Interview: Johan Reuter sings Theseus in Birtwistle's The Minotaur at Covent Garden

'I don't think contemporary music is bad for your health! It's so important to push the boundaries of what's possible.'

30 March 2008

Johan ReuterPerhaps the biggest event on the international opera scene this year is the world premiere on 15 April of The Minotaur, Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new opera, at Covent Garden. Antonio Pappano will conduct a star-studded cast that includes Sir John Tomlinson in the title role and Christine Rice as Ariadne. Making a welcome return to the Royal Opera after his acclaimed debut as Wozzeck in February 2006 is Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter, who will play the part of Theseus. I caught up with him as rehearsals were underway for the new opera to chat about performing a new piece with the composer in attendance, his plans to return to the company in Elektra in the autumn and his new CD, Rare Verdi, which was the subject of our recent competition (click here for details).

Reuter seems hugely absorbed by The Minotaur, which, like Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, takes its cue from Classical mythology. 'The story is the well-known myth of the Minotaur in Crete, obviously,' explains Reuter. 'He's condemned to live in a labyrinth because of the sins of his parents. His sister is his caretaker in a way, and she wants to escape from Crete but can't; she's doomed to stay there and refers to Crete as a 'cage'. The third character is Theseus, my character, who comes from the outside to kill the Minotaur and lift another spell that has been put on the kingdom of his father, the King of Athens. However, there are rumours that Theseus might be the son of Poseidon, as well as other rumours that the Minotaur might be the son of Poseidon. So there's a family triangle going on and the story is very simple in its outline. Theseus reminds me of Alexander the Great: he wants to kill the Minotaur or be killed himself, to solve the situation. Theseus arrives along with twelve other young people that Athens has to pay to Minos by law. They all die, but Theseus gets to go down and kill the Minotaur.

'From the very beginning, I liked that simplicity in the libretto – I saw one of the early versions of it about four years ago,' he continues. 'I think there were something like forty-two different versions of the libretto along the way! But that simplicity has remained there all the way through. Yet the characters are hugely complex. I hadn't thought about it before I'd seen that libretto, but I think that opera is very good at telling simple stories with psychological complexity. That's what we have here: very complicated inner stories and problems. In the case of Theseus, that inner story is that I want to solve this problem that my father created – but at the same time, I'm not sure he is my father! My mother slept with my father and then slept with Poseidon. So there's that inner tension. And I'm not very keen on what my father is doing – sending twelve beautiful young people every year to be killed by the Minotaur.

'At the same time, I've been away from my father all my life – I've never seen him before I get to Athens. On the way there, I've already been killing monsters to prove myself to my father. And the thing is, I'm not even fond of my father: I'd rather be the son of a god. We're in Ancient Athens and we believe in the gods! We believe that if you promise to do something, you have to do it – to the extent that when the young people arrive, they accept that they have come to die and have to die. Then there is the complicated issue that when Theseus arrives in Crete, he meets this woman – the caretaker of the Minotaur – who rules the ritual around the killing of the Innocents from Athens. David Harsent, who wrote the libretto, wanted to focus on the question of why the story in Naxos happened. How did that relationship between Ariadne and Theseus evolve so that he carries her away from Crete and then they're free immediately after that? We also explore the idea that although love and hatred are two very different things, they also go together. Theseus is supposed to hate this woman but he feels affection for her, he feels attraction to her. That's just a bit of the complexity of my character. And of course, it's even worse for Ariadne, and for the Minotaur. The main complexity in the piece is that the Minotaur is half beast, half man. There are lots of changes along the way, too: for instance, at one point Theseus realises that the Minotaur, whom he's considered to be just a monster, could be his half brother, and that makes the situation a lot more complicated!'

We move on to the subject of the score. 'I think it's a real work of art,' says Reuter, with obvious admiration. 'It's very serious. That's the best way I can put it: if you look at it and listen to it, you can tell that this is no fake. It's very complicated music, layer upon layer. I've only heard Gawain on CD, but my impression of it was that there were lots of walls of sound, deliberately obscuring one another. I've now heard an hour and a half of orchestral rehearsal of The Minotaur, and it's very different. It's much more transparent, and to put it in simple terms there are fewer instruments playing at the same time. That's a gross simplification, of course, but the point is that the orchestration is not as dense – and I don't mean that as a criticism of Gawain, because that was a different sound world and a different work.

Johan Reuter'From the point of view of a singer, it's been very difficult to learn because of the complexity of the rhythms and harmonies and lines. But it's very well written for the voices. I know that my two fellow protagonists feel the same. It's very varied, which is a good thing. Harry [Birtwistle] has studied my voice and my ways of working very carefully, and it feels good to sing the role. He's been in rehearsals the whole time. That's both interesting and a problem! If you sing music by a dead composer, you're free to do what you want with it. But here, just as the characters believe in the gods, so we believe in Harry and David! We want to perform the piece as they conceived it. We listen to their advice and ask them what they meant by doing what they did. It's fascinating – sometimes you get the answer 'I don't know'! But it would have been the same with Mozart, surely: the speed at which he wrote things must have meant that he did some things the way he did because he felt like it.

'Harry has a great knowledge of the theatre – he's been working for the National Theatre for many years – so he knows what he's talking about. I don't think contemporary music is bad for your health! It's so important to push the boundaries of what's possible. When we had the introduction to the first rehearsal, Harry gave a little speech in which he said that he's never been interested in what it's possible to do – he's interested in what's impossible to do. After having studied the music for months and years, it explained a lot!' he laughs.

'I think that listening to something complicated like this makes you listen to more familiar music in a new way. That's precisely why we have to push the envelope and perform contemporary works. What is music? What is theatre? That's why I do this new repertoire – it tells me new things about my other repertoire. Also, there are many things that contemporary music has in common with older music. For example, a pause or a break: if you listen to something complicated, a break means something completely different than if you listen to something you can understand like Mozart. That's because you can understand the pause, the silence, and that helps you to listen to all the other layers of the music.'

But will people find it easy to understand? 'Frankly, no. I don't think so. But it's a serious work of art and I think people will understand that. And even people with no knowledge of music will hopefully get the feeling that it's a good piece of music through the way we perform it. There's no doubt, too, that it's written in the great tradition of Western music and that it's therefore very much connected to all the wonderful pieces in the past that people find easy to understand. It's just a lot more complicated.'

The production of The Minotaur is by Stephen Langridge, son of the celebrated British tenor Philip Langridge, who will also appear in the piece. Reuter explains the cast's dramatic approach to the opera. 'We are faithful to the score and libretto and try to put Harry and David's intentions on the stage. We haven't moved it to Nazi Germany or Beijing in 2050. That said, we're not just playing it in Ancient Greece, because what did that look like? We don't know. People talk about the wonderful classical simple lines of the Parthenon, for instance, but when it was new it was covered in wood and painted in bright colours! So what we're doing here is giving the production a very simple look. There's just a single set and very simple costumes. We believe in the gods, the myth, the simple but profound things that motivate people. Hopefully it will be spectacular in that way: a simple outline for the complicated psychology and score. I've done contemporary operas where the story has been very complicated and the producer has made it even more complicated. But that meant that after five minutes, people just couldn't understand it at all. The good thing here is that it's in English. If we'd done it in Ancient Greek or something, that would have added another layer of complication! It's very beautifully written: the libretto is very lyrical and poetical.

'One of the really good things about doing a new work is that when we sing these things to each other, they've never been done before. You don't have a catalogue of versions. Let's return to Mozart: if you do Figaro, every time you say something to another character on the stage you can do it in so many different ways. But they've all been done before. It's like playing chess: there are only so many moves. With The Minotaur, though, we're doing it for the first time and we can use our own experiences to help us – how would I react? How would the character as I see it react to the situation?'

Johan ReuterHow is it working with Antonio Pappano? 'Oh I think he's fantastic!' Reuter exclaims, without a pause. 'This is the first time we've worked together – he was meant to conduct the Wozzeck two years ago but he had to pass it on because he had so many things to do. First of all, he's incredibly energetic. And from the start, he was working with the music. Of course he's interested in getting it right technically, which is really useful, but from the very start he wanted to work with the music inside the score, which actually makes it easier technically. You focus on what you want to do with it rather than on getting it right. If you sit at the piano with this piece, it is an enormous task to get it right, but at the very first rehearsal Tony said 'I don't care, but I want you to sing this musically'. He instantly worked from the full score, which I hadn't seen before, and he kept encouraging us to work with the instruments in the orchestra. That's how he seeks out the emotions in the music, and it's fantastic. That's what a conductor should do: the focus is on expression. It makes the work seem so much more accessible, because Tony can conduct this piece as if it were Mozart. He understands the music that well. Tony's interpretation will make it clearer for everybody: even though it might seem too difficult for Mr and Mrs Smith to understand on the surface, the way he does it will make it very direct for everyone.'

Reuter also has fine words to say about Sir John Tomlinson, who has just been nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award. 'He's a very nice guy – I think he's my new hero! His approach to being a singer is inspiring. He's got a great voice, of course, but he's far beyond the point where he has to be interested in the technicalities of it and can just focus on telling the story instead, just like Tony. He's a very big help with the English text for me: he's easy to understand in whatever language he works, and he's also actively helping me with the English text. And the wonderful thing about him is that he's got other things going on his life; you really feel that. He's open towards things other than music. That's what I try to do myself – I have more in my life than just sitting in hotel rooms and going to rehearsals and doing the performance and flying to the next city. Some singers seem to be driven by nothing but opera, but in Sir John you feel that there are other things in him. It makes for a deeper understanding of the world and of art.'

Later in the year, Johan Reuter returns to the Royal Opera House to play Orest in Elektra.
'I've never done it before, though I have been asked to and it wasn't possible because of the diary,' he says. 'I'm looking forward to it so much. I adore Elektra.' Does it bother him that it's such a short role? 'No, not at all! I'd rather do a small part in a good opera and a good production than do a big part at any price, which might mean a bad opera or a bad production. I'm here to take part in good performances. That's what I'm interested in. That said, Theseus in The Minotaur is a big part, but I'm not onstage all the time. It's not like doing Figaro. And that can feel a bit strange because I normally do parts where I'm on the stage all the time! Sometimes I listen to the others and get so excited that I want to take part and probably become a nuisance to everyone because I can't keep my mouth shut! But I'm looking forward to Elektra enormously. I'm one of those people who wonder what would have happened after Elektra if Strauss hadn't chickened out and written Der Rosenkavalier. I would have preferred it if he'd have continued that line which he started with Salome and Elektra. I'm also doing Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten and Jokanaan in Salome in the coming years, which are exciting roles for me. One of the most fun things I've done was singing Mandryka in Arabella, which is wonderful because you can show everything in that part: it's high, it's low, it's fast, it's slow, sordid, strong, lyrical. That's what I love about Strauss: he has a way of getting into the corners of his music.'

Johan Reuter: Rare VerdiReuter's debut solo album is about to be released on the Michael Storrs Music Ltd label, and it takes him into unusual territory with nine arias from some of Verdi's lesser-known operas. Why that choice of repertoire? 'It was the company's suggestion and I didn't know any of the music at all. I've done Macbeth and Boccanegra, which are around the same part of Verdi's output. I'm not a specialist in anything; I like to do lots of different things. I like to bring those experiences to whatever I'm doing next. My approach to Verdi comes from the other side, so to speak: I haven't started from the bel canto and worked up to Verdi, but rather I've gone from the dramatic stuff with Strauss and Wagner and now moved backwards to the bel canto part of Verdi. I've done it out of curiosity. It's really good music – even the conventional accompaniments are good. It's hugely accessible music. Sometimes he's criticised for being too simple or too close to folklore or stuff like that, but that's a part of it. The most folkloristic music in Verdi's operas are in the choruses, and it's deliberate: he's trying to paint a picture of the people through that music. I think if I sat down again and looked at these operas as a whole, I think I'd find that when he's writing simple music it's because he's writing very simple feelings. It's on purpose. Anyway, I got very curious about this repertoire, because it's a part of music history I hadn't worked with at all. And I thought I could bring my dramatic experiences to this wonderful music which not many people know at all. There are some very complicated things in it too, music which points to later Verdi. The aria from Giovanna d'Arco, for instance, is one of my favourites on the record and shows glimpses of the composer of the post-Rigoletto operas.' (Enter our competition to win the CD here.)

When I start to ask Reuter to think back to his childhood, he jokes: 'Oh here we go! Should I lie down on the sofa?' But he readily describes how important music was to him from an early age. 'I always wanted it to be part of my life. My father was very interested in music and because of that I was always taken along to concerts. I was sent to some kind of bongo school when I was four or five years old; I always wanted to be a musician. That I should be a singer was less obvious at that time. I learnt to play the piano when I was eight and I did lots of choral singing at school. When my voice broke, I started to think about singing, though I wasn't especially interested in opera. Then when I went to the conservatory, I loved the acting and the drama, and when I got into the opera school I did things like Papageno, which is more of an acting part than a singing part. All of this means that singing is the only thing I can do, so I'm stuck with it!'

Johan ReuterAny ambitions? 'My ambition is to find a balance in what I do – a balance between work and private life, a balance between heavy and lyrical repertoire, between concerts and opera. I don't have ambitions about singing roles or singing in theatres – things like the Verdi CD are great because it allowed me to do something different and it took me in a new direction. When I did From the House of the Dead, I didn't know the piece at all but it's a wonderful part. It was so good to do. And if I had refused to do it because I didn't know it and decided to do Rigoletto instead, that might have been fun too but I'd rather be open to these other things.

'I enjoy being part of the ensemble in Copenhagen still, too. It's a place you can call home, and you can try out new things in a more protective environment before going out on the big circuit with them. The theatre in Copenhagen is going very well artistically. I've got Posa coming up there, which is wonderful: with my build and looks, I would probably be cast in the Wagner roles more than the Verdi, but this allows me to do the Verdi too, and frankly I think it suits my voice very well. It's written for the voice in a very accessible way. So that's another example of balance. I'm very lucky that I've been able to sing big roles in big houses from the start of my career, and I still have wonderful plans for the next five years in wonderful houses and with wonderful singers and conductors.'

As we part, I ask Reuter if he thinks there's a future for opera, and he gives a typically interesting response. 'Yes, I think so. There's still a huge interest in it; opera is a thing that's really going on. It's a difficult thing to do, and that's its main strength. It's the same at the ballet and theatre, but there's a certain level of abstraction in opera which is even bigger. It's to do with the way opera characterises feelings and emotions and personalities through the voice. If you see a movie or watch the television or go to the ballet or the theatre, these arts are usually full of very beautiful people. In opera, people are chosen because of their voices and their ability to express feelings through what they do. Of course, there are very beautiful opera singers as well, but there are some very average-looking ones too! In opera you can see people onstage who would never have been chosen for a Hollywood movie. Even the ugly people in Hollywood movies are quite good looking. But in opera, you can see a cross-section of humanity. I saw Peter Konwitschny's staging of Lohengrin where all the characters were dressed in school uniform. You had all kinds of bodies, all kinds of ages dressed in the same way and acting like they were children – they were very relaxed in the way they moved and acted. It was a very strong expression about the art form as a whole.'

By Dominic McHugh

Johan Reuter sings Theseus in Birtwistle's The Minotaur at the ROH from 15 April.

Don't forget to enter our competition to win a copy of Rare Verdi, Johan Reuter's new CD. Click here.