Bass-baritone Darren Jeffery is only a few years into his career but can already boast an impressive selection of major operatic engagements. As a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, he sang fourteen roles including Bottom, Masetto, Monterone and Sprecher; he has since gone on to sing roles at ENO, Opera de Montpellier, the Teatro Real in Madrid, Lyon, Garsington, Lyon, Bologna and La Monnaie, Brussels. The latter house was the scene of one of his major successes, as Trulove in a new production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress by leading director Robert Lepage, and now Jeffery returns to Covent Garden to reprise the role as the same production comes to London for the first time on Monday. I interviewed him about his career to date and plans for the future, including the 2008 Seattle International Wagner Competition.
'Rehearsals have been going very well,' he tells me. 'It's a very lively production – very technical – but the technical things don't get in the way of the story. I'll be interested to see the reaction to it here; I think it's very good and very moving.'
Although the role of Trulove is brief, Jeffery still thinks there's plenty to be found in the character. 'The thing with Trulove is that most of his story happens offstage,' he explains. 'He's going through a tricky time where his daughter is grown-up enough to make up her own mind, and I think it's difficult sometimes to let go. I haven't reached that stage with my own children yet – they're still too young! Trulove has reservations about Tom in the opening scene but as Tom starts to decline, Trulove has to come along at the end and pick up the pieces. He's there to support Anne, but I also like to feel that he feels for Tom. He's around the Truloves so much that he's almost part of the family, so even though he's not sure about Tom's intentions with Anne, to see someone in that state is very sad for him. Trulove is a role you could do easily, but it's an important part.'
Jeffery enthuses about Lepage's production. 'It's set in the 1950s, in the oilfields of Texas initially. It's a simple life for Anne and Tom, then Nick Shadow appears from nowhere. Trulove has suspicions about his intentions towards Tom, but the story proceeds very smoothly. It's very cinematic: Robert has tried to use some of the early pioneering cinematic techniques, like moving backdrops. I think it works extremely well, and it's unobtrusive. I admire Robert tremendously. He works in a very quiet way and gives advice gently.
'As a singer, any role you go back to develops on its own, whether in terms of technique or characterisation. Working with different people makes a difference too: the cast here is all new to the production. It's a fantastic group of people.
Of The Rakes Progress, Jeffery says: 'It's a piece about greed: wanting to get something out of life without putting anything into it. The morals of the story are very strong. It's a good piece to see if you've never been to the opera before. I remember first hearing it at Glyndebourne a few years ago. I hadn't listened to much Stravinsky before, and it's a very unusual sound-world – or at least it shocked me. The way the instruments are used is very striking. The flow from one scene to another is great – anyone would love it.'
Thomas Ades, the noted composer of the opera The Tempest as well as various concert works, will conduct this run of performances. 'He's a very approachable conductor,' says Jeffery. 'Very clear, very easy to get along with. I haven't worked with him before, and I didn't see The Tempest, but he's great. This is not an easy piece to conduct – there's a lot that can go wrong, and sometimes when you think you're wrong, you're actually right – but Tom does it very well. He's worked a lot with orchestras and really understands the structures.'
Jeffery has fond memories of the Royal Opera House. 'I was one of the first Young Artists. Coming here almost every day for two years, and getting to know all the shortcuts round the building, you really feel at home. Many of the faces haven't changed since the days when I was a Young Artist, even though I've been away for five years now. It's just a very enjoyable place to be: I've always been very well looked after. When you go to a new place, you have to start from scratch, but it's great to be somewhere you know so well.'
What did the training give him? 'I didn't do a lot of work before I came here: I came straight from college. I did two seasons in the Glyndebourne Chorus but that's all. So I'd never worked on this scale before, and it's amazing how much of a step up you have to make. Theatrically and vocally things have to work on a bigger scale. Just the experience of working on a stage like this one has been a great preparation to go pretty much anywhere. The opera house in Madrid or the concert hall in Rome are not so daunting as a result. I remember walking out on stage here for the first time and being amazed; now, through familiarity, it's not an issue any more.
'Also, the exposure to visiting artists and the chance to work with great people is a wonderful experience. I had some terrific coaching with Tom Allen, John Tomlinson and Eric Halfvarson, for instance. Working with them on a one-to-one basis was amazing. The scheme prepares you very well for professional life, and of course you're also guaranteed two years' work while you're here. I sang fourteen roles in two years. It's a great springboard.
'The first thing I ever did was Sciarrone in Tosca – my professional debut. It was Pavarotti, Carol Vaness and Sergei Leiferkus. To start off with that kind of company was amazing, and I'm still only seven years into my career. I've been very lucky.'
Jeffery's time since leaving the company has been full of interesting engagements. 'I consider myself lucky because I haven't had vast times when I've not had work, and it's also a case of striking a balance between work and family life. I'm sometimes away doing opera for three months at a time and then have a break before the next thing to have some good family time, which is important. I have friends who work in offices all week and only see their families at the weekends; I'd much rather be able to be with my family for twenty-four hours a day when I am with them.
'My repertoire has changed slightly since I left the Young Artists Programme. I've started looking at slightly higher and heavier things. I'm doing this Wagner competition in September; you can't say at the age of thirty-two that you're going to become a Wagner singer, but I feel quite comfortable with that repertoire. I've been trying to find things to do in between. My favourite roles here have been things like Monterone in Rigoletto – it's not a big role but it's very important. A lot of my repertoire at the moment involves that kind of role, which is good because it allows me to work my voice in the right way without pushing it too far, too soon. I've got Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream coming up – that's a similar sort of thing.'
Any dream roles? 'There are roles that everyone would like to do. The most fun I've ever had in a role is Falstaff, which I sang at college. I would love to do that again. I'd like to do Nick Shadow, too. Figaro's another – Figaro and Falstaff are my favourite roles at the moment. If I did end up doing Wagner, it would be lovely to do Wotan, but I can't really say that at the moment. It's nice to have ideals, but you have to be sensible!'
Any other ambitions? 'I would like to put more back into the younger generation. When I was at school, I didn't hear much singing at all. I was a trumpet player, and there was only a limited amount of singing tuition (which has changed now). I try to do charitable events, and I'm interested in working with younger singers. When I was here on the Young Artists Programme, we did some work with schools. I remember singing for one group in the lower register and they could feel the resonance on my chest, then I sang in the upper register and they could feel it on my head. They just couldn't believe that a sound like that could come out of a person's voice without being amplified, or that it would feel like that.
'I wasn't aware of classical singing when I was at school. It was purely by coincidence that I met someone who was a postgraduate student who suggested I might have lessons with him at my last year at school. And I enjoyed drama, so I thought singing would be a good way of combining drama and music. I didn't see any harm in auditioning to be a singer, I auditioned at the Royal Northern, and the rest is history!'
He makes it sound rather easy, I tell him. 'Well, it took me by surprise! Perhaps I've been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. But it's purely because my imagination was sparked by someone else that I'm doing it now for a living. So I'd like to put some effort into going back to schools and spark other people's interest in it too. If I ever stopped singing, I'd like to spend time nurturing the talent of other singers.'
It may come as a surprise to learn that Jeffery's upbringing involved none of the music which now fills his daily activities. 'My family is not musical in the slightest. They listened to no classical music at all. My mother is a great Elvis Presley fan, and I got subjected to Country and Western music all the time, but never classical music. I was fortunate that there was music around the school I went to all the time, but it never quite captured my imagination until I was about the age of eleven. I was out with my parents and heard a brass band. I really loved the sound and said I'd like to try doing something like that. So they bought me a cheap trumpet, and I progressed onto the cornet and I joined the local brass band. I had a great time. Unfortunately, I had to give it up at college, because the embouchure was interfering with my singing – I really miss it!'
Jeffery is enthusiastic about his training at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. 'I was there for six years and there was the opportunity to take part in fully-staged operas. The tuition and coaching was excellent. I arrived there knowing nothing at all about opera and I'd go to the library and look at the scores and recordings. I had to start from scratch and I learned a lot. It was like a scaled-down version of the Young Artists Programme here, with language tuition, movement, the library, performance classes and productions. I felt well prepared to come here but it was a big step up. I had assumed I would leave college, join smaller companies and gradually work my way up. So it was a bit of a shock to arrive here!'
Why did he audition for the Young Artists Programme, then? 'I just thought, if the opportunity's there, why not take it? I don't see any point in not pursuing something then wishing you had. If it doesn't work out, never mind – you can always try again later. There's no point in not trying.'
The future involves more appearances as Trulove and a concert at this year's BBC Proms. But Jeffery's main focus at the moment is on something which could bring him to greater international prominence. 'The next thing I've got is the final of the Seattle Wagner Competition in August. I have to sing two arias, which is not as easy as it sounds. It's difficult to find something in Wagner that stands on its own and can be taken out of the piece whilst not being vastly advanced and beyond what I'm capable of at the moment. Having said that, I've decided to do a Wotan aria from the end of Rheingold – it's not a long piece but it's very beautiful – and I'm doing Sachs' 'Wahn' monologue from Meistersinger. Hans Sachs is an older character, which is a challenge, but it offers a good contrast.'