Saturday, 30 November 2019

As a young singer you have to give yourself to patience: I chat to counter-tenor James Hall, currently in Handel's Rinaldo & looking forward to Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream

James Hall as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Montpellier Opera (Photo Mark Ginot)
James Hall as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream
at Montpellier Opera (Photo Mark Ginot)
The young counter-tenor James Hall is having a busy time at the moment. He is currently coming to the end of a run of Handel's Rinaldo with Glyndebourne on Tour, playing Goffredo, and in the New Year will be Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. This is in Ted Huffman's production which debuted in Montpellier earlier this year, also with James as Oberon. At the same time, Elegy, his disc on Vivat of counter-tenor duets by John Blow and Henry Purcell, recorded with Iestyn Davies, the King's Consort and Robert King has recently been released [see my review]. 

I recently met up with James to chat about these in a lively conversation which also covered such issues as the differences between performing in concert and in opera, and the challenges facing young singers trying to build a career.

Rinaldo was at Glyndebourne this Summer, where James was covering the role of Goffredo, which was played by Tim Mead. James found covering the role incredibly useful, it was a real learning curve for him, particularly following an artist like Tim Mead who, having performed the role in an earlier revival at Glyndebourne, gave a really solid performance. With such a small cast, each revival of the opera is different and James has found the atmosphere on the tour different again, as a change of cast bring new perspectives on ideas about the opera. When we spoke, he had just two performances of Rinaldo to go and was just back from performing it in Liverpool, where James commented on the sheer number of record stores!

James Hall
James Hall
Then, in January he moves on to Berlin where Ted Huffman's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream opens at the Deutsche Oper on 26 January2020, conducted by Donald Runnicles. Having performed the role in the production when it was at Montpellier Opera in May, James is already familiar with the production. Though Montpelier was, in fact, his stage debut as Oberon, prior to that he had performed it once during the 2013 centenary year at a garden party. He enjoyed returning to the role in Montpelier, in is looking forward to going back to it again.

When I ask about the production, which he later describes as very imaginative, his first comment is that he hopes he fits into the corset better in January!
Having to sing in a corset he found so bizarre, and very inconvenient. People tell you that it gives you something to push against, but he didn't find it that simple and he now has great respect for those singers who spend a lot of time in corsets!

The production is set roughly in the 1930s with the fairy world being all black and white, inspired by the silver screen so that Oberon has a top hat and slicked hair, and there are glamorous clothes for the lovers, with a minimal set. James is also looking forward to working with a children's chorus as the fairies. For him, the best moment of the opera is the final chorus, 'Now until the break of day' which Oberon sings with the children's chorus of fairies.

Again, James has covered the role at Glyndebourne when Tim Mead sang it two years ago in the revival of the Peter Hall production, which James describes as timeless and beautiful.

James Hall and Iestyn Davies recording Countertenor Duets Photo David Gough Vivat Music Foundation
James Hall and Iestyn Davies recording Countertenor Duets (Photo David Gough/Vivat Music Foundation)
The role of Oberon, sits very low and not every counter-tenor can do it. But James finds that once he has settled into an area of the voice, things are OK. Though performing the role needs far more forward planning and strategy than he had ever envisaged. The first scene, with Tytania, sits slap bang in the middle of the voice, and then afterwards the role sits low. If he gives too much at the opening, there is nothing left for the low notes, so planning is called for. Yet the more he sings the role, the more his lower range settles in.

The role of Oberon was written for the counter-tenor Alfred Deller (in 1960), and James points out that the operatic confidence in operatic roles has grown considerably since then. You can listen to both Deller [Deller's studio recording with Britten conducting is still available, as is the live recording from the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh in June 1960 from Testament] and Russell Oberlin (who sang the role when the opera received its first performance at Covent Garden) and they sound almost like different voice types to many modern counter-tenors.

At this point we have an interesting discussion about low notes in parts for counter-tenors, with James talking about the recent duet disc, Elegy, including a Blow duet with remarkable low notes for both singers, and the roles of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern in Brett Dean's Hamlet [which premiered at Glyndebourne in 2017] both having notes in the baritone register. And I mention the role of Edgar in Aribert Reimann's Lear which is written in both the baritone and counter-tenor registers.

Brett Dean: Hamlet - Louise Winter, William Dazeley, James Hall, Rupert Enticknapp - Glyndebourne on Tour (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Brett Dean: Hamlet - Louise Winter, William Dazeley, James Hall, Rupert Enticknapp - Glyndebourne on Tour
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
With contemporary operas, James suggests that it is tricky for composers as singers want roles which are comfortable to sing, yet also like composers to push the envelope. And he mentions George Benjamin's Written on Skin where James covered both Tim Mead and Iestyn Davies in the counter-tenor role and finally got to sing it at performance at the Venice Biennale [with Christopher Purves, Georgia Jarman, Robert Murray and Victoria Simmonds, conducted by Clemens Schuldt] which he admits was 'a bit of a dream'. He loves singing the role, and commented on the amount that it packs in.

Whilst James enjoyed recording the Elegy disc, and the music of Blow and Purcell is very much the style of music that got him singing counter-tenor in the first place, it was somewhat disconcerting to be standing in some very distinguished shoes in this repertoire. As well as recording the disc, James performed the programme a number of times with Iestyn Davies, Robert King and the King's Consort, and enjoyed this immensely. He enjoys the concert platform, where he can focus purely on the singing, and found the way the performance differed each night gave him immense satisfaction. Iestyn Davies brought a great spontaneity to his use of ornamentation, and James found that he learned a great deal from Iestyn.

In fact, James admits that his singing has evolved greatly over the last year as a result of working with such singers as Iestyn Davies and Tim Mead. He talks about learning from the way Iestyn Davies seemed to have complete confidence when working with the microphone. He has also found that his confidence on stage has grown, and he is learning to be able to be in the moment, to do it and move on; understanding the need for the music to be right at that time, and having the confidence to know that this will work on the recording too. One of their concerts was live streamed, and his girl-friend watched it this way, and saved some clips of him. He found it a strange experience watching a recording of a performance which had only ever been live.

Handel: Rinaldo - Jake Arditti, James Hall, Anna Devin - Glyndebourne on Tour (Photo James Bellorini)
Handel: Rinaldo in rehearsal - Jake Arditti, James Hall, Anna Devin - Glyndebourne on Tour (Photo James Bellorini)
Another major experience was performing Claire van Kampen's play Farinelli and the King on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre in 2017 with Mark Rylance, where James covered Iestyn Davies and sang two performances per week (taking over the evening performances when Iestyn Davies went on tour). The production replicated the play's original setting in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, with the orchestra in a gallery above the stage, audience members sitting on stage and shared lighting, so that the whole theatre felt part of the set. It was a somewhat bizarre experience, very different to usual opera performances, and at times felt almost like performing in a living room. The members of the audience were closely connected to the stage, and the performers could see everyone, unlike opera where the singers usually can only see the conductor and have to 'sing into the abyss'. Working with Mark Rylance was also a masterclass in itself, watching Rylance's face as he reacted (differently each time) to James' singing.

Rylance very much led the company from within, and this was another masterclass for James in how to be a colleague and a leader, and a celebrity. Whatever time Rylance left the theatre, people would be still waiting for him, and he was warm and generous to the waiting fans.


James rather fell into singing. As a treble he was persuaded to join the school choir and when his voice broke he found support from an excellent music teacher who was also an alto in Salisbury Cathedral Choir, and he guided James. The rest seemed to follow, a singing teacher introduced him to the music of John Dowland and others (in the school choir the repertoire had been largely 'Beatles medleys') and from the age of 16 he became obsessed. Hearing Andreas Scholl singing at the Last Night of The Proms in 2005 was a major turning point. It was the first time head had seen a counter-tenor singing solo on a large stage and he realised that that was what he wanted to do.

As well as Oberon in Berlin, James will be singing Handel's Messiah with Edward Higginbottom in Spain, and has a Vivaldi concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to look forward to. He will also be returning to the Academy of Ancient Music for Musick for a While, a concert of chamber music by Purcell (at Champs Hill, 3/7/2020 and Oxford, 6/7/20), and this is the style of repertoire that he hopes to do more of.

Handel: Rinaldo in rehearsal - James Hall, Francesca Gilpin (revival director), Anna Devin - Glyndebourne on Tour (Photo James Bellorini)
Handel: Rinaldo in rehearsal - James Hall, Francesca Gilpin (revival director), Anna Devin - Glyndebourne on Tour
(Photo James Bellorini)
Looking further ahead, James comments that the problem with the Baroque operatic repertory is that you need to be a star to get to sing the major roles like Handel's Giulio Cesare and in fact need to be a fully fledged artist even to sing a secondary role like Goffredo in Rinaldo. Yet a young singer needs to be able to get experience to learn how to do the roles. In this, James finds his time at Glyndebourne important where he has worked on six different projects, covering major artists and learning all the time. Also, the small scale and intimate productions of Baroque opera are important for giving young artists experience, and we should all be supporting and attending them. And not just Baroque, James also mentions the valuable work being done by companies like Tête à Tête in creating contemporary opera.

As a young singer, you usually do a lot of early music and modern pieces and James comments about the year he did a dozen performances of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas alongside a considerable amount of contemporary music, and he learned a lot so doing. James feels that he learned a lot this way after he left college,  But all young artists need to find the balance between hubris and reality; having fallen in love with the job because of incredible performances and roles, they want to emulate them. But a young artist first needs to find their own voice, and you definitely have to give yourself to patience. It does not help that in the modern operatic world everyone is looking for the new buzz singer, and young singers can find themselves seduced into doing things because they always wanted to do it, rather than because it is a good role for them at that point in their development.

So, young singers need to take it slow and steady, but it is difficult to say no, particularly to a UK-based job as most singers love to work at home and it takes a brave person to refuse such a good offer.

James Hall as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Montpellier Opera (Photo Mark Ginot)
James Hall as Oberon in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Montpellier Opera (Photo Mark Ginot)
James does not feel that he was overly successful at college, he was still finding his voice and had confidence issues when performing on stage. Whilst at University he was also a vicar choral at Llandaff Cathedral, and benefited from the choral experience this gave him, and this fed into his concert work. He still finds performing in concerts a profoundly satisfying experience, and comments about recent performances of 'Erbarme dich' from Bach's St Matthew Passion with the AAM, where he felt that he was performing with the musicians rather than simply on top of the orchestra, as can happen in opera.

James is still finding the right balance between concert and opera performances in his career, and he quotes Andreas Scholl who once described himself as a concert singer who does opera, and James enjoys the discipline of the concert stage. Every performance is different, and this transient nature means that you have to make the music live and breathe all the time. With familiar works like Bach's Passions, James lives with the music every day and finds great beauty in the works' gradual progression. With rare works, you really only have one go at the piece, yet still have to give a solid performance of it.

James finds concert performances easier, to be himself and perform, whereas in opera he has to learn to be comfortable as someone else. In concert, you have to have the ability to be on stage and just be, to give and emote, but in opera there is so much more. In any performance, the singer has to be red hot inside, even if they are still, so that the smallest gesture counts. James is interested in trying to make audience members sit forward, to draw them in. And James admires the type of singers who draw you in by singing honestly, and feels he can learn a lot from such performers.

He found there were plenty such moments in Farinelli, watching both Mark Rylance and Iestyn Davies. But there was also the reaction of the audiences, as there were often audience members who were unfamiliar with the counter-tenor voice. Whilst this is rarer nowadays, with the prevalence of recordings, it still happens. And James talks about his delightful experiences in 2018 when performing Malcolm Williamson's Oscar Wilde-based opera The Happy Prince with the children of Jubilee Opera, many of whom did not know what a counter-tenor voice was and showed surprise and delight when hearing James for the first time.

Handel: Rinaldo - Glyndebourne on Tour - Theatre Royal, Norwich - 6 December 2019
Britten: A Midsummer Night's Deram - Deutsche Oper, Berlin - 26 January - 22 February 2020 (five performances)
Full details of James' performances from his website.

Elegy: Counter-tenor duets by Blow and Purcell - Iestyn Davies, James Hall, The King's Consort, Robert King - Vivat [support Planet Hugill by buying this from Amazon]

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