Andrew Kennedy: 'The great thing about Mozart is that you don't have to work hard to love it!'

Interview on singing Tamino in The Magic Flute at English National Opera in October 2007

20 September 2007

Andrew Kennedy

Since leaving The Royal Opera's Young Artists' programme in 2005, Andrew Kennedy has emerged as one of the brightest young tenors on the international circuit. Having played Tamino in English National Opera's revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute in 2005, he went on to star in Robert Lepage's high-profile new production of The Rake's Progress in Brussels and Lyon, as well as performing Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore for Opera North.

Now he's returning to ENO to reprise his acclaimed portrayal of Tamino, and I caught up with him in the company's rehearsal studios in North London to chat about his approach to the role and his hopes for his career in the future.

Throughout, he bubbles over with enthusiasm about music, not least when I ask him to describe the character of Tamino. 'He's a very young man, sort of on his gap year. Everything's exciting and new, and he has a very adventurous spirit in him that leads him on his journey. It's quite an incredible journey, too - one that can seem a bit two-dimensional sometimes. He can come across as a bit of an arrogant young Mensch, despite his high ideals. But the nice thing about the Nick Hytner production is that he gives the character humility. He shows him being tempted and trying to work things out; Tamino's quite a decent bloke. He's like a chap from an independent school who's really keen to make a difference to the world!'

Having played the part in this production before, has Kennedy changed the way he performs as Tamino? 'From a technical point of view, things have moved on over a couple of years. I'm approaching it with a slightly different voice, but it's made things easier. Last time around, it was my first job when I'd just left the Young Artists' programme at the Royal Opera House and I was still working things out to a certain extent.' So a baptism of fire in more ways than one, then? 'Exactly!' he laughs.

'Two years down the line, having done other things like The Rake's Progress has helped me to find out what works for me, operatically. The Opera House was wonderful but you didn't get the chance of doing a big role for a whole evening, so it's good to have had those sorts of experiences this time round. The revival director is the same, but I've been able to take lots of what I did last time and polish it for a bit longer. It's been a great four weeks of 'buffing it up' and getting it ready again.'

Nicholas Hytner is now in charge of the National Theatre, but nobody could quite have imagined when his ENO production of the Flute was first unveiled in May 1988 that it would survive twelve revivals. It's become one of the company's (and London's) truly classic productions, but this is the last time the production will be performed at the Coliseum. Why does Kennedy feel it has endured so long? 'It really is unusual - it's like John Copley's La bohème or John Schlesinger's Les contes d'Hoffmann at the ROH. Ultimately, I think these productions last so long because they lay certain truths out with the utmost clarity. Also, they are very simple, and as a result they can be adapted to different kinds of performers. In the case of this Magic Flute, the aims of each scene are so clear, which is a very Hytner kind of thing. It's a very clear-cut, 'National Theatre' kind of approach which is about finding the essence of a scene and playing it. And once you've found the essence, you can introduce any kinds of character into it and it will still work. I think that's why it lasts. Also, he makes sense of what is sometimes considered to be a slightly problematic libretto, something that's seen as hard to come to terms with. It's not like La bohème, for instance.'

The libretto of The Magic Flute has indeed divided commentators and audiences over the years. Is it merely a comedy, or should it be seen in the context of Mozart's engagement with Enlightenment philosophy? Kennedy definitely tends towards the latter view. 'It's absolutely a product of the Enlightenment, which you feel especially in this production. It has comic moments, too, of course. Hytner brings on the char lady at one point - there are all sorts of music hall elements in the production, which works perfectly at the Coliseum, given its early history as a venue for music hall entertainment. I think that, a bit like the porter scene in Macbeth, if you introduce a comic element, it can often enhance the power of the darker parts of the drama.

Andrew Kennedy

'I love the piece. The great thing about Mozart is that you don't have to work hard to love it! You can love it the first time you hear it, and you can still love it after you've heard it fifty times.'

Not only does he love Mozart's music, Kennedy feels that it suits his voice particularly well, too. 'This piece tends to be done by slightly heavier singers - it's the first step on the ladder to becoming a Heldentenor, usually. I'm discovering that I have a slightly more powerful top to my voice than perhaps the average English tenor does. So I find that it suits me quite well to do all the loud stuff at the beginning - as well as the lyrical stuff. It keeps a beautiful line and it keeps the voice young. You're forced always with Mozart to sing the music properly; if you don't, you're exposed. It's a constant challenge, but I just love that challenge.'

Playing Pamina opposite Andrew Kennedy's Tamino is the Welsh soprano Sarah-Jane Davies, who represented Wales in this year's Cardiff Singer of the World competition. It turns out that this is the third time they've sung the opera together. 'I knew her at college, and we actually did this piece together at college! We also did the second cast in the 2005 revival at ENO together. I haven't heard her since then, but to my ears her voice has become even more beautiful and lyrical than before; there are so many colours in her voice. It's a joy to work with her onstage.'

The cast that ENO has assembled for this final revival of The Magic Flute is notably young - Brindley Sherratt (Sarastro), Roderick Williams (Papageno) and Matthew Rose (Speaker of the Temple) are contemporaries of Kennedy, and he feels that this enhances the dramatic experience of the production. 'The great thing is that we all happen to know each other from different things. I know Brindley from Glyndebourne and I often bump into Roddy on the Lieder circuit. It's really good that we're all friends before the whole thing starts. I think it's nice to have vocally fresh singers, and it's particularly nice to have young people in a young piece like this. The characters are very young and active in Hytner's production, even down to Sarastro - he goes out on the hunt and comes back with a healthy radiance!'

Talking to him for an hour, it's clear that music has been an essential part of Andrew Kennedy's life for a long time. 'I was a chorister at Durham, which made a huge impression on me. I absolutely loved the music; it was my treat at the end of the day to go and sing Evensong. The school itself was rather austere and because it was the North-East, it always seemed to be raining. It was so nice to go inside and sing sublime music rather than run around outside playing rugby in the mud! I was also involved in a couple of operas. My first opera was actually The Magic Flute. I was the First Boy in a student production while I was at Durham. Then I was involved in Opera North's production of The Turn of the Screw as Miles. When I was at Opera North, that was the point at which I decided I wanted to become a professional singer. My voice broke in the summer holidays and I started singing tenor almost immediately, which was very lucky because I'd always wanted to become a tenor!

'I also remember going to ENO a lot in my GCSE years. I remember seeing Peter Grimes with Philip Langridge and that made a huge impression on me. I've got to know him since, and he's such an inspiration. He's very much a person who I'd like to model my career around. Both the amazing variety of things he's done and the musicianship behind everything he does are things I admire very much. Peter Grimes remains my ultimate opera - I'd love to do it in ten years' time.'

Kennedy took an ordinary music degree at Cambridge and went on to study at the Royal College of Music, but he has mixed feelings about some aspects of the experience. 'I went to Cambridge knowing that I wanted to become a singer, but it was a funny choice in some ways. I love it now, but I fought against it for many years. I arrived at the Royal College sounding like a choral scholar and with more bad habits than I thought I'd acquired. The basic principle of blending and being in a group of singers means that you have to restrict your voice. You're required to produce a kind of falsetto sound at the top, and I felt I hadn't worked out my voice at all. I lost the basic idea of what fundamental sound was. Even at the Royal Opera House I felt I was still trying to find what my voice is. Recently, I feel like I've turned that corner, and now I feel that the Cambridge experience was brilliant! In fact, I met my wife there and I still live near there, so I have a huge amount of love for it.'

The tenor's two years at the Royal Opera House as a Young Artist were evidently a positive boost to his career. 'The training in stagecraft was wonderful, and being close to fabulous singing all the time was amazing. Still being associated with the place means a lot, too. It's a bit like having the Lion brand on a part of your body as a mark of prestige. For me, it was just the right thing. It meant I had two years of financial security, and I looked on it as another two years of study as opposed to starting my professional career. You learn so much. The language coaching is fantastic, and even now I can go back and have free coaching.'

Kennedy has many fond memories of the place. 'I think that standing behind Plàcido Domingo in the coffee queue was one of the most amazing ones, or the time I was sitting having lunch next to a table where Antonio Pappano, Angela Gheorghiu, Bryn Terfel and Roberto Alagna were all drinking coffee. You don't get that every day!' He returns to the Royal Opera's Linbury Studio in January for a revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream alongside his Magic Flute co-star, Matthew Rose.

Aside from his time at the Royal Opera House, what has been the highpoint of Kennedy's career so far? 'Undoubtedly, The Rake's Progress. I was meant to be in the second cast in Brussels and then in the main cast in the same production when it went to Lyon. But Charles Castronovo pulled out not long before rehearsals began, so Brussels asked me to be in the first cast. It was great because I got the debut, with all the reviews. The world's press came to see it because the production is going round a number of leading houses. It was a fabulous experience; Robert Lepage was a joy to work with and it was a beautiful production. It has opened doors for me into some major opera houses.'

Andrew Kennedy

Another important experience for Andrew Kennedy was being one of the BBC's New Generation Artists, which allowed him to appear frequently on Radio 3. 'It's incredibly beneficial to be able to make recordings, because you can listen to yourself properly rather than relying on what other people tell you.' The tenor has just recorded a volume in Hyperion's high profile complete edition of Richard Strauss songs with Roger Vignoles. Two further discs are in the pipeline: one of English songs called 'Dark Pastoral' and another with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which consists of Mozart, Berlioz and Gluck concert arias. 'I'm particularly looking forward to that one. Berlioz is an important composer to me, and I'd like to sing the title role in Benvenuto Cellini one day.'

One of the highlights of Kennedy's schedule next year is his American debut as Vere in Billy Budd at Houston Grand Opera. 'I'm hugely excited about the role. It tends to be done by a slightly older tenor but it's quite feasible that a younger man might be in charge of the ship. And vocally, there's no reason why I can't do it. It's a good house to do a debut in because there will be some great singers on stage with me, and I hope it will lead to further American offers.'

Later this month, Andrew Kennedy is appearing as the tenor soloist in performances of Mozart's Requiem with the London Symphony Orchestra as part of Sir Colin Davis' eightieth birthday concerts. 'It's going to a bit tiring because I've got Tamino one night and then the next night I'm in New York with the LSO. But it's a huge privilege to be part of this celebration. The amount of work that Colin has done is astonishing.' Kennedy also appears in the LSO's concert performances of Billy Budd with Daniel Harding in December.

But the thing he's looking forward to more than anything is singing in The Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Albert Hall next year. 'It really has been a dream of mine to sing this piece. It's just glorious. To do it with Ann Murray and Matthew Best is wonderful, too. I'm extremely excited by it, especially after my brief experience at the Last Night of the Proms. Experiencing the Albert Hall full and singing Elgar there just gave me a buzz. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I loved all eight minutes of it!'

By Dominic McHugh

Andrew Kennedy appears with English National Opera in The Magic Flute at the London Coliseum from 1 October 2007.

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