When English National Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha returns to the Coliseum later this month, tenor Alan Oke will reprise his tremendously affecting performance as the saintly Mahatma Gandhi.
Talking to him a week or so before opening night, I begin by complimenting him on a terrifically powerful performance of another contemporary work at last year’s Proms: a concert staging of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus.
Admirers of the composer got to hear just the second act of the work this time but it was a highlight of the operatic year, not least for Oke’s Orpheus. “There was talk of putting it on afterwards, as there often is with these things,” he tells me, “but I don’t know if that will come about.” It’s an exciting prospect, especially if Oke were to play the part in full.
We move on to Satyagraha, a very different contemporary opera, which is being revived in Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch’s spectacularly visual staging, with its startling use of puppets and projections. “It’s not like anything else you’ll see,” says Oke, “it’s a world all of its own.” I ask him how he approaches playing so iconic a figure as Gandhi: “When I first did it, I didn’t find I was immersing myself in the character as much as I thought I might,” he says, “doing the usual sort of research didn’t seem as relevant as if you were doing it in English or even Hindi. To us the Sanskrit [which the whole work is written in] was just sounds. It’s also not a literal story with a traditional narrative.”
It’s certainly far from being a biographical history and I suggest that Glass’ work presents almost an abstraction of Gandhi, an idea more than a person. “Yes, it’s all about creating atmospheres and the physicality is tremendously important. Of course, I’ve got to know a lot about the historical Gandhi but this is almost symbolic. It feels as though we, the singers, are providing a soundtrack to all the extraordinary stuff going on onstage. It requires incredible focus and concentration.” I ask him if he feels upstaged by the puppets, which dominate the action, certainly in physical terms. “Not really,” he replies, “I saw it at the Met (where I also made my debut playing some of the performances) and it didn’t seem to me that the singers were being overwhelmed, despite the visuals being so amazing.”
I talk to him of the difficulty of making good drama out of non-conflict, in the light of Peter Brook’s latest theatre work 11 and 12 (currently playing at the Barbican), which, on a theme of religious tolerance, follows a similar slow and meditative course as Satyagraha. “It’s very difficult to bring off that sort of thing but I do feel that Glass does it,” he tells me. “There’s a kind of alchemy in it. We’re very lucky, of course, in having the involvement of Improbable [McDermott and Crouch's physical theatre company]. That was a stroke of genius bringing them in.”
We move on to talk about another stunningly good performance Oke gave, as Aschenbach in Britten’s last opera Death in Venice. He played the part in Yoshi Oida’s pared-down, but very beautiful, production in Aldeburgh three years ago. It was subsequently seen at Austria’s Bregenz Festival, as well as Prague and Lyons (and soon in Toronto), all with Oke as the decaying writer. I suggest to him that he brought tremendous sympathy to this awkward and potentially abhorrent character.
“Well, I do feel for the man terribly. It’s difficult to make him sympathetic and there’s a danger, if you try and do that, of it just looking tawdry. It’s a delicate task.” Oke certainly succeeded in conveying the tragedy of the man. The Aldeburgh run came hot on the heels of ENO’s spectacular and very different production, in which the younger tenor Ian Bostridge played his first Aschenbach. While Bostridge impressed, Oke’s was more mature and real, with singing of great beauty amidst the anguish.
He speaks highly of the director’s rigorous approach, which resulted in something much simpler than Deborah Warner’s Coliseum version. “You mention Peter Brook and, of course, that’s Oida’s background – he worked with him in Paris for a long time. In fact, Yoshi came and saw Satyagraha the first time (I didn’t know him then) and he said afterwards that he found the staging too extravagant, that he felt it was a strong enough piece to stand on its own without all the staging that we bring to it.”
Another of Oke’s striking characterisations of recent years was Bob Boles in Phyllida Lloyd’s superb Opera North production of Peter Grimes, played as a lank-haired weirdo (one of many in the community Lloyd created so vividly). “I’ve got a photo of it,” he laughs, “and I look just like Frank in Shameless.” The central role in the opera is one that Oke would love to do (opera managements please take note!). Another Britten role that he aspires to, perhaps more than Grimes, is Captain Vere in Billy Budd. It nearly happened this year, when he was down to play it in Buenos Aires but Satyagraha came up and then the production was cancelled anyway.
He’d also like to do Janacek’s House of the Dead. He’s played Sapkin in the David Pountney production but would like to take on other of the tenor roles, perhaps Skuratov, and then, of course, Birtwistle’s Orpheus appeals, especially after the work he did on it last year.
I realise that all our talk has been of twentieth century works, and predominantly from the second half of the century, and, knowing that earlier in his career he played parts like Puccini’s Pinkerton and Rodolfo, along with Florestan and several Mozart roles (he actually started as a baritone), I ask him if he minds being primarily thought of now as a performer of contemporary repertoire.
“No, I’m quite happy doing this sort of work. The lyrical roles are behind me now. They were thrilling to do at the time but I’m very satisfied doing the music theatre pieces we’ve been talking about. I don’t mind if I’m being pigeonholed.”
As with so many singers, he’s not at liberty to talk too specifically about future work although he can reveal that he has some interesting projects coming up at the Met. While this exposure will bring this fine performer to the attention of a wider audience, it hopefully won’t mean he’ll be away from our shores for too long. Grab the chance to see his outstanding portrayal of Gandhi during this run at the Coliseum.
Satyagraha opens on 25 February. Tickets on 0871 911 0200 or online at www.eno.org