Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Talking to countertenor Andrew Watts (UK) about his career, today's singers and performing early music in the 21st century

On August 13th 2015, British countertenor Andrew Watts and I met to talk at Dartington Hall, Devon (UK). An artist performing widely and known for some daring performances in contemporary operas, Andrew Watts enjoys Baroque music. In an interview with Jonathan Lennie in 2012, the singer, he spoke of Baroque music as keeping him “grounded”. In February 2016, Watts will play the Cherub in the premiering of Elena Langer’s “Figaro Gets a Divorce” with the Welsh National Opera.

PH: Andrew Watts, where were you born?

Andrew Watts: I was born in Hammersmith, London…a pure British man, I suppose.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

AW: No. I come from a footballing family. My father was a professional footballer back in the ‘30s, 40s and 50s,in  the days where a football player had to have a permanent job as well. My mother runs a restaurant. I am from a real working-class, normal family. I think that both my parents appreciated music, but they weren’t practitioners. Mine was a talent that was spotted, someone said I should have lessons and my parents thought I should try it.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

AW: My earliest musical memories would be from the age of five or six by going to school, and there being a man called Frederick Hodgson, who was head of music at the junior school I went to. He also happened to be a countertenor. He has long since died. He wrote a history and anthology of songs for countertenors. I had no idea he was a countertenor until I met him 20 years ago. After that meeting, I went to sing a concert at Hampton Court Palace and he was there. He was a great friend of James Bowman and Michael Chance. He was also a church musician.

PH: So is that where you had your first musical training?

AW: Yes. At that time in Britain, we received free musical tuition at school. I was seven and had always wanted to play something. I started off playing the clarinet, then the saxophone and the piano and the guitar, and then singing. At the age of 12, I won a music scholarship to Eton, but didn’t want to go there. It was too far away and too traumatic and my parents couldn’t afford it. It would have paid all my fees, but to clothe me and have me there was just something we couldn’t do. And I am very glad it did not happen: there is a sort-of pattern of Eton and other private schools, with people coming out in a certain way. I come out as myself, as my own type of singer rather than a traditional choral scholar singer.

PH: How was the transition from being a boy treble to your countertenor voice?

AW: There wasn’t much of a transition. I just kept doing it. My speaking voice suddenly disappeared and went from a high squeak to what it is today. The singing voice just stayed and developed and I never really had to make a choice. (I have a fairly hefty, ugly baritone voice, so the choice was clear.) Anyway, I had never heard of the countertenor voice till I was 12. Someone said to me “I think you are a countertenor”. I answered saying I did not know what that was and went to look it up!

PH: So where did your music education go from there?

AW: I went to the Royal Academy of Music at 16, where I studied two days a week, with the other three days a week at school. I was between a junior exhibitioner and a full-time student. Then at 18 I became a full-time student on scholarship at the Royal Academy, with the clarinet as my principal study.

PH: So, where did singing come into it?

AW: My piano teacher at the Royal Academy suggested that I stop playing the clarinet because he thought I sang better than I played clarinet. That was when singing became more of a direction. I studied with Geoffrey Mitchell, himself a countertenor, in the days of his involvement with the John Alldis Choir and the BBC Singers. He was a contemporary of Alfred Deller, so he knew what he was doing. He is now also one of my closest friends and a mentor; in fact, he conducted the music at my wedding eight weeks ago. He comes and sits in on recording sessions and operas and checks that I am not making mistakes and getting it right. He knows my voice better than anybody.

PH: Is he the artist who has influenced you the most?

AW: Yes, I suppose he is and in every aspect of my life. He introduced me to good wine as well as good music.  He has played a very instrumental part in my development. Another person would be Neville Bower, who was a concert pianist. He was head of music at my grammar school. He was very “old school” in his approach. We played piano duets together, he arranged pieces for me; in fact, when he retired and started composing, he wrote several song cycles which were dedicated to me and which I have performed. My gift to him was to do an entire song cycle of his at the Wigmore Hall; he was there, which was lovely. He died three or four years ago.

PH: With whom did you study in your later training?

AW: With quite a few teachers. I had a little singing teacher in Vancouver called Selena James. And every so often as of the last 10 or 15 years, I have been taking lessons in London with a man called Russell Smythe. In fact, I am seeing him twice next week in preparation of my appearance at the Proms…to keep the machine oiled. It is always another set of ears. I do so much teaching myself that it is good to have someone else to listen to me.

PH: Would you like to mention something of your extensive performing career so far?

AW: Well. I have never not sung. As a boy, I sang in my local parish church choir. I sang my first oratory at age 16 in “Acis and Galatea” for the Reddich Choral Society, Birmingham.  Operatically, I made my debut in the English National Opera 14th February 1992, singing the role of Arsamene in Händel’s “Xerxes”. I was the understudy. Last season I repeated the role in my own right, which is quite nice 20 years on. My performing career has been a mix of contemporary- and Baroque music, of song and recordings. I have also been involved with the Gabrieli Consort, recording with them. I have even recorded the Allegri “Miserere” with them as first soprano…down a semi-tone, but it was there. Still, a fairly traumatic task!

PH: What are your thoughts about being a countertenor?

AW: I’m so glad to be a countertenor. I don’t think I would cope as the more traditional singer. I like the fact that the countertenor is still slightly strange. And when you are built like a big bloke, they sort-of wonder what the hell is going on and where this noise comes from!

PH: Still today?

AW: Yes, I really think so. There is always that element of surprise of not expecting that kind of voice to come out of a person when you see him.

PH: How do you see the countertenor scene of today, with so many different kinds of countertenors performing?

AW: I think it is fantastic. We have begun to embrace a period of time that allows us to be more open to countertenors just being “singers” rather than being countertenors. In the old days, the orchestra would need to play quietly to accompany a countertenor, but I stand in front of an orchestra of over 100 players and am quite happily heard. The countertenor school, once very UK-Britain based, has now moved on, with lots of German-, Italian-, Spanish- and other countertenors. It is really interesting…quite an exciting time.  And they are all as different as chalk from cheese. Some I like a lot and some less, but it is their choice to sing in whatever way they do and I sing the way I do because I like it. It matches my personality, rather than being an effect of a noise.

PH: Do you consider yourself mainly an operatic singer?

AW: Yes. I do, actually. That is what I mainly do. I’m a good actor, a good singer and I like the combination of the freedom that opera gives you to play in a room. I also like rehearsing opera and the operatic form itself. That said,  I am equally comfortable singing concerts and recitals. The concerts are slightly more formalized but there is still the imagination that is necessary to convey a mood or character. I think it is deathly boring if you are sitting through an oratorio – “Messiah”, for example - and you hear “He was despised” as just a beautiful tune, when the question is “What does it mean?”  When I was around 20, I sang it for my first singing teacher, who reacted saying “very good, very good” and asking me write “no cornflakes” over the top of my copy. On asking him what that meant, he said that the way I had sung it was about as interesting as reading the ingredients on the back of a packet of Cornflakes! He then said that there would always be one person in the audience who has never heard it, who has never heard you sing it, so you must make it alive, make it original and commit to yourself. And that is how I think of performing: you have to invest a little of yourself and imagination in it rather than just pressing on and singing.

PH: How do you find British concert audiences?

AW: Very warm. I think they are quite discerning. They sort-of know what they want and what they like. They take a while to warm up to something that is new, I suppose. In terms of my own singing, I think that 50% like what I do and 50% don’t. You can’t change people’s minds; you just have to do what you do and in your own way. Some people might say that they don’t like my singing of Dowland songs, but that they do like me singing other repertoire. It is exactly the same when it comes to people employing me to do what I do: if they like it they will employ and if they don’t, they won’t. But it would be nice to hear audiences being more spontaneous and less restrained in the concert hall if they like something they have just heard! You can perform in the Wigmore Hall and it is deathly silent; you don’t get anything back. Emotionally, the Brits are way behind the rest of the world, even in our politics.

PH: You perform a lot of modern music.

AW: Yes, I do. I can read anything – am a good sight-reader; my first job leaving music college was to work with the English National Opera on a project called Opera Lab. There, we had five singers and twelve composers who would write us music and we would sing it. My agent said: “You can read anything and sing anything” and she sent me there. It’s interesting to meet composers who write for you. I have been very lucky over the years in that there have been over 40 world premiere works I have performed. It’s all very exciting: you can meet with the composer to hear their thoughts on the work and ask whether your interpretation is getting close to the ideas behind what is written. This can be an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time!

PH: Would you mention some of the composers whose works you have premiered?

AW: There have been many amazing composers, such as Sir Harrison Birtwhistle (I have performed 4 operas of his and he has written a song cycle for me), Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Olga Neuwirth, Lisa Lim, Unsuk Chin, etc. In fact, I will be premiering a new work next week at the Proms by Raymond Yiu, a young composer from Hong Kong. And, as mentioned above, I am about to do a new opera by Elena Langer, a very fine composer.  All that part of it is fascinating because you get to create the “benchmark”, I suppose. You seek ownership of these pieces in years to come by being known as having been the first to sing them. It’s rather a nice legacy.

PH: Do you yourself write music?

AW: No. Actually, I have. I once wrote a little Requiem Mass for my father’s best friend’s child who died. If I were to compose some pieces, am wondering whether they would not simply sound like works I have sung. But if I were to just thrash out some improvisation at a concert, would anybody know it had just been made up on the spot and what would the critics say???

PH: Do you write in words?

AW: No. But I like words. I have written some poetry over the years and am quite a good letter-writer, but only personal letters.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

AW: Sure.  I love my teaching. I teach at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and in the Opera Studio of the Hamburg State Opera; I also have some private students. Teaching is something I have always done and about which I am passionate. Even teaching here at Dartington Hall for one week reminds one that it is possible to make anybody a better singer and that it is possible to enable people to sing better. My teaching takes me to some of the best singers in the world and some of the worst, so I see and hear a cross-section. I don’t teach technique, because I don’t think that one technique fits all (some people need different skills) but I think that the interesting thing about singing is the linguistics necessary to teach it. I can teach it in a way that a two-year-old child can understand or I can teach it in the way a neuroscientist will understand. You have to choose your words carefully and to know who is able to accept what you are saying, what your words may be at that particular moment. I think I first started teaching when I was about 13…a bit of clarinet, a bit of piano and flute; I have been teaching singing from the age of 14 or 15. 

PH: How would you like to see the training of countertenors?

AW: I would like to think that the training of countertenors is no different than that of other voices, for the simple reason that the countertenor voice is no different to that of other singers. We all tend to think it is a special voice. Yes it is, but every voice is special and I think that good singing is good singing, whether you are a countertenor, bass or coloratura soprano. One needs a whole grounding in technique, in repertoire, in languages and musicality. Regarding the latter, one cannot be taught musicality: you have to be open to feel some kind of emotion before you can be musical. I am surrounded by colleagues who are maybe not the most musical at times and I think about keeping one’s own high standards rather than going down to the lowest common denominator. As you know, some performers you hear are incredibly musical and some are just very mechanical and have no emotion. For me, what is important is the mix of all the skills at the same time…and to take risks. You must take risks as a performer, as a singer. It’s not just about singing your version: it must be live and original.

PH: Do you feel you are recreating a work each time you perform it?

AW: Yes, but, also at the same time, for the older repertoire, while blowing the dust off it, I think you have to gear the music to suit your own voice and personality. You can’t change your voice to fit into a mould; the issue of whether you have vibrato or not, whether you sing in chest voice, in high voice doesn’t matter, as long as you are conveying something and it is your personal way of doing it.

PH: What is your approach on how countertenors should perform early music?

AW:  The truth is that we have no idea how it really sounded; we only have written records. In fact, I think we are far more skilled now than the castrati  were. Some of them made horrific noises. (We read how people threw carrots and cauliflowers at them in theatres.) You just have to be live and to be now; I don’t think I seriously think about “recreating” it but one needs to stay stylistically within the parameters you are allowed to.

PH: Are you pleased to be an artist performing after the peak of the  authentic early music movement?

AW: Yes. I think we have moved on.  We are within a style but the sound has changed: it has become much more alive and much more direct. You don’t feel you are going to a museum anymore. There are now better players and better singers and we can do anything. Also, volume levels have increased, with bigger ensembles existing. We are also moving away from only using gut strings.

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

AW: My brain is always active. I like to travel, I like to cook, to watch TV.  I collect pictures of streets. It’s just a little thing I do when on tour. I am fascinated by what goes on behind stores in places like Madrid or Milan or wherever. In the streets you see the culture of the people. I’m interested in buildings and architecture. I’m obsessed by the restoration shows on TV.  And I have a little dog, I have a husband and I have a cottage in Suffolk to which I like to disappear. My husband is a very keen gardener, so we have a beautiful garden. I like to walk in nature…lots and lots of walks. And, with so much going on in my life, I’m sometimes very, very, very good at doing absolutely nothing! I think it was David Hare who said “I’d like to be taken out of myself and prefer not to be put back in”. I can identify with that.


PH: This has been most interesting and insightful, Andrew. Many thanks. 


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