Interview: Ian Bostridge on his 'Homeward Bound' Series at the Barbican

'I think I just have an affinity for it. Britten suits my voice and my temperament. That's why I do it.'

22 November 2007

Ian Bostridge (credit: Sheila Rock) - interview

One of the biggest events in the UK classical music calendar over the next year is a series of concerts at London's Barbican Centre celebrating the artistry of British tenor Ian Bostridge CBE. Entitled 'Homeward Bound', it is Bostridge's first UK retrospective and is described as 'a rare and unique insight into his musical interests', from operas by Britten and Mozart to the Schubert Lieder which is the tenor's first love. Of the shape of the season, Bostridge says: 'I wanted to cover a lot of the things that I do, include some new things, and involve people I like working with. It's as simple as that really: a variety of textures, a variety of people - there's no overarching theme, apart from me!'

I catch up with the tenor shortly before he starts to rehearse the inaugural concerts of the season, two performances of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd with the London Symphony Orchestra in partnership with UBS on 7 and 9 December 2007. Daniel Harding will conduct a stellar all-male cast, including Nathan Gunn, John Relyea, Jonathan Lemalu, Matthew Rose and Andrew Kennedy, reason enough to snap up the few remaining tickets. But the performances are of particular note because Ian Bostridge will sing the role of Captain Vere for the first time. 'It seems about the right time', he says. 'I'm forty-two. I haven't been offered it onstage yet, so I thought if I was going to do it, this was the way. I was pleasantly surprised when they were willing to let me schedule two operas - it's a very ambitious series.'

When I ask him how he sees the character of Vere, Bostridge responds 'I don't really.' But is he a sympathetic character, for instance? 'I think I just have to sing it and see. It's not the way I work, really; I don't subject the person I'm playing to psychoanalysis. I do it, then you take away from it what you want as a member of the audience. I think that's particularly pertinent to Britten, because it's the way he works. He makes everything very ambiguous - the music conflicts with the libretto and you're never quite sure where you are. It's very unsettling. I don't think it's really possible to sum up some of these characters in a straightforward way - which makes them rather real, in fact. They are complex, but at the same time hard to put your finger on. Some people will find Vere sympathetic and others won't. I wouldn't expect a unanimous response.'

So Bostridge doesn't have a particular response to him? 'I would if I went to a performance of it. When I think about myself, some days I approve of myself, some days I don't. I don't find it a useful way of thinking about it. The way Britten works is to decentre things. He chooses very ambiguous texts: Billy Budd by Melville is a very ambiguous text and is presented as such, and Melville talks about the truth being very ragged. After Gloriana, Britten chose to do The Turn of the Screw, which is another ambiguous text. I think ambiguity attracted him as a way of working. It's a way of getting under an audience's skin. So we don't really know what to make of the character of Vere.' So he tries to just go with the text? 'I just try to do what's there and let it work its magic, rather than add something.'

It's no coincidence that in a series entitled 'Homeward Bound', Bostridge is being teamed up with the London Symphony Orchestra, whom he clearly thinks of as his 'home orchestra'. 'I've done more with the LSO than any other orchestra and I think they're fantastic. I love being with them. I've been on tour with them and made recordings with them. I know lots of people in the orchestra, and the orchestral manager. It's a great institution and we're lucky to have it.'

Ian Bostridge (credit: Sheila Rock) - interview

Although he says there's no particular theme to the concert series, one composer runs through a number of the programmes like a golden thread. After his critically-acclaimed Aschenbach in ENO's Death in Venice earlier in the year, Bostridge has turned to Britten's music again for three of the concerts. As he explains: 'I think I just have an affinity for it. Of course, it suits my voice in the sense that I can sing it. There are other things I like but can't sing because they don't suit my voice or temperament - but Britten suits my voice and my temperament. That's why I do it. It also suits my temperament dramatically because I think he's a very subtle creator of the sort of theatre I like. He's a very 'un-operatic' opera composer in some ways, partly because of the issue of ambiguity.'

On 14 January 2008, Ian Bostridge is performing two recitals. At 7pm, he will be joined by soprano Dorothea Röschmann and baritone Thomas Quasthoff in a programme of solo, duet and ensemble Lieder by Schubert set to the words of Goethe. Then at 10.30pm, he will move over to LSO St Luke's for a 'Late Night Cabaret' of songs by Noel Coward (whose music he has recorded), Cole Porter and Kurt Weill. Why this combination of concerts on the same day? 'Just scheduling!' he laughs. 'But they asked if I'd mind doing two things on the day and I said that would be interesting, because I'm not having to sing a whole recital earlier on. And I keep saying that I want to dare to be more 'poppy' with the art stuff, so it's a shame in a way that they're not being sung the other way around - though I wouldn't want to be more arty with the pop stuff. I'd like to dare to do more relaxed, informal things with the voice, though it's difficult in a big venue. It'll be interesting from that point of view.'

In three of the concerts, Bostridge will team up once again with Mitsuko Uchida, one of his regular accompanists. When I ask him to describe the nature of their artistic relationship, he responds: 'Again, I don't know if I'd analyse it in those terms. We get on very well and have a laugh, but we don't really talk about music very much; we just rehearse by doing it. The only thing I'd say is that Mitsuko always finds it interesting how different it is every time, because I'm a bit naughty in performance and do things differently from rehearsals. She's fantastically involved in the text and it's great - I love working with her.'

Three big works complete the series: Mozart's Idomeneo, Bach's St John Passion and Britten's Saint Nicolas - perhaps slightly lesser-known works by extremely well-known composers. 'Saint Nicolas I chose because I wanted to do something that involved community work - it's in London and the Barbican and the LSO do fantastic outreach work', explains Bostridge. 'I wanted to do something that involved an element of theatre. I've always thought that Saint Nicolas is something worth experimenting with from that point of view - it's already got spatial elements to it even when it's performed in a traditional way. It's something that I'd sung in both as a child and as an adult, and I think it's underrated as a piece of music because of its origins as a piece written for a school celebration and for amateurs. But it's got brilliant music in it.

'I felt I hadn't been doing enough Passions recently; it seemed to be something I did every year, but the last one I did was the St John with Simon Rattle in Birmingham, London and Berlin in 2003. I haven't done any since, yet Bach is very important to me so I decided to include it. I love his music and being The Evangelist is a wonderful way of being in this piece. It's like being a conductor - you're involved in the pacing of so much of it.

'Idomeneo was the first opera I sang as an adult, in the Oxford University Opera Society production. It was terrible and I've never done it staged since. But I recorded it and did it in concert with Charles Mackerras, who was fantastic at it. I chose it because I wanted to work again with Fabio Biondi, whom I love, and I wanted to do it on old instruments. It's the Mozart role I feel most comfortable with, though I don't know if I'd do it on stage yet - it would depend on the director and the approach. I think I'll be sticking to doing it in concert at the moment.'

Ian Bostridge (credit: Sheila Rock) - interview

A couple of months ago, EMI released a disc of Ian Bostridge singing tenor arias by Handel. While there's an abundance of Handel discs out at the moment by mezzo-sopranos and countertenors, it's a little unusual for a tenor to choose to record this repertoire. But as Bostridge explains, 'I just loved the music and I've always sung Handel. Messiah was a really important part of my becoming a singer. I've done a lot of the oratorios. There are wonderful tenor parts in the operas and I suddenly realised when I'd done it that I didn't really deal with those on the whole. Semele, which I've been in, is an English opera, but a lot of the tenor arias in the Italian operas are uninteresting. There are some great tenor roles like Tamerlano, but I felt that's something I'd want to do onstage first as a whole; it wasn't so much of a cherry-picking piece. Handel himself did lots of cherry-picking of arias which were published in his lifetime - he could just find beautiful arias - and I fell in love with the arias from Ariodante so decided I wanted to record those and change the octave. I thought about that a lot, and after looking at baroque practice I decided it was fine. The disc is a mixture of stealing some of the mezzo arias and doing the old oratorio stuff - there's a long tradition of English tenors recording the oratorio arias.'

There are more discs on the horizon, all on EMI, with whom Bostridge records exclusively. 'I've got a Schubert disc coming out in the spring, which is largely a compilation of all the Schubert songs I've done with Leif Ove Andsnes which have been spread over sonata discs, but we've filled it up with some other Schubert songs. I'm recording Schwanegesang with Tony Pappano, and I'm doing a disc of baroque arias written by other composers for three tenors who worked for Handel - Francesco Borosini, Annibale Pio Fabri and John Beard. They are arias by Vivaldi, Gasparini, Thomas Arne - people like that.'

As for operatic appearances, Bostridge says that 'there's nothing new in the pipeline.' But he's returning to a number of roles for which he's received great acclaim. 'I'm reprising this production I loved of Death in Venice and I'm doing Don Ottavio again. I'm not doing so much opera abroad - I've been offered things like Pelléas and Loge that I'd love to do but they're not here, so I'm just waiting to see what happens. I might do a new production of The Magic Flute. I'd love to do Loge, but I'll have to wait and see about that.'

Indeed, the tenor's other ambitions are surprisingly modest. 'More of the same, and extending and improving, really. I don't have a hit list of things, to be honest - I'd love to sing Pelléas, but if I don't it's a pity and there we are. Lieder is the thing I can choose myself, and I can organise the circumstances in which to do it, so I can do whatever I want. It's my responsibility, and I have the freedom to choose things that I think will work and are worthwhile doing. At the moment, I'm working towards performing Brahms and Mahler.'

Music was an important part of Bostridge's life from childhood onwards. 'I was a choirboy in Streatham in the local church choir, which was probably important, but the main thing was that I had a fantastic music teacher at my prep school called Michael Spencer. He's just one of those miraculously inspiring teachers. I'm still in touch with him - I did Saint Nicolas with him a couple of years ago, in fact. We did fantastically ambitious things - Bach Passions and Britten operas. He got me to sing The Shepherd on the Rock when I was twelve or thirteen, also the Bach cantata 'Jauchzet Gott' when I was the same age. So I think he really ignited it for me. Then I had a wonderful German teacher at my next school who got me into German Lieder and that has been the thing that has really made me a musician - the Lieder.'

Yet Bostridge went on to study other subjects - history and philosophy - at university, instead of music. 'I was always an academic person. I didn't have any musical education and I was a singer - I didn't learn any instruments - so I couldn't study music. Music theory and that sort of thing has been another side of my life, almost a hobby. It's quite surprising in a way - most of my old friends do other things! I didn't start meeting musicians properly until I was in my late twenties.'

What ignited the strange change of direction? 'It was very slow and gradual. It didn't seem strange at the time. I don't think I realised until later how lucky I was that it went so smoothly. I was worried that I wasn't going to make enough money, that I wouldn't get any work and that my voice might pack up - all sorts of things - but in the first eighteen months I was suddenly there, established. It was peculiar and maybe I take it all for granted.'

According to Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera with whom the tenor has frequently collaborated, Bostridge has 'an inner intensity'. Does he see himself in that way? 'If I was to think of any of the descriptions of myself that fit, I'd say that emotional intensity is what I do. The music I find difficult to perform is music where I can't find that. If I can find calmness within the context of angst, then that's different. Some people say I'm an intellectual singer, but that doesn't square with what I think of myself at all. I don't think there is such a thing as an intellectual singer: you can be an intellectual who sings, but you can't be intellectual when singing - it's against what singing is about.'

When we discuss what he think his place in history will be, Bostridge's answer is typically modest. 'I'd like to be remembered as a good father - I think that's a very important thing! Singers are quite ephemeral, on the whole. Very few get remembered - only the very famous ones. And singing is subject to fashion. I listen to singers of forty years ago and they sound old fashioned - even the ones I admire - and in fifty years' time my singing will sound even funnier than it does to people at the moment. So I think it's weird that we can preserve singing, because it's actually of the moment. If you don't see somebody singing, if you're not there, you never really know what it felt like.

'It's like acting. Laurence Olivier will forever be a famous actor and is the most significant stage figure of his generation, but no-one will ever really get what it was unless they saw him on stage. If I can manage all this stuff and lead a reasonably normal life, that's my ambition. That's why coming home to London is so great. As Britten said, being rooted is very important. Some performers like being gypsies and take up the profession for that reason - they genuinely love living out of a suitcase. All that travelling would send me mad. I need to feel I'm home, and then I go out and do my work and come back again afterwards. It's very unsettling for me when I have the sense which I've had during long opera periods abroad - even when I've come home at the weekends - that I'm living abroad and visiting home instead of living at home and going abroad.'

Ian Bostridge (credit: Sheila Rock) - interview

So does that mean he doesn't feel he's a natural performer? 'No, the performing instinct in me is incredibly strong. But I'm lucky enough to be able to choose. Now I know I have the choice. I know I can't do everything - that's really clear to me now. I'm offered a lot of lovely things, especially operas abroad, but I can't do them all. A couple of years ago I did forty-nine recitals in one season out of about sixty-five public appearances. That seemed to me to be a wonderful year, I love doing recitals. But that stopped me doing so much opera, so I had to flip back and last year I did a lot of opera. You can't do it all - unless you work too hard, and then you degenerate.'

One of Bostridge's biggest successes was in the world premiere of Thomas Adès' opera The Tempest. Would Bostridge consider doing more contemporary opera? 'Yes, though it's very stressful. Modern vocal writing tends to be at the extremes of rhythmic complexity and tessitura, so I wouldn't want to do it too often. But I'm in awe of the singers of an earlier generation who did so many commissions - people like Fischer-Dieskau or Peter Pears. They commissioned so many pieces and were in lots of new operas. It's really extraordinary. I feel slightly guilty about that - I've done The Tempest and the Hans Werner Henze song cycle but that's really it. A big gulf has opened up: some very great singers don't do any new music at all, which is sad.'

But he thinks there's no chance that opera will die the death. 'It's too good. It'll always be something people love, and if some people love it others will think "Oh, I want to be into that, too". Some particular things are wrong - for instance the notion that London, which is one of the richest cities in the world and supposedly the world city now, can't support two opera houses. The relish with which the English speaking house is under attack at the moment is terrible. I think we should be very careful because you can go through periods where things aren't very good for a few months, then they get better again. I feel people should be responsible about that. Artistic work often fails and you just have to be ready for it.

'I think people just need to wait and see what happens instead of panicking all the time. The news cycle is too short. You really need time for things to come to fruition. Regular work is going on there all the time, and it's fantastic.'

Any other ambitions? 'I'd like to write something serious one day. But that would be when I had more time. Maybe music would be involved but it would really be an extension of the work I did before, so something about the Enlightenment and the birth of Rationality or something like that. I'd also like to try running something, but I don't know if I'd be any good at it and again it's too early. I wouldn't mind running a festival or a small venue or something. But not yet!'

By Dominic McHugh

Ian Bostridge appears in Britten's Billy Budd at the Barbican Centre on 7 and 9 December 2007, in partnership with UBS. Further concerts are on 14 January 2008 (Schubert Lieder/Cabaret), 14 March 2008 (StJohn Passion), 14 May 2008 (Idomeneo), 16/18 October 2008 (John Donne with Fiona Shaw and Uchida), 21 October 2008 (Winterreise with Uchida) and 6 December 2008 (Britten's Saint Nicolas). More information can be found on the LSO and Barbican websites.

Read other recent interviews with singers such as Rosalind Plowright, Claire Rutter, John Hudson, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.