Opera + Classical Music Features

Philip Langridge interview: “There’s nothing worse than a director who doesn’t stretch you. I like to be stretched”

Philip Langridge is one of the UK’s most respected tenors, with over 40 years experience on the opera stage, in the concert hall and recording studio. In 1994 he was made a Commander of the British Empire for services to music.

This consummate artist took time out from his rehearsal schedule for The Tempest (he plays the King of Naples) to talk to us about his career and forthcoming plans. Although he’s been at the top of his profession for so long, Philip Langridge is very down to earth, a relaxed, friendly man with a tendency to burst into guffaws of laughter. He has an enthusiasm for his job, as well as the appearance, of a much younger man. For someone who certainly knows his craft, he doesn’t rest on his laurels and still regularly takes singing lessons with his long-time teacher, Iris Dell’Acqua.

He’s clearly not lacking in inspiration, although, like some of the characters he’s played Britten’s Aschenbach, Palestrina (Pfitzner) and Zivny in Janáček’s Osud there is an anxiety that losing your way could happen at any time. Maybe, this fear is part of what drives him to work so hard at something he can do so well.

Last November, he reprised the role of Aschenbach in Britten’s Death in Venice in a couple of concert performances with the Philharmonia on the South Bank. It’s a role that he has all but made his own over the past couple of decades and a work that he’s keen to talk about.

“It’s such a wonderful score. The colours are magical, ethereal; everything you would want to say is there. I love that work. Mind you, it’s tricky to direct and perform. I’ve always thought that Ben would have changed it slightly if he’d lived.” Langridge speculates on what improvements the composer might have made had his death not followed all too soon after completion of the score, in particular a tightening of the structure in the choral sections leading up to the interval. It’s a tantalising prospect.

“I’ve always done concert performances. They often come across as well, if not better, than staged productions.”

“Liberating” is how he describes doing concert or semi-staged performances of operas. “I’ve always done them. They often come across as well, if not better, than staged productions. Nothing gets in the way at all between the words, the message and the audience.” Communication is a key element of the arts for him and he talks about it passionately. He even runs communication classes for music students on a regular basis.

He talks of Aschenbach as being particularly appropriate for concert “stagings” as the part is very stationary, the actions internalised and requiring tremendous concentration and stillness. This ability, to focus the drama with minimal distractions, have stood him in good stead in another area in which he excels; that of recitals. He is as highly regarded in the concert hall as the opera house and in works such as Schubert’s Winterreise, which he has performed to great acclaim many times, he can bring a similar intensity of dramatic presentation. He describes the late song cycle as “an astonishing piece that you can do forever and not get to the bottom of.”

A frequent collaborator and friend he talks about with little prompting is Harrison Birtwistle. Langridge’s son Stephen, an opera director, will be putting on Birtwistle’s new work The Minotaur at the Royal Opera next season and he has cast his father in one of the parts. “He told me I had to audition,” he says, followed by another huge guffaw. There’s more laughter when he recalls Birtwistle phoning him up and asking him to play King Kong in The Second Mrs Kong. “I said ‘Harry, do I look like King Kong?’ and he said ‘What does King Kong look like?’ The image you have of him is just from the films.” Langridge fondly remembers The Mask of Orpheus, which sadly had just one brief run at English National Opera in the mid eighties. “That was so hard. The beginning of the opera taught me a lot. It started as a human sunrise, Orpheus becoming Orpheus. I was under a stage cloth for 15 minutes before it started and then the orchestra started and they moved the cloth and it took 10 minutes for me just to stand up.”

“There’s nothing worse than a director who doesn’t stretch you. I like to be stretched”

Physical challenge is something Langridge thrives on. If a static, deeply-internalised role appeals to him, he enjoys the demands of playing Loge in the Covent Garden Ring, being revived this autumn. “There’s nothing worse than a director who doesn’t stretch you. I like to be stretched. In that production, Keith (Warner) asked me to run, skip and jump all over the place the entire time. And on a rake! I found myself running for the whole two and half hours. That was a challenge and when he first said it, I thought ‘Oh yeah? At my age?’. But he pushed me and it worked.” He insists that artists don’t like to take the easy way out and dish up the obvious to an audience.

There was a time, some five to 10 years ago, when he decided he wasn’t going to take on any new roles. He went so far as to announce that Palestrina (Royal Opera, 2001) would be his last but that’s changed and he’s back preparing for parts he hasn’t played before. “I was finding that everything involved learning, learning, learning and I’d had enough of it. I’d say ‘please choose something I’ve done before’. The learning process is harder as you get older. I’m finding even re-learning The Tempest (which he first did three years ago) is tricky. But I am doing new roles again now I’ve got the Witch in Hansel and Gretel coming up and also Lulu this year.”

Thomas Adés, not only the composer but also the conductor of the current revival of The Tempest is someone else he has an enormous respect for. London-born Adés has certainly achieved a remarkable amount, nationally and internationally, in his 36 years. “Yes, I could spit,” Langridge says laughing out loud “even now, I haven’t done anything like he has.” In addition to a second run of The Tempest, not so common with a new work, Adés has a major retrospective coming up at the Barbican shortly and it seems everything he touches turns to gold.

“I was thinking today in rehearsal, he’s a really nice man, very pleasant and he has this huge talent. I have to point out that he’s nothing like Britten, let’s scotch that straightaway. He really has his own voice. What Thomas does is communicate through his music. If you think about contemporary music, not that many people really communicate. The music for The Tempest may be difficult up to a point, but it has another quality – each character has a different way of singing. Four tenors and each one sings differently. Extraordinary. For me, what makes Thomas stand out is this ability to communicate. To that extent he is like Britten.”

On Simon Keenlyside – “superb actor and singer, a wonderful artist”

Langridge shows a good deal of generosity when talking about his fellow artists, those who inspired him such as the tenor Richard Lewis (“an enormous influence”) as well as contemporary singers he works with. He cites Simon Keenlyside (currently working alongside him in The Tempest) as a “superb actor and singer, a wonderful artist” and Bryn Terfel (Wotan in Rheingold and Die Walkre) as a “fantastic” performer. Maybe his most heartfelt praise is for his wife, the mezzo Ann Murray: “She’s the best; she can sing any time, day or night.”

Future challenges include the new role of The Witch in Hansel and Gretel at the Met, Loge again in the Keith Warner Ring at Covent Garden and a Captain Vere in Billy Budd in Sydney, a role he’s played often. He also mentions a production of Offenbach’s seldom performed Barbe Bleu at Grange Park Opera in 2008 that his son Stephen will direct.

In the meantime, there are just six performances of The Tempest at the Royal Opera House this month. There’s no talk of his retiring just yet but the opportunity to see this great singer and communicator in a work that he clearly values highly is surely one not to be missed.

The Tempest, ROH, 12, 15, 17, 20 23, 26 March 2007

Tickets: 4 – 50 Box Office: 020 7304 4000 or royalopera.org.uk

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More on Philip Langridge
Philip Langridge interview: “There’s nothing worse than a director who doesn’t stretch you. I like to be stretched”
Death in Venice @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Winterreise: Philip Langridge and David Owen Norris @ Wigmore Hall, London