12 Mar 2009

Charles Workman — the American dying to sing “Acis” for the Royal Opera

American? Well, yes, that’s what it says on one of his passports, but the other is British and he and his family reside in the UK and have done since 1995.

Yet when the curtain rises on 31st March at Covent Garden on their innovative double-bill of Handel’s Acis & Galatea and Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, there will be many in the audience who will be unfamiliar with the name, so I took advantage of an offer to speak with the Arkansas tenor recently, whilst he took a break from rehearsals in London.

“Well, it was a family decision to move over originally, as my then-wife was British. It’s funny but you know there’s a strange sort of law that says no matter where you decide to settle as a singer, the work seems to come from somewhere else! I’ve been very lucky with my career in mainland Europe singing Rossini, Mozart, the French repertoire and modern opera — and of course four Handel roles as well — but you know I was also attracted by the sheer quality of the work going on this side of the Atlantic, compared to the sometimes rushed production schedules and lack of new productions in the States. I also felt that it was important to feel comfortable with the languages I was singing in — and I think I’ve got a fairly good grasp of the main ones now — and it helps a lot.”

I wondered if he had ever regretted his decision to move over here? “No, not at all, and the way the States has been going over the past eight years or so, the whole zeitgeist there was unattractive to me, although now with Obama maybe things will change.” Did he consider himself an American or European singer then? “I think neither strongly, but I guess more European than American and it’s interesting that many Europeans I meet who hear me for the first time assume that I’m British — they seem to think my musicality, the way I sing, is more of that ilk, you know, a less pushy, a more reticent style? But I don’t think I am pigeon-holed in any way, either in style or repertoire as I’ve never wanted people to think of me as only a Rossini tenor, or Mozart singer or whatever.”

Does that very flexibility cause any problems in adjustment for him? “Happily no, I can sing Hindemith and then Handel within days without any great shift in the brain — I just try to listen to what the conductor has to say and sing accordingly. I’m not, for instance, trying suddenly to become an early-music singer overnight!”

This anniversary year double bill of Handel and Purcell at Covent Garden is innovative in that the well-known choreographer Wayne McGregor (who also directs the operas) has now added ballet sequences to Acis, to complement his previously-created work for Dido (first shown at La Scala, Milan). That latter work received mainly good notices in 2006 for the way that the dance integrated with the music, the choreography seeming to “visualise” the instrumental sections whilst merging with the soloists and chorus. Charles Workman, two weeks before curtain up, had only just met the dancers on stage for the first time, as McGregor, he says, prefers to put the works together in two separate parts in the early stages. How had the collaboration gone so far? “Very well, Wayne is good to work with, he knows what he’s doing and even if he makes changes, they’re for a good reason which makes sense, he doesn’t dither, he works with a purpose — it should be a great show.”

On the musical side, the operas will be under the baton of Christopher Hogwood, one of Britain’s great period music directors, working with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Did Workman prefer the period band approach to music-making? “Absolutely. Not only the different colours you get, and the lower pitch is helpful, particularly for this role, but there’s something about the period musicians that I like. Maybe it’s because they had to make a choice early on in their careers to commit to this music, and therefore have a particular sort of focus? They seem really devoted to what they are doing, really committed, and that’s great to work with.”

In view of his relative lack of presence on UK stages up to now (compared to his regular stints in Paris, Munich, Barcelona, Milan etc) I asked Charles Workman if he’d be happy for this role to re-invigorate his career closer to home, to heighten his profile here a bit. “Of course, and hopefully it will — it would make life a bit simpler!”

So, is the American in London looking forward to his first Acis? “Oh yes, and it’ll be nice to die, for a change, at the end!”

Sue Loder © 2009

Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea
Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London.
Six performances commencing 31st March 2009.