You began singing as a chorister at Temple Church. Did you always want to be a singer when you were growing up?
No, not at all. Singing always played a big part in my life, first at the Temple and then at the Junior Department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but I knew very little about music as a profession. I never thought that I would get the chance to sing for a living!
What was your first experience of opera?
At Cambridge. I’d won a Choral Scholarship to Clare College and singing there introduced me to a generation of other singers, enthusiastic about music, opera and the prospect of singing as a career. In my second year, the college music society put on a production of Dido and Aeneas and at the suggestion of my friends I auditioned for the role of Aeneas. To my surprise I was cast. I didn’t have any stage experience so it was a big leap into the unknown, but I loved it! I went on to sing in productions of Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and by the time I left I was hooked.
Can you describe your time at the Royal Academy of Music? What was the most valuable lesson you learned there?
The Academy was an incredible place. It’s difficult to pin down which lesson I’d consider the most valuable. But if I had to choose, I think it would be the way it challenged me to think more instinctively about performing. Embracing the fact that each performance is a canvass of its own was hugely liberating. There are, of course, certain parameters – before I fall out with every conductor and director I might ever work with – and these need to be established in rehearsals and from close attention to what is in the score. But you don’t make a plaster cast in rehearsal out of which come a series of identical performances. Nor is there any such thing as a ‘perfect performance’. Each night is different. The journey you go on with your character changes, as do those of the characters around you. Your aim is to inhabit the world that you are creating for the audience, not to reproduce a sound or gesture that you may have liked one Tuesday afternoon in rehearsals. It makes things so much more exciting for performer and audience alike.
You are performing in a new piece (Macbeth) for Glyndebourne in August. What are your thoughts on contemporary operas and their role in introducing new people to this art form?
For centuries people went to the opera and expected to see new work. Mozart did not earn a living from revivals of his operas, but from writing new ones. Donizetti wrote 75 in his lifetime! But I think as music has moved into modern and postmodern styles, new work can often seem too challenging for many people. And as audiences have grown cautious, so too have many opera houses. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep returning to and reinterpreting great works written in any era; we should, we do, and the scope of such works is what has ensured their survival. But there is something so direct about new opera coming out of our own culture and times. I think the more we can do to encourage new work the better. As a performer it is also incredibly exciting creating a new role for the first time.
How do you learn a new role?
Everyone approaches learning roles differently, but most singers would say that they start with the text. If it’s in a foreign language I’ll translate it word for word, then into my own words, before returning to the original text and trying to make sense of it idiomatically. I then go through and break each word down into the individual vowels and consonants so that I always know exactly what I’m singing on, especially if it’s in English since we are so lazy with our own language. Having done this, I try to learn the notes by singing them just from vowel to vowel, to help establish line, before finally putting it all together. Once the nuts and bolts are in place I try to empathize with the character I’m playing, what motivates them, what makes them vulnerable, what frustrates them, what amuses them, everything really. And then I wait and see! You discover the most in rehearsals and with the input of the cast and creative team around you.
This Autumn you will play the title role in our new production of Massenet’s Werther. What can audiences expect from this opera?
Werther is an extraordinary piece, based on one of the defining works of romantic literature. It is built on extremes. Extremes of love, ecstasy, rejection and despair, but also on a figure whose very experience of life is extreme. A poet who responds to the world with such feeling that he fascinates and confuses those around him, ultimately winning the heart of his beloved Charlotte but not before his agony at her rejection drives him to the depths of despair and the terrible decision to take his own life. Werther is, in a sense, the story that helped establish many of our modern artistic stereotypes; the lonely and sensitive thinker, the suffering artist, the youthful anti-hero who defies convention for the sake of his desires. And whilst the story borrows heavily from courtly love and classical tragedy it is something distinctly different in putting the hero’s emotions centre stage. This depth of feeling is something to which Massenet’s sweeping late romantic writing is ideally suited, as indeed is the operatic genre itself, capturing and expressing more than can be put into words alone.
Which of the composers whose work you sing would you like to have dinner with?
Puccini. He was a great bon vivant and knew how to throw a party!
If you had a time machine and could go anywhere in the past for 24 hours, where would you go?
Wow. Talk about difficult questions! If I was only allowed to go sightseeing, I think I’d go to the Venice Carnival in the early 18th century, but if I was allowed to go fact finding I’d go to London in the late 16th century and find out if Shakespeare really was Shakespeare. That’s assuming, of course, that stopping wars and curing diseases is off limits!
What is your dream opera role?
Billy Budd. Britten has always been such a huge part of my love of opera and for me Billy Budd is his magnum opus. Coupled with a love of naval history, it really would be a dream to play that role.
And finally – did you know that you were featured on the fan site Barihunks in 2012?
Um, yes. Not sure what to say to that!
Ed will play the title role in ETO’s new production of Werther, opening at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music on Friday 2 October 2015. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk/werther