We is long, lean and languid and he looks like a saint. Ian Bostridge is also one of the few international singing stars we have in this country, although his voice is not to everyone's taste. Too tight, too restricted, too English, say his critics. For his fans, the intensity, the vocal purity, the attention to verbal and musical detail are what make him special.
While the song recital has proved his natural medium, he has also made his mark in opera, although he is selective about what he sings. Not for Bostridge the portable portfolio of roles to be unpacked wherever he goes: "The traditional way is for a singer to have ten or 15 favourite roles which they slot into different productions, giving their version within that context. I don't do that. Instead I choose roles on the basis that they sound interesting, and as a result I haven't repeated many. It's not only an aesthetic decision, it's a decision about the kind of life I want to lead."
This month he does return to a role, that of Peter Quint in Britten's The Turn of the Screw, which he sings in Deborah Warner's Royal Opera staging. He sang in the production when it was new in 1997, and worked with Warner again when she staged Janacek's The Diary of One Who Disappeared in Dublin, London, New York and Paris. Later this year they renew their collaboration when Warner stages Mozart's The Magic Flute for English National Opera.
Bostridge clearly enjoys working with Warner, who, like him, chooses her operatic projects with great caution. "When you work with the best directors, like Deborah," he says, "they create in some magical way a rehearsal situation in which things emerge which couldn't otherwise emerge. If things go well, it reaches a stage where you can't remember where ideas came from: from Deborah, or from other people in the rehearsal room. In fact in the later stages of rehearsal, you sometimes find yourself bemoaning what you've lost, because the unselfconsciousness of the early rehearsals is what you are trying to recapture on stage. In most productions, the opera is rehearsed very freely, but then you pin it all down. After that you usually go through the same, fixed moves. Deborah, though, encourages the kind of freedom that allows the thing to stay alive, to develop through the performances."
Warner's production of Janacek's The Diary of One Who Disappeared gave the work in Seamus Heaney's English translation. Bostridge has now recorded this strange work, half song-cycle, half mini-opera; but his recording offers the original Czech. Deciding whether to record it in translation, or in Czech, required some soul-searching on Bostridge's part: "I prefer to work in languages with which I have a nodding acquaintance. I can talk to people in German and French, and order a coffee in Italian; and I read all those languages. I can't read Czech at all. But I had sung in Smetana's The Bartered Bride for the Royal Opera, so felt I had a feeling for the sound of Czech, and having sung the Janacek in translation, I knew what was going on emotionally. Of course there is always a trade-off, and Janacek himself wanted his operas to be done in the language of the audience, but I find Czech such a wonderful language to sing."
Nevertheless Bostridge is acutely aware that his Janacek is not everybody's Janacek: "The piece is usually sung by Czech tenors who sing the big roles in Janacek operas, and who have a completely different sound from mine. That makes my performance controversial, perhaps, and some people who have a particular view of Janacek will probably hate it because it's not the sound that they expect. That conservatism seems to be one of the main problems about opera: not only the museum element of presenting a repertoire that was written a long time ago, but the fact that we tend to have fixed ideas about the "right" sound. It's an accretion of tradition, rather than seeing music as a sort of carnival in which things can be done in many ways."
His next project could hardly be further removed from Janacek's fevered intensity; he is to record a collection of Nöel Coward songs for EMI. Bostridge insists that this is not one of those clumsy crossovers, undertaken in the name of accessibility, in which an opera singer lets their hair down in something light. He is approaching Coward with the same attention he would bring to any repertoire: "It's about trying to locate the style. Sometimes that means looking for a voice that is not too 'sung', at other times it's a question of finding the Schubertian bits. I sing the songs to my baby, which helps me find a way of singing them without being overblown about it. But I don't want it to be cosy, I want to find the cynical, even bitter part of Coward so as to get away from the tweeds."
'The Turn of the Screw', Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000) from 7 January. 'The Diary of One Who Disappeared' is out on EMI ClassicsReuse content