He had arrived in the city with the rest of the cast a little earlier, and we spent the next sixty minutes of his busy day in a nearby hotel discussing not only his musical past, but also his plans for the next ten years of his life as an opera singer. If time seemed to weigh heavily on his mind, it was in a most positive way: he was, at only twenty-six, anxious to grasp the best opportunities whilst not backing himself into any musical backwaters or cul-de-sacs. Not a bad idea with some of Europe’s best known musical directors knocking at his door.
In the world of baroque opera, which has blossomed both on stage and on disc in the past twenty years, there seems today to be an almost bewildering plethora of that once-rare voice-type: the countertenor. Just six or seven years ago, it seems one was able to count on the fingers virtually every countertenor currently then singing in opera—today it is a very different story with every conservatory and music college regularly turning out a growing number of this popular, if particular, voice-type and with literally dozens now singing regularly throughout the world in repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to Dove. However, inevitably, this also means that the competition is becoming ever more intense.
Having read some glowing reviews of his work, I was interested to hear how Iestyn Davies fitted into this picture, and wasn’t surprised to learn that he comes from a musical family. So often this seems to kick-start a young talent and enable connections and decisions to be made with minimal error. Despite his very Welsh-sounding name, (for those unsure, it should be pronounced as “Yes-tin”—the Welsh form of “Justin”) which he derives from his father’s homeland of South Wales, Iestyn was in fact brought up in the north of England with his mother a teacher and his father the cellist in a well-known chamber quartet of the 70’s and 80’s, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. So music, if not singing, was integral in his young life and he was introduced to the piano before he was even four years old—something of which he thoroughly approves. “When you’re only four, with no experience of life to make choices, I think it’s important for parents to open music up for you when you are so young—before you can really speak—whilst your ear is still training your brain. I didn’t actually enjoy learning the piano but I had to practise to achieve happiness in the lessons and I went through all the grades (examinations) so at least now I am proficient enough to accompany myself in rehearsal—although I must say my score-reading is pitiful!”
From those early days he followed what might be termed the quintessential musical path for the classic English countertenor voice: boy chorister, then choral scholar at an Oxbridge college, in his case St. John’s, Cambridge, a college that has recently risen to musical eminence alongside its more famous brother, King’s.
However, unlike his renowned predecessors such as James Bowman, Michael Chance, and Robin Blaze, Iestyn Davies has determined to find himself a niche in the world of opera from the very start of his professional career, and reviews of his performances to date suggest that this is probably a good move. He has enjoyed his time in choral and ensemble work, but feels that it’s not good to mix that with solo or operatic opportunities. “I don’t feel it’s right if you want to sing opera and develop a solo career to try to do both, such as singing in a “St. Matthews Passion” as a chorus member and then stepping out to do a solo “Erbarme Dich”. Your audience is going to be confused as to who you are. I’m lucky that I’ve worked with Robert King and The King’s Consort but I had to make a decision to tell Robert that I felt I needed to take a cover job being offered at the English National Opera in “Semele”—which meant leaving the Consort. But the upside is that Robert is now booking me as a soloist.”
Such decisions can’t be easy for a young singer to make, and it prompted me to ask if there was any pivotal moment in his career when he suddenly found himself taking that step from promising student singer to young European professional? “Yes, there was, but nothing dramatic I’m afraid. By chance I heard that a friend of mine, another young singer, had signed with this agency and was getting work so I decided to take a chance and invite them to my performance in the Finals of the Handel Singing Competition in London in 2004. And it all went from there……I came second, and won the Audience Prize—which delighted me I have to say—and the agency, van Walsum of London, took me on there and then. So it was a good decision! Now I have people who know the opera scene, know how it works, and can advise me with a long-term, strategic view of my career. And I’ve been offered plenty of work.” I wondered how he was coping with making decisions about what to do, and what not? “That’s where I find my agent’s experience really helpful. I’ve recently had to turn down good roles due to clashes of dates—always a problem due to the advanced planning of the opera world—and at first I was a bit concerned about this. But after talking it through, I now realise that I have plenty of time and other such roles will come and also that certain others will expose me to working with wonderful directors who really understand the voice-type, such as David Alden. I’m singing Human Frailty/Pisander in his production of “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria” for Welsh National next September and I can’t wait to do it—such a great opportunity and I hope to learn a lot from it.”
How does he categorise his voice? “Well, essentially it’s a “Senesino” voice—if Handel wrote for that singer, then it’s a role I can sing I think. So a lower-lying countertenor/alto voice would best describe it and I’m happy in that sort of tessitura and that style. However, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy learning and singing modern compositions that really test the voice and expect me to leap around the staff in a way that Handel would never do…. But I approach that sort of work in a different way. Strangely, I find that learning the more “difficult” modern repertoire easier than the baroque material that is perhaps “easier” to sing…..something to do with the way you have to really learn each note of the new music, one by one, whereas your brain thinks it knows where the Handel or Vivaldi is going! Yes, I like doing modern repertoire but I can’t say I’m naturally attracted to lieder or mélodie of the 19th and 20th centuries—it doesn’t really gel with my background or academic interests—but I’ve nothing against other countertenors who do enjoy it, and whose voices suit it, such as David Daniels, exploring non-standard repertoire on their recordings and in recital. I just don’t think that it’s something I’d naturally want to do myself yet.”
I mention that some people have compared him to certain other well-known countertenors, such as Andreas Scholl, and this brings forth a robust response. “I think there’s a problem there when people try to categorise your voice by reference to another singer’s recordings that they’ve heard. They forget that recordings are just that, and not perhaps representative of that singer’s live singing voice, and they can tend to regard just one or two recordings of arias as benchmarks, or stylistic patterns that you should be trying to emulate. That doesn’t give a young singer much opportunity to develop his own style. And it can happen with musical directors too—I’ve seen how certain conductors can have a set idea of a character’s “sound”: for instance, Tolomeo in Handel’s “Cesare”, which is often thought of as a rather aggressive, chest-voice-driven alto. That’s their decision of course, but I think that for me that would be an unnecessary, and unhealthy, way to sing. I know that James Bowman is still singing in his 60’s but he is an exception really, and some countertenors seem to have trouble with their voices in their mid to late forties, even if they then come through it and continue, so I’m keen to try to sing correctly as much as possible. I’m sure it’s something to do with the fact that we use a different, thinner, part of our vocal cords, but we’ll learn more as time goes on and more of us mature into that age-group. In opera terms, the voice-type is still quite young.”
Moving on to subjects dear to every singer’s heart, mature and young, I wondered how he was managing the practical difficulties of both making money and retaining personal relationships in the chaotic and itinerant world of opera. Unfazed, his response was typically direct and optimistic. “Well, I’m making a living I’m pleased to say, and the real problem is one of cash flow—you don’t get the money immediately and you can’t foresee how the money will actually come in. And at the moment (a small smile) there’s no problem with my girlfriend as we’re in the same opera!” He is referring to young Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn, who sings the role of Hamor’s lover Iphis in “Jephtha”. “We have a place in London at the moment, but who knows what will develop and where we will live as our careers go in different way; at least at the moment we’re enjoying working together and getting reviews like ‘Davies and Wyn exhibit real chemistry on stage’—I’d be worried if they said ‘no chemistry at all’!”
Finally, I asked him where he would like to be in five years time in his career—what would his performance schedule look like in the year 2011? “ Ideally, I’d like to be doing one baroque opera, either Handel or Vivaldi perhaps, a series of concerts working with sympathetic musical colleagues and—fingers crossed—maybe some weeks devoted to a recording?. But just thinking back to what I was saying about vocal health and the countertenor voice, I’d also like to project even further ahead and hope that in twenty years, I’d still have a “happy” voice!” Anything else he’d like by then? “Oh yes, to be able to decide myself when I take my holidays!”
As we parted in the grey light of mid afternoon, he looked at his watch. We’d been talking for over an hour, and there was still a meal and technical rehearsal in the new venue to accommodate before curtain-up at 7pm. With a cheery wave he was away onto the next stage of a promising career, and the clock was ticking.
© S.C. Loder 2006
Iestyn Davies next appears at English National Opera in Purcell’s “King Arthur” opening June 26th; and with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the same opera, opening on 30th September in Berkeley, CA. USA.