17 Jun 2011

Jeremy White and the British character singer tradition

Divas make headlines, but character singers are fundamental to the British opera tradition. “Character singing,” says Jeremy White, one of the stalwarts of the Royal Opera House, “is much more than just voice.”

“We’re not mobile scenery,” says White. “We’re part of what makes opera theatre.” Composers write character parts for a reason. Often they’re pivotal to the drama, even if they don’t involve long stretches of singing. The Sacristan in Tosca, for example, is level headed and sensible, a counterfoil to Tosca’s wild extremes and to Scarpia’s devious cunning. White will appear in the forthcoming film of Puccini’s Tosca, to be released at HD cinemas from September 2011.

When White started singing at the Royal Opera House in the 1990-91 season, he used to study his great predecessors like John Dobson and Philip Langridge, tenors, and Eric Garrett, like White a bass baritone, who created 70 roles over 40 years. "They were men of the theatre", says White. “The moment they walked on stage you knew exactly who their character was, and what their backstory might be. They might have only 30 seconds, or maybe two minutes, but they could instantly establish the presence of a personality.” White mentions an early production of Mozart The Marriage of Figaro. Count Almaviva was seen at an ornate inlaid chess table, plotting his stratagems. Garrett rushed in with Cherubino’s hat, misread Almaviva’s gestures and knocked every chess piece to the ground. “All this in a few seconds, but impeccable timing…. I watched as many of his performances as I could.”

White has inherited the tradition, for his repertoire ranges from early polyphony through to contemporary opera. Recently he sang Daddy Hogan in Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole. He was so good he was barely recognizable as the same man who sang Dansker in Britten’s Billy Budd at Glyndebourne last year, or Reinmar von Zweter in Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House in December, or, indeed, the genial Sacristan in Tosca two days before we met. That’s a sign of a really good character singer: he seems to become whatever part he does.

“Until last week, I was singing five roles,” says White. “This week, only three.” But these are the Sacristan in Tosca, the Bonze in Madama Butterfly and Le Roi in Massenet Cendrillon.

“The part of the Bonze,” he says, “lasts only one minute and forty seconds, of which 25 seconds happen off stage. It takes forty minutes to get the makeup and costume on and then I have to rush on. The music’s as wild as Hell’s Kitchen, the Bonze is yelling. It can be a panic, as the music is extremely difficult and you can’t see the conductor. Then you go off and you think, was that alright? And you know you need another half an hour just to get the makeup off.” Short as the part is, it’s crucial, for the Bonze’s curse severs Cio Cio San's links to her own society, so when her hopes are dashed, she sees only a violent end. There’s much beauty in this opera, but the Bonze’s savage outburst reminds us that there are much darker undertones.

A week after Madama Butterfly opens, Cendrillon begins. Rehearsals overlap. “One day I’m singing a homicidal maniac and the next it’s all looney tunes.” This is the premiere of the first production of Cendrillon at the Royal Opera House. ”I hope I’m not giving anything away too early,” he says, “but it’s absolutely hilarious! Cartoon acting, and so much fun. It keeps you on the go.”

“Character singing is a whole different ball game to ordinary singing,” White adds. “ Completely different values. You have only a few moments in which to make maximum impact. No comparison with singing an aria in a concert hall. You’re responding to musical cues, and to what’s happening elsewhere on stage. What’s on the page is forgotten once you’re fully into the role and singing.”That fluency comes from a solid foundation in the craft of singing. “Young singers’ heads are often full of magic, but the main thing is to really learn your craft, so thoroughly it becomes instinct. Ballerinas do their barres, visual artists draw. If you don’t keep on form, you get rusty.”

White takes out a notebook and shows how he prepares. He copies his part out by hand and makes notes. “The very act of writing out helps to fix things in my mind. Sometimes when I’m singing a part like Ramfis or Selim in Il Turco, the notebooks get pretty fat, but I can carry them around and have them on hand whenever I need. It saves a lot of heartbreak, because if you put in the hours behind the scenes you internalize the part. Everyone gets moments when they get fuzzy, but if you’ve absorbed the part properly, it flows. When you become the part, then you can go for that extra X factor!”

“In live music what you want is more than generalized loveliness, you need to communicate. You have to address the text or you’re not even in the position the composer was before he started writing. So think about meaning. When I started singing, I sang a lot of Handel. There are many exquisite passages which a true personality can inhabit. It made my blood boil that it was once fashionable to bleach things out so they didn’t sound human. In Handel’s time people went to the opera to get excited. Fights broke out, people used to eat meals and dally with their lady friends.”

White started singing as a choirboy in Liverpool Cathedral, but took his first stage role aged only 7, as the second witch in Dido and Aeneas. At 11, he sang Josephine in HMS Pinafore. “I was a Heldentreble then. I screamed.” Later he won a choral scholarship to Oxford, where he read first at Queen’s, then at Christ Church. He moved to Guildford, one of the active centres in British choral music, and was a founder member of the Tallis Scholars and member of The Sixteen. Then one day a friend phoned about a vacancy with the BBC Singers. He had a young family by then, but it was too good an opportunity to miss.

The BBC Singers are renowned for their versatility. They sing everything, from medieval polyphony to the avant garde. They’re formidable sight readers. White learned Brian Ferneyhough’s Transit, for six singers and very large orchestra. “In the bass part there was one bar under four brackets, then a triplet bracket, and underneath throughout, a slow rhythmic beat. We got out calculators to work out how to sing it.” With such a foundation, a singer can find work anywhere. Although White’s love for fully staged opera won out, he stills sings Requiems, Mahler, recitals and concert performances and of course Bach and Handel. It keeps his voice in good singing form, and makes a change from stage work.

In his long career, White has worked with many different directors and conductors. “When I started at the Royal Opera House, Bernard Haitink was conductor. He had an extraordinary ability of bringing out the best in everybody just by being there, even without saying a word. Everyone felt valued and it channeled through Haitink.”

“Tony Pappano has a huge range and is so dynamic. He always talks about finding the energy that replenishes itself. When you get into a voice in the right way, it’s like riding a magic carpet, you never tire.”

White enthuses about singing Wagner. Recently he sang a concert Das Rheingold and realized how comfortable he felt. He’s done Die Meistersinger many times in different roles. Sachs, after all, is the ultimate character part. “A Wagnerian is more likely to complain about their legs being tired from standing on a rake than their voice being tired. Lighter stuff can wear you out because it’s like always being en pointe, but in Wagner, once you get into the phrases, it’s liberating, like swimming, and you can become the part.” Besides singing at the Royal Opera House, White also appears at Glyndebourne, at the ENO, at Opera North and in European companies like De Nederlandse Opera and Bregenz. A good character singer makes a lot of difference.

Anne Ozorio