Saturday 25 February 2023

A bit of a whirlwind: counter-tenor Francis Gush discusses his forthcoming debut in the title role of Handel's Giulio Cesare with English Touring Opera

Francis Gush in rehearsal for Handel's Giulio Cesare with English Touring Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Francis Gush in rehearsal for Handel's Giulio Cesare with English Touring Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Tonight, 25 February 2023, English Touring Opera (ETO) launches its ambitious Spring tour at the Hackney Empire with a revival of James Conway's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare, conducted by Sergey Rybin with Francis Gush in the title role and Susanna Hurrell as Cleopatra. I first saw Francis in the role of Arsace in Handel's Partenope with HGO in 2019 [see my review], he has also covered Athamas in Handel's Semele with Opéra de Lille and performed in Purcell’s The Indian Queen under Emmanuelle Haïm at the Opéra de Lille. I caught up with Francis, via Zoom, in the middle of rehearsals to talk about Handel's writing for the voice and how it suits him, learning Cesare and his ideas about the character, as well as the wider world of Baroque opera and how his lockdown job of being a builder helped when he returned to opera.  

Francis comments that rehearsals were going well but that it was something of a whirlwind, and they had just had their first stage and orchestra rehearsal. For Francis, having the orchestra makes it easier to get into the emotional landscape of the piece. Francis had never sung in Handel's Giulio Cesare before, and in fact, his casting with ETO was rather late notice (at the beginning of January), so he had to prepare the piece in a month. He had done a couple of the arias before, but there was much learning needed, and it was a challenge, learning all the recitative on your own. He spoke the text at first, which took a lot of time, and the notes are so moveable and not always intuitive. It needs you to learn not just your part but the whole drama. Francis had not seen James Conway's production before [it debuted in 2017, see my review], but people he studied with have been involved in the production previously. 

The title role of Giulio Cesare was written for the great castrato, Senesino, who famously had quite a narrow range and the role sits relatively low. But this suits Francis, the role is a good fit for his voice. It is a challenge, however, you need to be versatile with both lyrical and coloratura music. A big sing, the role requires lots of colours in the voice.

Francis Gush & Susannah Hurrell in rehearsal for Handel's Giulio Cesare with English Touring Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Francis Gush & Susanna Hurrell in rehearsal for Handel's Giulio Cesare with English Touring Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)

At first, the role can feel a bit two-dimensional, after all, Cesare is there to conquer and is the standard, Handelian hero, noble and moral. But, by the opening of Act Three, everything he has, has been stripped back. Cesare is at his lowest ebb and reveals his real character. This provides an opportunity to show real humanity, and his character starts to feel genuine. But by the end of the opera, Cesare returns to the feeling of the opening. This brings out the question of how are you supposed to show Cesare, has he been changed by his experiences? Francis hopes to make this clear in performance, but decisions can be different each night. That is the joy of performance.

In April 2023, he is also singing Arbante in Stradella's 1678 opera, La Forze dell’amore paterno with The Barber Opera in Birmingham. Until he was asked, Francis had not heard of the opera though it does have a history of performance. The invitation to sing the role came along before Giulio Cesare, and he is looking forward to getting into it.

With ETO, Francis will be giving nine performances of Giulio Cesare, rather more dates than usual for a Baroque opera (by contrast, Barber Opera is giving three performances of the Stradella), touring it to Hackney, Poole, Sheffield, Cambridge, Snape Maltings, Canterbury, Cheltenham, Buxton, Leamington Spa and Exeter. It feels special, taking such a Handel opera around the country, providing different opportunities for people to experience the music, and Francis notes with delight that they are even performing in his home town of Canterbury where the choir participating in the performance is directed by Francis' former music teacher. And not only does the tour provide such a variety of music to so many people, but ETO is a great company to work for.

Francis' experiences so far have largely been with Baroque music, Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Handel and so on, but there is a lot of fine contemporary music being written for the counter-tenor voice. He would jump at the chance to sing more contemporary music, however, he admits that many of these contemporary roles sit quite high, something that he says is not his 'wheelhouse'. By contrast, Handel and Monteverdi suit him.

Handel: Partenope  - James Rhoads, Will Pate, Francis Gush, Jennifer Begley Hampstead Garden Opera (photo Laurent Compagnon)
Handel: Partenope  - James Rhoads, Will Pate, Francis Gush, Jennifer Begley
Hampstead Garden Opera in 2019 (photo Laurent Compagnon)

During lockdown in 2020, he went from a full diary to nothing, a situation that applied to many in the performing arts, and different performers handled it in different ways. Many did something else entirely, and that they had to do so highlights the frailty and fragility of their chosen careers. And, coming out of lockdown, many singers opted for stability rather than returning to the precariousness of performing. A friend that Francis plays sport with is a property developer, building houses and he suggested that Francis come and build houses for him, so Francis spent a year as a builder. He admits that at the start he was pretty useless and that it was a good job he had been employed by a mate who has something invested in him, But though it was a steep learning curve, he became useful and the skills came in handy when he was doing up his own house. He feels the year gave him great life skills, he met a variety of people and had an interesting time.

It was hard to know whether performing was ever going to come back, and he is delighted that it has but it is difficult to know the way things are going. And he feels that it was useful that his year out gave him a different skill set. One that is useful in performing, after all in opera you are trying to convey a real-life character. So to have gone out into the world to meet different people and experience different situations is helpful. The music world is such a small one, and certainly not as diverse as it could be, so you don't necessarily get an experience of real life, so his lockdown year as a builder can only help.

Also, he thinks that going away from performing and returning afresh has helped him as a performer. He has learned to relax and realise that he is doing it for the love of it and not to achieve something. And this has made a real difference, and he is so much happier.

Francis Gush
Francis Gush
Francis discovered singing quite late. He studied music at University, but this was academic music at Oxford, and he had played the flute but had not studied singing. During his second year, he joined an a cappella group and discovered he had an alto range. Then he depped for a friend, as he could sing alto and read music, and discovered singing. He was offered a place in the choir at Magdalen College, Oxford during his third year and he decided to study singing as an alto. Much to the surprise of everyone, he adds.

When I ask about heroes, he comments that there are a lot, he had respect for so many in his field. He mentions counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo, as a singer, artist and musician, for the way he interprets the text. And Francis was lucky enough to work on the role of Giulio Cesare with Zazzo. Other counter-tenors he mentions Bejun Mehta, who has a very different voice to Francis, and the young counter-tenor Patrick Terry. Francis comments that it is now rather exciting times for his voice type, as it is advancing more and more into the mainstream, becoming more integrated into the opera world rather than seeming to be separate.

Looking ahead, there is a certain element of wait-and-see in Francis' diary, after all, Giulio Cesare came so late. But he is being kept busy enough and as well as ETO and Barber Opera, he has performances in Germany and recitals with Leeds Baroque.

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Francis Gush (Cesare), Susanna Hurrell (Cleopatra), Carolyn Dobbin (Cornelia), Margo Arsane (Sesto), Alexander Chance (Tolomeo), director: James Conway, conductor: Sergey Rybin
At Hackney Empire (25 Feb), Lighthouse Poole (10 Mar), Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield (13 Mar), Cambridge Arts Theatre (13 Apr), Snape Maltings (20 Apr), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (28 Apr), The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham (4 May), Buxton Opera House (11 May), Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa (19 May), Exeter Northcott (25 May) - further information from ETO website.

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