Interview: ROH Senior Artist Robert Lloyd on Don Carlo and Figaro at Covent Garden

'The very first day I came here, I turned round the corridor and collided with Tito Gobbi. You're in at the deep end as soon as you come through this door!'

5 June 2008

Janice WatsonAfter forty years on the stage, many opera singers might be glad to pack their bags and go home. But at the age of 68, veteran British bass Robert Lloyd retains both an enviable vocal gravitas and a diary of engagements to go with it. This month alone, he's back at Covent Garden to play the Monk in the high-profile new production of Verdi's Don Carlo and Dr Bartolo in a revival of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro; earlier this season, his performance as Seneca was almost universally acclaimed as the saving grace of English National Opera's ill-fated new staging of The Coronation of Poppea. He's sung widely at the Met, became the first British bass to sing Boris Godunov at both Covent Garden and in Russian, and is now enjoying what he calls his 'semi-retirement' as Covent Garden's Senior Artist. As the final rehearsal for Don Carlo was in full flow, between his two scenes as the Monk – one at each end of the five-act opera – I caught up with a man who can truly claim to be an operatic legend to discuss his career so far.

Our first topic of conversation is the opera currently in hand. The Royal Opera is performing Don Carlo in one of the Italian versions in five acts, one of whose features is a dramatic final scene in which the Monk is identified by the populace as the former Emperor Charles V (there are various alternative endings to the piece). Lloyd explains the role of the Monk in the piece: 'There's a big debate about that really – you can look at it several different ways. One point of view is that Verdi just ran out of patience with the whole thing and just brought it to a swift end, because he wasn't keen on writing five-act operas. He preferred three-act operas but he had to do a five-act one for Paris. That's one point of view, I suppose, but I think it would be wrong to take such a great man so lightly. He must have had some sort of intention. The debate is whether this man is the Emperor Charles V or just a monk who makes suitable noises in the monastery. The historical issue is that Charles V – who, after Charlemagne, was the most successful Holy Roman Emperor – abdicated and became a monk in the monastery of St Just in the Low Countries. So there's a historical basis for the fact that Charles did abdicate. In this production, we have the Monk put his crown on the open tomb of Charles. It's difficult to direct the scene and make it crystal clear, but in some ways it's perhaps best to leave it muddied.'

Is the ending unsatisfactory, therefore? 'Yes, I think so. There is a different ending, which I did once in San Francisco. I remember it indistinctly, but what happens is that all the basses come in – the Monks – and stand around being very noisy, accusing Carlos. It's a very strong and impressive conclusion. I think people feel they have to do one of the authenticated, published versions, or sometimes they put together their own versions. About thirty-five years ago, I did the Monk with the BBC Concert Orchestra in a complete performance of the French version using all sorts of bits and pieces that Andrew Porter had dug up. It's out on CD now [on Opera Rara].

'You also have to remember that historians tend to agree that Don Carlos was murdered, or that his death was contrived with King Philip's blind eye. The circumstances of his death are quite mysterious, so it's good that his death on the stage is mysterious too. Except that in this version, it's not mysterious at all – he's quite clearly killed in a sword fight. The director has to make a choice somewhere along the line – that's the case with every production I've been in, and Nicholas Hytner has made a choice here, too. I was once asked for my advice about Don Carlos from a very well-known producer who was about to stage the piece for the first time. I told him to start at the end and decide how he was going to do that, then work backwards. But he didn't!' he laughs.

In Hamlet (right) with Simon KeenlysideFor many years, Robert Lloyd was acclaimed for his performance in the larger role of King Philip – does he mind playing the smaller part of the Monk? 'Well, it's obviously not something that one longs to do, but as the poet said, 'Age will not be defied'. You have to take what you can get! But the upside of it is, I'm around music that I love in a world that I'm addicted to, amongst the greatest singers in the world. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I could probably find an opera house somewhere in the world that would hire me to sing Philip in Don Carlos, but it wouldn't be with singers of this quality or in a production like this. I'd rather be here doing this than quite a lot of other things.'

Lloyd is animated when discussing his interpretation of the character of Philip. 'I went through a process of evolution with him. Initially, I played him as a man who believed himself to be emotionally inadequate. His reaction to almost every situation he gets himself into is "Off with the head!" – resorting to an outward appearance of being strong that hides an inner sense of inadequacy. As time went on, I found that it didn't ring true, that people don't behave like that, and I made him stiffer. Then the last one I did, in Amsterdam, which is on [Opus Arte] DVD now, Willy Decker put me back in touch with the original one I did and wanted me to run around the stage like a neurotic freak. I found it very difficult to be that neurotic. It kind of works, I suppose – my wife thought it worked more than I did!

'I think Philip is the most rewarding role in the repertoire for my voice type to sing. It's not necessarily the most satisfying acting challenge – as in all Verdi, the situations are solid and there's not a lot you can do when you're singing that loudly and strongly. It's not like Seneca or Boris, which are genuine acting roles. But singing-wise, it's the best. The three big duets, with the Inquisitor, Rodrigo and the Queen, are all magnificent, and the aria itself stretches the voice unlike any other – the arias in earlier Verdi pieces like Ernani and I vespri Siciliani are great tunes but they aren't dramatic monologues in the same way.'

When I ask him about Nicholas Hytner's new production, Lloyd answers: 'Well, I think it comes out as traditional, but quite honestly I don't think there's any other way you could do Don Carlo. I've had to live through a very difficult period of opera production. When I started forty years ago this year, productions were by and large conventional. A tree was a tree. Then after about ten years, a reaction set in against this, which I suspect originated from Germany. I've wondered whether the impetus came from the fact that it's difficult to fill thirty-eight opera houses in Germany with good singers, so they needed something to add interest to the evening besides the singing. The trend gained ground, though it took a long time to reach Covent Garden. It reached the Coliseum early on, and the Pountney-Elder regime explored it as far as it could go – since when, there's been more of a retreat! Covent Garden was in a dilemma, because its productions were traditional and in the light of that sort of competition, it started to look old-fashioned. So they felt they had to do something, and of course they didn't do it very well! Covent Garden got into all sorts of trouble because of this 'half-hearted modernism'. But I've got my fingers crossed that things have started to swing back. It's not that things are traditional again – I don't think they should go back to picture-postcard traditional – but I think it was discovered that if you take some of the techniques from the modern productions and put them into something recognisable, it can work really well. I think this production is like that. It fits the musical colour, very, very well. A lot of it is kind of representational, but it omits things that we know aren't necessary – you don't need every single leaf on every single tree. Yet it's in the right century and the right location. I think that's good – there are certain pieces that you can't alter. I once saw Falstaff set in the wrong era, and it really upset me. I think I'd be upset if there were no period representation at all. You've got to have an environment in which the Inquisition can exist, for instance.'

And is Antonio Pappano enjoying conducting the piece at Covent Garden for the first time? 'Oh yes. He's a theatre animal, and this is very much his home territory, Italian opera. I think he's having a good time!'

Lloyd returns later this month as Dr Bartolo in David McVicar's production of Figaro. 'I first did it in about 1976, and I got a certain amount of fun out of acting my way into someone much older. On the whole, I actually rather hated the experience, because I wanted to be doing things like Philip in Don Carlo, but now I enjoy it, and because I'm the right age there isn't much acting involved!' he laughs. 'I've adopted a stance where I consider myself to be semi-retired. I'm 68, and one's entitled to be semi-retired. You have to book performances in three years ahead, and it got to the point where I felt that if I was going to do that, I had to be sure I could actually do it. It's not just a case of doing the performances, either; you've also got several weeks of rehearsals and coming back and forth on the tube. You're not going to sleep very well in the last few days. And one of the things they don't tell you about getting old is that you don't sleep very well anyway!

'So you have to plot your life, and the way I've done it is to say no to things that other people think I should say yes to. I pick things I know I can do. I wouldn't book myself three years in advance for the Monk, because it's serious singing, even though it's a short part. I'm only accepting the more manageable roles, but that's fine because I'm no longer in the middle of my career.'

He's doing a lot for someone who's semi-retired, I remark. 'Well, it looks a lot on paper. But this year, since the beginning of the opera season I've really only done Seneca in Poppea at the Coliseum, the Speaker in Magic Flute here, Romeo and Juliet at the Met, and Pelléas et Mélisande in Berlin. I didn't say yes to the latter until less than twelve months to go. I don't want to get on the stage and be embarrassed, or have to cancel. I've set the rules for my own life.'

As Seneca in ENO's The Coronation of PoppeaHis return to English National Opera last autumn was a long time coming. 'I hadn't been there for thirty-five years. When I left the company, I returned for one Rhinegold that very same year, but I hadn't been back until the Seneca last autumn. It's not for any particular reason other than I didn't need to go back, and they used to pay more everywhere else but that's no longer true.'

Is it a very different experience from working with the Royal Opera? 'They're like chalk and cheese in some respects – the dressing rooms are very different! I was very happy to do Seneca; it's one of a number of roles that I'm still quite pleased to do. I know that a company of this sort won't book me on the basis I want to be booked on – I can't book myself three years in advance. But also, I know that what the very big houses are interested in doing is to put on the stage whichever singer is doing the most fantastic job of a certain part all over the world. So it suits me very well to do a part like Sarastro, which I'm doing at ENO in January, here in London – I can get there on the underground, it doesn't involve travelling. The other dividend from singing at the Coliseum is that the acoustic there suits me extremely well – it's cracking. I've always thought that my voice has what I'd call a long 'vocal length'. It doesn't record too well with the microphone on my body, and sometimes I've persuaded recording engineers to have two microphones, one near and one far away, to help pick it up properly. I also find that the way that people respond to my singing at the Met is much better than it is here, and I think that's because I can use my voice on a much longer vocal length. The Coliseum has that same quality. I'm not saying the acoustic here is bad or anything like that, it's just that it's slightly disappointing for my voice compared to those others. It's much better now than it was, since they rearranged the seats and took up the carpet. And I think the dividend of this place has always been the balance between stage and orchestra; it's exceptional at Covent Garden. That's not always the case at the Coliseum, where the pit is very big.'

One of Lloyd's big engagements next year is as Dr Grenvil in a starrily-cast revival of La traviata with Renee Fleming, Thomas Hampson and Joseph Calleja. 'I did it here with Joan Sutherland in the 1970s, and I recorded it with Beverley Sills. It's not what you'd call one of the great exciting roles.' But you get to write Renee Fleming's death certificate! 'Well exactly, you're around these great singers. It's nice to be able to say I've sung with Joan Sutherland!'

He's also coming back in the future in another Verdi opera, Aida. 'I think it's a new production, and I'm doing the King. I volunteered to do the King on my sixtieth birthday, and now they've taken me up on the offer! I'd still much rather do Ramfis, and there's no reason why I shouldn't, but the King's a good part. I did it here when Muti did his debut. He was a very young man, and very arrogant! But immediately he took me up and used me a lot in all sorts of places. The King is quite a career-builder!'

When I ask him at what point he first heard music, Lloyd answers: 'I think I'd make a distinction between music and singing. I joined a church choir when I was seven, so sometimes I joke that I've been a professional singer for sixty-one years because that's how long I've been making money from it! Singing's been with me always, and it made a big impression on me very early on. I come from a Welsh family, and people would sing quite a lot.

'One day, a young man came to our school. It was a state school – here's a sign of the times – and every classroom had a piano and all the teachers could play. We all did singing every day. The man visited his old teacher, who asked if he could still sing, so he sang a song for the class while she played the piano for him. He had a baritone voice. I was absolutely thrilled by the experience; I must have been nine years old. That's where my excitement for the male singing voice came from, and the bass-baritone is still my favourite voice. The trouble is, you don't get many true basses, so if I want 'nice singing', I have to think in terms of the bass-baritone!

As Rimbaldo to Angela Gheorghiu's Magda in La rondine (Catherine Ashmore)'When it comes to music, I didn't get to hear it very often as a child. I used to love Radio 3, or the Third Programme as it was then, but I wasn't allowed to listen very often. I remember one Saturday afternoon, though, when my father was asleep in front of the fire and I put the radio on. There was a symphony playing – it was the first time I'd listened to a symphony all the way through – and at the end of it I became aware that I had experienced, as it were, an 'essay'. I had sensed that there was a thread of thought going through it. I think that's when I discovered that music has thought. After that, I was hooked. This was the early Fifties, when long playing records were just coming out, and my school bought an LP machine. It was a high black box with a row of buttons that you pressed according to which company's record you were playing – Columbia, HMV, and so on – to get the best quality. We used to meet in there every lunchtime and then I got seriously hooked on Bach. It became my ambition – and probably still is – to sing Bach ever after. But unfortunately, only for a very short time in my life did his music suit me. He wrote his music pitched roughly a semitone lower than it is played nowadays, and if you do it a semitone lower it's available to me, but during the early part of my career that was very rare. He uses E natural as an important structural note, but in my voice E natural sticks out – it's a big change note. That was always a great disappointment to me.'

Initially, Lloyd's career took him away from music. 'I did a degree in history; I didn't know what to do with myself. I wanted to go and work on the radio but they didn't want me. So I joined the navy, and taught Current Affairs for three years. Then I worked at the Home Office, and I taught Current Affairs to senior policemen.' At the police college, he met a man who encouraged him to turn to singing, introducing him to opera for the first time through records of great basses of the past. 'So I wrote to the London Opera Centre and the next day I got a telephone call, inviting me to audition. I sang some baritone arias for them, but they told me I was a bass and sent me away for two weeks to learn some bass arias. They found me some money, and I got a year's funding to study with them. But after three months, I got offered a job at English National Opera, so I had a pretty short study period!'

As easy as that? 'I think the truth is that 6"3 basses who can sing in tune don't turn up that often! If you fit the profile, you'll get somewhere. You need to be big as a bass for all those big entrances. I was very fortunate that the Opera Centre existed in those days – it was a fantastic facility.'

The London Opera Centre was clearly a special experience for Lloyd. 'It was the centre of the opera world. Covent Garden rehearsed there. It was the former Troxy Cinema in Stepney – the largest cinema in the world. They turned the stalls into a rehearsal space for opera. The back of the stalls was blocked off with a wall and behind it they built the scenery. The circle was left in tact so that students could go and watch Covent Garden rehearsing. The rear circle was blocked off with a wall and behind it they had a fencing room and a movement room. The bar that looked out over the road was converted into a studio theatre with about five rows of seats, curtains and lights, so the students could rehearse. In its time, the building had also been a revue theatre, so there were dressing rooms round the back which were converted into studios, and all the students virtually had a studio each; there was also a subsidised canteen. There was a very substantial library. The problem with it was that Stepney was going downhill very rapidly at the time – broken windows all the time, and if you left your car there for five minutes it was stolen – and the building was very expensive to maintain. The whole operation was predicated on Covent Garden rehearsing there and essentially underwriting it by hiring the facilities. But increasingly, the star singers refused to go there because there was nowhere to eat and they couldn't drive in, and the chorus had to keep going back and forth from Covent Garden, so eventually they sold it off. The London Opera Studio replaced it, of course, but it doesn't have anything like the same possibilities of the original operation. It should have been the greatest facility in the world, and looking back, it was a fantastic privilege to be there.'

As the Commendatore with Gerald Finley's Don Giovanni (Catherine Ashmore)How easy did he find it to establish himself? 'Well, I was born under an incredibly lucky star. I fitted the bill. That was the most important thing: if you can find a bill to fit, that's the way forward. Everyone wants pretty sopranos; if they can sing as well, then great! They fit the bill for a while. The Opera Centre did a production with full orchestra at Sadler's Wells Theatre, which I did at the end of my first term. Seven or eight agents immediately phoned me, so I was with the incredibly privileged position of going round and auditioning them – I met them all and decided which one I liked best! The one I chose was very diligent and gave me a lot of help.'

When I ask him about his first role at Covent Garden, Lloyd answers: 'Oh dear, it was a disaster! There was a nasty moment when I fell out with what was then called Sadler's Wells Opera, and I was left without any work at all in the future. I had four kids and it was very scary. But at the end of one week, Covent Garden rang up and said "If you can sing Monterone [in Verdi's Rigoletto], we'll take you on contract". I looked at the role and thought I could do it, so I said yes. But Monterone's a very specialist part and I was really terrible as it! There are still choristers in the world who'll stop me in the street and say "God, I saw you as Monterone and you were terrible!".

'It took a while to find my feet because I had a lot to catch up on. I'd only sung in English until then, for instance. The very first day I came here, I went through the door, turned round the corridor and collided with Tito Gobbi. You're in at the deep end as soon as you come through this door!'

Lloyd feels the opera house has changed a lot. 'It felt cosier than it does now. That doesn't mean that the work was better, it means that the feeling you had in the theatre was better. Everybody knew everyone else. There was a sense of company, because there were about thirty-three people on contract at the time. You could have cast several operas just from within the company. It was a small building – you couldn't get lost in it. The canteen was extremely important, because everyone went there, so there was a cross-fertilisation from constantly meeting people from other departments. There was also a 'terribly English amateurism', which disguised an incredible professionalism – I think that's something that's gone out of English life now. People would give the impression they weren't trying very hard, even though they were. It's not like that in opera now; the stakes are very high. There are no routine performances here now – you don't get revivals where there's only one stage rehearsal or where the principals have never seen the stage before the first night.

'So yes, things have changed a lot, and it's largely because the stakes have become so high. If you go to the Met now, virtually every performance you do is recorded, and you're whisked away in the interval to talk about what you're doing. It's got to be good because it's going out live.'

Robert Lloyd's career is so long and distinguished that he finds it difficult to pin down the highlights, but several seem to stand out. 'There are so many, but singing Don Carlos here was a highlight. Admittedly, the first time was almost a lowlight, because Nicolai Gedda had to cancel. I was seriously looking forward to working with him – we were really good friends and I'd done Benvenuto Cellini with him the year before; he's a sensational artist. It was my first Philip, in the old Visconti production, and we were doing it in French. It wasn't the same at all with the replacement. But we did it again the following year in Italian. Unfortunately, what happened was that because this guy was so poor, it was a very muddy evening, and people blamed the French version for it. So the impetus to do it in French was lost for another fifteen or twenty years. I've done it in French twice in San Francisco; curiously enough, I did it in France in Italian! But that series of performances in Italian here was certainly a highlight, with Luis Lima and the wonderful Giorgio Zancanaro.

'The other obvious highlight was doing Boris Godunov. It was very special working with Tarkovsky, who's become more significant since he died than he was at the time. I've been able to live, as it were, off the Tarkovsky contacts. It was a result of that that I was able to go with the production to Leningrad. It was absolutely phenomenal. It felt a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle, and one was extremely nervous of their reaction, but I was humbled, blown away by the reaction. The thing was, in the Soviet Years, acting on the stage had sort of ossified. It was full of big gestures. I saw their old production of Boris and it was terrifyingly gauche. What we did was to show them a style of acting that was new to them, and they were electrified, tremendously excited. Crowds would come and watch the rehearsals in the rehearsal studio – they wanted to see what we were doing. I remember I made a very dramatic entrance at the end when Boris comes on, eyes blazing, sweat pouring off me, dragging my coat behind me. Afterwards, one of the choristers said to me, "We wanted to come and help you – we were afraid you were ill!". Another thing that happened is that they all came to the dressing room afterwards, which is very rare for a bass. They queued up outside and brought me gifts. One of them gave me a bottle of whisky – what that must have cost, I can't imagine. One woman gave me a little knitted Eeyore. Another gave me a recording of Ivan the Terrible by Rimsky-Korsakov. And they would do this breathtaking thing and bow really low in the doorway when they left. It was staggering and has lived with me ever after – that sort of thing doesn't happen very often.

'Another highlight was Gurnemanz at the Met. It was a new production by Otto Schenk – one of the Met's huge, lavish stagings. It was good, because once he had located the fact that I could do it, he pretty much let me do what I wanted to do. I became a grumpy schoolmaster sort of guy, and I enjoyed doing that! That was very well received. To do Parsifal on Good Friday itself, with Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman, to an audience that really loves Wagner, was something special.'

Lloyd's farewell to singing principal roles on the Covent Garden stage came in 2004 when he sang Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra with Mark Elder and Angela Gheorghiu. 'Fiesco has played a big part in my life. It's an unusual Verdi role, actually; people are inclined to underestimate it. It's the lowest role he wrote: you need someone who comes into his own in the lower part of the voice. It's quite interesting that when he revised both Boccanegra and Carlos, Verdi rewrote the bass part considerably lower. My theory about this is that basses who could sing a cantabile line were probably quite rare in Italy, because in those days people were short. So I think that Verdi was really writing for a bass-baritone in his early years, but I suspect he found it wasn't satisfying to have a voice so close to the baritone – he wanted something separate. So when he rewrote Boccanegra, he took it down. It's the same with Don Carlos: he left out about fourteen high notes for the King. Fiesco is fundamentally lower than Philip – much more gravity – so I think people underestimate him. I've found him a very rewarding part to sing. The two duets – with the tenor and the baritone – are exceptional. The farewell performances were wonderful: we had a lovely soprano in Angela Gheorghiu, who has a rare beauty of voice.'

As Arkel with Gerald Finley and Angelika Kirshschlager in Pelleas et Melisande (copyright: Clive Barda)Lloyd is clearly so conversant about the business that I ask him whether he does any regular teaching. 'I'm very keen on it. I like teaching bass-baritones, and I have a few pupils. The problem is that you teach them the essence of what you can teach them, then they can do it and they don't come back! Or they come back very intermittently, rather shame-facedly! So you lose them, which is very disappointing. I could do with a few more. I've been a little bit disappointed that various institutions that I've been associated with – the Royal College and the Royal Academy – haven't asked me to do any more. On the other hand, I don't feel qualified to teach voice types other than my own. I can teach people to sing the repertoire I know – I feel I have a lot to offer in terms of that – but because I wasn't trained at music college, I have a bit of a disadvantage over other people. I only know about the end product!

'I've done a few masterclasses and enjoyed them, and I've had the impression that people have enjoyed them too. But again, the opportunity doesn't come forward very often. I've done some judging too. I did Cardiff Singer of the World last year, which was very good fun. It was an exceptionally nice group of people, we got on extremely well, and I think it was very good having three singers on the panel. It meant there were lots of funny stories to be told to break the atmosphere up!'

Does he work with the Young Artists at all? 'No! I worked once with one of them. It's very strange – I hold this position of being 'The Senior Artist', but nothing happens!' he laughs.

Is there a future for opera? 'Oh, yes. There's been a prodigious growth in the industry during my lifetime. I remember when the Coliseum decided to do the Ring in English for the first time. They were dead lucky they had a cast within the company, with Rita Hunter and Alberto Remedios. They thought about the possibility of taking it on tour, and it was sold out twelve months in advance all around the country. It was incredible. The appetite for opera is extraordinary. I think it's a wonderful mystery. I once tried to put together a television series based on the title 'What is it about opera?' – because it's a mystery. It's a freakish form in many ways. It's irrational. It's fantastically expensive. There's so much to go wrong. Yet it's been with us for four hundred years, and it's always been the centre of a great deal of interest. Opera houses are often the centre of their communities, and people used to pay to just go inside the theatres without necessarily paying to go inside the auditorium to see the performance. The way this place has flourished since the refurbishment is phenomenal. People no longer wail about the price of tickets because I feel that it's offering something high status, high glamour, and a seriously good night out. It's big time – that's the thrill of it.'

By Dominic McHugh

Robert Lloyd plays the Monk in Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from Friday 6 June.