Interview: Julian Gavin on singing Don Carlos for Opera North and Chandos

'I want to be thought of as a team player. After all, it's an ensemble art form.'

27 April 2009

Julian Gavin

On Saturday, Opera North will announce its 2009-10 season, promising as eclectic a selection of productions as ever, but following the press conference is an even more highly-anticipated event: the opening night of a revival of Verdi's Don Carlos. Tim Albery's production was first seen in 1993 and revived in 1998, so this is a rare chance for audiences in the north to see one of the most difficult but spectacular operas in the repertoire.

Two things make the revival even more special. First, the cast will gather in the studios to record the opera for Chandos' Opera in English series, and second, the line-up of singers is outstanding. Janice Watson will sing her first Elizabeth de Valois, with Brindley Sherratt and Alastair Miles alternating as Philip, William Dazeley as Rodrigo, Clive Bayley as the Grand Inquisitor and Jane Dutton as Eboli, all conducted by Opera North Music Director Richard Farnes.

Returning from the 1998 revival is the Australian-born tenor Julian Gavin, who also sang the role in the Royal Opera's Luc Bondy production both at Covent Garden and at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival. Since training at the National Opera Studio, Gavin's career has always had a centre in the UK, with several early appearances at ENO. He'll return there next season for Catherine Malfitano's new production of Puccini's Tosca. Gavin has also enjoyed a close relationship with Opera Holland Park, starring in their acclaimed production of Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re a couple of seasons ago, and he'll return to them next year in Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini. He's also made major appearances in Vienna, stepping into Placido Domingo's shoes in productions of Carmen and Les Contes d'Hoffmann. I caught up with him during rehearsals for Don Carlos to chat about this major revival and ask him about his future plans.

Gavin speaks enthusiastically about the staging, which has been almost created anew for this revival. 'Tim has approached it like a new production – the rehearsal period has been as long as if it had been completely new – so it's been totally reconceived within the boundaries of the staging,' he explains. 'But one of the difficulties we've got with it is that because we're doing the four-act Italian version, we don't have the Fontainebleau scene. I much prefer doing all five acts, because at least we get to see Carlo happy for five minutes! Tim and I have tried to revisit the character this time. Both of us used to be distracted by the historical Don Carlo in the past, with things like the epileptic fit and a sense of physical weakness. But this time, we've tried to make sense of why Rodrigo invests so much in him. This guy is on an emotional knife-edge, so why invest the future of Flanders in him? We realised that in fact, Carlo himself has invested in the ideas of liberty and freedom, but he's been distracted by his love for Elizabeth.

'When we did the production previously, he was shown in the first scene all collapsed and drooped. But now, we're showing how he might get it together eventually. The piece is one intense scene after another. For grand opera, it's remarkably intimate. Just going through it all again, I can see how Carlo is on this emotional plane of duty which overpowers him. He's ruled by his emotions and makes instinctive decisions, so he's a bit of a menace. The difficulty is that he can seem one-dimensional, as if he whines at the audience for four hours! I love playing the character. I feel in particular that it's an ensemble piece, and that we're fortunate to have such singer-actors in all the parts. It's about interaction.

Julian Gavin in Don Carlo'When you get to that final duet, it's the most sublime piece of music. But I can't deny that I'm very envious of the beautiful, long bel canto lines and the big numbers that all the other characters get to sing later in the opera! Because of his character, Carlo has lots of short bursts of song. He doesn't settle for long: you have to get so much information across to the audience even in the first five minutes of his opening aria, about the meeting in Fontainbleau and his love for his step mother, whereas all the other characters get all these whopping show pieces.'

He talks fondly of Opera North. 'I've had a very long relationship with them. I covered roles for them before I even went on at the Coliseum in The Force of Destiny. My first major engagement after I'd trained at the National Opera Studio and worked with the small touring companies was at Opera North. I was covering Il trovatore, and I went on for the dress rehearsal. On the basis of that, they invited me to do Laca in Jenufa in 1995.

'The company has a family feel about it. They have long rehearsal periods, which makes for a good artistic result. We're so lucky for this production: I think Richard Farnes is a superb Music Director, and to have Alex Ingram as an assistant is a real luxury. I used to work with him at ENO, where he was a wonderful vocal coach. So it means we've had detailed notes from Richard, Tim and Alex after the rehearsals. With that kind of preparation, we'd better be good!'

There's a sharp intake of breath when I ask about singing the piece in English.
'That's tough!' he admits. 'And we're recording it for Chandos. But that's why it's so great to have Alex. I've done the opera in both Italian and French in the four- and five-act versions now, but it's a while since I've sung in English and it's quite difficult. I think it's partly the diphthongs. You have the vowels shifting around, then you've to add a consonant, and all the way through it you've got to maintain an open-throated sound. Also, I've not done it since 1998 and I can feel my muscle memory trying to pull me back into my old bad habits! But it's great to have so much help. Everything has to be important in the text to maintain the Italian line. And from the dramatic point of view, it's so exciting to see things like the big encounters between the King and Rodrigo in English. Everybody's been on our backs to get it right and to keep it intelligible. Another interesting thing is that Tim has read us some of the scenes in the Schiller, and Verdi's version is remarkably similar!'

It's too early to know much about the new Tosca at ENO. But, he says, 'I can tell you that we've already started working on the text. I met up recently with Catherine and Amanda and tossed ideas around and sang a few bits. What's great is that we're after a genuine translation. So it's not like the Pimlott Boheme, for instance, where it went beyond translation and contained phrases such as "It's pyscho!" I don't know much about the production yet, but I've seen some designs and they look wonderful.'

Straight after Don Carlos, Gavin will head for his homeland to appear in Opera Australia's Fidelio in the role of Florestan, a new venture for him. 'It's been a tricky thing for me, because I've had a lot of success with the French repertoire, even when singing it to the French! But I've been interested in these new directions for some time now. I sang Jenik in The Bartered Bride at Glyndebourne, and Nicholas Lehnhoff asked if I would sing Lohengrin. I went and looked at it and spent quite some time on it. I thought the tessitura fitted very well. I've long adored Ariadne auf Naxos – I prefer it to Rosenkavalier – so I'd love to have a go at Bacchus. I've been offered Walther in Meistersinger before, but there was a clash with something else. And I had such a ball singing the Prince in Rusalka with Richard Hickox. It's a lyrical sing, but it's set up in quite a Germanic way. There are some roles I know I will have to shed; I think my Romeo days are over!

'What I feel about Florestan already is that although it's meaty, it's also very classical. I think we are often seduced by certain exponents of operas. We expect Trovatore to sound a certain way; there's an expectation that people will scream their heads off. But when you hear Dennis O'Neill do it, it's very lyrical. So with Florestan, I'll sing it with my voice and make it as stylistically correct as I can. I'm lucky to be working with a great cast, including Lisa Gasteen and Peter Coleman-Wright.'

Julian GavinAny other dream roles? 'I'd like to do "The Big O" [Otello], as I keep calling it! I think I'm ready to tackle it now. I want to do Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, which is a wonderful sing. And I keep wanting to do Alvaro in Forza again.

'I'm very excited about doing Francesca da Rimini at Opera Holland Park. I think it's a mighty piece. I can see why it's not done more often. It has an obscenely long role for the soprano, and even the secondary tenor part is a big sing. I would love someone to record L'amore dei tre Re with me. There's another piece that should be done more often.

'Another one I'd be interested in doing is Verdi's La battaglia di Legnano. I covered Domingo in the role a few years ago, and although it's obviously not Verdi's greatest opera, it's as good as a lot of pieces that are done more often. It has three truly great roles and it's very concise. It moves along very quickly, a bit like Ernani.

'Opera companies are playing everything so safe now. Opera Holland Park is great in that respect. I love the mix of younger singers doing mainstream repertoire – there have been some tremendous successes – and pushing the boat out with these other things. It's great that they allow enough time for preparation. We had a whole week of music rehearsals for L'amore dei tre Re, for instance. It meant that we were so much inside it when we rehearsed it that the blocking was so much more worthwhile. As much as we all love the performance, most of the good artists I work with say they enjoy the rehearsals more than the performances. There's a common responsibility to present what we're been working for in the performances, with the extra gloss of a live audience.'

Gavin was lucky to have a musical background. 'My mother was a concert pianist and a composer. She's written some beautiful stuff [samples of which can be heard on Gavin's website]. She was my first teacher. My father was a professional singer, but left to become a classroom teacher. Then I went to the conservatory in Melbourne and I wanted to be a conductor. I started my postgraduate studies in conducting. My teacher was the Music Director of the Opera Centre. Sometimes I used to muck around and sing a bit at the same time. I always loved opera. One day, my accompanist and I went to the opera, and when he came out he told me it was his birthday. So I said, "OK, I'll sing Happy Birthday To You", and I did it in a big, mock-operatic voice. People started staring at me, and I thought my friend would just laugh at me, but he said "You have got to do something about that voice".

'But I hung back for a while. I went to study with my father initially, and I did a pro-am production of La traviata and somehow survived it" Then I got into the Opera Studio straight off the street really. Nicholas Braithwaite was the dean of the Melbourne College of Arts and send me to Richard Van Allan. I had delusions of grandeur in those days, and I was lucky to get into the Opera Studio because I just sang naturally. I approached the experience like a sponge and took all the advice I was given. I lost my way for a while, with too many ideas and not enough of a foundation. But I sorted it out and got going. And a lot of the stuff I learnt became useful in the years to come, rather than immediately. I wish I'd known five years ago what I know now!'

Julian GavinI ask the tenor about his personal career highlights, but he says 'There have been so many! I did love L'amore dei tre Re though. The Covent Garden Don Carlos with Karita Mattila and Thomas Hampson and Bernard Haitink was a great experience. Another highlight was the first time I sang in Vienna. I did Carmen and went to the costume department to be Velcroed into my outfit, and when I looked at the label it said "Herr Domingo". When I did Marta Domingo's production of Traviata in Washington, I said that I was sure I'd sung a lot better because I wearing his costume! The same thing happened when I went back to Vienna last year to do Hoffmann and wore his costume again. I'm going to have to insist on wearing his costumes in the future now!

'I mentioned the Rusalka with Sally Matthews and Richard Hickox, which was another great experience. It was the Opera North production which they took out to Australia. It was one of those wonderful productions where I sat at the side of the stage listening to my colleagues even when I wasn't singing onstage, rather than sitting in my dressing room doing the Times crossword. And La fanciulla del West is another great piece for me. The first time I did it was in Israel in the Met production. I came on riding on a horse and I got to play with guns; I couldn't believe it! I think that's a really fine opera, and much misunderstood because of the popularity of Westerns.'

As we close, Gavin reflects on his current activities, his legacy and his profession. 'I'm teaching a lot now, which is very important to me. I'd say that when I sing, whether it's a fundraiser for the local church or singing in a major house, I want to sing and work at the highest artistic level I can. I want to be thought of as a craftsman, as well as a good colleague and a team player. After all, it's an ensemble art form.'

By Dominic McHugh

Don Carlos opens on 2 May at the Leeds Grand Theatre and travels to Salford, Nottingham and Newcastle. It will also be recorded for the Chandos label.

Photos: Julian Gavin; Don Carlos 2009 revival photo credits: Clive Barda.

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