We speak with the countertenor about making his operatic debut in the Grange Festival’s new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Grange Festival has gone from strength to strength over the past few years, and 2021 marks yet another step forward for this idyllically set, always exceptionally well cast Summer event. The Festival kicks off with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was intended to celebrate the work’s 60th anniversary in 2020, except… but the 61st will have to do, and it is no less eagerly anticipated.
To say it’s cast from strength would be an understatement – the group of ‘Rude Mechanicals’ includes Ben Johnson and Gwilym Bowen, and the principals are led by Samantha Clarke, the winner of the 2019 International Singing Competition, and Alexander Chance, son of the renowned Michael, making his operatic debut as Oberon. We caught up with Alexander in the midst of rehearsals, and asked him about his career and the eagerly anticipated production.
Some parents say ‘no way’ when their children express the desire to follow in their footsteps – what was your father’s attitude?
Well, my mother’s attitude initially was “no way”, but that was more because she wisely wanted me to be aware at an early stage that the life of a touring musician can be very lonely. My sister and I were lucky enough as kids to be able to go on holiday with our mum and see dad perform all around the world, but in general growing up we didn’t see much of him.
My dad was very careful not to give me too much advice either way, but rather to allow me to find out for myself what was good and bad about being a singer. I think he and I agree that there’s nothing inherently unusual about following in one’s parents’ footsteps – it’s just that countertenors are a fairly rare breed, so it is a talking point to find two from the same family (although this has happened before) and of course I will end up singing a lot of the same repertoire as him.
Did you find that people took for granted that you would become a singer?
I was very sure at school and even at university that I wouldn’t be a singer. I enjoyed singing in my school choirs, and as a choral scholar at New College, Oxford, but always alongside academic work and sport. I never wanted it to dominate my time, and, frankly, I was never good or hardworking enough at school for the thought of having a career in music to enter my mind. It was only when my countertenor voice started developing at university that people started suggesting I might take it more seriously as an option. And then at law school afterwards, when I was missing lectures to go off and do my first professional concerts, it became obvious to me and my friends there that I was having much more fun as a singer.
This MSND is quite a big step for you – your stage debut. How have you approached the role of Oberon?
The thing I’ve come to realise through learning this opera is that Britten is incredibly exacting in what he wants from his singers. His scores are very detailed, and if you follow his instructions, you’re off to a good start. And because a lot of his music is complicated, you need to know it inside out before you can tackle the role physically. So I spent most of the lockdown winter months (and there was plenty of time for it) making sure I knew every detail of the music as well as possible. Technically, however, it is much less daunting than taking on a Handel role. I wouldn’t want to be thrown onto a stage singing tricky coloratura da capo arias with a small band accompanying me, without having had some acting experience first.
Have you been influenced by previous notable Oberons?
To me it is clear that when Britten wrote this part for Alfred Deller, he had in his mind Deller’s interpretation of Purcell songs – particularly the rhythm and the range of ‘I know a Bank’, so that’s something I keep at the back of my mind when I’m singing it. The first Oberon I saw was my dad at Glyndebourne in 2001. Obviously at that age I found the idea of a parent doing anything on stage in public hugely embarrassing, but I think it was the first opera I saw (or possibly the second after Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen), and the magical Peter Hall production, so it left a huge impression on me. I think James Bowman sings it beautifully on Richard Hickox’s recording.
Do you have a singing teacher apart from Michael?
Yes I do, although it’s been very tricky to see her in the past year because of the pandemic, and I hate doing lessons via Zoom, so it was very useful to have a few lessons with Michael when I was staying with my parents in the first lockdown, and it was probably the first time we’ve both felt comfortable doing them!
Your Oxford Bach Soloists St John Passion was remarkable. Have you had a long association with them?
I started singing with OBS as a student, around the time that Tom Hammond-Davies set up the group. He’s a good friend of mine, going back to our time together in the stalls at New College, and I’ve loved seeing him build up OBS’s reputation over the years. There’s such a wealth of talent in that city, and Tom’s doing a fantastic job getting younger singers involved in Bach cantatas, which represent a huge musical and linguistic challenge. The St John Passion this Easter was special, because it was the first time in months that I’d been able to see, let along sing with, some of my best friends in the music world.
What are the most challenging alto pieces you have sung? ‘Es ist vollbracht’?
I would say the alto solos in Bach’s St Matthew Passion are harder than the St John, mainly because there are more of them (especially if they’re not divided up into Alto I and II). But yes, in general I find Bach’s music the most challenging to sing, although ultimately the most rewarding. Arias like ‘Erbarme dich’ from the St Matthew Passion are the sort of thing it takes years or possibly decades to master.
You’re involved with quite a few ensembles – what is special to you about the Tallis Scholars, Vox Luminis and the Gesualdo Six?
Each of these groups is special to me in a different way – I joined them all back in 2016/17 when I was just starting out as a singer, and I’ve made great friends from all of them. G6 were in their early days when I started singing with them, and although I’ve now left, we grew together and started performing more and more internationally, and I was privileged to be on their first three recordings. Vox Luminis are based in Belgium, but formed of international members from many European countries, Canada, Australia and the US (and I love them all). So this was my introduction to working regularly with international musicians, and also, since the group is a ‘soloist ensemble’, to performing in prestigious venues as a soloist. And The Tallis Scholars have been performing some of my favourite music, renaissance polyphony, at the highest level for nearly 50 years, so being a part of that for the past few years has been a dream come true.
Do you have a particular role you dream of playing?
Not particularly, although I am very excited by the fact that lots of new roles have been written in recent years for countertenors by composers like Jonathan Dove and George Benjamin. I want this trend to continue.
What are the challenges of Oberon?
One challenge is that he doesn’t have a huge character arc – he spends most of the opera trying to get what he wants, and when he eventually gets it, I’m not sure the experience changes him all that much. However, there is complexity within that: he is volatile and capricious, malevolent and creepy but also vulnerable and sensitive. He wants the best for the fairy world, but he is willing to do some fairly dark things to achieve it. Vocally, the challenge of the role lies in how low it sits. Making him heard in the opening scene with Titania, who sings the same notes but an octave higher, is not easy!
Do you see him as the genial sort played by Tim Mead at Glyndebourne in 2016, or are you more the slightly sinister, patrician Oberon of James Bowman?
There’s no getting round the fact that he’s sinister, because he drugs his wife while she’s sleeping and spends most of the first act fantasising about what vile beast she is going to fall in love with when she wakes up. He has moments of geniality, especially with Puck, but there’s always the danger that he will snap at any moment, and Puck is sensitive to this.
The Grange Festival has decided not to have the orchestra in the pit but to use recordings with singers onstage. How have you found this new style of presentation? To someone not taking part, it seems extremely challenging.
It has been done a few times before, most notably Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach in 2013. It’s not one continuous track, but hundreds of individual cues, often only a few seconds long; this should allow the singers a good degree of musical flexibility on stage. We haven’t actually started rehearsing with the orchestral tracks yet (that’s next week), so I can’t say how challenging it will be, but I think it will work in the auditorium.
What are your future plans as far as opera is concerned?
To do more of it!
The Grange Festival opens with A Midsummer Night’s Dream on 24 June 2021, followed by Rossini’s La Cenerentola which has its first night on 25 June. Another much-anticipated event follows on 26 June, in the shape of the new production of Manon Lescaut, directed by Stephen Lawless and conducted by Francesco Cilluffo. Regular attendees at The Grange will recall the latter’s triumph with the 2018 Falstaff – another star from that production, Elin Pritchard, will sing Manon.
July brings My Fair Lady (first night 8 July) with a starry cast including Ellie Laugharne as Eliza and Richard Suart as Pickering. Finally, a most unusual event for a Summer festival – King Lear, not in Reimann’s operatic version but in Shakespeare’s words, acted by singers. Keith Warner directs, and the roles of Lear and Gloucester are played by John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen respectively. With just three performances – 14, 15 and 17July – this is another one not to be missed.
Full details and booking at thegrangefestival.co.uk