For the 2013 revival of director Michael Grandage's Le Nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne (running from 8 June to 2 August), the role of Count Almaviva--one of opera's great comic/dramatic baritone roles--has gone to young Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, whose only previous appearance with Glyndebourne forces was in the Glyndebourne Touring production of Rinaldo in 2011. We caught up with Hopkins just before the dress rehearsal to see how he was getting on as a major moment in his operatic career approaches. I asked him first of all to give me his broad impressions of the way things were going: Hopkins needed no prompting!
"My first impressions of Glyndebourne came when I performed Argante in Handel's Rinaldo for GTO two years ago. And prior to my arrival here, I had heard such wonderful praise of this renowned festival and its remarkable setting, so my expectations were high. Not only were met, they far exceeded any experience I could have imagined. I was welcomed into the arms of this extended family, a company full of smiling faces that are dedicated to the art they create. I was impressed at how much thought had gone into organizing every detail so that every step of rehearsing, performing and touring went smoothly".
So first impressions were good. But what about spending the early summer on the Sussex Downs--how has that worked? "Rehearsing at Glyndebourne is such a unique privilege. The peace and tranquility of creating opera in these surroundings allows my imagination to flourish much more than in a noisy city full of distractions, where the majority of my artistic endeavours take place. Meeting and working with such a diverse and international group of artists makes the experience all the more rewarding. The extended rehearsal process allows the cast to feel completely comfortable with one another over time, becoming like a supportive family. The luxury of time also allows us to explore as many details as possible in our work, and we can thoroughly flesh out all of the thoughts guiding our characters in their actions".
So what are these thoughts for this iconic role? For Hopkins, what is the greatest challenge about portraying Count Almaviva? And I went on to ask: what do you have to do as an actor singer in order to make him sympathetic to an audience? Hopkins has evidently given these issues considerable thought.
"There are very few instances where the Count is actually given moments to be sympathetic. I try to play him truthfully moment to moment, without planning to make him seem anything other than a real being. He is certainly flawed, but not evil. He is incredibly child-like; he rages when he doesn't get his way or when his power is threatened, but he is willing to apologize when he is in the wrong. We know he is sincere because Mozart wrote for him the most beautiful and honest apology music at the end of the opera, set to the text Contessa, perdono. The greatest challenge in playing the Count is managing his constant rage while still producing healthy singing. The Act II finale is especially difficult as Mozart wrote many of the Count's lines in a low tessitura; it is easy to oversing when being fueled by so much anger".
Grandage has of course updated his Figaro to the 1960s and his Count Almaviva has none of the aristocratic froideur that one often sees in more conventional productions. So how has Hopkins dealt with characterisation like that. "Working on this production, which is set in 1969, has been so much fun! Sinking my teeth into the physicality of a loose-hipped, crotch-driven, long-haired 1969 Count grants me more physical freedom to play than respecting the reserved customs and manner of his buttoned-up 1786 counterpart. Everyone in the cast is required to re-create some authentic sixties dance choreography for the Act III wedding celebration, which the Count leads, so I had to keenly focus my untrained legs and feet over these past weeks so that I would appear confident as I demonstrate my groovy moves to my vassals!" We both laugh at the concept and Hopkins has a gleam in his eyes--expect perhaps an even more exuberant scene in Ian Rutherford's revival of this Figaro than the one we saw last year!
I ask about the singing of Mozart roles more generally, and the way a singer is challenged compared with, say, Verdi or Rossini roles. Hopkins has given the question some thought. "Singing a great Mozart role has its own specific challenges. A very controlled and precise musicality is needed for Mozartian phrasing and dynamics. The style is pure and clean, so there is no room for technical weakness. Mozart's baritone roles are written in a lower tessitura than many other lyric baritone parts, so understanding how to connect to one's low register with robust tone is essential".
So is Mozart's Almaviva more of a challenge than, say, Rossini's Figaro? "What I would say is that the Count is written more lyrically than, say, Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia. With Rossini, there is more patter and much more florid coloratura, resulting in a need to keep the singing light in places. I can illustrate this with the comparison of how I sing Rossini's Largo al factotum with my approach to the Count's Act III aria. Largo sits in a much higher tessitura and has many more florid passages that need to flow easily from my throat as I sing them. However, since the Count's aria is a more dramatic and therefore more full-throated sing, it requires a richer, fuller sound to express the Count's rage, shame and brooding. If I were to sing Largo in the same fashion, I wouldn't make it to the end".
I ask Hopkins about his background and the reasons why he decided to become a singer. "As a teenager growing up in a small city in Canada, I didn't have any exposure to opera other than recordings, although the classical music scene did exist with community orchestras and choirs putting on oratorio concerts. I was fixated on musical theatre and it was around the time when both Les Miserables and Phantom took the world by storm that I realized I even had a voice that could carry a tune. I also sang jazz gigs for a couple of years with a quintet based in Ottawa and even cut a CD with them! When I had the opportunity, at age 16, to sing Haydn's Creation with a local community orchestra--I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, (he adds, with an infectious laugh)--I was bitten by the classical music bug, hard. I knew that I wanted to pursue a performing career".
His serious opera training then followed at the Houston Grand Opera Studio, finishing in 2005. Did all this stage training take over from other forms of singing, recital and oratorio work? "I actually like a balance of all three, opera, concert and recital, in my career. I love performing behind the mask of a character in costume and makeup, so I definitely want to focus on developing my singing and acting in opera. However, there is a special intimacy in recital and concert work that I find both incredibly challenging and rewarding. My connection with the audience is more direct in these media and I enjoy the storytelling aspect of communicating with only my voice and the text. Each medium informs the other both technically and artistically, so the more varied my performance experiences are, the more I hope to grow as an artist".
There is activity all around us at Glyndebourne, as tannoy announcements are made and Hopkins's fellow stars are seen scurrying in all directions. But I have time to ask him what next--in an ideal career--what musical role does he dream of assuming. His answer surprises me. "I am fascinated with the musical world of Benjamin Britten and would probably give my left arm to play Billy Budd. Britten's music deftly expresses a dense psychological landscape. It is such a rewarding pleasure to sing his beautiful and haunting melodic lines, since Britten really knew how to write intelligently for the voice. The wholesome, innocent nature of Billy's character is particularly attractive to me and I relish playing operatic characters that experience a great emotional journey during their time onstage. I covered the role a few years ago and spent weeks in preparation beforehand in England, thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, working with Stuart Bedford, Sir Thomas Allen and the late Philip Langridge".
Hopkins will get the chance at Glyndebourne to see Michael Grandage's other revival production this season, the thrilling Billy Budd that made such a strong impression in the 2010 Festival. But he has a full schedule ahead of him, after his season on the Sussex Downs is over. "I have some exciting seasons ahead of me--this autumn Marcello in La bohème with the Canadian Opera Company and a Britten programme at Carnegie Hall with Ian Bostridge, Iestyn Davies and Julius Drake. I also have appearances with the San Francisco Symphony and Kansas City Symphony. In subsequent opera seasons I will be returning to the Metropolitan Opera, the Canadian Opera Company and Houston Grand Opera; I will also be making debuts at Frankfurt Opera, Washington National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago". Such is the life of an up-and-coming operatic talent. But Hopkins is aware that there is still a huge amount that he has to experience and to achieve if he wants to develop his full potential. "We never stop developing as artists; in order for us to keep reaching higher goals we must always continue to study as our experiences multiply, our instrument develops and our body supporting that instrument grows and changes".
And with that, the hippy Count rejoins the cast who hope, once again, to illuminate the stage with Mozart's 1786 masterpiece, as they make final preparations for this year's folle journée.
Joshua Hopkins is currently appearing at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro.
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