Sound Advice – Interview with bass-baritone Iain Paterson
With his critically acclaimed debut at the prestigious 2007 Salzburg Easter Festival as Fasolt Das Rheingold under Sir Simon Rattle, Iain Paterson confirmed his status as one of Europe’s leading young bass-baritones. He recently made an impressive house debut at The Metropolitan Opera as Gunther Götterdämmerung under James Levine, which immediately led to further invitations. In the future seasons Paterson will also make major debuts at Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala, Houston Grand Opera and Bayreuth Festival.
Recent highlights include Jochanaan Salome at the Salzburg Easter Festival and with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Simon Rattle, Gunther for the Opéra de Paris, Amfortas Parsifal, Mephistopheles Faust and Don Giovanni at the ENO. Paterson also performed Elgar The Kingdom under Sir Mark Elder with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, Beethoven Symphony No.9 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and made a welcoming return to the BBC Proms.
Iain Paterson studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Some of the operatic engagements at the beginning of his career included Biterolf Tannhäuser for Opera North, Timur Turandot and Titurel Parsifal for Welsh National Opera, Graf Lamoral Arabella, Le Bret Cyrano de Bergerac for the ROH, Leporello for Opéra de Nancy et de Lorraine, Theseus A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Teatro Real Madrid and Glyndebourne Festival, and Figaro for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. As a former ENO company principal he sang Gunther, Figaro, Foreman Jenufa, Schaunard La Bohème and Amonasro Aïda.
In previous seasons, Paterson has also sung Don Giovanni for Chicago Opera Theater, Amonasro for the Bregenz Festival, Monterone Rigoletto for the ROH and ENO, and Bottom A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Caen, Toulon and Nancy. He made his house debut at the Opéra de Paris in 2009/10 season as Fasolt Das Rheingold under Philippe Jordan to critical acclaim. He also appeared as Mandarin Turandot and Monterone for ENO and Redburn Billy Budd in a new production by Graham Vick for the Glyndebourne Festival.
On the concert platform, he performs with major orchestras with repertoire include Shostakovich Symphony No.13, Beethoven Symphony No.9, Elgar Dream of Gerontius and Elijah, Verdi’s Requiem and Messiah. He works regularly with Sir Mark Elder, Gianandrea Noseda, Edward Gardner and Paul Daniel, and has appeared at the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International Festival.
Engagements in the 2011/12 season include title role in Fiona Shaw’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro for the ENO, Gunther in Robert Lepage’s new production of Götterdämmerung at the Met and later for the Bayerische Staatsoper, Fasolt for the Staatsoper Berlin, Beethoven Symphony No.9 with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Hallé Orchestra, Dream of Gerontius with the Bournemouth Symphony, and Christus St Matthew Passion with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
Iain Paterson is represented by Intermusica.
What were your ambitions as a young bass baritone at college?
My chief aim then was exactly as it is now. I wanted to sing at the highest standard with the best singers and conductors in the world. I had designs in my mind of the roles I wanted to sing but my singing teacher Jeff (the late Jeffrey Neilson Taylor) told me, ” You can’t dictate where the voice wants to go. You have to let the voice lead you”. I didn’t have in mind roles like Figaro or any of the ones I am singing. I wanted to sing Wotan. I wanted to win the ‘Olympic medal’! Though really Italian repertoire had to be the main aim.
Retrospectively, how could your experience at college have been improved upon?
I found there to be, and I don’t like using this word, quite a lot of ‘charlatanism’ at college. This is a real problem. I mean to say, how is it possible for people who have never had a career to know what it takes? It should be vital that there is tutelage available from mentors who are now intrinsically involved with the demands of the job or have had a distinctive performance career. I also found it non-sensical that I studied at a conservatoire of music and drama (The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and yet there was no contact for trainee opera singers with the drama teachers. To my mind there should have been a cross over of the departments whereby we could have had the benefit of those specialised acting classes. Also, no one told me how to file a UK tax return let alone know that I had to process a tax return when I worked in France. Business training was distinctly lacking.
In truth I feel that I graduated from college with a certificate of postgraduate studies never feeling convinced of what it meant or what the relevance was of having it. I emerged from college having never sung a major role. Not one. Instead I had a repertoire of obscure works which the college had chosen me to perform in. Retrospectively I feel putting more of a focus on presenting opera scenes would have been better and would have given me a firmer start repertoire wise. In America I discovered that the training was far different to the UK. Opera students receive intensive training and coaching on six roles relevant to their voice type.
The importance of languages was woefully underplayed. I came late to languages but feel strongly that more emphasis should be placed on their importance very early on in training. Essentially, if you’re communicating something to your audience you’ve got to know every nuance of what you’re expressing. The first stage of preparing the language of your role is to, not only translate it, but transliterate it. You must study the context of the grammar and the shape of the phrase. It isn’t enough to just know what it means. I find language coaching to be invaluable because they tell you exactly how they speak. It goes beyond whether or not you should be singing an open or closed vowel but the musicality of an accent and ‘cadence’ of speech are important to consider. Regional accents are important as they infer so much about the character, the background or the way something is expressed the way that it is. Even if you’re not a native speaker this informs your performance hugely. The second stage of preparing a role in this way is to go through each of the other characters and work on your reactions to them and what they are saying to you”.
What were the realities facing you as a young bass leaving college?
Attitudes at college were unrealistic. I discovered that there seemed to be this notion that you could call yourself an opera singer by being grand but without actually putting the hard graft in. The bubble bursts when you leave college and discover the sheer hard work it takes to succeed. It wasn’t about grandeur. One of the things that struck me when I left and met reputed bass singers like Clive Bayley and Gwynne Howell, was that they were normal guys. It became clear to me that the best singers don’t feel the need to talk about how good they are. They just simply work hard and get on with the job.
The reality for any young bass leaving college at the age of 21 is that no one takes you seriously. As a soloist you aren’t of any real interest to opera companies at that young age. You’ll remember as I do, that the mood at college was such that they didn’t favour the idea of chorus as an option. Joining an opera chorus was seen to be the ‘death knell’ of the aspiring opera singer. In my opinion being a part of a chorus at that age helps you formulate how you think of the profession. The opportunity came up for me when I was visiting my teacher Jeff in Yorkshire, to audition for Opera North. The reality was that this job made it possible for me to pay for my singing lessons and be closer to my teacher geographically.
What were the benefits of being in a professional opera chorus at the early stage in your career?
I spent four years as part of Opera North chorus but actually singing very little chorus. I got to sing small roles and little ‘one liners’ and I learned a great deal from those snap shot experiences. The first one I got in my own right was Zaretsky in ‘Eugene Onegin’. I also got to cover roles there and my first opportunity was to cover Clive Bayley in “Tannhauser”. Looking back I got much more out of singing those small roles and one liners than covering more substantial roles. You are learning all the time on stage being very much at the heart of the production in a tiny role and you are up there every night singing with great experienced singers. For me, the whole process of covering roles was something I felt I had to tolerate. I looked on it as part of my apprenticeship but nothing can replace the reality of physically being up on that stage. I remember John Tomlinson’s advice to me. He said, “Get the roles in! No matter how small they are. Sing anything. You learn much more being on stage in the smallest capacity than you do sitting in the stalls watching.”
How did the progression from chorus to freelance soloist occur?
I auditioned for Welsh National Opera and they agreed to take me on a ‘trial run’. I got to do four shows of “Turandot” on the extensive tour they do of England and Wales in the role of Timur. Dennis O’Neil was singing the Calaf so again I was surrounded by great singers of quality. Though I felt shy to approach them I found working alongside these singers a gift and part of my apprenticeship. I’d make sure that in addition to watching how they worked on stage that I would talk to them in person. I remember that the great bass Norman Bailey couldn’t drive and needed to be chauffeured for the last shows so, I obliged, ferrying him back and forth for two hours a day from venue to his home. I made sure I made good use of that time inquisitively asking key questions when admittedly I should have been watching the road!
Can you recall the moment which felt like a turning point for you? The ‘big break’? How did that come about?
I remember it very clearly. It was the 2007 Easter festival in Salzburg singing with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle in the role of Fasolt in Wagner”s “Das Rheingold”. It is all down to my agent, Julia Maynard, that it happened at all. I owe her everything! I was in the late stages of rehearsing Schaunard in “La Boheme” on the morning of the audition and was due to sing Figaro that night for English National Opera. Julia insisted I do an audition since Eva Wagner-Pasquier would be on the panel. Not knowing quite the significance of who she was I grudgingly battered my way through my audition arias thinking my agent was crazy to encourage me to go ahead due to my schedule. The outcome of that audition was to change the course of my career significantly as Eva Gardener-Pasquier then invited me to have a session with Sir Simon Rattle for the role of Fasolt. When I arrived in Salzburg to work with Rattle I was really struck by how kind he was in addition to being an outstanding musician. It goes back to what I was saying earlier…those people who know they are good are just ordinary, very genuine people with no evidence of an ego.
I read recently that, in addition to understandable nerves, you felt quite star struck at your Met debut with James Levine in the pit and John Tomlinson beside you on stage. Tell me about that moment.
I was standing onstage with Levine in the orchestral pit and Tomlinson beside me and a 4,000 seater theatre packed with opera hungry theatre goers! It was quite an experience! Levine was fantastic. He was with you every step of the way responding to everything you did. You could make a hash of a phrase and he would be with you, carrying you, making it all make beautiful musical sense.
What about rehearsing a role? Do you think it’s important to learn to mark big roles in rehearsal?
To my mind the practice of marking a role belongs to another time when singers might have been travelling trans- Atlantic or from one country to the next several times in a week singing big roles. Due to jet lag and acclimatising then, yes, marking would be a survival method. However, in my opinion, marking a role in rehearsal is time misspent. It’s important to use the time to physicalise the role, to feel the stretch and expanse of it. You need to know that you can deliver that role under all circumstances and you need the time to sing it in to your body and voice. Let me put it another way. How does a 100 metre sprinter mark? Jogging is hardly the same skill! You have to build stamina. Once an athlete knows he can run the distance he then distills and hones the movement to get the best peak performance he can.
What’s your feeling on auditions? Do you mind that a singer doesn’t always have feedback from an audition panel even though they might have sacrificed a great deal financially and otherwise to do it?
It is my understanding that there simply isn’t time to respond to every singer who walks into an audition room when a casting panel can be auditioning over 200 singers in any week. Each of those singers is delivering on average three arias per audition so time really is of the essence. Ultimately I feel that a lot rests with the responsibility of the singer. Singers cannot be spoon fed. It is up to the individual to step up to the plate and be ready for an audition and to be prepared to face the reality themselves of why they might not have been successful. I feel that deep down, you know the reason why a panel won’t choose to hear you again. Singers must learn to be independent of such feedback. In all honesty, statistically you have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting every role so rejection is as much a part of the job description as success. There also seems to be an epidemic of “guru-ism” around when students will run from teacher to teacher in search of the perfect answers. It doesn’t work like that. One must collate and filter. Take on board the advice which works for you and if there are any recurring common points which require addressing then address them.
If you had a golden piece of advice to pass on to singers, aspiring and established what would it be?
Don’t sing too much! I know singers who have spent half an hour warming up singing scales and arpeggios for half an hour in the dressing room only to find that they struggled to have the freshness and stamina to deliver the actual role on stage. My teacher Jeff would warn, “Don’t leave your voice in the dressing room!”. If you spend all that time perfecting the scale of G major but can’t sing the aria what’s the point? Pavarotti didn’t really warm up and was famed for saying that he just checked to see if the voice was there. Vocal cords are quite resilient but they are also small and fragile and do tire. The muscles and the support can tire as the roles get bigger.
Part of the whole aim of learning to sing well is learning to live with not singing at your best. One must work on their “not quite my best voice”! We singers are our worst enemies in that we are constantly analysing every sound we produce. What we hear and feel isn’t necessarily what carries over to the audience in the theatre. You can spend all your time on your 100% voice which one can only produce a fraction of the time, and neglect working on the 80% voice which is the voice we have to deal with most if the time. There’s always a reason why we can’t constantly be at 100%. Either it’s too hot, or colds or allergies interfere or you just don’t feel at your peak. So you need to be able to be great at 80%. I use the metaphor of an athlete with a certain degree of trepidation, but we could consider ourselves “athletes of the larynx”. Athletes, in the true sense, hone their game so that they can accomplish the same level of skill with less effort. Roger Federer is more shrewd in his game than he once was. He doesn’t expend as much extraneous movement on the court as he once did. A performance is never set in stone. It’s constantly changing. The other night, whilst singing Gunther at the Met I chose to experiment with a particular phrase and really went for the high note. Later on I was thinking, “What the hell did I do that for?”. You need to know your voice well enough that you know when to save and give.
How do you stay empowered as a singer enough to keep doing what you are doing at this level?
In chess terms the truth is you are a pawn as a singer in the industry. You’re not a Knight or a Queen or a King unless you are Bryn Terfel so in that way you have no power. To stay empowered you have to give people as little room to criticise you and your product as possible. Protect your reputation. Turn up on time, be a good colleague and know your music and the language of it inside out.
What does the next year hold for you?
Well, it’s kind of a blessing and a curse but, due to the bi-centenary of Wagner’s birth, I shall be singing five Ring Cycles throughout the world singing the same role. When you repeat roles in that way the challenge is to discover something new inside, not only every new production, but every performance.