Q&A: Scottish tenor Thomas Walker
4 February 2015, London, UK
Thomas Walker(Photo: Robert Workman)
Scottish tenor Thomas Walker talks to Opera Now about his forthcoming appearances in The Indian Queen at English National Opera. Interview by Owen Mortimer
You were originally a brass player before switching to study singing. Did you always hope to become a singer, or was there a watershed moment that prompted you to change direction?
I never had ambitions to be a singer. I had sung in choirs whilst studying at the Junior department of the then RSAMD in Glasgow, where I was a useful choral singer (tenors are rare, and my sight reading was good). The tuba was my instrument, however, and that's what I studied for my undergraduate degree at RSAMD. It was whilst singing in the chorus there (which was compulsory for first year undergraduates) that I realised I had a decent voice. I enjoyed singing as part of a larger group, but singing solo was a completely different matter for me.
Singing is such a naked thing: there is no instrument to hide behind, and frankly the thought of singing alone terrified me, so I put it firmly on the back burner. I still very much enjoyed the tuba, of course, but as the years passed I increasingly realised I felt more comfortable as a singer, so switched disciplines to study voice as a postgraduate in London.
I can't say it was one specific thing that made me change. Rather, it felt like a continuation of a journey which I had already started in my teens. Discovering music then had opened doors for me as a young man from an east end Glasgow housing scheme and this felt like another step on that path.
Does the fact that you've also been an instrumentalist bring an added dimension to your singing?
Being a performer means being proficient in many different musical disciplines. So yes, having had an orchestral training, I've performed many styles of music that I may never have had the chance to perform as a singer. The ensemble training, both chamber and symphonic, has also been invaluable (there isn't much else for a tuba player to do, as it's not really a solo instrument). I know how to fit into an ensemble, I can be flexible when asked by conductors to change the style or the tempo of an aria (more difficult!) and how to gel with my colleagues. That isn't to say that these aren't talents my colleagues who have been purely singers don't possess, but for me an orchestral training has helped hugely with my musicianship and career, and I am very grateful for it.
Who or what have been the most important influences on you during your years of training?
I have been given much excellent advice and help over the years, but one particular example sticks in my mind: following an audition I was advised by my agent to lose some weight. Being a tuba player, it doesn't much matter if you tip the scales at just over 20 stone, but as a light lyric tenor, it really does! So I took that on board and did something about it.
I would say that the biggest personal influence on me has been my teacher Ryland Davies. Ryland helped me understand what I had to offer, supported my development and taught me to communicate effectively. I was blessed with a natural technique, and was lucky with my two previous teachers at RSAMD. They both had excellent techniques and taught many of the same things as Ryland. This meant my transition into being a singer wasn't a traumatic one where I had to relearn everything. Rather it was a honing and polishing of what had already been started.
Ryland understands my voice and all its idiosyncrasies, which means I get away with little to nothing when our schedules permit a lesson! That's truly invaluable as a singer: someone you trust who knows how your voice works.
You perform a lot of Baroque opera. Do you feel a particular affinity with Baroque music and is this specialisation deliberate?
Baroque music plays to my vocal strengths, so it always feels like a good fit for me. I have been also fortunate to work a lot with specialist early music conductors and ensembles, both in concert and on stage. So I would say the way in which my career has developed so far has been a combination of luck, design and fate. I truly love Baroque repertoire, but I wouldn't call myself purely a Baroque singer as I sing later repertoire too.
Turning to your forthcoming appearances at ENO, what aspects of the role of Don Pedrarias Dávila are you most looking forward to?
The character is a departure for me dramatically, in that he is an evil man. At one point, my wife Doña Isabel (sung by Lucy Crowe) describes Don Pedrarias as 'an ambitious, violent and despotic man'.
How to portray these characteristics without becoming a 'pantomime villain' is a challenge I’m finding really interesting. My last role was in a wrap dress and high heels, so this is certainly different!
This will be the first time you've been directed by Peter Sellars. He's famed for his razor-sharp intellect, compassion and creative zest so it's likely to be an exciting encounter! Are you nervous about working together? What are you hoping to take away from the experience.
Yes, this is the first time I've worked with Peter. He was, of course, present at my audition and from the outset has been very open and kind – he immediately puts you at ease. Despite the opera's serious subject matter, there has been much laughter this first week, and a real sense of collaboration in getting at the truth of what we are performing.
I am sure there is much I will learn over the coming weeks, but even in these early stages I have felt inspired by Peter's energy, enthusiasm, and unfaltering desire for the words to be alive and fresh, rather than singing a line you have honed and memorised. The idea of not knowing exactly what you will sing next, because in the context of the story it’s not taken place or occurred to you yet, is key to Peter's approach. As a performer, this is very exciting.
What other kinds of roles do you enjoy playing, and why? Does your choice reflect anything in your own personality, or do you like to go against the grain?!
Apart from the obvious vocal choices, I enjoy playing characters that offer something substantial to inhabit. We are all of us multifaceted, never just one thing, but sometimes certain roles can feel quite the opposite, so finding a way to flesh these out interests me greatly.
I always try to look for the human quality in a role. For example, a role could appear comical, but are we laughing with or at that person? And why? If it's a seemingly evil character, what life experiences and choices led them there, and is there opportunity to show their more human side?
I am drawn to characters where there is some sadness. I connect with people that are able to show weakness and vulnerability, and I believe that is present in the type of roles I have performed and would choose to perform, or indeed in the way I have portrayed those characters.
What are the challenges that you face, personally, as you make your way as an opera singer? Do you have a 'life philosophy' that motivates you?
In terms of challenges, there is the monolith of the 'life/work balance'. It isn't always easy to get right, and I have such huge respect and admiration for my colleagues with growing families. I have a compact support network that I rely on greatly. Being a singer can be lonely: it’s not all glamour or the smell of the greasepaint. There are moments of sitting alone in a hotel room with illness brewing and not knowing what to do, or just craving a little company. But the rewards are huge, and I never complain about it. I love to travel and still get excited about visiting foreign cities, new or old to me. It's a great life.
I have a few life philosophies that I dip in and out of. I think true acceptance and appreciation of what you have is the only way to be truly happy.
What are your ambitions for the future?
That's always a difficult question to answer. I'd like to continue singing music that I love, and to continue working with people that inspire me to be better at what I do – and see where that journey takes me.
Thomas Walker will appear as Don Pedrarias Dávila in ENO’s production of The Indian Queen. Performances at the Coliseum in London run from 26 February to 14 March. www.eno.org
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English National Opera chief executive resigns
30 January 2015, London, UK
The screw has tightened another notch around English National Opera’s beleagured board with the announcement of the resignation today of the opera company’s executive director Henriette Götz after only 9 months in the job. Her departure comes just a week after ENO’s chairman Martyn Rose said that he would be stepping down from the board on 15 February following very public and acrimonious criticism of John Berry, ENO’s artistic director.
Götz held the post of executive director for Flemish Opera, based in Antwerp and Ghent, for five years before joining ENO in May last year. Her predecessor Loretta Tomasi left the ENO in December 2013 after 10 years with the company.
In the months that intervened after Tomasi left and before Götz’s appointment, the role of executive director was changed substantially from a power-sharing arrangement with the artistic director to a more subservient role, as John Berry widened his executive powers to include ENO’s commercial as well as artistic portfolio. Some commentators saw this as pointing to megalomaniac tendencies in Berry’s leadership style.
Götz’s sudden departure (she will leave on 28 February) is another sign that ENO’s management contains serious divisions at a time when the company faces a major restructuring in the wake of the drastic reduction of its Arts Council Grant by almost 30 per cent.
Following the appointment of board member Dr Harry Brünjes as interim chairman, another ENO board member, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, will step into Götz’s shoes until a successor can be found. Whitworth-Jones brings years of experience of running international opera companies to bear in his interim role, including a recent stint as general manager of Garsington Opera.
An announcement from ENO has stated that neither Henriette Götz nor the ENO board will be commenting on the latest developments. So far, there has been no suggestion that the board is wavering from its support of John Berry, though there is now intense pressure on the artistic director and ENO’s trustees to set out a viable creative and financial plan that will restore public confidence in ENO’s future.
Arts Council England, meanwhile, will be convening next week to discuss current developments. In spite of the cuts, ENO still remains accountable to the Arts Council for £12m of public funding a year as well as a one-off transitional grant of £7.6m to help it restructure its business.
World premiere – Penny at Washington National Opera
26 January 2015, Washington, US
Deborah Nansteel as Penny(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Report by Karyl Charna Lynn
Penny is the gripping story of an autistic woman who both literally and figuratively finds her voice through music. Part of the American Opera Initiative, whose purpose is to nurture young American composers and librettists to create operas with contemporary American stories or themes, Penny was composed and written by AOI alumni Douglas Pew and Dara Weinburg.
Weinburg’s libretto tackles a difficult subject in a sensitive and perceptive manner that could easily stand on its own as a powerful play, but Pew’s melodic score sprinkled with occasional dissonance added incisive definition to the characters and underscored the emotions and moods, elevating this powerful and poignant story to the highest level.
The opera unfolded in sun-soaked Arizona, where Penny (Deborah Nansteel) has been brought by social worker Jaeson (Wei Wu) to live with her sister Katherine (Kerriann Otano) and husband Gary (Trevor Scheunemann) – a move prompted by the death of Penny’s guardian uncle Raymond (James Shaffran), who also happens to have left her a sizeable inheritance.
Initially, Penny rocked back and forth, responding only with lyrical wails symbolizing her isolation; both Katherine and Gary have difficulties responding to her ‘special needs’. Gary himself is a concert pianist who suffers from a neurological condition that prevents him from performing, and wants to use some of Penny’s inheritance to pay for an operation. Fortunately, Gary’s friend Martin (Patrick O’Halloran), also a pianist, forms a connection with Penny, slowly drawing her out of her isolation with music, enabling her to express herself through song until she can summon the courage to venture out on her own and live independently.
All but one of the singers, who were alumni or current members of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, gave commendable performances, especially Deborah Nansteel as Penny. Theatre director Alan Paul offered a taut, streamlined production that kept up the tension and held one’s attention throughout the opera’s hour-long duration. Anne Manson conducted the small orchestra with aplomb, drawing out the fine nuances of Pew’s score while keeping good stage, pit balance.
ENO chair’s resignation reveals boardroom rift
26 January 2015, London, UK
John Berry: 'the problem rather than the solution' for ENO?(Photo © ENO)
The resignation of Martyn Rose as chairman of English National Opera will come as no surprise to those who have observed the growing personal animosity between him and John Berry, ENO’s artistic director.
The reasons for Rose’s resignation, after just two years as chairman, were detailed in a frank letter to the ENO’s president, Sir Vernon Ellis, reportedly sent in December and subsequently leaked to the press. In the letter, Rose pulls no punches over Berry’s role in ENO’s current woes, accusing him of being responsible for losses of £10m. In the letter’s coup de grâce, he warns that he regards Berry as the ‘problem, not the solution’ to safeguarding ENO’s future at a time when the company has to look afresh at its business model, following a drastic 29 per cent reduction in the company’s annual Arts Council grant, which now stands at £12.4m.
ENO’s board has stood behind Berry, and the company has issued a statement that it does not recognise the losses quoted in Rose’s letter, adding that ENO is ‘on course to present a balanced budget’ in the current financial year. This however, has been achieved with the help of one-off transitional funding of £7.6m from Arts Council England (ACE), and with the axing of its production of Orfeo at Bristol Old Vic this season.
ACE, meanwhile, was emphatic that the decision to cut ENO’s grant was not influenced by its chairman Sir Peter Bazalgette who was Rose’s predecessor at ENO until 2012. An ACE spokesperson said, ‘Sir Peter was not able to discuss or be part of the ENO decisions because of his former role at ENO.’
Rose will stand down as chairman on 15 February. ENO board member Harry Brunjes has been appointed interim chairman until a successor can be found.
Read our full interview with John Berry in Opera Now's March issue
UPDATE - ENO'S EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR STEPS DOWN
ENO's Executive Director, Henriette Götz, has given her notice to the company's board and will step down on 28 February 2015. A brief statement by acting chair Dr Harry Brünjes praised Götz's 'passion and commitment', but both parties remained tight-lipped about the motives behind her decision: 'Henriette Götz and English National Opera have agreed that they shall not be making any further comment in respect of this matter.'
Anthony Whitworth-Jones, currently a non-executive trustee of ENO, has been appointed as Acting Director of the company while the board carries out a search for a new full time director.
Top management arrested at Opera Valencia
23 January 2015, Valencia, Spain
Helga Schmidt(Photo © Palau de les Arts)
Following the sudden arrest of general director Helga Schmidt, the sweeping changes among the top brass of the Palau de les Arts in Valencia have been swift and dramatic. Spain’s third most important opera house, after Madrid and Barcelona, saw Schmidt taken into custody at the end of last week, after police launched an investigation into financial irregularities at the theatre.
The 73-year-old arts doyenne has now been released on bail, but has been relieved of her duties at the Palau de les Arts. Meanwhile, the American-born stage director Davide Livermore has today been appointed general director in Schmidt’s stead, promoted from his role as head of the Palau’s young artist studio, the Centro de Perfeccionamiento Plácido Domingo.
Schmidt is a hugely influential figure in the opera world, having held major arts posts in Vienna, Amsterdam and London, where she was the youngest ever artistic director of London’s Royal Opera House during the 1970s. Her wide-ranging influence in the opera world was a pivotal factor in establishing the Palau as a serious international player when the venue opened in 2005. The kudos that came from Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic designs for the new theatre was boosted by the arrival of luminaries such as Plácido Domingo, Zubin Mehta and the late Lorin Maazel.
In truth, Schmidt’s tenure in Valencia has rarely been free from controversy. Her detractors have painted her as an overindulgent spendthrift, demanding ruinously excessive budgets for the Palau at the expense of Valencia’s other arts organisations; her supporters, meanwhile, say that it is through her efforts that Valencia has been able to establish itself as one of Spain’s principal cultural destinations, and that she is the scapegoat of a chaotic local government which is trying to cover its own record of mismanagement.
Also arrested as part of the police investigation is Ernesto Moreno, who was the Palau’s manager from 2007 to 2011. Both he and Schmidt will now be the subject of an ongoing investigation into charges made by a former employee of the Palau regarding contractual irregularities and misappropriation of funds.
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