Interview: Matthew Rose on Opera, Concert Repertoire, and British Musical Life

'Working on that opera, with that cast, at Glyndebourne, and a local pub to go to at the end of a day – it can't get much better than that, can it?'

9 february 2010

Matthew Rose

No regular operagoer in the UK can fail to have noticed the upward trajectory of young British bass Matthew Rose in the last few years. Onstage at the ROH, ENO, WNO, Glyndebourne and the other summer festivals, he has consistently attracted favourable reviews, starting with 'promising' and moving steadily on through 'imposing' and 'commanding'. His height and physique suggest the latter – it is hard to ignore him onstage – but it is not merely bass Heft that Rose brings to stage performances. He has that added quality, always delightful in a big man, of physical and vocal agility: he can surprise you not with big sound (though he has that in plenty) but with soft, cleanly articulated singing in his upper register. What is his actual Fach? (In many an early review he was described as a baritone). 'Actually, I regard myself as a high bass' he tells me, in a break between rehearsals for a performance of Berlioz's L’Enfance du Christ in Edinburgh. So I go on to ask him what made him want to become a singer in the first place.

'When I think back to my childhood, I was always singing. I cannot say I had any thoughts of becoming a professional singer at that stage, it was simply part of my life. I went on school singing tours, enjoyed music but did lots of other things as well. Then, in the sixth form, a teacher who was a great influence on me asked the question: have you thought about becoming a singer? That set me thinking'.

But it did not set Rose straight onto the 'music college then straight on the boards' train, rather he decided to take a degree in history at university first. And then fate intervened. 'All my life I have been very lucky to meet certain people at just the right time. I met Benjamin Luxon and his wife Sheila and they encouraged me to take the prospect of becoming a professional singer seriously. So I went on to do a course in Italy. Then I had another, really lucky meeting – with the man in charge of the Vocal Department at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. I did an audition for him and the feedback was that I was very raw – but they would take me. That took care of the next five years of my life'.

Rose clearly began to make an impression among the up-and-coming vocal talents being trained in Philadelphia's twin conservatories and made a welcome return there in 2007 to sing Pistol in Falstaff. David Shengold who reviewed his performance for Opera magazine wrote at the time of Rose making a happy local return and added: 'Surely a future Falstaff gestates in this droll bass'. And Rose might well have stayed in North America. Why did he not? 'I had enjoyed an incredible five years and I might have settled down, but I was attracted back to Britain by the incredible range of music making that goes on here. There is simply so much happening, and so many fantastic people to work with'. Exposure to such people came of course with his selection as a member of the Royal Opera House Young Artists Programme, which came about almost immediately on his return from Philadelphia. 'I left the Curtis in May, came back to the UK and worked at Garsington in the summer, and I was at Covent Garden in September'. How does the system work – having been accepted, did he have to do internal auditions for all the small roles that he went on to sing? 'Actually, it is an incredibly singer-friendly system. You do one audition only. If they take you on the basis of that one audition, then everything else is mapped out for you'. In Rose's case, this led to increasing exposure in London, both at ENO and at the ROH, and the chance to take on major roles for companies such as Welsh National Opera. I saw his Figaro for WNO in April 2006 in the 'brown paper scenery' production by Neil Armfield and took note at the time of a voice that showed every sign of blossoming into something really special. I was not alone – just three months earlier Rodney Milnes had heaped praise on Rose's Fernando in a concert performance of Fidelio at the Barbican and had noted, perceptively: 'His tone is very beautiful, very individual'.

Matthew RoseWhat did the Young Artists Programme do for him? 'Obviously it exposed me to the whole system, new repertoire, the challenge of learning roles quite fast, but above all it put me in daily contact with singers and musicians whom I had admired from afar for years. It is such a special meeting ground: simply being around the house, spending time in the canteen, you learn from great artists every day'. Total immersion in the world of opera, then. But what about recitals, chamber music, exploration of the Lied? I ask Rose about the balance that he seeks, recital platform or the opera stage.

'Actually for the last six months or so I've mainly been doing recitals. There's such a huge repertoire to explore. And I've a London recital coming up'. Indeed he has. On Wednesday 10 February he has a substantial programme of songs (with Iain Burnside) at St John's, Smith Square. 'Actually, as originally scheduled it was too substantial – I've had to drop a few items, the songs by Liszt for example. I've got some big extracts from opera (Gremin's aria from Eugene Onegin and Bottom's Dream from A Midsummer Night's Dream) and the programme as originally planned simply would have been too tiring, for me and for the audience!' I tell Rose that his recent Signum CD Liszt Abroad (with Rebecca Evans, Andrew Kennedy and again with Burnside) is on the shortlist for a BBC Music Magazine award and he is genuinely surprised: 'How gratifying. I had no idea!' But as we talk on, his love for the opera stage becomes more apparent. 'I have to admit, although I love them, I find recitals a bit naked - and inhabiting a role on the opera stage more comfortable in some ways. And I love the rehearsal period – really getting immersed into the character you are supposed to incarnate'. So perhaps it is no accident that his St John's recital programme has the operatic extracts. 'Well, it's all to do with the whole rage of material that's available. I went through a period of my life when I listened to everything I could get my hands on. That's when I came across the Butterworth settings of A Shropshire Lad and found them unbelievably moving. And the Shostakovich settings of Songs by British Poets are specifically written for the bass voice, so they have to be performed'.

What is next on the agenda? 'Glyndebourne, this summer. I'm in Billy Budd and then I'm singing Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress. With rehearsals, I'll be at Glyndebourne for five months in all – and I live five miles down the road. I can cycle to work every day!' It is plainly a prospect that appeals enormously, and Rose has experience of Glyndebourne already – in 2006 he sang Bottom in the legendary Peter Hall production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and drew many plaudits. Roger Parker wrote in Opera magazine: 'The mechanicals also made a convincing troupe, magnificently led as they were by Matthew Rose's Bottom: Rose is, on the basis of this showing, a young singer whose apprenticeship is now emphatically over'. Rose has been in Billy Budd before too, in a concert performance in 2008 at the Barbican under Daniel Harding. But the rehearsals for, and assembling of Glyndebourne's first ever production of this opera are clearly prospects of keen anticipation. 'Working on that opera, with that cast, at Glyndebourne, and a local pub to go to at the end of a day – it can't get much better than that, can it?” Well I for one cannot wait to see the production that emerges.

Rose has enjoyed an experience analogue to his time at Glyndebourne in a different part of the country – at the Britten Pears School in Snape. 'The whole atmosphere there, in that countryside, is magical – I spent ten days immersed in music-making, thinking of nothing else, learning how to sing Handel and Strauss with Anne Murray, being mentored by Thomas Allen. I worked on a production of Curlew River that we then took to Japan. It was a fantastic opportunity'. And his zest for the opportunities he has had so far, for the people he has met along the way, for the established star singers who have gone out of their way to help him, is infectious and refreshing. The impression Rose leaves with me is of someone who is, as the French say, bien dans sa peau. Audiences at Glyndebourne this summer will see how this translates into operatic achievement – especially with Nick Shadow.

What music does Rose listen to for relaxation at the end of the day – solo piano, string quartets, organ? 'To be honest, I don't really listen to music to relax at all. The place I like to relax is on the golf course'. I press him on how good a player he is and, a little reluctantly, Rose admits to having had – 'a while back now' – a handicap of 2. That sounds like a golfer to me. And he has played the odd round, on a well-known home counties course, with the singer whom he regards as 'his idol' – Bryn Terfel. It’s a nice thought, and image, with which to end our interview.

By Mike Reynolds

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