Baritone Ronan Collett, who is currently singing “The English Clerk” in Demis Volpis’ staging of Death in Venice, in conversation with Johanna Danhauser (Dramaturgy) about his love of Benjamin Britten’s music.
Johanna Danhauser (JD): The English Clerk appears just once in Death in Venice …
Ronan Collett(RC): Yes, he certainly makes the most of his moment. He appears in the 2nd act as a kind of deus ex machina; an antidote to the extraordinary laughter chorus that has just occurred. Aschenbach is repulsed by the antics of the street performers and I feel like my character arrives as a respite to all that madness and uncertainty; finally someone is willing to give Aschenbach a straight answer. However, in our production the English Clerk is more like a security guard at an airport – a gatekeeper who decides who is able to leave and who is able to stay – who also happens to offer Aschenbach the one thing that no one is willing to give him: the truth. By telling him what’s really going on, that Venice is in the grip of a cholera epidemic, he actually wittingly or unwittingly seals Aschenbach’s fate. He doesn’t let him leave; it’s the truth that forces him to remain despite the obvious threat. That is a really interesting dynamic and something that Demis Volpi has realised beautifully within the space.
JD: The passage of The Clerk is quite long. He tells Aschenbach about how cholera has travelled all the way from Asia and finally reached Venice.
RC: Yes, it’s like he is reporting the news to Aschenbach in a matter of fact way with sudden moments of intimacy as if breaking away from the accepted script. And you have to ask yourself, ‘why did he choose to reveal the truth to Aschenbach?’ On the one hand, I think it’s because they’re both outsiders; foreigners marooned in Venice. Perhaps he also sees a kindred spirit in terms of their sexuality. When I first sang the role back in 2009, I interpreted the character as a kind of ‘jobsworth’ who has gone through his entire professional life towing the party line. When Aschenbach begs him for the truth he sees it as his one opportunity to take off his metaphorical tie and make a difference in his life. However, what we ended up with in our production is something very different and I think a lot more interesting. The Clerk isn’t a good samaritan as such but more of a survivor figure; an agent of change. It’s revealing that the Traveller’s ‘Marvels unfold’ motif is heard in the bass line underneath the top of my aria, (‘In these last years, asiatic cholera has spread from the delta of the Ganges…’) Armed with the truth, Aschenbach stays in order to warn the family, which of course is the perfect alibi for being able to spend just one more moment with Tadzio. It’s not cholera which kills Aschenbach in the end; it’s the truth.
JD: The clerk’s monologue is fluent and poetic on the one hand, but also brutal and dramatic on the other.
RC: Yes, it’s written in a rather dramatic and non-obvious way. If you look at the orchestration in my scene but also throughout the piece, it’s mostly very sparse – distilled to its essence. I often think the music itself sounds like it’s infected with the plague. It’s not ‘beautiful Britten’ by any means. Of course, Britten manages to avoid all the obvious pitfalls and clichés associated with the grandeur of Venice. I think it’s one of the really significant achievements of this production that Demis and Katharina have done the same – not a gondola in sight! The location itself is incidental, the important thing is that we are privy to the inner workings of a brilliant yet tortured creative mind. That’s the reason why the scene with the English Clerk can afford to be so dramatic and public despite its outwardly secretive nature. It’s not naturalistic because the whole thing is an externalised realisation of an internal journey.
JD: Also the Libretto is very precise.
RC: Yes, Myfanwy Piper wrote an incredible libretto. Some of Britten’s librettists get quite short shrift but she isn’t one of them. She also managed to avoid resorting to cliché especially in the more esoteric moments. The whole thing is written as a kind of private moment made public in a truly devastating way. Of course there are many obviously beautiful moments, like when the Hotel Manager talks about the view, but they only appear in glimpses …
JD: Yes, and there’s always something ambiguous about them like the dangerous sweetness of the strawberries.
RC: Exactly, there is this dichotomy always. For example, the music has a kind of decaying ancient quality to it, like the city itself, in the way Britten writes long passages of Aschenbach’s vocal lines using ancient notation, plainsong like inflections, as well as the religious choral passages yet at the same time he uses more ‘modern’ compositional techniques (atonality, polystylism, eclecticism, overlapping spoken choruses etc). You get the impression that Britten was subtly attempting to modernise his compositional language in order to keep up with the new kids on the block, (Stockhausen, Boulez…), the kind of composers who were writing at that time in the early 70s. Even in the early part of Britten’s career, he was a little bit out of place in that he was a predominantly tonal composer in a somewhat atonal / serialist world. Much like many of the protagonists in his operas, Britten was something of an outsider from the beginning to the end.
The ‘soft, musty, overripe’ strawberries example reminds me of something Britten once said about traditionally beautiful voices. He said that he loathed what was ordinarily described as a beautiful voice as for him it was like an overripe peach that said nothing. I think he was perhaps indirectly defending Peter Pears, who was very much Britten’s muse in the same way Aschenbach wants Tadzio to be his. Of course it’s a subjective thing but Pears didn’t have a traditionally beautiful voice. Speaking to people who heard him sing often, apparently Pears’ singing was very much something you had to experience live in order to appreciate fully.
One of the greatest interpreters of Britten’s music I have had the pleasure of experiencing live was Philip Langridge. He probably sang the role of Aschenbach more than anyone. I had the honour of singing the English Clerk scene with him in that same production back in 2009. I think it was the last Britten opera he sang before he died the following year, so apart from being an absolutely amazing experience it was also rather tragically apt. I’ll never forget the way he sang that last line in the scene thanking the English Clerk for finally sharing with him the truth despite the obviously tragic consequences. It showed me just how much you can convey whilst seemingly doing very little. It’s a very short line, just four words, ‘thank you, young man’, and yet in it he was able to show that Aschenbach wasn’t just thanking me for the truth but also in a stoical, quietly heroic way, was thanking me for sealing his fate. One of the things Philip used to get young singers to do in masterclasses was ask them to sing badly, as a sort of deliberate parody of themselves. It immediately liberated the singer from singing ‘too beautifully’, in that overripe way that perhaps Britten was describing. Philip understood this instinctively. I think that’s one of the main reasons he was one of the really great interpreters of his and many other people’s music.
JD: Getting back to Britten’s ability to portray these seemingly contradictory forces in his music specifically in relation to character, and the notion of the outsider; one thing that he never does is judge. Tadzio isn’t simply an innocent wandering through the streets of Venice blissfully ignorant of his own beauty. As Aschenbach observes and admires, ‘there is a dark side even to perfection. I like that.’
RC: One of the prevailing themes in all of Britten’s operas is the theme of ambiguity – it’s something that obviously lends itself to the stage as you never quite know where you stand. Rather than apportioning blame, right and wrong and so forth, Britten is much more interested in examining the philosophical questions that challenge us as a species. Just as when Captain Vere (Billy Budd) says, ‘Plutarch, the Greeks, and the Romans, their troubles and ours are the same…’ he wants to examine the human condition in the most honest and theatrically interesting way possible. It’s the struggle that holds our attention and the fact that we can empathise with it.
There are other themes that return again and again throughout his compositional output: ‘night and dreams’, ‘the corruption of innocence’, ‘beauty’ and so on, that also benefit when seen through the prism of ambiguity. It’s never black and white with Britten – to be so would be boring. Death in Venice is a truly audacious score, even to this day, that asks some very difficult questions. I am just thrilled that Stuttgart are doing it now especially as there hasn’t been a Britten opera staged here since Albert Herring in the 1970s!
JD: This is not your first role in a Britten opera. What have you already sung besides The English Clerk?
RC: I sang the role of Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia whilst I was Cambridge University as well as the baritone part in War Requiem many times, which I think of as a bit like an operatic role. Before going up to Cambridge, I went to the same school as Britten, Gresham’s School, so my formative years were spent surrounded by his music not to mention the landscape that inspired him. Not only did I go to the same school but I actually belonged to the same ‘house’ within it. Our headmaster was a big supporter of the arts and therefore very much wanted to celebrate Britten and all the other famous old boys (W. H. Auden, Lennox Berkeley, Stephen Spender, Ben Nicholson); all incredible artistic figures of the 20th century.
JD: Britten is often mentioned as the second Orpheus Britannicus after Purcell.
RC: Yes, it’s a comparison that’s often made but I think Britten is even greater.
JD: Do you think Britten is British?
RC: There are some works which are terribly British in that they couldn’t have existed anywhere else other than in one particular corner of Suffolk – but no, I wouldn’t restrict him as such to being just a British composer. I think the reason he was able to make English such a successful operatic language was that he made it have a universal appeal. The fact that you so easily can forget that before Britten there was this enormous hiatus, with some notable exceptions, between Purcell’s The Indian Queen (1695) and Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), is a testament to the quality of Britten’s treatment of the English language.
When talking about Britten and English, I immediately think of his relationship with Peter Pears. It can’t be overstated just how important that creative relationship was. Britten trusted Pears unconditionally in the way he was able to deliver a line of text. It was very much a collaborative process. Indeed, if you read the letters they wrote to each other around the time of the Met broadcast of Death in Venice they show the incredible amount of love, respect and trust they had for each other, professionally and personally.
JD: And they read every piece of literature that exists practically.
RC: They were incredibly well read and not just English works. I think that’s why I resisted calling him a British composer although of course he is that. However, he seems to be much more European in his outlook. If you think about the texts in languages other than his own that he set to music: The Poet’s Echo in Russian, Hölderin-Fragmente in German, Les illuminations in French, Michelangelo sonnets in Italian, as well as his interest in gamelan, and so on. I do think he was a musician without borders in that sense.
JD: What do you have in mind planning your own upcoming journey with Benjamin Britten’s music?
RC: I can tell you exactly what I have in mind: I would like to sing the role of Billy Budd. This is my dream.
RC: Because one of the big musical regrets for all of us baritones is that Britten’s chosen life partner was a tenor. Nevertheless, there are some fantastic baritone roles, chief among them being Billy. The opera is called Billy Budd but of course it’s mostly about Captain Vere. The relationship between them is not too dissimilar to that of Aschenbach and Tadzio, as Billy is a symbol of beauty and fascination for Vere, not to mention the rest of the ship. He is their anchor. Claggart reacts entirely the opposite way – when he comes into contact with Billy’s ‘beauty, handsomeness, goodness’ he wants to destroy it. It always reminds me of that scene in Fight Club when Brad Pitt’s character beats up this young boy and someone asks him, ‘why did you do that?’ and he replies ‘ I just wanted to destroy something beautiful.’ Billy is the purest form of beauty both in his appearance but also his character as he is entirely innocent and incorruptible.
JD: But his death leads to mutiny. After his execution the crew is preparing to revolt. He indirectly leads to a revolution.
RC: He’s totally selfless, but he’s no superhero. I think the challenge in performing Billy Budd is to make him a real person.The way that Melville and then Britten reinforce that is ingenious: Billy Budd, this image of perfection, has a stammer. So in his case it’s only a vocal speech impediment, an outward physical defect, but for everybody else on board it’s an inward emotional one. Vere and his crew struggle to come to terms with their own notions of beauty and love and it’s through their relationship with Billy, and ultimately his sacrifice, that they are able to navigate their way through the mists of their own forbidden desire.
JD: Have you already sung Benjamin Britten in the choirs that you belonged to earlier on in your career?
RC: Yes, of course, at school and also at Cambridge. Rejoice in the Lamb is one of my favorite choral pieces of his as well as Hymn to St. Cecilia. A Hymn to the Virgin was written during Britten’s time at Gresham’s so it’s a piece that I have known and loved nearly all my life. I think it’s fair to say that Britten is the greatest composer of opera choruses if not all opera of the 20th century and you can absolutely see that in the chorus scenes in Death in Venice, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.
JD: There is another recurring topic: critical reflection on civilization as exemplified in Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Rape of Lucretia and Death in Venice .
RC: Yes, we live in a post-factual age. Truth and the ability to broadcast it adequately needs to be very closely guarded. I think one of the main messages of Death in Venice is the importance of being able to follow one’s critical instincts and intellectual curiosity. It’s a plea for tolerance and understanding of the artistic mind. Throughout the opera, you get the feeling that Britten is leading Aschenbach by the hand. But unlike Aschenbach, Britten didn’t have a creative dry period. Often people make that parallel between Britten and Aschenbach because they are obviously at the final hurdle in their lives.
JD: Thomas Mann lends Aschenbach traits of the composer Gustav Mahler. Do you think thank Benjamin Britten also took this reverence in his opera?
RC: Well, he was a great interpreter of his works, I know that. And when you hear Britten’s own recordings, he conducted some incredible performances of Mahler. There is a bit at the end of Britten’s song-cycle, Nocturne, when the Shakespeare sonnet starts that really sounds like Mahler to my ears. There are several passages in Death in Venice that remind me of Brahms more than anything; all those descending thirds. Despite an infatuation in his early years, I know Britten didn’t like his music later on in life so perhaps that was his way of portraying an artist who was experiencing something of a creative block. I think I am right in saying Britten deliberately avoided watching Visconti’s Death in Venice so that he wouldn’t have too much of the film score in his head. Have you seen the film?
JD: I can’t get rid of those pictures.
RC: Do you remember the amazing moment where Dirk Bogarde goes from crying to laughing to crying again by the fountain? It’s my ‘go to’ scene when I think of incredible acting. The way he is able to traverse from one extreme to another is simply virtuosic and utterly compelling.
JD: Benjamin Britten leaves so much space for the interpreter’s creativity to shape a character.
RC: I think his genius was to know exactly the limits of the forces that he had at his disposal. He was very proud of having this attribute as a composer. That was the reason he wrote ‘chamber operas’ in the first place. In an interview he once said he would rather be known as a useful composer than as someone who wrote masterpieces that gathered dust on the shelves. Even when he was at the end of his life, when presumably as a famous composer budget constraints wouldn’t have been an issue, he still wanted to distil things to their essence. You can absolutely hear that when listening to Death in Venice. There was always a deeply focused, striving aspect to his music. Nothing ever became too relaxed, too comfortable. As a performer, you can definitely feel this precise quality to his music, the way he writes for specific voices in terms of character and orchestration. You have to respond accordingly.
JD: Did you see the documentary film Night Mail, for which Britten composed the music? It’s an important work also for film history. For example, I got to know it in my film studies and not in music science.
RC: Yes. And that is a perfect example of what I am talking about. He created this incredible work with what must have been extremely limited resources.
JD: His compositions for children and amateur ensembles would be another example of this.
RC: Yes, exactly. What would be perceived by others as a very challenging almost impossible situation was nothing more than an incredible opportunity. He was absolutely passionate about treating children or amateur musicians as professionals. I remember singing with boy choristers in St. John’s College Choir. They were absolutely extraordinary in their ability to sing very difficult music. In fact, it was the so-called ‘easy’ music, Palestrina masses or Byrd motets, that they found hard because they didn’t need to concentrate in order to get the notes right. Britten instinctively knew this and as a result never tried to simplify his writing. Demis did exactly the same in our production as he knew how to get the best out of everybody – the dancers, singers, young and old alike. I think the results speak for themselves.
JD: That’s beautiful, I haven’t thought about that.
RC: Britten was far ahead of his own time. The educational, pedagogic approaches we have today, Britten was doing 50 years ago. Whether it was about film music or working with children – he just knew how to get the very best results, all of the time – it’s further testament to his genius.
SAMSTAG, 17. JUNI 2017
23.00 – 00:30 UHR | FOYER SCHAUSPIELHAUS
THE HIDDEN HEART: A LIFE OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN AND PETER PEARS“
SONNTAG, 18. JUNI 2017
11:00 – 12:30 UHR | OPERNHAUS, FOYER I. RANG
„EIN TÜCKISCHER HANG ZUR SCHÖNHEIT…“
VOM GOLDENEN ZEITALTER, DER UNSTERBLICHKEIT UND DERM WERT KÜNSTLERISCHER ARBEIT IN BRITTENS OEUVRE
Mit Illustrationen und Musikbeispielen.Der Referent: Meinhard Saremba verfasste unter anderem die Bücher Arthur Sullivan (Wilhelmshaven 1993), Elgar, Britten & Co. (St. Gallen-Zürich 1994), Leoš Janáček (Kassel 2001), Oper – Einführung (Essen 2011) und Giuseppe Verdi (Essen 2013). Als Spezialist für britische Komponisten gestaltet er zahlreiche Rundfunkfeatures und ediert Fachpublikationen. In Stuttgart übernahm er schon vielfach die Konzerteinführungen für Veranstaltungen des SWR.
14:00 – 17:00 UHR | OPERNHAUS
in englischer Sprache mit deutschen Übertitelnim Anschluss:
Mitglieder des Produktionsteams und des Ensembles stellen sich den Fragen der Zuschauer
20:00 UHR | OPERNHAUS, FOYER I. RANG
Diana Haller (Mezzosopran) und Alan Hamilton (Klavier) präsentieren Werke von Gioachino Rossini, Robert Schumann, Gabriel Fauré, Ivan Zajc u.a.Für weitere Informationen und Karten klicken Sie HIER
Foto: Ronan Collett and Matthias Klink (c) Oper Stuttgart