Interview: Lawrence Zazzo on a new Radamisto at ENO

'It's not a freak show – it's an artistic and true performance of what I'm doing, which I think is all you can ask of any singer.'

30 September 2010

Lawrence Zazzo

The next new production in English National Opera's autumn season brings Handel's Radamisto to the house for the first time. David Alden, whose work with ENO has resulted in a string of successes for the company, will direct a cast that includes Lawrence Zazzo, Ailish Tynan, Sophie Bevan and Christine Rice, under the baton of Lawrence Cummings.

Though the cast is uniformly strong, of particular interest is Zazzo, whose appearances have attracted acclaim across the globe. Previously seen at ENO in Xerxes and at Covent Garden in The Tempest, his return to London is an exciting development. I caught up with him during the latter stages of rehearsals to ask him about his career, and particularly about Radamisto.

Zazzo will be playing the title character in the production, and I ask him his opinion on why the piece has been neglected, now that he's become familiar with it over the last few weeks of rehearsals. 'The thing that's confused things up to now is possibly that it exists in two versions,' he says with consideration. 'It's a scholarly question. I think the opera is less obviously filled with cracking-good tunes the way Julius Caesar is. Its plot is not as dark as Tamerlano, and it's not as fun as Xerxes. It's not magical like Alcina or Orlando. That being said, it has some fantastic arias, including one of the best that Handel ever wrote – 'Ombra cara', which I get to sing! It's a story about very, very faithful love, and has an unusually passive title character – which is saying something for baroque opera!

'Radamisto is about as heroically inactive as you can get. At the beginning he's presented with an impossible dilemma, loses the battle, does not kill his wife – she throws herself into the river – and he basically has the upper hand with Tigrane and bungles it, though in David Alden's production here I submit in a very Christ-like way.

'All of that's kind of old-fashioned, and it's not a sexy opera. It's not about a love along the lines of Caesar and Cleopatra. Radamisto's love is constant throughout, and we don't like that. We like character development, and arcs, and learning through experience and mistakes. But there's something to be said for this kind of old-fashioned nobility – to have characters onstage who are more noble than we are.'

So what will appear to people about the opera? 'It has glorious music,' he says simply. 'Even when he's not tuneful, Handel is a wonderful dramatist. He's able to catch an emotion, or shades of emotions, or sometimes conflicting emotions, within a single aria. Which is interesting, because you don't think of baroque music as being like that. It's flexible, but colourful and very descriptive.

'Why else should people come to this? Great costumes, fantastic singing, great sets. A really strong directorial concept. It's very simple and serious, an honest production that doesn't try to avoid the strange inconsistencies and unbelieveabilities in the plot. He just says, This is it. Each character experiences different states of mind. There's also a ritual quality to it, which fits the aria-recitative-aria rhythm of baroque opera. It's a very simple production, so that when something happens onstage it really has a huge impact, rather than having things happening all the time in a busy kind of production that might attempt to make the piece more interesting, which is a trap that other directors can fall into.

'It's roughly set in period, but I don't think it's any particular country, design-wise. There are Indian elements, and Nepalese, and Russian. It's that kind of indefinable middle-Asia that none of us knows much about. So there's lots of different inspirations, which makes it visually stimulating and beautiful. I think that works very well with this piece.'

Conversation inevitably turns to Lawrence Cummings, a staple figure of recent ENO opera productions. 'Lawrence is great,' Zazzo comments warmly and genuinely. 'He's a marvellous singer himself, in addition to being a fabulous harpsichordist, so he understands singers very well. He's easy to work with, and is a thoughtful conductor. He knows what he wants, but he's gentle. He's interested in working with what you bring to the project, so for instance if I bring things to the table in terms of ornamentation, he's very good at letting me know that something doesn't come across and suggesting an alternative. That's great for me. Funnily enough, Lawrence played the harpsichord in my first ever baroque opera. We did Armenio together at the Royal College of Music in 1996. Then a couple of years ago, we collaborated on a disc called Duetti amorosi, which has been a huge success.  He does wonderful things: for someone who's a baroque specialist, he works unusually well with a modern orchestra. He's getting some great sounds out of the ENO orchestra.'

I'm curious to know how Zazzo came to make the decision to become a countertenor, but he asks, in return, 'Is it really a decision? I put myself in the English tradition, because I came from a choral background. I grew up singing in choirs and not really liking opera. Your voice changes, and in an English choral tradition what tends to happen is that they say “We need someone to sing the alto line, go and be a countertenor”. I was a boy alto, then I stopped singing and I started to do wrestling in high school because I wanted to do something macho! I then found that over two years my voice started changing, and I really missed singing, so I joined the high school choir.

'For me, I didn't really choose it; it felt like it was the right voice type for me. I really enjoyed singing in my falsetto, and I didn't enjoy singing in full voice so much. I think it has something to do with the resonating spaces in your head. It didn't help that my range was somewhere between baritone and tenor, without being comfortable in either. I conducted my own madrigal group, and then started listening to The King's Singers, which is when I heard my first countertenor. That, and James Bowman on the David Willcocks Messiah.
'“But Who May Abide?” was the first Handel aria that I learned. I took lessons and worked on it. My first foray as a countertenor was probably Victoria's “O magnum mysterium'. It was an experiment with my madrigal group.
'The other side of this approach for me is close harmony singing. Things like The Whiffenpoofs at Yale. I did Barbershop singing where I did the top line. That kind of jazz where you're singing the top line but it's full voice, so it's kind of like a low tenor – which was probably good for me when I went into opera, because it meant I was not afraid to go into my chest voice.

'Then I went to Cambridge because I really wanted to sing in the choir there, and I did the odd solo. I had voice lessons there and was encouraged. My teacher had just come on the faculty at the Royal Academy, and it was a joint faculty with the Royal College. So I decided to go, and lo and behold, that first year they needed an Oberon for Midsummer Night's Dream and the title role for Armenio, and I auditioned for both. I had a whole year to prepare for doing them, which was great. I can only say that I didn't seek out an operatic career, and I feel very lucky. That being said, when I started rehearsals it felt very natural being on stage.'

So it feels comfortable, singing in this register all the time? 'It's very comfortable. But I will say that sometimes nowadays, I will mark rehearsals in my baritone. Especially when it comes to delivering text. And I always think, “This is so much easier – the rest of you have it so easy!” So it started off being easier and it got progressively harder. I think the challenge is to deal with the fact that the voice is always changing as you get older, which is complicated in the light of the delicacy of our vocal production.'

Lawrence ZazzoI ask which is the greater challenge: singing high, or projecting the voice. 'Projection can be difficult, but this is a false thing – you don't gain much volume by pushing. Some singers seem to feel the need to push. I think I'm very fortunate that most of my opera career has been with baroque ensembles, so I haven't had to sing loud above a modern orchestra. Nowadays, they use a smaller ensemble, but singers used to have to pound out against a big modern orchestra. So projection is an issue. Height is not an issue. People think it's about hitting the high notes, but as my teacher said, it's actually a very low voice, and the repertoire in general is Handel alto castrato repertoire, which is low. It's low for a lot of mezzos, and at A=415 it's even lower, so the challenge is not to press in the middle and lower part of your voice. The high stuff tends to carry fairly easily, though obviously you don't want to be screaming out ridiculously high stuff.'

But what about singing this repertoire at the Met, where he appeared recently as Handel's Julius Caesar? 'The Met has an amazing, amazing acoustic for its size – one of the best I've ever performed in. This is a misconception at the Met. The issue there is about the balance between the singers and the orchestra. You have to have a sensitive conductor who will keep the orchestra under wraps, because they don't reduce their orchestra, so it's fairly big. That was my experience when I did Caesar. Having said that, I had Harry Bicket as conductor, and he was great at keeping the orchestra under control. But there's no reason why they can't do baroque opera, or even Monteverdi, stunningly well there.'

On 28 March 2011, Zazzo will give a very special Wigmore Hall recital here in London. 'I'm doing an all-American programme,' he enthuses. 'I really wanted to do Ned Rorem and Charles Ives, and I'm doing the Barber Hermit Songs, which I don't think have been done by a countertenor before. These are groups of pieces that speak to me – it's not about what the composer really wants or whether I should be doing it. It's about choosing music that I have something to say about. It's going to be a very strong programme. I wanted it to be all twentieth-century music. I didn't want to do Handel and Purcell – it needs to be different. At the same time, I didn't want it to be anything too crazy. I'm also doing a new cycle, which I really believe in. I was sent it by Andrew Gerle, who's a friend of mine from the Yale days. He composes a lot of musicals, but this is classical, which is not to say that it doesn't have little echoes of Sondheim in it. It's a great text – a poet who's looking at his life and his loss of youth – so we'll finish the programme with that.'

What else has he got coming up? 'The big thing in the diary is Giulio Cesare at the Paris Opera with Natalie Dessay. I'm so excited to work with her – she's a great singer-actress, so I'm thrilled to be onstage with her and see how she works. And Emmanuelle Haim is conducting, so that's wonderful too. I'm doing Gluck's Orfeo in Toronto in a Robert Carsen production, which I'm looking forward to, having worked with him in Vienna last year. Harry Bicket's conducting, which is great, too. Then I have my first Mozart, Mitridate, which I've wanted to do for a while. I wouldn't say I'm a big Mozart fan, but there again there's not a lot of repertoire for countertenors. It will be nice to come to terms with the style, and to work with Ivor Bolton, who's a great conductor. He and I have a good working relationship – he's been very supportive, and I've worked with him throughout the years. So I have a big opera year.'

He also has a couple of recordings coming out in the near future. 'Athalia's coming out this month on BMG. It's a weird 1735 version of Handel's opera, which is bilingual. It has Italian arias inserted for Carestini, so I sing these big florid arias, which is fun. It's a very different version from the familiar. Then I've just done a CD of mad songs with lute for a small Belgian label, and I'm so glad they let me do it. I had this crazy idea of doing modern pieces with the lute. It's about madness and songs to the moon – everything from Schumann to Herbert Howell. The association between moon worship and madness is interesting. As a programme it just developed. We experimented with some Mozart, and there's some new stuff too. It's a very hip album – the label is young and ambitious, and I love it. We're hoping to tour the programme next year.'

As we come to an end Zazzo comments that it's important to him to 'push the envelope in terms of what countertenors can do. It's not just a question of different repertoire or singing higher, but showing that you can give a rounded performance that's acceptable on all different levels. It's not a freak show – it's an artistic and true performance of what I'm doing, which I think is all you can ask of any singer.'

By Dominic McHugh

Radamisto opens at English National Opera on 7 October 2010.



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