Tenor counter tenor Robson and Robson

Meet Robson & Robson, the family firm that's cornered the market in close-harmony vocals. By David Benedict Brothers Nigel and Christopher bring intensity and intimacy to 'Theodora'.

You're an opera director and you're re-casting your latest hit. There are two key roles for tenor and counter-tenor, brothers in arms, whose friendship has been forged in battle and who have saved one another's lives. Your singers have to convince an audience of the passionate struggle between religion, free will and political duty. Whom do you cast? Peter Sellars's inspired answer is the brothers Robson.

The case of singing siblings Nigel and Christopher isn't unique, but it's damned rare. The soprano Kristine Ciesinski has a mezzo sister, Katherine; Terry and Neil Jenkins have been known to play Happy Families, but discounting the Everly Brothers and the Nolan Sisters, that's about it.

What is unique about the pair of them, aside from the unusual pairing of tenor and counter-tenor, is their acting talent. These two aren't just international soloists who sing on stage, they are genuine operatic animals. Cast either of them and you can wave good-bye to the old-fashioned "stand and deliver" performance style. Both are more than capable of producing honeyed tones, but these two give you something bolder, richer and altogether more theatrical. Some directors (and particularly record producers) favour evenness of sound above all else. It's a little reminiscent of the Tebaldi and Callas debate: purity versus passion. Luckily for anyone going to Glyndebourne's inspirational staging of Handel's oratorio Theodora, Peter Sellars has opted for the dramatic approach.

What he cannot have known is just how ideally suited these two are to playing the roles of the Roman commanding officer Septimius and his friend Didymus, a convert to the forbidden faith of Christianity. The Robsons' parents were officers in the Salvation Army, but they are both keen to dispel any notions of bible-bashing and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit- style repression. Not only was theirs an enlightened evangelical environment, music was central to their lives. They sang constantly and played brass instruments in the Salvation Army band. "We even sang grace around the table in slightly improvised four-part harmony," says Nigel, the elder of the two, and the second of four sons. Their father was constantly writing music for the church but, again, not the imagined four-square English hymnal stuff. Nigel remembers that, as early as 1948, within three years of its premiere, his father had the sheet music for two arias from Britten's Peter Grimes that he wanted to sing.

"It was all part and parcel really. We were encouraged in music," observes Chris, the counter-tenor, "but there was never any pressure, just as there was no pressure to join the Salvation Army. There was no pressure on us to do anything other than what we chose to do."

Neither of them is a practising Christian any longer, but their father's influence is there for all to see. Both have reputations as 20th-century music specialists, traceable back to their monthly record allowance and their father's encouraging them to listen to Messiaen and Stockhausen. He was also responsible for their interest in performing. "Dad used to do these evangelical musicals," says Nigel, "cobbling together bits of operetta and so on. It feels a bit embarrassing looking back." ("Awful," laughs Chris.) "Things like Salvation Ship Ahoy!, a sort of Billy Budd for the Lord." ("Jesus saves / in the waves," giggles Chris.) "He also did this strange thing, Three Faces of Eve, which was bits of a play plus Vaughan Williams's music for Job, over which he narrated the story of creation while people would mime it in some way, like dance."

Yet, for all their mixed feelings about the "church operas", both brothers recognise the experience as having ignited very strong feelings in them about theatre. Professional singing, however, was not immediately on the agenda. Nigel went to York University as an organist and composer, while Chris went to Trinity Music College as a trumpet player.

"My voice came down very slowly over a year," he recalls. "When I went to Cambridge Tech, aged nearly 17, it had settled into a light tenor / baritone, but I didn't sing. Then, at the beginning of my second year, someone heard me mucking about in the practice room and said I should have lessons, so I started singing tenor. One day I went straight from a trumpet lesson to a singing lesson, which was unusual. When I read the music, having been hearing the higher pitch on the trumpet, I read it wrong and sang an octave too high." Impressed, his teacher told him that, to allow the counter-tenor voice to settle, he shouldn't sing for a while. "Of course, I just went away and practised."

Music college was a disaster. "I was slung out in the middle of my second term. Some say my musical education began then," he says. He started lessons with Helga Mott - he stayed with her for 10 years - and within 12 months was earning a living, doing everything from deputising in church choirs, to pop sessions at Wembley Studios and radio jingles.

"The goals were to make a living and to make the sound as pure and straight as possible, because the majority of the work was ensemble singing. Now you can sing with a bigger, fuller voice, with vibrato, with much more vocal freedom."

As last year's jokey The Three Counter-Tenors disc shows, there is no longer one counter-tenor sound. Each of those three soloists has a distinctive timbre. While Chris was developing his sound in the wake of the 1970s counter-tenor boom heralded by the ascendancy of James Bowman - "a voice like a trombone," says Chris - his brother was studying singing at the Royal Northern College in Manchester and was having a struggle of his own. "I had a rather unfortunate obsession with Peter Pears," he grins. "I wanted to be able to communicate directly with people in the way he did. It wasn't so much that I wanted to make his sound, although I inevitably tried to, it was more to do with his understanding of humanity, a quality of compassion."

It was the Australian director David Freeman who brought them together and changed their lives. He had already cast Chris in his celebrated Opera Factory staging of Monteverdi's Orfeo, when the scheduled tenor, unable to cope with Freeman's dramatic demands, pulled out a week into rehearsals. Chris suggested Nigel, who had just left Manchester, and, after auditioning for Freeman and conductor John Eliot Gardiner, he too joined the company.

Chris credits Freeman with opening up his latent desire to improvise and perform, and the pair of them thrived. Nigel describes it as a shared, daring, idealistic desire to see how far Freeman's discipline of improvisation and characterisation could go in finding ways of speaking to an audience. "He created parameters for a performer, making us create a character who then played the role," says Chris. "That made it easier than just going in and playing Orfeo." They relished the shared responsibility for a piece, working with a director who liberated the performer, allowing them to discover things for themselves, something far more akin to theatre than the intensely formal, hierarchical world of traditional opera rehearsals.

The release of their dramatic powers ensured them distinctive operatic careers. They have both excelled in mad scenes, Nigel playing a powerful Madwoman in Opera Factory's production of Britten's Curlew River, while Chris's intense portrayal of Edgar and Mad Tom formed a still, emotional centre to Reimann's Lear at ENO. They played La Calisto together and, in a semi-staged concert version of the Britten Canticles, they put a fraternal spin on Abraham and Isaac. "Brother killing brother," muses Nigel mischievously. "Interesting."

Their religious upbringing has resurfaced, unbidden, in Theodora. For Chris, "one of the reasons I have been so forceful about Didymus the convert being so completely enraptured by his conversion is possibly a subconscious reaction to believing that this is a very real possibility." Nigel sees the religious parallel in wider terms. "One of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child is a feeling of responsibility about making their own mind up. Not everyone has that. That feeling of freedom about religion lies at the heart of Theodora."

Whatever their thought-processes, the intensity of their scenes together in rehearsals has moved at least one observer to tears. Their next joint project may move audiences in yet another direction. Producer Jean Nicholson is hoping to present them in the title roles of an opera based on Genet's The Maids, specially commissioned from composer John Lunn. They are still negotiating the rights, but a 25-minute workshop of a couple of scenes has already yielded exciting results. As in Theodora, the intimacy between the characters is lent an extra charge by their own relationship: the epitome of sibling rivalry. How much more typecast can you get?

'Theodora': tonight, Tues, Fri, Glyndebourne Opera House, E Sussex (booking: 01273 813813), then touring

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat