Saturday, September 20, 2014

Talking to British countertenor Nicholas Clapton

On July 29th 2014 British countertenor Nicholas Clapton and I met at the White Hart Bar, Dartington Hall, Devon, UK. Nicholas Clapton made his singing debut at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1984. His career has embraced repertoire from the medieval to the contemporary in concert halls and opera houses from Santiago to Singapore. Particularly at home in the heroic castrato repertoire of the 18th century, he has performed more than 30 premieres and has long been a countertenor pioneer in the performance of Romantic song. Mr. Clapton has an international reputation as a teacher.

PH: Nicholas, do you come from a musical family?

Nicholas Clapton: Not in a professional sense. My father had a very fine treble voice and sang in his local parish choir. He never learned to read a note of music. He always loved the stage and did much amateur acting. My mother wanted to play the violin but her parents did not have the money to send her for lessons. Somewhere in my grandmother’s family there was a professional violinist.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

NC: As a small child we had an old 78 wind-up gramophone. We did not have many records but I used to love playing “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” (loving its loud ending!), Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1 and quite a lot of Beethoven symphonies. As a performer, my first memories are of singing in the school Nativity play. Our headmistress, being an intelligent woman, devised a play where we did not have to remember any words, so we could not forget any! She had someone narrating and the children were taught to mime the story. It worked brilliantly. As to the Three Kings, there were three children to sing the parts, only the other two went sick and I had to sing all three parts. I was eight at the time, but vividly remember the feeling that people were really listening. I absolutely loved that and have never lost that love. It is almost “power” of a certain kind, intangible but very special.

PH: What was your early musical training?

NC: I sang as a boy from then right into my mid-teens. My voice did not completely break till I was 16.

PH: Where did you sing?

NC: I sang in a weekly choir at Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire, a beautiful old Benedictine abbey that became a parish church after the Reformation. That was a good parish choir. I did not sing in a cathedral choir because I was from the wrong social class. In those days you had to have money to sing in a cathedral choir. We were a baker family and bakers’ sons did not go to the cathedral school. We went to grammar schoolinstead. I sang a lot at school. We had a fantastic music teacher, a lovely man called Norman Crowhurst. He helped me a lot with my singing.

PH: Did you play an instrument?

NC: When I was 12 Mr. Crowhurst said I should learn an instrument. I did not want to do the violin and I was already kind-of playing the piano very badly. With too many clarinettists in the school, he suggested I learn the oboe and I did. We had a school orchestra in which I played. I think my crowning glory was probably playing the Bach Concerto for Violin and Oboe at a school concert, a very difficult work. That was on modern instruments, of course; the early music revival had not yet really started. I did a lot of oboe-playing while I was singing as a boy and then after (when I could not really sing at all) continued playing till was in my mid-twenties. Because my voice was late breaking, I did not really sing much when I was at Oxford University. I played quite a bit in the university orchestra and with a quintet all through my student days. I was at Magdalen College and not a member of the choir.

PH: So did you not sing at all at Oxford?

NC: I sang a little bit in another college Sunday choir, not least because the dinner was much better than at Magdalen! But I did not sing seriously at all because my voice had not really settled. I was sort-of singing countertenor in a way but nothing with any great efficiency.

PH: Did you study in one of the music colleges?

NC: No. I never set foot in any music college as a student. All my learning has been private. I have missed out on a few things, like the connections you gain, courses in acting etc., but I think I did escape bad singing teaching, a lot of which still happens in the music colleges worldwide. And countertenors then, certainly (and even now sometimes) were regarded as singing oddities. Many teachers did not know how to handle countertenor voices. Also, there were colleges that would simply not accept us as students.

PH: When did your countertenor singing really begin?

NC: I already knew that I loved singing, had known that from when I was a child, and it was a great sadness to lose that voice. With my voice breaking, it “slithered” around…very distressing. When I was still at college, a friend organized for Mary Beverley, one of the earliest figures of the early music singing world in England, to give a concert. I went to hear her and was entranced. A year or so later, I went and had some lessons with her. Her teaching was rather unusual. She taught me some useful things which, most importantly, as a young singer, did me no harm. Some years later, in the early-middle ‘80s, I was working in the library of the Royal Academy of Music, by which time I was already singing in various good London choirs, when I met a very fine harpsichordist called David Roblou. He was beginning a new ensemble “Combattimento” and was interested to have me sing countertenor in the group, but on condition that I have some coaching from the other keyboard player they had, David Mason, a harpsichordist but really a very excellent pianist. That was in 1983. “Combattimento” made its debut at Wigmore Hall in 1984. There I made my professional debut singing Purcell’s “Music for a While” (in the original key…far too low!). I had lessons with David Mason for about 12 years. I also auditioned for the Britten Peers School for Advanced Musical Studies at Snape, where they were, for the first time, opening the Aldeburgh Festival not with a Britten opera but with a Handel opera (as it was the Händel centenary year). I can still see Peter Peers sitting there 30 feet away, looking through me (rather than at me). They offered me the role of Unulfo from Handel’s opera “Rodelinda”; that was very good. The other significant thing that happened that year was that in August I had a ‘phone call from David Roblou saying that the English Bach Festival had a problem: they were putting on Handel’s “Teseo” in Siena in the Palazzo Civico (inside which there is an extraordinary 18th century opera house), the countertenor was sick and there was only one week to the dress rehearsal. It was a secondo part they offered me – King Egeo - and David asked if I could learn it – three arias and about 500 miles of recitative! In short, having just moved house and with only an electronic keyboard at my disposal, I learned the entire opera in four days, in time for the complete run-through that took place prior to the dress rehearsal. And this was a Baroque gesture production! I had to dance a minuet. When I was paid, I remember blowing half my fee on a beautiful Italian sheepskin jacket.

PH: What about competitions?

NC: In 1985, I went off to take part in the Francisco Viñas International Singing Competition in Barcelona. (Francisco or Francesc Viñas was a very famous Wagner tenor from Catalunya.) We were two countertenors in the competition and the judges liked us both, so we shared the first prize. There had been a huge scandal the year before about giving a countertenor the prize! Some of the judges had said that this was “not a voice”. So the competition then invented a special prize for countertenors. There was also an open competition for the singing of Mozart and, competing against large ladies and little tenors, I was very happy and surprised to win first prize with a piece of Mozart nobody had even heard of – “Già dagli occhi” from Mozart’s opera “Mitridate, re di Ponto”. Altogether, 1985 was a big year for me.

PH: Peter Pears seems to have left his imprint on you.

NC: Yes. In 1986, all kinds of things happened. Asked back to Snape, I sang The St. Matthew Passion under Philip Ledger; this was the last concert Peter Pears attended before he died four days later. (He was running a Bach course a week before he died!) Peers was an intensely passionate man, as well as a wonderful singer.

PH: Let’s talk about you as a teacher. When you teach, you spend much time talking about breathing and posture and, of course, about words. Would you like to talk about your credo on singing?

NC: Yes. Well, there was a very, very famous castrato singer called Gasparo Pacchierotti who said: “He who knows how to breathe and pronounces well knows how to sing”. Therefore, you have got to breathe properly, you have got to talk clearly and your singing will be good. To quote another great singer, Joan Sutherland once said “Singing has to be simple, but that does not mean it is easy”. As to the basic concept, so much of what I have learnt as a singer and as a teacher has come from Diane Forlano, a wonderful American teacher who lived in England for many years and who taught me for the best part of two decades. Her whole philosophy of teaching is based on the above-mentioned ideas. Her teaching is based on “For God’s sake fill your lungs and say the words. Don’t fiddle with the noise. You have no direct connection with the noise. Don’t touch the sound. Leave it alone. No, no, no…I am supposed to be listening, not you.” (The great thing about Americans as teachers and students is they believe in being direct.)

PH: As a countertenor, you perform a lot of repertoire that other countertenors do not. This seems to be very much a feature of your professional life.

NC: Yes. Well, I also do not make a sound like a lot of countertenors make. I was never taught by someone who was a countertenor first off. David Mason had studied singing as a countertenor as a second study at the Guildhall School of Music. He was really a pianist. My other two teachers were sopranos. Diane Forlano has been a dramatic coloratura in the USA. So I have not been taught to sing “like a countertenor”. I have just been taught to sing. What I have always wanted to do was to show that the countertenor voice does not have to live in this supposed historical confinement of the early music “thing”. A lot of music we sing of that period was certainly not designed for our kind of voice at all. A few of the Handel oratorios might have been, but a lot of Purcell and Dowland works were not written for the falsetto voice. And then I thought “I am going to sing whatever I want to sing” because I can, because I do have an unconventional countertenor sound and, indeed, I think I certainly have an unconventional attitude as a countertenor! Although the singing Purcell and Dowland can keep anyone satisfied for a lifetime, I wanted to do something else. I wanted to see how, not least, the performance, the learning and singing of Schubert, Strauss, Wagner, Brahms, Fauré and Debussy and other 19th- and 20th century composers would affect my singing of Bach and Handel, my supposed core repertoire. And it does. It has helped free me up a lot…to sing as a “singer”, rather than just as a “countertenor”. I remember David Daniels, my esteemed colleague and a very fine singer, saying many years ago: “I don’t wish to be remembered as a good countertenor. I wish to be remembered as a really good singer”. That is very important. We are not just some freak of nature that got brought in by the cat.

PH: I have heard you singing early 20th century English music. Would you call this a specialty of yours?

NC: I love it. Absolutely love it. When I was a teenager, I completely fell in love with the music of Vaughan Williams. I adore it and always have done and I think that provided a basis for looking at all kinds of repertoire like Warlock, Finzi, Quilter, etc. Quilter really speaks to me; he was an unhappy and tortured gentleman who wrote fantastic music.

PH: Let’s go all the way back to the authentic movement. Where do you see yourself and what happened and is happening with that?

NC: I think people who specialize in early repertoire would no longer want to use the word “authentic”. I think it has been much misused and was used as a kind of brute instrument to beat down other ways of doing things. I, for one, would never wish to be without recordings like Mengelberg’s “St. Matthew Passion” or Colin Davis’ performances of “Messiah”, because they have an incredible validity and strength. And for me, now, some of the earlier years of what I think most of us would prefer to call the “historically informed” movement dictated that singers should imitate the way instruments played. A lot of the vocal ensembles were directed by instrumentalists, which always struck me as very odd, tying in with the great myth that singers are too stupid to direct anything. In the 17th- and 18th centuries there was a lot more written in tutors about how to play instruments than how one was to sing. One can make all sorts of wrongful assumptions about how people sang from the way instruments were played and I think that was an unfortunate limitation to the possibilities of singing, particularly in the early days of the movement. It has been fascinating for me to see how those things have changed and how some singers have continued to grow, develop and change and allow their voices to become complete instruments. I think we can be informed by history but we should not be dictated to. I think that is the way I would sum it up. We do not really know what voices sounded like and have no right to believe that we would go back to 1720 in a time machine and listen to Farinelli sing, and like it! We have to be so careful not to mislead ourselves. There is a good book by a very fine and extremely intelligent English tenor, John Potter, called “Tenor: History of a Voice”, in which he writes that documentary didactic sources were written by people talking about what they wanted to hear but not necessarily what they did hear.

PH: You sing with quite a lot of vibrato. What is your take on early music and vibrato?

NC: I think this is another topic that has got very twisted. It might have been Mozart who said that “the human voice vibrates on its own but it does not need to shake”. If you approach singing from the idea that it is an extension of rhetorical speech, which is basically what I do, if you go into rhetorical speech, if you really are delivering the emotion that is behind the text you are trying to explain or give to people (that is what we do when we sing), your voice can often start to vibrate on its own. Vaughan Williams talked about listening to people preaching out in the open air when he was on folk song expeditions in Scotland. Their voices would start to “cantillate”, as he called it – to vibrate in speech. I myself heard just that in a Welsh Methodist chapel, where the voice of the minister giving an emotional sermon in a Welsh (of which I understood not a word) took on a vibrato. I was fascinated by this phenomenon of a human voice so full of emotional power that it vibrated on its own. And that is how the sound happens; if you do not have vibration you have no sound, no energy, you have no light, no heat…you have the end of the universe. Gone. So I think vibrato, or a vibrant shimmering sound, is an essential part of the human expressive instrument which reaches its summit in the singing voice. I do not “use” vibrato: vibrato happens when I sing. I am not putting it on; it happens because of what I am doing with the text and with my body.

PH: What are your teaching activities?

NC: I teach one day a week at the Royal Academy of Music (London), either teaching Academy students, or we have an agreement there with King’s College, London, which is another constituent part of the University of London, that they send some of their undergraduates there for lessons. I teach them singing and work with all voices. I think one should not only teach one’s own voice. I also teach at home. Students come to me. I have been having a lot of fun lately teaching the students on the music courses of Brookes University (Oxford); they come with all sorts of backgrounds, like music and theatre. One girl was studying music and Japanese and at the moment I have a very good tenor who has a background in musicals, Broadway, etc. And then there is the teaching I do in Hungary. I did a whole stint of teaching master classes at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest and I hold a master class in a small city in Hungary called Esztergom, where there is a Liszt week every year; our final concert is part of that Liszt week and we sing some Liszt songs in it (too seldom performed). I have also taught at Dartington Hall International Summer School 18 times in the last 20 years.

PH: Do you produce performing editions?

NC: I have done editions for my own use when I recorded cantatas by Nicola Porpora some years ago. We did most of it from manuscripts…from the days of photocopies made from originals!

PH: Let’s talk about your writing.

NC: Well, it came about like this: I was doing a concert at St. John’s Smith Square in London with some colleagues of mine from the Royal Academy. There was a reception afterwards and I got talking to a very nice lady, originally from Germany now living in London, called Barbara Schwepke. She turned out to be a publisher. She had started a publishing company called “Haus” in Chelsea, which began as a publisher of biographies. She asked me about musicians about whom no biographies had been written. So, because he was someone about whom I had been thinking for a very long time and listening to his singing, the artist who came to mind was the last castrato from the Sistine Chapel, a singer called Alessandro Moreschi, of whom no biography had been written. I suggested writing his biography and she answered me by saying a contract would arrive in the post! So I wrote it – “Moreschi, the Last Castrato” (London, 2004). It is a monograph of 150 pages. A few years later, it was enlarged with a new edition and we added four supplementary chapters. The first was a new chapter of mine. You could call it a travelogue; it was about once again going to Moreschi’s town in the Roman hills, where the townspeople were putting up a plaque on the house where he was born and I also wrote about visiting his grave to lay flowers on it. Then we added an article on the psychology of castration, an extraordinary article written by an American Freudian analyst; an article about the recordings that Moreschi made, from an acoustic point of view by Professor David Howard of York University and, finally, a very well-written article about the history of the different versions of the Allegri “Miserere”. The book was then renamed “Alessandro Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato”.

Around that time, my second book was published, a musical history of Budapest – “Budapest, City of Music” (2009). I have come to regard Budapest as my second home over the last 20 years. I am also on the point of publishing a small book about singing – “Thoughts on Singing”. (I object to the huge tomes of 500 pages about singing, with their gruesome diagrams of dead larynxes and people’s torsos chopped in half, accompanied by exercises people do not understand.) That should be available by Christmas 2014.

PH: What are your future plans?

NC: Some more writing. I intend to continue a big book about the countertenor I started some time ago. I also want to write a biography of probably the most technically vocally gifted singer the world has known, namely Farinelli. He had such an interesting life as well as a fabulous career. I am now 58 and hope to keep singing for another 10 years at least, if my body allows me. Gasparo Pacchiarotti I mentioned earlier once said “the problem for us singers is the more we understand about how to sing the less our body lets us do it”. And I will keep teaching as long as possible.

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

NC: I love gardening. It uses a different part of my brain: you have to do shape, colour, space, texture, scent etc. I love it. It is hard work but very therapeutic. It makes your knees hurt and your brain rejoice. I have a big garden at home which I have done with my bare hands, turning it from a very well-kept but really rather stiff plot of land to something that I hope has a bit of shape. I also love reading, particularly 19th century novels, and not necessarily the great classics. I am reading Stanley Weyman at the moment; he wrote historical novels of a sort-of sub-Alexander Dumas genre. They are not great literature but great fun. I am nuts about antiques. And I love jewellery - an interest inspired by the fabulous jewellery I have seen at the National Museum in Budapest; I like rocks and stones and gold and silver. I also love cooking…and I am quite good at it!

PH: Nicholas, thank you so much. It has been most interesting talking to you.

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