10 questions for ETO's Pelleas, Jonathan McGovern

Wednesday 19 August 2015

You performed at Glyndebourne Opera House aged 12. Did you always know you wanted to be a singer?
I’m not sure I can say I’d always known! Singing sort of found me in my late teens. From the age of 12–18 I was member of the National Youth Music Theatre. Every summer I’d go away on residential courses for rehearsal and productions. It was an incredible learning environment both musically and theatrically with the most amazing directors and teachers. It was during my sixth-form years that my voice really grew. I was taking Music, French and German for A-levels and the combination of all these subjects opened up the world of song and opera to me. I continued lessons at the Royal Academy while at university and at the end of my final year took the plunge and auditioned for postgrad. It was then I thought this might be something that I might want to take seriously as a possible career path.

Why is opera important?
Ok… No messing around here! Opera, like all theatre is a form of storytelling I suppose; one of the unique things that we do as human beings. That by itself is an important thing. What makes opera special is its aspiration to use music and the human voice to say or embody the things that we feel that perhaps can’t be said in such an explicit way. That realm of uncertainty is open for us to conceive what we want. Preparing for Pelléas, I discovered a wonderful quote of Debussy which hints at this. While he was searching for a libretto which would inspire him to write the opera, he said he wanted to find a writer that would “allow me to graft my dream onto his”. Opera has its own particular way of becoming something even greater than the sum of its parts.

In an interview in the Telegraph (January 2012) you said that you played county cricket for Surrey under -16s and that you regret having to give it up. What made you choose music over being a professional athlete?
That’s incredibly flattering but I didn’t really have the choice to be quite honest! I was a decent cricketer but I never anywhere near the level to pursue it professionally. I try to keep up playing socially but with Saturday morning rehearsals, weekend concerts and summer festivals there’s not much time at all to spend a day in my cricket whites… I generally stick to the squash court to put my back out nowadays.

Les Troyens or Thebans?
I’d have to say Thebans. Perhaps I’m biased having been lucky enough to perform the latter’s première at ENO last year but for me some of the most exciting times have been working on a new piece of music. Quite apart from the fact that Julian Anderson’s wonderful score, it’s a very special thing the freedom you get performing a piece that has never been performed, or more importantly never heard before.

This autumn you are playing the title character in our new production of Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande. How would you describe your character to an opera newbie?
For want of better words, Pelléas is an old soul. Whilst at face value he can seem perhaps slightly naive, he’s actually a very honest and emotionally aware person, perhaps too much. This sensitivity to his own feelings gives him a deep sensuality which fosters a passion which we see grow in him through the opera. He finds himself wrestling with his feelings and the hurtful consequences that they might reap on those close to him.

Have you ever toured before? What are you looking forward to the most?
I’ve travelled before for shows but will never have done so many performances of a single work in as many venues as this Autumn’s season. On a basic technical level, a new venue for every show is a true challenge, which I love. On a personal level I’m looking forward to going to Exeter, the last time I performed at the Northcott was over 15 years ago, so it will be a nice trip down memory lane!

How do you learn a new role?
I suppose I can talk from very recent experience can about how I learned Pelléas. First off, I listened to the whole piece to get a feel for it and went through the score marking everything up, highlighting my role and translating it. Pelléas is particularly hard because of the sheer amount of words (which is prose) and the rhythms Debussy writes so I started by learning my bits purely speaking in tempo. Once I’d got my tongue round them, I set about learning the actual notes started and singing it. Once that foundation was in place, I then took scenes to French coaches, repertoire coaches and most importantly my singing teacher to really get to grips with the technical challenges of the role. It can seem a bit painstaking but I’ve found the words in rhythm as a first stop really helps stuff stick.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
My ritual is to not have a ritual. I can’t help but think that you’re setting yourself up for the fall if you do!

What is your dream role?
Pelléas is actually one, Billy Budd another but I’ve got a big itch to scratch wanting to be Riff in West Side Story. Dusting off the dancing shoes as we speak.

And finally, what would you say to someone coming to see Pelléas & Mélisande for the first time?
It’s a symbolist piece so every line means everything and nothing at the same time. Debussy might give the odd suggestion here and there but just enjoy the grey areas!

Jonathan sings Pelléas in ETO’s new production of Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande, opening at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, on Thursday 1 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visit http://englishtouringopera.org.uk/productions/pelleas-et-melisande

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