Interview: Tenor Colin Lee on The Royal Opera's Il turco in Italia

'Finding the character and working through the rehearsals is what I love to do.'

1 April 2010

Colin Lee

The Easter holiday period at Covent Garden brings us a revival of Rossini's Il turco in Italia in the production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. When it was unveiled in 2005 I adored its charm and wit, and in particular the beauty and spectacle of the staging. When the production was new, it featured Cecilia Bartoli in a rare Covent Garden appearance, but although the revival isn't quite so starry, it features a cast of bel canto specialists, including Aleksandra Kurzak as Fiorilla, Alessandro Corbelli as Geronio, Sir Thomas Allen as the Poet, Ildebrando D'Archangelo as Selim and Colin Lee as Narciso.

A young tenor from South Africa, Lee's career has gone on a meteoric rise in the past ten years since he turned professional in 2000. From an early ENO appearance in The Barber of Seville, he's gone on to appear in all the world's major houses in the bel canto repertoire. A turning point came in 2007 when he appeared for one performance in the Laurent Pelly production of Donizetti's La fille du regiment – in which he'll return later this season – in the role of Tonio, for which he received almost equal acclaim to the more famous Juan Diego Florez, who took the role for the majority of the run. Lee has also recorded a number of operas for the Opera Rara label, such as Donizetti's Il diluvio universale, and has been to the major houses in Vienna and New York with La fille.

I met up with him over lunchtime during the last days of rehearsals for Il turco, which he's singing for only the second time, and found him full of enthusiasm for the repertoire, but also very keen to move on to more serious repertoire in the future.

We begin by discussing the opera at hand. Il turco is an interesting one: Rossini fills the score with cheeky allusions to Mozart's operas. For instance, when the Turk arrives, Rossini invokes the Commendatore's music from Don Giovanni, and later quotes Cosi fan tutte. Yet the piece doesn't get the acclaim it deserves, as Lee agrees: 'A lot of people say that it's just a mirror image of L'italiana in Algeri and therefore don't take it so seriously, but I actually think it's got some really good stuff in it. I don't think people always appreciate the quality of some of his ensemble music. It follows the same sort of formula where he has a big Act 1 finale and no Act 2 finale – he just writes some “let's all go home now!” music. It's certainly not one to be dismissed.'

The tenor is intrigued by his part: 'It's a strange role for the tenor, compared to something like Barber where you're on all the time, do all the work and get no praise at all, the baritone walks on and performs a famous song and gets applause without even singing any words. Narciso in Turco doesn't even have an aria in Act 1 – in this production, they've removed the aria that Rossini added later on. Having said that, I've got a very grand entrance in this production on a Vespa, which is more terrifying than singing half of the role. I did become the first person to wheelie it across the stage by accident when I lost control of it!

'It's curious in this opera: Zaide doesn't have an aria, the Poet doesn't have an aria, Narciso doesn't have an aria, but they're all very real characters. It's almost an opera-within-an-opera: without the Mozart/Don Alfonso puppeteering going on, the Poet is trying to create a story within a story, which is quite interesting. And lots of the characters don't have big arias. That's quite unusual for Rossini, I think.'

Narciso is a character that the tenor has only recently taken on. 'It's the second time I've played him – the first time was only last year, so it's quite a new role for me. And the two productions are quite different – the first one was David Alden, who tends to go to the edges of the drama and push the boundaries a bit. This one has an interesting twist at the end for my character: I go off with the person I didn't expect to go off with, which they didn't tell me about at all during rehearsals. That's probably as well, because then you start introducing that into your character, whereas it has to be a shock for everyone. It was certainly a shock for me that I go off with the local pretty-faced young man instead of with her!

'The danger with this music is to just play the joke, play the gag, instead of playing it straight and letting the situation be amusing. We don't want to make weak jokes. With my character, I'm just playing it as if he's really in love with her. There's nothing else, except that you could play it as if he's in love with himself, hence the name 'Narciso'. I think you have to follow the path that he's genuinely a lover who's in love with her. There's a bit of irony in it, too, because he has a good relationship with Geronio. They're friends, yet he's actually slept with Geronio's wife, and Geronio doesn't know.

'Also, musically it's quite unusual because the Poet is almost invisible to us in some ways. He's involved all the time, he's pulling all the strings, he's there in all the intrigue, which makes it almost like he's an unseen person controlling everything from above. So the relationship that Narciso has is with Geronio and Fiorilla, and interestingly we don't sing together and there's no duet. In fact, we're almost never together on stage alone. The only time I get her is when she thinks that I'm Selim in the masked ball, and I'm dancing with her. Yet she's my entire focus throughout the piece.

'So the characters are not so obvious as in something like Barber where Figaro is Figaro and the Count is the Count. Here, you have to decide which relationship is more important at any one time, and you have to decide who you like – because nobody is really very nice! That's why I think it's very wrong to say it's just a mirror image of L'italiana, which I've done before. The characters there are very different. It's quite fun to see where you can take it. But I think Narciso has to be fairly direct in what he wants – which is her – until he can't have her. And in many ways he's a typical Italian man: full of his own beauty, and he can't understand why nobody agrees that he's God's gift to women!'

And the production? 'It's set in the 1950s or '60s. There are a few Turcos around at the moment which are quite similar: there was one by Christof Loy in Vienna, which is also with cars and caravans. But this Covent Garden one is very spectacular: there's a big entrance for Selim on his yacht, and there's the little Cinquecento that Alessandro Corbelli makes his entrance in, and I arrive on a Vespa, and there's a taxi. So it's great to watch. There's lots of bright, over-the-top colours – I'm in yellow, with daffodils on my shirt and ridiculous Elvis hair which I have to pretend isn't ridiculous! The chorus is quite spectacular too.

'It really is a good fun production which does what it's supposed to do – entertain without getting too dark. They're lovely directors to work with, and I love the way they approach the humour. I think it's more acceptable to English audiences the way they play the jokes, rather than some other slapstick stuff you can get from directors. They do believe in being a bit more sophisticated about it.'

Later in the season, Lee returns to Covent Garden in La fille du regiment. I ask him why he thinks the production has been so successful, but Lee seems slightly unsure of the reason. 'I'm delighted to have been involved with the production, because although I only did one performance in 2007, it has done me a lot of favours. I got a sort of fan club out of it. But I was really lucky because I got the first ten days of rehearsals before Juan Diego arrived. That meant I got to create the character, so when I came in to do my scheduled performance, I knew who I thought Tonio should be. They talk about it as being the production of this opera for the next thirty years – that it will supersede the Pavarotti-Sutherland one that everyone considered to be definitive.

'Why is difficult to explain, except that it has a wonderful charm. Natalie Dessay is still part of that: what she brings to the character is special. But the production is just charming and clever and really good entertainment. People just feel the infectiously happy quality of the music. There are some wonderful scenes. And they had a dream cast. So I'm delighted that it's done so well, because it's given me some attention in people's minds, and I'm thrilled to be coming back to do it.'

Just as he only sang one performance in the run in 2007, Lee is only singing three of the performances in the forthcoming revival. How does he feel about being tacked onto a 'Florez' run of performances? 'Well, he and I are both onstage in Paris during the same time in La donna del lago: he's doing Giacomo and I'm doing Rodrigo. So we'll get to hurl top Cs at each other with gay abandon in the trio of that. It's a mad bit of music! In the only other production I've done, we got to stab each other with trees that we'd ripped out of the ground, but that was another David Alden production.

'So you can take two attitudes to this: I could say that if he wasn't around, maybe I'd have a higher profile, or I can take the attitude that if he'd not been on the scene, this music wouldn't have had the profile it's had. And you've got to give credit to him and the record label that have been able to push this bel canto repertoire back up. It wasn't as popular at one time, and other than Barber you'd get almost no Rossini, but to hear these other operas again is something to be grateful for – not least because it keeps me employed! When we were working on it in 2007, he said to me: “Today is our time, for our sort of tenor”. And he's right: we have to make the most of that. I wouldn't mind his wealth, but I wouldn't necessarily want the responsibility and pressures that come with being who he is.'

I also ask him about the notorious 'high Cs' aria – 'Ah, mes amis' – which tends to stop the show at most performances. But he confesses: 'If I wanted to give you a good line for what you're going to write, I should say yes, it's an absolute nightmare and the hardest thing, and I should build it up so that people will be excited. The truth is that the second aria's much more difficult. If you've got a top C, then it's quite a relatively easy aria. It's not technically complicated: you've got some octave Cs. The hardest thing about it is that it's quite long and you've got to get to the last bit without feeling entirely exhausted. I love the opera and I'll be doing it in another production, somewhere else, in 2012.'

Lee has pretty much made his name in the profession by focusing on bel canto music by Rossini and Donizetti. Why this repertoire? 'I was a chartered accountant until ten years ago. I qualified and came over from South Africa to work for a big life assurance company until becoming professional. I did The Mikado with D'Oyly Carte in 2001 in a new production by Ian Judge, which got me started. But the first serious opera I did was Barber of Seville at ENO in 2002. It wasn't something that I thought came naturally to me. But what I did have was the facility to be reasonably agile in the high register, which allowed me to sing that stuff. I had to work very hard at it, and I still have to. I never take it for granted. I believe that my heart and temperament are more suited to Donizetti and Bellini than to Rossini, and I would like to spend more time on that repertoire, like La fille, Sonnambula, Puritani, and perhaps a Lucia in the near future. I'm a big romantic. And Rossini can never take himself seriously for long enough to let it sink in.

'I've taken on a new challenge, because I've taken on a lot of Rossini now. A lot of Rossini tenors get pigeon-holed, and I now know why – there are only a handful of you doing it, so the work's there. So I'm now taking a step backwards in history and I'm doing Rameau's Platée in Amsterdam in 2011 with René Jacobs.

'Having said that, I swore I'd never do another Barber but I've just accepted to do another production.'

And his dream role? 'Peter Grimes. I think I could do it. Not tomorrow, obviously, but I think there's something there really worth looking into. The character is fascinating. As I've done these more serious Rossini roles, I'm finding them a lot more interesting and challenging because the characters aren't just sweet romantic fools.

'I don't want to end up singing Rossini until the end of my days. I'm pleasantly surprised at what I've managed to do so far. I've gone from being a little boy from Cape Town to ending up singing in houses like this. Finding the character and working through the rehearsals is what I love to do. And I want to bleed a little bit. So Grimes would be an interesting challenge for me.'

By Dominic McHugh

Il turco in Italia opens at Covent Garden on 3 April 2010.


Anthony AndrewsRelated articles:

Rossini's Ermione (Opera Rara) with Colin Lee (March 2009)
Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia with Colin Lee (December 2008)
A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory
(November 2008)
Sail Away at Lost Musicals 2008


Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum