Tuesday 18 June 2013

Remarkable variety - interview with Stephen Gadd

The baritone Stephen Gadd is currently appearing at Opera Holland Park in Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci before going on to sing Mr Redburn in Glyndebourne's revival of Billy Budd later this summer. Gadd has become something of a welcome presence at summer opera festivals in the UK, turning in a remarkable series of performances including last year's Sharpless in Madama Butterfly at Grange Park (opposite his wife Claire Rutter in the title role) and Robert Storch in Intermezzo at Buxton. I caught up with Stephen just before one of his performances at Opera Holland Park recently to talk about his career.

Remarkably, he admitted that he has no grand plan regarding his career and seems to simply view himself as a jobbing singer, fitting in performances alongside other activities and family life. He talks about the fact that for him, performing only comes alive when he is finally on stage, when he can begin to create a character. He is charmingly depreciating when talking about himself and his work, saying that he has never had the luxury of plan and has always taken what comes.

'Cav and Pag' is Gadd's sixth appearance at Opera Holland Park, and he is complimentary about the way the company is going from strength to strength both in terms of the performances and the way they are developing facilities at the temporary theatre. His double performance this year came about by tragic accident as the last Robert Poulton was due to perform. Gadd was down to sing Tonio in I Pagliacci at Finnish National Opera and managed to fit Opera Holland Park in by commuting between Finland and London as the end of the Finnish performances overlapped with the London rehearsals. He admits that this was somewhat taxing, keep the two performances separate and found he was somewhat inhibited at developing his character in London until the Finnish ones had finished. It was in this context that he said that he did not really start finding a character until the production moved to the stage proper.  Adding that he felt lucky that Stephen Barlow, the director of 'Cav and Pag' at Opera Holland Park, was the sort of director who let you find a character yourself.

In a few weeks, Gadd will be starting rehearsal for Billy Budd at Glyndebourne and though he has done other Britten operas (including Peter Grimes and Curlew River) he has neither seen nor heard Billy Budd before. When talking about learning a role, in the context of this forthcoming Mr Redburn in Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, Gadd comments that having a long time to prepare does not necessarily mean that he is prepared earlier. As a boy Gadd was a chorister at Coventry Cathedral which meant that he learned to sight-read easily, so that initial preparation is relatively straightforward. He can pick up a role easily and perform it from the score, but memorisation is difficult. His remarkable run of roles recently has meant that he has always had something to learn, there was always something new on the horizon. But when he performs Balstrode at in Peter Grimes Grange Park Opera next year this, at least, will mean a return to a familiar role. Whereas this year, all his roles were new.

Stephen Gadd studied studied Engineering while a choral scholar at St. John's College, Cambridge, before studying singing with Patrick McGuigan in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music. When he left college he starting singing small bass roles such as Colline (in La Boheme) and Angelotti (in Tosca) but he says that this was never really his voice and it was plainly not what he should be doing. He sang the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro at Garsington and at Scottish Opera and realised that this was what he wanted to do.  But he had to go abroad to be able to carry on. An audition in Paris led to work there and to further work in France including singing bel canto in Nantes, Queen of Spades and Curlew River in Rouen. This meant being away from home a lot (he met his wife, Claire Rutter, during the Scottish Opera Le Nozze di Figaro) but it was good experience in decent roles.

When asked why he thought he had to go abroad, Gadd comments that there seemed to be neither the volume of work nor the variety of roles in the UK. And variety seems to be something which Gadd enjoys. But he also points out that there are quite a limited number of casting directors in the UK, so that if you get cast in a certain way it can be difficult to shift, and he feels that this happens to the majority of singers at some point in their career.

He also felt that in France, classical music was treated as a far more ordinary occurrence, commenting that you seemed to see more people listening to classical music on mp3 players and such like. He went on to wonder whether the superior quality of British TV meant that in the UK live performance was less highly valued than it is in France.

Besides Mr Redburn, Gadd will also be performing Father in Hansel and Gretel for Glyndebourne on Tour this autumn. Next summer he returns to Grange Park Opera, not only in the new production of Peter Grimes but also as Yeletsky in the revival of Antony McDonald's Queen of Spades.

Stephen Gadd and Janis Kelly in Richard Strauss's Intermezzo
Buxton Festival Opera 2012
Last year, Gadd's stand out performance was as Robert Storch, Richard Strauss's alter-ego in Intermezzo opposite Janis Kelly as his wife Christine. The opera was sung in English and here Gadd returns to the issue of learning a role (echoing Janis Kelly in my interview with her last year). In this most conversational of operas, the English does not quite fit the underlay of the German, making it it trickier to learn. Gadd also comments that the presence of surtitles in English meant that the singers felt extra pressure to ensure the words corresponded to what was projected.

But there is clearly plenty in Gadd's life apart from family and singing, and he is currently preparing to do a PhD in history. Gadd studied engineering at University but even then had a great interest in history. Subsequently a land archaeology project, which was basically a hobby, led to paid work and he found that he wanted to pursue the interest further. It also fits in with his performing as he had lots of time on his hands in Finland, which he used for research and writing essays, whilst he combines his London performances with visits to the National Archives at Kew for research.

When asked about his ideal role, he cannot come up with one. He goes on, however, to explain that at college he wasn't sure that he wanted to be a singer because it meant being away from home a lot. He likes being on stage, but he also likes being at home and if he could choose, it would be to work in the UK. He finds one or two foreign jobs per year are enough and thinks himself lucky that he is able to work in the UK at the summer opera festivals.

He has nothing but admiration for young singers starting out nowadays as he feels that there is a lot less work around. In the period after Gadd left college, concert work was a staple whereas nowadays this seems to be less and the fees from many choral societies have not kept pace with inflation. Also young singers need to be close to London for work, which means that they need a full time job to tide them over and this doesn't work when combined with freelance singing.

But after explaining all the drawbacks, even today, Gadd laughs and admits that he would still be a singer. At university he was sponsored by British Rail and he realised that he did not want to work nine to five all his live. For Gadd it is the variety that counts, the people,  the places and the roles.

Stephen Gadd is appearing in Billy Budd at Glyndebourne which opens 10 August 2013, he is also appearing in Opera Holland Park's 'Cav and Pag' which continues in repertory to 28 June 2013. He will be appearing in Glyndebourne On Tour's Hansel and Gretel which runs from 6 October to 3 December at various venues. Stephen Gadd and Claire Rutter will also be appearing in concert at the Buxton Festival on Sunday 7 July 2013.

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