INTERVIEW / Under the influence: Madmen have stalked Graham Clark wherever he has sung. The tenor talks to Mark Pappenheim

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The Independent Culture
DESPITE the six layers of padding and paunch that Graham Clark will be putting on to play the beer-swilling, sausage-guzzling anti-hero in ENO's new production of Janacek's burlesque Bohemian fantasy, The Adventures of Mr Broucek, this is one tenor who has no pretensions to being the British Pavarotti.

Yet, 20-odd years back, when Clark, then head of sport at a sixth-form college in Doncaster, first decided to make singing his hobby, it was definitely the Italian repertoire that attracted him. 'My mother and father had always been very keen on a certain sort of Italian opera,' he recalls, 'as well as on Mozart, of course. So I grew up with the ring of the Italian arias in my ears and naturally gravitated towards that.' Bruce Boyce, his first teacher, was also very much a singer of the Italian school and taught his pupil accordingly. Clark's earliest professional engagements, too, seemed to point him in the same direction.

Having left teaching for a job at the Sports Council, he used his accumulated leave to join the chorus at the 1973 York Festival, appearing in Bellini's early bel canto opera, Il Pirata. Two years later, he was suddenly asked by Richard Bonynge to sing alongside Dame Joan Sutherland in a gala concert at Covent Garden and, as the tenor lead, in a new production of The Merry Widow in Vancouver. At the same time, he was offered a contract by Scottish Opera. Seizing the chance for a career change, Clark took the plunge, and a 70 per cent drop in salary, and went professional.

It was only then that he realised he was not in fact a trim, thin sportsman with a fat Italian tenor struggling to get out. 'The Italian tenor roles have got beautiful tunes, but they tend to be a little bit two-dimensional. And whilst it was nice to get the great tunes, I wasn't getting the dramatic inspiration from those roles that I was looking for. I started to see that there was a lot more meat in the North European repertoire - particularly for me, not having a naturally Italianate sound, not having what I call the wine and the sunshine in my voice.'

So Clark decided to concentrate on what, for want of a better description, can be called the 'character tenor' roles of the German and Slav repertoire. He has since created a regular rogues' gallery of 'characters', ranging from Hermann in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades and Mephistopheles in Busoni's Dr Faust at ENO, to Mime in Wagner's Ring at Bayreuth (where he has sung every year since 1981) and Herod in Strauss's Salome at the Metropolitan Opera, New York (where he has been a regular visitor since 1985). If there is one common link to them all, it is psychosis: look down Clark's CV and you see a list of men obsessed, if not downright mad.

Matej Broucek, the portly Prague landlord, may not be quite in that league, but his world view is definitely out of kilter, seen as it is through a haze of warm beer and bourgeois prejudice. In sending him off to the Moon (in Act 1) and back to the patriotic wars of the 15th century (in Act 2), Janacek was using Broucek to pillory his fellow countrymen's artistic philistinism and political cowardice.

But if satire can easily become the most dated of theatrical genres, Broucek has retained its sting, despite its apparently arcane references to late 19th-century artistic trends and early 15th-century Czech history. Post-Modernism may have displaced Symbolism, but the arty-farty fin de siecle attitudes parodied in Act 1 are surely still with us (and David Pountney's new translation points up the topicality by adding some gratuitous sideswipes of its own at music critics, sponsors and surtitles).

As for the nationalist sentiments espoused in Act 2, they are clearly as relevant in the post-Soviet Europe of today as they were when Janacek wrote the work in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While the composer dedicated his score (premiered in Prague in 1920) to Masaryk, the first president of an independent Czechoslovakia, ENO has dedicated its new production to Vaclav Havel, the last.

Clark accepts that Broucek is no hero - 'Janacek was very clear that he is not a very nice man: he is a bourgeois, he is a traditionalist and he is also a bit of a bore' - yet he also knows that to play him all on one level would be equally boring for audience and singer. 'There has to be an underlying endearment about this man,' he insists. And for him, Broucek's redeeming quality is his drunkenness: for while the beer fuels his prejudices, it also fires his imagination. 'He sits and he has a drink and he enjoys life; and whilst he pontificates and rants and raves, there is also a gentleness about him, a kind of bon viveur gentleness, of which his cowardice, when confronted with the horrors of war in Act 2, is the flipside. I don't want to make him totally distasteful, but I do think you should see the coward in him.' For the coward in Broucek is, as Janacek said, the coward in all of us - the ordinary citizen who doesn't want to get involved.

If drink is the key to Broucek's character, drunkenness had to be the basis of Clark's characterisation, and he has been working hard at it. 'Degrees of drunkenness are very hard to portray,' he says. 'You can obviously be totally sozzled and flat on your back, or you can be slightly tipsy and enjoying life, and things are just slightly out of focus. That's the sort of drunkenness which I am trying to move towards: not a staggering incoherent sort of drunk, but a person who actually enjoys his drink and gets this sort of happy haze in front of his eyes - and because of the happy haze starts to imagine things.'

Clark has had to spend a lot of time imagining what is like to be drunk: 'I've watched a lot of drunks on the street. I've watched how they walk, how they stand, how they talk, how they move their hands, how they lean and how they reach for something to steady themselves.'

He has also drawn on the memory of other stage drunks, including a routine he once saw Billy Connolly do - 'just planting his left foot and letting the right foot walk round it' - when playing Frosch, the drunken jailer, in Die Fledermaus many years ago at Scottish Opera. 'But I've tried to find my own answer without grabbing somebody else's,' he says. 'The whole point about working in theatre, and in character, is that you take a little bit from something you've seen elsewhere and try to involve it in your own answer.'

Judging by the weight of Clark's costume, a tenor playing Broucek has to be fit to be fat. Yet, while Clark's concept of characterisation as 'total body language' depends upon the lithe athleticism of a former sportsman, it depends equally on a marriage of the physical and vocal. 'As soon as I saw the moustache,' Clark says, 'I saw how I could play with the eyes, just trying to capture that twinkle of enjoyment that this man has with his drink, so that it actually shines in his face and in his eyes - and then the ribbing of people is not so pernicious, there's a playfulness in it. But it's not just a search in a physical sense. It's actually a search in a vocal sense, too, so that the twinkle in the eye also has a twinkle in the top of the voice - so that what you see physically is mirrored vocally, and vice versa.'

A singer who admits that he prefers rehearsals to performances - 'in the sense that they're creative; I love the fact that you are confronted by a situation that you have to conquer, and you have to find both a musical and an overall creative answer to the problem' - Clark also prides himself on never repeating the same solution, the same set of mannerisms, twice. 'I'm constantly, constantly, playing with the character. And it will continue to be played with right the way through to the last performance. It will never be finalised - because these characters are so multi- layered that there is a continuous opportunity to play and bend, to mould different aspects.' But then, as he sees it, that's the job of a character tenor - 'to search for new character, to find a different appraisal of an old problem. And the tools of my trade are not just vocal, because I don't have the vocal beauty: the tools of my trade are actually my body and what I can do with it.'

'The Adventures of Mr Broucek' opens at ENO on Wednesday. See listings for details

(Photograph omitted)