part of a very placid place. The madness then becomes something very subtle.'
I mention the fact that although Lucia is considered by a huge majority to be a great role, there's a danger that Edgardo might not be perceived to be as important or complex a character. But Banks doesn't have a problem with it. 'That scenario is common in a lot of things,' he says. 'Likewise, the soprano is forgotten in L'elisir d'amore. It's the way that the roles are written. Edgardo doesn't really go on a journey in one sense, but he does go on one to become a very important part of history. He goes to France and he helps to form the old alliance, which is a very important part of Scottish history. So his view of his future is completely different. In a way, it's an unselfish thing to do – he has to leave and go and help his countrymen to break these bonds. Within that, he's a very passionate person; I think the passion makes him blinkered. So he tells Lucia he loves her. So why on earth would she think that he doesn't? It's straightforward to him: I love you, I'm going to come back, I'm thinking about you, basta. That paves the way for him to concentrate on what he needs to do in France. Then he comes back. So on that level, he's quite selfish – he only thinks about his own emotions, rather than thinking about what she has to go through. He doesn't consider the familial bonds that she has, or what she might have to do for her family.'
Naturally, I'm curious as to the nature of the new production, so the singers explain a little of David Alden's interpretation of Lucia di Lammermoor. 'It's very grey, but it's also very classical in its approach,' says Banks. 'David is the perfect director for Lucia, because he understands the bel canto aesthetic. He's the best and worst person to have in a rehearsal room with you, because he knows your role far, far better than you do! He sings everything – he loves singing along to Lucia's role too. He's a brilliant director in that respect, because he respects the music. He never, ever wants you to go against the music – it's the old-fashioned approach where the music and singing and voice production is first in importance. Having said that, it's always married with the emotional content. He doesn't want you to go with the 'stand and deliver' approach of the 1950s and '60s. We're singing in all kinds of contorted positions – we sing on the floor, we sing on our backs. It's all connected, though. He's basically a singer; he loves it.'
'The production is also very dark, both in look and mood,' says Christy. 'Yes, there are a few surprises in there!' adds Banks.
Former ENO Music Director Paul Daniel is coming back to conduct these performances of the Donizetti masterpiece, so I ask about his way of dealing with this music. 'He finds his own approach to the piece,' says Christy. 'He's very good at finding ways of singing it to communicate what it's about. He's very accommodating, too – he has to be, because it's so hard to sing!' Banks elaborates: 'The role of Edgardo is really, really difficult, too. Because of Lucia, people don't realise what an absolute beast it is to sing Edgardo. It's a real lesson in stamina and pacing. If you don't have the tessitura in your voice, don't even attempt the role. It's a bit like Lucia, as well: if you can't do what Anna does with high Es, don't attempt the role. You want to be sitting on the edge of your seat in excitement but not in worry! In particular, singers shouldn't do these parts in the original keys if they can't do them. The roles that I specialise in – the high Rossini roles – shouldn't be attempted if they aren't comfortable for you, because you'll reach a point onstage one night when you won't be able to do it.' And, says Christy, 'the baritone and bass roles are equally difficult. None of the four main parts are easy to sing.'
Daniel has also decided to use a new version of the score for this production. 'In some parts, they've gone back to the score as it was originally written by Donizetti,' says Banks. 'It's a critical edition, but there are also some editorial changes as well. There have been a few heads banged in trying to make it work for all parties! In the Lucia-Edgardo duet, there's a bit in the critical edition where staccati are written but it seems completely wrong so we just ignore it. That's not because we don't want to try new things, but when you've got two singers moving in thirds or sixths on notes where it just shouldn't be done, there's no point in doing it.'
'If Donizetti were here, he wouldn't care,' says Christy. 'The most important thing is to create a convincing performance.'
'It's been fun experimenting, though,' continues Banks. 'It's not as if we're singers who can't adapt. It's a matter of taste and ability. If you're going to do something different, you've got to be confident that it's right, otherwise it's not going to sound right.'
Since this is ENO's first serious bel canto opera in a while, the question is simple: does it really lie within the company's tradition of strong theatrical pieces? But Banks explains: 'You've got two opera houses in New York. One only has to look at the history of New York City Opera to see that their life has survived on rare and not-so-rare bel canto. That's how it got its reputation. If you come to the opera wanting a deep and meaningful evening, don't come and see a fluffy version of Barber of Seville or Cenerentola. These pieces have a serious side to them too, but it's wrong to miss out the slapstick element altogether – it then becomes, as one famous director once said, a laugh an hour. But for dramatic pieces, this Lucia is as dramatic as you would want it!' 'There's nothing that's not dramatic in it,' agrees Christy. 'It's all in there.'
'If you analyse the roles,' continues Banks, 'they're paced very cleverly. Lucia maybe has only five scenes; Edgardo only has four scenes. But there's not one of them that's not necessary. You cannot rest in any of them: they're all beasts!'
Donizetti wrote somewhere around seventy operas – the exact number partly depends on whether you count revisions and scores which are largely based on earlier material – yet only a few of them are in the mainstream repertoire. Is he an underrated composer? 'I can't give an informed answer on that one, because I don't know the sixty-five other pieces!' laughs Christy. 'But I know Lucia and Don Pasquale and L'elisir d'amore, which are all wonderful operas, so the answer is undoubtedly yes.' 'It's like Rossini,' says Banks, whose repertoire focuses largely on Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini. 'Why were Cenerentola and Barbiere the only ones to be done for a decades? Until about 1986, you didn't see most of the other ones performed very often. For one thing, these operas weren't available in a performable edition, and it's only with the work of people like Philip Gossett that that has changed.' 'It's also a question of money,' points out Christy. 'An opera will often return to the repertoire as a star vehicle for somebody.'
'But what those of us who do bel canto are fighting against,' affirms Banks, 'is the snobbery of the camps that say that this is not real dramatic music. Then again, you've got the Puccinians against the Verdians. If you're a Mozart singer in certain circles, you're not a complete singer.'
'Yet it's the hardest music to sing!' says Christy. 'That's right,' confirms Banks. 'It's one thing to scream out Verdi and Puccini, but it's another thing to have control over something as difficult as Lucia. It's totally underrated as part of the art form. It's frustrating when you start your career as a light lyric soprano or tenor or baritone. If you have sense, you say no to roles that would over-part you so that you can grow naturally. You do your job's lot of Magic Flutes, Cosìs, Entführungs. Belmonte and Konstanze are fiendish roles, and lots of Blondchens try to graduate to Konstanze. These are very, very technically demanding roles. Or look at The Marriage of Figaro: every piece is a hit, so every piece has to be nailed. Yet the perception is that if you're a Mozart singer, you're a lesser being than those who sing the big butch stuff.'
'It's a bit like the difference between stylised acting and realistic acting,' adds Christy. 'When you're onstage and you're in despair or having a fight in a bel canto opera, you can just let it all out. In Mozart, it's a little more restrained.' 'The action in Mozart opera happens in the recitative,' continues Banks. 'Time stops still in the arias. That's why this generation of directors who've never done opera before and come from the straight theatre cannot comprehend these pieces. I was once involved in such a situation, at the beginning of my career. A very respected straight theatre director from London did a production of a Mozart opera. When he came to the arias, he said, "You've already said that, can we cut this music now?".' This resonates with Christy, too: 'I had a similar experience in a Mozart production done by a famous director at the beginning of my career. He turned round and said, "I need more music here, can we just vamp?"'
'That's why we're so lucky to have the director we've got for Lucia,' says Banks. 'And that's why it's so important to have the right person for bel canto. If you have someone who disrespects it, or a conductor who disrespects it, you may as well give up. But we've got both a conductor and a director who have great respect for this music.'
It's interesting to find out that both Barry Banks and Anna Christy had ambitions to take up a musical career from an early age. The soprano admits: 'As soon as I could talk, I started singing children's songs. I started taking music lessons when I was three years old. When I was ten, I was in Christopher Alden's production of La bohème in Los Angeles. I was a street urchin!' she laughs. 'I was in a couple of operas at that point as part of the children's chorus. I remember sitting cross-legged in the wings watching Thomas Hampson singing Marcello and Plácido Domingo singing Rodolfo and thinking it was the most amazing thing ever. From being very small, whenever I walk into a theatre I feel like I'm home. The smell of the backstage area, dust, props, lights – all that makes me feel like I've come home. There's never been anything else I've wanted to do. And somehow, I was given the voice to be able to do it. I did a lot of musical theatre in high school, though, so for a while I wasn't sure if it was going to be that or opera. I did A Little Night Music in New York City and Stephen Sondheim came to rehearsals and gave me a note. I sang a wrong word and he pointed it out, so I was horrified and didn't sleep that night! But I was able to say to him, you are the reason I'm doing this, because I learned all his musicals while I was at school.'
Banks' story is similarly music-obsessed. 'I don't remember a time when I didn't read music,' he confesses. 'I was a boy soprano and I come from a very poor family where the church was very important. One of my school reports said "We have lost Barry to music". I never knew anything other than music. I remember when I was eight years old, I told my mum I was going to play the trumpet when I got to high school, and she said "Yes, very nice, dear". Then when I got there at the age of eleven, I got my trumpet in the third week and from that point on, I never looked back. I was in three brass bands, a jazz band, a madrigal group and a youth choir, which took up six nights a week, and that was it. Music was my life. I just couldn't conceive of anything else, so it's a good job I became a singer because I can't do anything else!
'It's a bit of a strange story, because I was a serious trumpet player. I got into five conservatories as a trumpet player major – the singing wasn't serious really. Then I went for an audition at the Royal Northern College, and when the secretary met me she said "What's that?". I told her it was my trumpet, and she said "No, the School of Wind and Percussion closed three weeks ago. You're here for a singing audition". So I did it – and was offered a place as a singer! My trumpet teacher told me I was a good trumpeter, but I didn't have that extra one percent to make it into the profession, so I went to college as a singer.
'I had a repertoire of three songs when I went to Manchester. I didn't know any Lieder or opera or any repertoire at all. The reason I had the three songs was that I did them for my Grade 8 singing: 'To daffodils' by Delius, 'Comfort Ye' from Messiah and 'La donna è mobile'. When I auditioned at college, a wonderful man called Alexander Young said "When you come for your next audition, will you sing 'La donna è mobile' in the correct key, please". I was singing it a fourth down, but I had no idea!'
We chat briefly about the singers' forthcoming plans. Anna Christy enthuses about the future: 'I have a few concerts in the spring. In the summer, I'm going on tour to Japan with Seiji Ozawa, which is very exciting for me because I'm half-Japanese. I'm beyond thrilled to be able to go back and spend five weeks in my 'other home'. And next year, I'm making my Bastille and Covent Garden debuts.' Banks' diary shows a similar path to the one he's built his reputation on during the last two decades: 'I'm singing the same sort of stuff that I've been doing for years. I'm doing La sonnambula for the first time, but otherwise it's more of things like La fille du regiment.'
To finish, we talk about working at the Coliseum and being a part of ENO. It's a subject which arouses great passion in both singers, whose enthusiasm for the current production of Lucia is obvious through the whole conversation. Banks gets straight to the point: 'People slag this house off. I debuted here when I was about twenty-six and people said I was insane to do it. You walk onstage here and if you have a focussed voice, it's the most beautiful house to sing in. You don't have to push. It's just a psychological thing: you see the size of a theatre and want to push. You go to the Met and the size of it is unbelievable. But the acoustic is amazing: you can do the tiniest thing and it will be heard.' 'And you feel a certain warmth onstage there,' adds Christy.
'But if you go to somewhere like the Bastille,' says Banks, 'you never quite know if anything is going to get across because it's so big.' Yet, says Christy, 'when I was recently asked how it felt to be singing in the biggest theatre in London, I said "You forget where I'm coming from". I grew up in theatres the size of barns – they're enormous and frightening! My New York debut was at City Opera, which is huge. Chicago and San Francisco seem to keep going forever. But here, I was marking the part in rehearsals for Lucia yesterday yet I still felt the sound coming back.'
'It's a beautiful house,' agrees Banks. 'When I was a young singer I'd be performing in places like Oxford and the former Southampton Gaumont – these were cinemas with no pits! The Coliseum is so much better to sing in.' He also feels upbeat about ENO as a company. 'I started here and it's still the company that I have a soft spot for. This is my twentieth season at ENO – I made my debut in early 1987, covering in The Barber of Seville. I went on about four times. It's no secret that I'm not the tallest person in the world, but from that time onwards it's been the house that has consistently not offered me character roles because of my size. I've done some pretty nice stuff here! Because of that, I'm more willing to give back and do promotional stuff for them. They stuck by me when I was carving out my career, whereas other companies weren't so accommodating early on, though they changed later on. So I'm very fond of ENO and I come back every few years.
'People send me press cuttings to say that it's dead and buried. But, er, it's been dead and buried for years and years but it still seems to be going pretty well, thank you very much!'
Lucia di Lammermoor opens at ENO on 16 February 2008. Barry Banks plays Edgardo to Anna Christy's Lucia. More details at www.eno.org.