Interview: Peter Rose on tackling Boris Godunov at ENO, Falstaff and his first ROH Ochs

'My voice actually went quite slowly, I was still singing treble when I was fourteen... I don't think anyone wakes up and suddenly they're Boris Christoff!'

26 October 2008

Rose as Baron Ochs in Hamburg, with Ha Young Lee (Sophie)(photo  Forster) One of several new productions staged by English National Opera this season, their new Boris Godunov is among the most eagerly anticipated. Performed in Musorgsky's early seven scene version, it is directed by Tim Albery and features the company's Music Director, Edward Gardner, in the pit.

However, it will be Peter Rose's assumption of the title role that many will be looking forward to most. Rose is now arguably the country's leading bass, yet while he's a guest of all the world's great opera houses, his appearences in major roles in this country are too few and far between. When I meet up with him at ENO's North London Lilian Baylis Studios, he seems remarkably fresh after spending the morning rehearsing the opera's emotionally draining final scenes.

First of all, I ask him about the role of Boris Godunov itself. One imagines that all basses dream of tackling Musorgsky's masterful creation; was this true of Rose? 'When I was a student it was certainly one of the roles one thought, "If I ever managed to do that, it would be a pinnacle". I guess it's one of the few real bass title roles and it's my first. I actually sang Pimen a long time ago, in '94 in Russian. I thought Pimen was good but when the opportunity came along to do Boris, I was thrilled: these chances don't come along very often.

It's now become standard practice to perform Musorgsky's opera in one of the composer's two versions, rather than the Rimsky-Korsakov arrangements that were the norm for the first seven or eight decades of the opera's life in the West. This performance will follow the earlier, seven scene score, which was completed in 1869 but rejected by the board of the Mariinsky. 'Yes, it's the seven scene version but still a bit of hybrid. In Scene Five - the Kremlin scene - for example, we're doing the start of the original version, then cutting into the later one, with a couple of edits.' So it's a version that's the best of both worlds? 'Yes, I hope so. In fact I think it tends to be performed in a hybrid version; it's not unusual, that's for sure.'

Boris Godunov is the quintessential Russian opera. Does Rose have any reservations about singing it in English? 'No, although you might think it would change the work's character to do it in English. Obviously, it would be marvellous to do it in Russian as well, but it feels perfectly natural in English. I think the first time I ever saw it, years ago when I was at university, was here with John Tomlinson doing Boris. Naturally that was in English so I grew up with that version in my head. It's not a problem with me.' And in Musorgsky's original version it has a directness that lends itself to being sung in the vernacular? 'Exactly, a lot of our time has been spent talking about exactly that – the text – and trying to talk about the story such as where the rebellion is happening and we decided Lithuania, since that's where it happens in Pimen's monologue. It's just for clarity, though, because it can get quite difficult to follow even when it's in English. Direct communication is an essential ingredient.' It's an opera in which, famously, much of the significant action has already taken place. 'Yes, and unless you've done a little bit of homework, it could be possible to be confused I feel. So we're trying to iron out those possibilities for confusion.'

Billy Budd in Hamburg, Rose as Claggart (right) (Photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)When we meet, Rose is just at the end of his rehearsal period at the Lilian Baylis studios, so hasn't rehearsed the production on the Coliseum stage itself. 'We're just in the process of finishing the last scene today,' he tells me, 'so we're getting an idea. Even though there are the seven scenes, the action is rolling continually from one scene to the next, so you won't get these huge great chunks of hanging around waiting for the set to change, which can so often happen. It should have a fluid feel to it. It feels great at the moment.'
Boris Godunov is, like many of the great operatic roles, multi-faceted and presented with a certain ambiguity. How does Rose interpret him as a character? 'Well, he's complex and he's done a terrible thing: he is responsible for the murder of a child. He justifies it to himself, though, by saying that it's in the interests of the country that he, Boris, actually becomes Tsar rather than this young kid. But that haunts him and he can't escape it. On the other hand, though, he's a loving father, and in this production I think he is quite a good father: he's really concerned for the welfare of his children, and I think that's genuine. So that's the private man and then there's this public figure. In his monologue he explains how there are all these terrible things going on – there's plague, there's poverty and rebellion – so it's quite a difficult job ruling.

'But I think he thinks he still did the right thing murdering the child because if he can't cope with all that, then the child would never have coped with it. At the end, though, the deed drives him mad and when the time comes, and he's about to die, he really wants to pass it on to his son, who he's convinced himself really is the rightful heir to the throne.

'So it's a character where there's a lot going on, and he definitely needs juggling of different elements.'

And it makes a big difference from the usual bass fare? 'You mean the priests, wise men, fathers, etc? Yes, from the point of view of the complexity of the character it's certainly challenging and a daunting prospect to try and explore. And at at two and a bit hours, it's a shorter-than-normal Boris but hopefully one where it's easy to tell the story.' But does he see tautness of this version making up the lack of female characters? 'I hope so. Because the Polish scenes aren't there, we're missing that ingredient that some people think is essential, the Prima Donna. However, I've just spent the summer doing Billy Budd, and of course there are no women in that. Although obviously there are still a couple of female characters in Boris: Xenia, the daughter; Fyodor, the son is played by a female singer; there's the nurse and the hostess at the inn. So there are a few females there on stage.'

And is there a special camaraderie with the rest of the bass-heavy cast? 'Yes, in rehearsals it's great. They're a very nice cast and very good colleagues, and at the moment we're having great fun. Most of the cast I knew beforehand, even if I hadn't worked with them, and the whole thing is very, what the Germans would call, "kollegial".'

The conversation moves on to Rose's recordings, which include several roles as part of Chandos's Opera in English series, as well as last year a recording of Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-Bleue on Telarc. 'Yes, I suppose that's a semi title-role. When they offered it to me I didn't actually know the piece. I went and got the score and I had to ring someone and say "I've only found this one page" and he had to tell me that was it, that it's a very short part. Basically it's all about her, and Barbe-Bleue is in just one scene. I was required for just an afternoon, so it's nothing like doing Boris!'  

Talk of Rose's other roles leads, inevitably, to Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, this also brings us back to the question of opera in English. 'They tried to get me to do it here a couple of times here at ENO. I have a completely different view with Rosenkavalier, compared with Boris, because I do it so much in German, I just felt that I didn't have enough time to learn it in English and do it justice. For that reason so I decided not to.' For Rose it's not just the awkwardness of translating a role written in a specially created Viennese dialect. 'I'm happy to do almost any other role in English but just thought this would end up being too tricky. The last time they asked me, I was doing it in German just before doing Gurnemanz and it's so particular, and such a difficult role. Hofmannsthal's working title for a while was Ochs auf Lerchenau, so it is like a title role, much longer than Boris, for example. It's so tricky, musically, that I just didn't think I'd be able to do it when I had the German so firmly in my head. It was the matter not only having to relearn it in English but then go back to the German. I think over the next few years or so I've got at least a couple of productions every year of it, all in German.'

Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Salzburg: Rose as Osmin (right) with Christoph Strehl and Diana Damrau (photo © Karl Forster)One of these performances as Ochs is due to be at Covent Garden next season. There are rumours that Rose will be joined by Soile Isokoski as the Marschallin and Lucy Crowe as Sophie, this is news to him. 'All I know' he tells me, 'is that it's Kyril Petrenko conducting, and that's it.' Ochs seems to be turning into something of a signature role, and it is as the Baron that Rose tells me he is due to make his La Scala debut, in around four years' time, as well as featuring in a new production in Munich. 'It's become a bit of a party piece, not wishing to sound blasé, and I always have great fun with it because I have spent such a long time on getting it into my head.'

Another role mentioned on Rose's biography is that of Verdi's Falstaff. 'That's something I'm really looking forward to, and it's partly tied in with the Ochs. I was doing that in 2006 in Seattle and the General Director asked me: if was there anything you'd like to sing, what would it be? He put me on the spot and I didn't think terribly long and I blurted out "what about Falstaff?" I think it's because there's a certain Falstaffian quality to Ochs anyway, and it had been something that my agents and a couple of other people had said I should look at. Generally it's done by either a baritone or a bass-baritone but it's not stratospherically high. I'd looked at it and I'd done Pistol, a small comprimario role in Falstaff, and thought this was something I could try out. So that will be my second title role. I'm notching them up, but I think that'll probably be about it: I don't think I've got the right figure for Don Giovanni!'

Is this excursion away from the traditional bass repertoire pointing towards a new direction for Rose? 'I'm not suddenly thinking I have to have a change of direction, but you can get very rooted and settled. I do like to push the boundaries, not excessively, but occasionally I think, that's maybe not what most people think a bass should sing and I should give it a try. Maybe it's a huge risk, we'll have a chat in a couple of years and see how it went!'

So no plans as yet for Rose follow the route of that other great British bass, John Tomlinson, into the great Wagnerian bass-baritone roles?

'I don't think so, but it's strange. Everyone hears things differently and some people will say than can hear me doing [Hans] Sachs [in Die Meistersinger], maybe, and that might be a possibility. John was a sort of inspiration because there's a lot of stuff that's traditionally outside of the bass rep which he has done, and very successfully. It was that which gave me the idea that I didn't have to be quite so rigid. For example, in Chicago I've done the Kingfisher in the Midsummer Marriage already, which I suppose is properly a baritone or bass-baritone role. When John sang it at Covent Garden I sang the He-Ancient, but I was hearing John doing something that was quite high, for a bass, and that made me think I should look beyond the traditional seven or eight bass roles that people do.'

Peter RoseWith Sachs and Wotan, I point out, it's only very rarely that there's not some sort of vocal compromise to be struck. 'Exactly, and it's a question of taste, and even with Don Giovanni, some people want a bass, some a baritone, some a bass-baritone.' During the conversation, I mention the recording of the role by Nikolai Ghiaurov. The great Bulgarian was, it turns out, a major inspiration for Rose. 'When I grew up, that was the voice in my head that made me think: if I could ever sound anything like that I would be in heaven. For me, it was just the most glorious – not just bass – voice. This is heresy now, but you can keep your Sutherlands and your Callas's and the del Monacos and the Corellis, fantastic singers that they were. For me, Ghiaurov's was the voice that I just thought surpassed all the others. It's a sound that's velvety, like Guinness, rich, thick, creamy with a bit of edge. Of course I don't sound anything like him, but for me that was the type I had in my ear, constantly. It's stupid to set someone like that up as a target when you're in your early twenties, because there's no way on earth you're going to match up to it. It's good to have a challenge, though.'

Talk of inspirations leads us on to Rose's earliest musical experiences and it transpires that a career in singing was almost accidental. 'Some people know they want to be an opera singer. I don't really know where my interest in music came from. I don't come from a particularly musical family, although we had a piano and there was music going on at home. I don't know why, but I was always chosen from the age of about six or seven – perhaps because I was tall or something – to do solos in carol services and things. And after I'd started doing them at school I started to sing in choirs and whenever the choir got split into boys and girls, the teacher would tell me as a precocious fourteen-year-old to go off and rehearse the tenors and basses. I was getting more involved in music and then ended up, as a spotty fourteen-year-old, running the local church choir.

'So I was singing and conducting, and I enjoyed it. Someone said my voice wasn't bad and that I should have lessons, then when I went to university I did singing as my performance instrument. There was some progress, even after a term, but I always thought I was going to teach classroom music, either at a school or university; I would have been perfectly happy to do that and do a bit of singing in my spare time. I sort of became an opera singer by accident. There were lots of people telling me I wasn't bad so I thought I'd find a singing teacher in London and then the idea of teaching gradually subsided and I began to think I could give it a go, although I still imagined it would be in a choir, maybe doing the odd solo.'

When Rose auditioned at the Guildhall, they offered him a place on the Opera Course. He declined, 'I didn't feel I knew enough about singing in general: I knew nothing about Lieder, nothing about French song. And most of the other people joining the course had already been at the Guildhall and had all done that stuff, they were singing recitals, and I felt rather intimidated about that, I knew about church music and all that sort of stuff but nothing about "proper" music, about the other aspect of singing. I'd sung church music and oratorio and that was where I felt comfortable.' He decided against the Opera Course first time round but did it the next year, this led in turn to the National Opera Studio, 'I sort of fell into it', he tells me.

Keith Jameson (Novice) and Peter Rose (Claggart) in Billy Budd, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)Rose's speaking voice is an impressively rich basso, and prompts me to ask when he realized that he was possessed of that rare thing, a true bass voice? 'My voice actually went quite slowly, I was still singing treble when I was fourteen, when I was already over six feet tall, and I probably could have gone on singing treble. My speaking voice was getting a bit more husky and in the choir all my friends were singing alto or treble and so I started singing alto. I gave that a whirl and after a couple of weeks thought it was a bit weird. So I thought I'd start singing tenor, that lasted about a year, until I couldn't quite get the notes I needed and moved to bass. So I was a school-boy baritone, I guess, and then as I got older it filled out and matured. I don't think anyone wakes up and suddenly they're Boris Christoff!'

Rose is busy on all the world's great opera stages but is not known as a recitalist. Is this an area he consciously avoids or have the opportunities simply not presented themselves? 'I've thought about it a lot, but recitals are hard work. It's also a question of repertoire, although there are plenty of bass songs, most people who do recitals - male voices anyway - are baritones or tenors. That's not to say that basses don't ever give recitals, but I think interest in bass recitals is probably not as large. That's my feeling anyway. I've occasionally done some and if the opportunity came along to do some, I would probably grasp it, and it's not for lack of interest on my part, probably more due to a lack of interest on other people's!' And he's kept pretty busy with operatic work, I point out. 'Yes, although to be fair and lots of my friends and colleagues do a lot of recitals and manage to combine it with opera. It's just not something that's come my way. Maybe I'm slightly regretful, but one has to be philosophical, some things you can do and some things you can't. It's the same with operatic roles, some people are dying to do certain roles and never get offered them.'

So does Rose have any roles he's dying to do?

'I don't lie awake at night thinking of specific roles. If anything, I'd like to do more of some of the roles I've already done. Ochs I do plenty of and would still like to do more, but a role I've only done a handful of times is Gurnemanz in Parsifal, which actually – tying it to the recitals question – is rather like doing an enormous Liederabend. Parsifal doesn't make his entrance until forty-five minutes or so into the piece so, although there are a couple of interruptions from the Knights and the Knappe, it's basically a big song-cycle.' Another role featuring more and more in Rose's calendar is Phillip in Don Carlo. This year he's sung it both in French and Italian. 'Strangely I was also asked a couple of days ago to jump in in Copenhagen tonight, but that's not possible,' he says, gesturing towards the main rehearsal room. There's always the possibility of singing it in Nicholas Hyntner's new production, scheduled for several revivals in the near future, I point out. 'It would be lovely if they asked, but they haven't yet.' He talks enthusiastically about all the great Verdi roles, though: 'Fiesco is probably on my mini wish-list but and I loved doing Zaccariah in Nabucco, and I've done Silva [Ernani] at ENO, which is a great opera.'

For the meantime, though, it's back to Boris and Musorgsky. 'Some productions you just feel are going to be awful… and they usually are,' Rose confides as the interview comes to an end and he returns to rehearsal, 'we've all got a good feeling about this one though.'

By Hugo Shirley

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