Opera + Classical Music Features

Iestyn Davies interview – On An Anatomy of Melancholy, exploring Dowland, depression and Denmark



“I don’t try to think of myself as an Early Musician… I want it to feel like a song I could sing to a member of Jo[e] public who hasn’t heard a lute song before.”

Iestyn Davies

An Anatomy of Melancholy / Iestyn Davies (Photo: Lightmap)

Iestyn Davies is arguably the UK’s most famous countertenor, with a back catalogue of around 60 recordings, and an impressive list of live appearances across the globe that include not only prestigious opera houses and concert venues such as La Scala, the Barbican and The Met, but also runs on Broadway and in London with Farinelli and the King. His latest project is to be another collaboration with Director Netia Jones for a seven performance multimedia production at the Barbican’s Pit Theatre: An Anatomy of Melancholy. musicOMH caught up with Davies in his Brussels hotel, newly returned from a holiday in Los Angeles.

Davies is well known for his performances of Early Music but he’s keen for them not to be seen as museum pieces – a kind of accurate reproduction of “what it was like then”. He performs always to the audiences of today, as the quote above suggests, and for him, interaction and communication with listeners are key (as a sidebar, we touched briefly on the violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto’s astonishing ability to communicate with audiences). All of this dovetails perfectly with the upcoming Barbican production featuring Davies as a kind of ‘melancholic for our time’. His musical material will all be by the lutenist and composer John Dowland (c. 1563–1626), but he’s keen to emphasise that the production will not focus on the Elizabethan age, but will explore, across all ages (with particular relevance to our lives now) the concept of “working through” melancholy (what we might these days call “therapy as a treatment for depression”). “It’s not a clinic”, he’s quick to add, but he suggests that audiences may come out of the performances with an understanding of how the treatment of ‘melancholy’ can be more than a quick fix with medication, and that, as in the past, music and poetry that encapsulate an understanding of “the melancholic state” may be offer help and understanding.

Jones’ inspiration for the multimedia work, apparently came from a pressed flower that fell out of a copy of John Gerard’s 1597 Herball; other works on melancholy, though, contribute text for the work, including Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy (from which the title of the work is taken), Sigmund Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, and The New Black, a book by the contemporary psychoanalyst Darian Leader, suggested by Davies, who is his former neighbour. The texts will be combined with images projected onto screens set up around The Pit, and Davies tells me that there is to be no pre-timing of these projections: Jones and he will be responsive to each other, such that, along with the instrumental accompaniment (provided by the brilliant lutenist Thomas Dunford, with whom Davies has worked many times) the visual elements will work in synergy with the music. The production aims to examine humanity’s relationship with melancholy – both the emotional and the scientific. It will reflect on ideas about mourning and melancholia, scientific and analytic responses to loss and melancholy, its botanical and pharmaceutical remedies, the emotional meeting point between intense beauty and overwhelming sadness, and the recurring idea of the powerful consolation that art can provide.

The choice of Dowland’s music chimes well with the historical inspiration of Gerard, as they were contemporaries. But more so than this; Dowland was, arguably, the first composer to explore, through his songs, his own melancholic state in such detail – indeed, his own motto was ‘semper Dowland, semper dolens’ (‘always Dowland, always doleful’). Exiled from England and his family for his Catholicism, he spent many years working for Christian IV of Denmark, where court musicians played in the cellars, with their music filtering up to the royal apartments through a system of pipes. It is perhaps no wonder Dowland had reason to be ‘doleful’, but it is also possible that he suffered from a more organic form of depression. “Perhaps”, says Davies, “Dowland had these roller coaster emotions himself; perhaps his music was his own therapy”.

“He performs always to the audiences of today… and for him, interaction and communication with listeners are key…”

Iestyn Davies

Iestyn Davies (Photo: Chris Sorensen)

Rehearsals for the work begin next week, but Davies is excited to be part of something that is given more than one performance. The synergetic nature of the production means that “every show will be different, and this is great – although it’s not as easy in ‘classical’ music”. He feels that the run will give him more license to play with the material: “I don’t yet know what it will bring, but I am sure that there will be a difference between the first and last performances”.

I take the opportunity to ask Davies about what he feels about the unique sound of the countertenor voice, and how he came to make it his instrument (it is, after all, a voice that requires a particular technique, and isn’t a natural extension of a ‘singing in the shower’ voice). He muses on a performance by Lake Street Drive he attended in LA, and the voice of their (mezzo range) singer Rachael Price, and how, while it is beautiful and characterful, it’s when “singers belt out a high note that the crowd loves it”. Davies feels then, that the unusually high range (for a male falsettist) is what attracts people – even if not all the music (we agree on Britten’s ‘I know a bank where wild thyme grows’) is stratospheric: “it’s like watching a tightrope act… like car-crash tv…” he suggests.

In terms of how he began, he describes it as “serendipity of timing… chance, not Michael Chance. His treble voice (he sang in the St John’s Cambridge choir) had broken, and he was singing bass at Wells and decided, on a whim, to sing an alto line in some Bach. One of his fellow singers noticed it and said that it sounded good. After this, he developed the voice, which he said “was difficult but enjoyable; I liked how it made me feel – it was an ‘out’ from being another bass”. It was, then, a very personal expression for him, and he never wanted to feel that he was aping someone else, or necessarily following the burgeoning trend for countertenors that we saw from the 1980s onwards.

An Anatomy of Melancholy runs at the Barbican’s Pit Theatre from 27–30 October, with performances at 21:00 each day, and a 16:00 performance on each day except 28 October. It is directed by Netia Jones, and features Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Thomas Dunford (lute). The performance at 9.00pm on Fri 28 Oct will be livestreamed, with tickets available to buy both in advance and for 48 hours after the live screening.

• More information is available on the Barbican website.


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Iestyn Davies interview – On An Anatomy of Melancholy, exploring Dowland, depression and Denmark
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