The pursuit of eloquence

Ian Bostridge not only has a rare tenor voice, but the rarer knowledge of how best to employ it. By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture

Size, as they say, matters. It's certainly something the Three Tenors have in common, both in girth and voice. Thus, if you've never heard or seen the tenor Ian Bostridge - an ever-decreasing prospect - you would imagine him to be both unnaturally large and loud. Wrong on both counts.

Size, as they say, matters. It's certainly something the Three Tenors have in common, both in girth and voice. Thus, if you've never heard or seen the tenor Ian Bostridge - an ever-decreasing prospect - you would imagine him to be both unnaturally large and loud. Wrong on both counts.

"I'm conscious of the fact that my voice is not of Wagnerian proportions," is a typical understatement from this tall, angular, almost shockingly gaunt man who happens to be one of EMI's hottest properties. Happily, his is a voice that can project its way through an orchestra, a voice that carries. And, what's more, he knows precisely what he should and shouldn't do with it. Anyone who has been near the singers' circuit can list careers of extravagant promise ruined by over-ambition.

Bostridge's current ubiquity - he's just sung Britten's War Requiem, released a disc of English song to glowing reviews, and is preparing a song cycle written for him by Hans Werner Henze - is definitely not his preferred state of affairs. This current flurry of activity aside, you certainly won't find him beefing up his voice for the big bucks repertoire and chasing the "Fourth Tenor" crown. "One day I'd like to sing Peter Grimes but that would be the limit of my aspirations," he says crisply. Even there, he envisages a small-scale production away from "the whole opera machine".

Something, in fact, like his latest project, Janácek's The Diary of One Who Vanished for ENO and the National Theatre directed by Deborah Warner. It's all the fault of designer Jean Kalman, whose magnificent, scorching lighting sculpted and pierced his almost bare stage in Warner's terrifying The Turn of the Screw in which Bostridge came of age as a singing actor. His ghostly, ghastly Peter Quint prowled about in corduroy, looking for all the world like a nastily suspicious geography teacher - far more frightening than any number of self-consciously "evil" interpretations.

All three are reunited - plus his accompanist Julius Drake, mezzo Ruby Philogene, and translator Seamus Heaney - for the Janácek which is based on a set of poems that originally appeared in a Czech newspaper with a fake authentication story. "It said that these poems were found in a drawer of a young man who had mysteriously disappeared." The piece is something of a hybrid which begins in traditional song cycle fashion. "The young tenor hero is bewailing the fact that this gipsy girl is hanging around distracting him from his ploughing. Then, 10 songs in, she starts singing. And they run off together."

For authenticity's sake, Warner hauled him off into the country to learn about ploughing, but it's not just this insistence on first-hand experience which makes him rightly rate her so highly. "When I started off in opera - [at 34 he's only been a full-time professional singer for four years] I felt I was this terrible, wooden embarrassed person." Even working with a good director like Baz Luhrmann on Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1994 couldn't stop him feeling that he needed "manicuring" or "correcting".

Working with David Alden freed him up enormously. They did a film of Schubert's Winterreise and by the time they did The Coronation of Poppea together in Munich, "there wasn't an issue about whether I could act or not. It's the same, but to a more intense degree, with Deborah." He believes Warner's directorial gift is to banish the idea that actors have to "become" other people. "In rehearsal, she says something that seems on a straight line but then veers off because she doesn't want to name it too precisely. That means you search for things within yourself rather than looking for something pinned down and dead."

Even on recordings, his voice is particularly alive to the nuances of not only the music but, something more rare, the text. After all, he does have a PhD. And that's not just a matter of projecting meaning through the sound. In his English song recital he has tried to take the sound back towards speech, concentrating on being truthful to the natural colour of the words.

That's tough, given the heaviness of English vowels over, say, the light, bright sound of Italian vowels which are easier to sing. It has, however, helped him wrest the repertoire away from the horribly precious, over-enunciated school of singing which takes the folk out of folk-song. He laughs, recalling the words of his wife - and sternest critic - who was unimpressed by his rendition of "In the Bleak Midwinter" on one of his earliest recordings. "A brrrrreast full of meeeeelk..."

Truth be told, he doesn't like listening to his voice, and one of his major reasons for an exclusive song recording contract is that his producer has come up with a recorded sound he trusts. Surprisingly, he would like to sound like a baritone. "I don't really like tenors," he says, off-handedly. "I like Pavarotti as a voice, but I really like things that sound like speech, not something that sounds driven."

The problem is, the higher up the scale he goes, the harder he feels he has to drive his voice which paradoxically is known for its calm, direct expression. It is that quality which has led countless people to tell him that he'd be perfect for English song, although he has always shied away from the so-called "cow-pat" repertoire, preferring lieder so much that in Germany he's considered a true German singer. All of which chimes with the current preoccupation with his stage work, the desire to make compelling music theatre. "I don't want people sitting there with their eyes closed thinking 'oh how lovely'."

'The Diary of One Who Vanished', 3-6 Nov 1999, National Theatre, London (0171-452 3000)

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