Saturday 15 August 2015

Messiah, Memory and A Midsummer Night's Dream - an encounter with Robin Tritschler

Robin Tritschler - photo credit Garreth Wong
Robin Tritschler
photo credit Garreth Wong
The tenor Robin Tritschler recently sang in the BBC Proms performance RVW's Sancta Civitas, and was described by one reviewer as luxury casting. He has also been busy on the operatic stage, singing with Ashley Riches in Garsington Opera's new production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. He is about to go to Austria to sing Lysander in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Klagenfurt, before then he travels to Austria for some Schubert recitals curated by John Gihooley (artistic director of the Wigmore Hall), leaving little time at home. I was lucky enough to meet up with him for coffee, whilst he was between rehearsals. We had no particular agenda, so talk moved from Robin's forthcoming performances to his love of creating imaginative programmes for song recitals. And in fact we started off by talking not so about music as the act of learning it.

Iain Burnside and Robin Tritschler at the Wigmore Hall, rehearsing for a BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert - photo credit BBC/Ben Collingwood
Iain Burnside and Robin Tritschler at the Wigmore Hall,
rehearsing for a BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert
photo credit BBC/Ben Collingwood
Discussions turned to his preparations for A Midsummer Night's Dream (his first Lysander) which he sings in Klagenfurt and he wryly comments that his memory of Lysander is 'still in that cloudy moment, one line drifts into the next', adding that the part is all in the aether above you. This leads us to the general topic of memory and how singers remember such vast quantities of material. For Robin, memory happens because of movement and action, he remembers by being in the set.

Last year Robin sang the role of Ananda in Pierre Audi's production of Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream at Welsh National Opera. When I saw the opera  (which intercuts Wagner's final scenes from his intended final opera on Budda), it was at the Barbican and sung in English but David Poutney (artistic director of WNO) wanted to put the Buddhist sections in the original language Pali (which is the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism) with the Wagner sections in German. Robin and Claire Booth visited don in Oxford who is a world expert in the language and he took them through the basics. But work could only start properly when they were supplied with a word for word translation. For Robin an essential part of learning is knowing what every word, every syllable means even in a language like Pali. In fact, the process was made trickier for Claire Booth who had sung the role in the same production in English.

Robin Tritschler and Claire Booth in Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream - WNO - Photo credit WNO
Robin Tritschler & Claire Booth
in Jonathan Harvey's Wagner DreamPhoto credit WNO
Some singers find it difficult to sing role in the original language and in translation, and I ask Robin if he has trouble but he cannot think of an operatic role which he has sung both in the original and in translation. He mentions Haydn's The Creation which he has sung regularly in both English and German, but we agree that this is not the same as in oratorio the singers usually have the score as an aide memoire. Though here he uses two scores, one in English and one in German and he finds that his memory cannot easily switch from the one to the other.

Regarding speed of learning, he admits that he can do it quickly but there is a danger that the role will not stay in the long term memory. Robin likes to spend as long as he can learning a new role. He likes to be well ahead of himself, and can be looking at a role for a year just a little at a time. The memory of a role has to be automatic, when you are on stage you cannot be thinking about the what the third line of the second song is.

Looking further ahead Robin has a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at the National Concert Hall in Dublin with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Cristian Macelaru), along with around a month of Messiahs. This isn't completely deliberate, other years December has included Bach's Christmas Oratorio (in Dresden) and Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ. But Messiah is a work that Robin loves singing. It is now a work that he has sung 100's of times, all over the world; it seems to be a work which has resonance everywhere, and every performance seems to be different. A long work, uncut it can last three hours, Robin feels that it can be a long sit unless it is a good performance. In Portugal he once sang an uncut performance, which included all the alternative arias, which didn't start until 9pm at night, whereas he has sung performances in Italy which were cut so heavily that they hardly made sense.

When Robin first learned Messiah, it wasn't his favourite work and it was only when he sang it with a particular soprano that he realised that it can be a truly musical experience. For Robin, magic can often happen in performance and you find that a piece just works, when in rehearsal it didn't seem to.

Born in County Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland, he sang as a child but stopped when his voice broke. When he finished school at 16 he sang a bit, folk-songs and such, but had no idea what he wanted to do next. His father suggested he take a year off and try something different so he took up music. He learned everything from scratch, and eventually singing took over and he found he loved song. He went to every concert he could, discovering everything he could and he talks of being envious of a student nowadays hearing Dichterliebe for the first time. He studied first in Dublin, where the available repertoire in concerts was a bit limited, and he did not know what a Britten or a Wagner opera was; he had never heard them live. And he certainly had no experience of performing opera on stage, and his teachers did not push him into it an let him find his own way.

Welsh National Opera 2012/Beatrice and Benedict, © Robert Workman
Robert Tritschler in Berlioz's Beatrice et BenedictWelsh National Opera 2012
photo credit Robert Workman
When he came to London, to study at the Royal Academy of Music he still had never sung in opera and remained protected whilst at the RAM, concentrating on song and oratorio. He only came to performing in opera late, after he had left college when he realised that opera singers did not necessarily have huge voices, but simply well made ones. And he was already singing in oratorios, which can require just as much power and projection. Of course, trying to get operatic roles when you have no college experience of opera can be tricky, but John Fisher, then artistic director of Welsh National Opera, took him under his wing and Robin sang small roles with the company, leading to larger ones.

One of these larger roles was Benedict in Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict (which I saw with Robin as Benedict), a lovely production originally made for the New Theatre in Cardiff and hence slightly ill at ease in the larger Wales Millennium Centre. When he first started learning the piece, he did not understand the opera and found it a mess of noise. But reading Berlioz's memoirs Robin came to understand that as Berlioz wrote everything on the guitar this affected the sound of the piece. And he now calls it 'marvellous, and funny'.

For Robin, singing in opera has its drawbacks. He loves the drama of opera, but you are away from home for a long time and he wishes that it was closer to home. Opera does however have the practical advantage that having learned a role, you might get 10 shows out of it rather than just singing it once or twice. And for a young singer needing to make a living, performing in opera is financially important too.

As Robin is a lyric tenor, I am curious whether there are roles which he would like to sing and he admits that he would love to sing Verdi's Otello, a role we agree is highly unlikely. Outside of opera, Robin loves singing song and singing Bach and counts himself luck to have sung practically everything Bach wrote, as well all as lots of Handel and Haydn. He has sung what he describes as 'tons of Schubert' and nearly all of the Hugo Wolf songs.

He enjoys exploring unusual repertoire and putting programmes together and in fact much of our conversation is an enjoyable ramble through the highways and byways of creating satisfying programmes (along with the problems of getting hold of music). He has a habit of going into second hand shops and buying music (after we part he announces that he is off to Travis and Emery to look at music), and has performed pieces where he has had the music on his shelves for 15 years. He would love to sing Tosti's songs, but is not yet sure he has the right voice and style for them. Tosti's songs require a lot from the singer, as they got from folk-song to requiring real vocal power.

Somehow our conversation moves on to the subject of songs being sung by men or by women. The first time Robin heard Schubert's Die Winterreise it was song by a woman, and it sometimes seems easier for women to sing songs written for male characters, rather than vice versa. And he talks about having the 'pronoun debate' when putting programmes together, trying to decide whether a song has a specificity to a particular gender.

And putting programmes together is something that Robin loves, but he also feels that as it is his name on the programme he should be responsible for the content. He enjoys sitting down and discovering music he doesn't know and complementing it with something he does know, and regards himself as very lucky that somewhere like the Wigmore Hall will accept a programme. He spends a lot of time doing it, and clearly enjoys it and of course no-one is paying him to do it. And it is also expensive. When he put together his Shakespeare programme Songs from the (Bard's) Shows (see my review of his recital with Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall in February 2015) he bought lots of music. He feels that it is easy enough to put together a straightforward programme together, but that it is not exciting. He doesn't need the audience to know the links between the songs, but for him it is extremely important. For the Shakespeare programme, these links were not just the subjects of the songs but the way the keys moved from song to song. Things that the audience might not notice, but it really pleases him. And in recital, this thing can affect the way a live performance flows

His disc of World War I songs, No Exceptions, No Exemptions, took three years to plan and he had a huge pile of rejected songs. For this disc, the composers had to be involved in the war and preferably the poet too. So it involved not just a lot of music, but a lot of reading. For a new recording project he learned 55 but used only 36 and to find the songs he looked through over 40 opuses.

With such a lot of work, he has to hope that he can repeat a programme and has learned his lesson having made a programme which was specific to a particular date! And his next disc will be something which can sit on the shelf for a long time (as opposed to the World War I disc which has a limited shelf life, though there is hope of a furry of activity in 2018).

Robin's diary for the rest of this year offers little scope for time at home, and you wonder when he manages to see his partner, though he does talk excitedly about a holiday at Christmas time (presumably after all those Messiahs). Robin's pages on the Askonas Holt website include a full timetable. You can catch him at concerts at Schloss Atzenbrugg in Austria with Ailish Tynan and James Baillieu (25 August 2015), and Immo Karaman's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stadtheater Klagenfurt, conducted by Alexander Soddy, the young English conductor who is the theatre's music director (29 October - 14 November 2015), further information from the theatre's website.

You can hear Robin via the audio player on the Askonas Holt website.

Robin Tritschler on Planet Hugill:
Robin Tritschler in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Garsington Opera, 7 June 2015
Robin Tritschler and Graham Johnson at Wigmore Hall, 1 February 2015 
Robin Tritschler and Iain Burnside: Britten and Schubert on Wigmore Hall Live
Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau: No Exceptions, No Exemptions on Signum Classics 

Elsewhere on this blog:

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