Interview with Thomas Walker

Scottish tenor Thomas Walker has already established himself as a notable talent with his flexible and easily-produced tenor.  With a wide repertoire of music spanning from Monteverdi to Janáček, he has gained particular acclaim for his interpretations of baroque music having appeared as a featured soloist with the Dunedin Consort, the Gabrieli Consort, the Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik and Al Ayre Español.  His operatic repertoire includes Rossini’s Almaviva, Don Ottavio, Pelléas and Platée.  I caught up with Mr Walker between performances in ENO’s The Indian Queen and rehearsals for Platée in Stuttgart.

Thomas Walker ©Robert Workman
Thomas Walker ©Robert Workman

Mr Walker, you are currently performing in a production of The Indian Queen at ENO. This is quite a different take on the piece than one might have expected.  Tell us a little more about this production.

A bit of context about this is that it’s not strictly an opera – it’s a masque, written in a time when opera was prohibited.  Peter Sellars has taken John Dryden’s original text and added some spoken dialogues based on Rosario Aguilar.  He has also changed some of the text by adding some character names, omitted some arias and added others to make a narrative for this story and his interpretation of that piece.  I think it works really well as a story.  There has been the inevitable mixed reception in the press and online forums like Twitter – some people have absolutely loved it, others quite the opposite.  I think that’s the point about art, that it should create a discussion and get people talking.  It shouldn’t be ‘easy’ or else what is the point in what we do?  I’ve really enjoyed working with Peter Sellars, he’s quite a deep man – in a good sense – and I enjoy discussing things and working on that kind of level.  He sees a lot of sadness in the world and I think that this comes through in a lot of his productions.  In the few that I have seen, there’s a lot of sadness, a lot of honesty, a lot of truth, there’s nothing superfluous.  The Indian Queen is a real ensemble piece.  We did a lot of rehearsing as a group, more akin to theatre work than to the rehearsals one sees in a mainstream opera house, which meant we really bonded as a cast.  We were all also in the same age group, relatively young I suppose, so we had plenty of social time together after rehearsals.

As Don Pedrarias in ENO's The Indian Queen ©Robert Workman
As Don Pedrarias in ENO’s The Indian Queen ©Robert Workman

You are also working simultaneously in Stuttgart in a revival of Calixto Bieito’s production of Platée.  You of course premiered that particular staging and it’s a work that you have also performed here in London, in concert.  What are the differences for you of working in a new production and returning to revive it later?

The main difference is one’s colleagues. This is the second revival of this production and we have mostly the original cast back this time.  However it was a good few years ago that we premiered it, so things have changed somewhat.  For example, nothing is ever perfect, so say there was a section that never really worked, and in the first revival we changed it, but now we have the original cast member back, so we have to alter it back, or create something else.  That’s the main thing, was it a directorial choice to have something like that, or was that because of the talents of that particular singing actor?  Stepping into a role created by someone else, is very tricky, especially a Bieito production where energy and physicality play a huge part.  You can’t expect two people to have the same physicality, so things must change. I think if I were doing this particular production for the first time, in its third revival, it would be quite difficult to get a handle on what Calixto wanted and what he expected and what was Thomas Walker, and what he had chosen because of his own set of talents and shortcomings – they are a part of the decision making too.  However since I have performed every performance of this production I suppose I am in the position of knowing exactly what happens when and why.

I’m lucky enough to retain direction, so after a couple of days I can do exactly what I did years previously. I have good spatial recall, which is helpful and can remember what others in my scenes are supposed to be doing, so it’s an easy process for me to do a revival of something I created.  Also, in this particular production, I was left alone to do quite a lot of things myself.  I had to do quite a lot of improvising in reaction to what other people were doing on stage, and I tend to comment on the action, in a true ‘commedia dell’arte’ style, so I interact with the audience, sometimes go into the audience, sometimes sit on the side and watch it with them. This sort of thing is all free – it changes on the dynamic of the audience reaction.  It has to be fluid at all times, that’s one of the best parts of the Platée that Calixto created.  Would it be useful to have the original director present?  I think it’s always good to have the director there, as they are the only one who can truly change their production, make new decisions and alter things. We don’t really have the right to take apart someone’s work, so we have to stick to the parameters of the show, but have the same improvised spirit continuing throughout.

There is however a lot of pathos involved in this role.  It’s a comedy role but the comedy comes from actually having a little bit of pity for the person, feeling sorry for them, and also the ridiculous situations that they get themselves into.  The story of Platée isn’t a funny story, this is somebody who wants to fit into society, who is rejected by society and who ultimately is humiliated by the people who pretended to accept her.  The ending is truly humiliating, and everyone, including the audience knows, this is going to happen – there are a lot of asides that Platée doesn’t hear for example – so it isn’t some hilarious pantomime ending. I think the audience have real pity and perhaps a little bit of shame at what happens to this person that they were so enjoying laughing at.  Platée for me is truly an everyman, she wants to be loved and to be accepted and to be all those things we all aspire to be, but she is ridiculed in the most brutal way.

As Platée © A.T. Schaefer / Staatsoper Stuttgart
As Platée © A.T. Schaefer / Staatsoper Stuttgart

How do you find working with Bieito as a director?

I really loved working with him.  Calixto is quite an intense man, much like Sellars in fact.  He sees a lot of pain in the world, and in this production the emotional height can turn on a dime from hyper sad or angry, to very lighthearted.  As I said previously, Platée is very funny but it’s also painful, he sees a lot of grief in it, and for me that was a relief.  I had made the choice that I didn’t want to be some panto dame, with huge comedy tits, totally unconvincing as a woman and constantly making extreme vocal effects and I was glad that Calixto didn’t want that for his opera either.  Of course there are moments of blatant ‘drag’ buffoonery, and playing to the audience but working with Calixto, and our conductor, Christian Curnyn – who I have to add was as instrumental in some of the shenanigans on stage as we the singers were – was truly collaborative and there was never any struggle between stage and pit, which was a dream scenario for my first outing of this role. But back to your question, Calixto isn’t actually a very loud person, he speaks quite intimately to you – he never really shouts at anyone, he doesn’t ever bark, he sits and watches.  He’ll come and say things to you on your own, he likes personal time.  I find him a positive energy, you feel safe, you feel that you can do what you wanted and it was never, ever wrong.

He manages to get his singers, even the choruses, to do the most incredible things

Yes, outrageous things sometimes, things you would never imagine they would do.  I think he achieves that from day one.  I think he sees how far you will go and then he sets his parameters.  That’s quite clever psychologically, isn’t it?  You push someone to see how far they go and you see how far they go and then you build something from that rather than letting them get there slowly.  You might never get there I think. For example my first morning on stage, I was semi-naked with my penis out, (that’s remained part of the production) so there was no ‘easing’ me into the role, we just went for it.

Of course Platée is quite a high role, how do you find the vocal writing for that?

I don’t find it too difficult singing high in that way, it’s something that I’ve slotted in to.  I wouldn’t say that my voice is the most haute-contre type voice, in that it’s a certain style singing haute-contre.  Very often you don’t take all the weight of the voice to the top in the same way as say a Rossini role for example.  The tenor that Platée was written for, Pierre Jélyotte, was prized for the fullness of his sound, the beauty of his voice, his superb acting and this power that he had at the top of his voice, he created a lot of the Gluck tenor roles. So it’s reasonable to sing Platée in a fuller way. We also do it at modern pitch so there’s that extra tone, which can be gruelling at times in such a high energy/physical production, but once you get going you can pace yourself and you can work out how you’re going to do it night on night.  It’s different when you have a high role that’s very concentrated in small bits because you have to warm yourself up in your dressing room and then go on and just deliver it, like the Italian tenor in Der Rosenkavalier which I have also performed.  That’s grating on the nerves a little, whereas I think because I’m on the stage the whole time in this, if I think I’m getting tired I can just negotiate that within the opera.  There’s a lot of business that I have to do in Platée which takes my mind off the singing – loads of things to do, lots of things to concentrate on, costumes to deal with, trying to be funny – so that takes your mind away from the singing.

As Pelléas
As Pelléas

Tell us about the language, how do you find singing in French?

I actually quite like it.  A lot of singers find it difficult, it’s a tricky language, but the voice placement for the nasal sounds can feel like the voice is a little trapped, it doesn’t feel as free or open throated as singing in Italian would.  I’m lucky enough to be a good mimic and I can sound idiomatic with languages quite easily.  I think it’s a pretty important skill for a singer to be able to mimic the sound and to be able to retain it.  The French repertoire was always something that was on the cards for me when I was a student.  The colour palette of the language and aesthetic of the repertoire suits the sound that I make. However a lot of French rep is quite heavy, so the baroque route suits me well for the time being.

One of the things with being a singer is that often you need to be in two places simultaneously.  How are you finding being in rehearsals in Stuttgart one day and then performing in London the next?

It’s not untypical; I’ve certainly done it quite a few times.  I think the biggest challenge is plain old tiredness.  I don’t mean to complain, I have a nice life, but it’s tiring.  This week I have to spend quite a lot of it sleeping on planes, or getting 4 hours of that sort of fitful sleep that you don’t really know where you are, before a mad dash to the airport.  This morning, here in London, when I went for a coffee I started to speak to the waitress in German, so I am clearly not coping with sleep deprivation very well!  I do quite a lot of concerts and getting into the busy seasons around Christmas or Easter in particular, sometimes I’ve been horribly busy with a flight every day and then a concert that evening.  It’s nice to have a full diary and it’s amazing that people want you, and that they accept that you fly in on the day.  However I wouldn’t like to make a habit of this in the long term because it’s stressful and your body’s tired.  I get stressed about being late – you’re always worried about the flight being delayed and then missing the concert.

As Don Ottavio
As Don Ottavio

You started off as a tuba player, how do you feel that this has affected your development as a musician?

I think I performed many more pieces and different genres of music as a brass player than I might ever sing.  As a brass player, especially playing contemporary music for tuba, it’s a good way to learn accurate, quick negotiating of difficult scores, but that talent really is ‘use it or lose it’ and I feel that I’ve lost it a little bit.  These days I sing tunes, but I have retained the sight-reading for the most part, although I do less and less of it.  I think now I’d have to mark up beats in a brass score whereas before it didn’t use to be an issue.  I also used to be a lot heavier back then, I was quite a big person, so when I started being a singer I had very good breath control and my voice was heavier then as well.  Bigger people have more muscle, so it stands to reason that when I was double the size I am now, I was much stronger, and could use it in my singing.  It was also a lack of technique to some extent.  I had the strength to just power through some things.  These days I use a more, how shall I put it, refined way of singing.  I think that’s the kindest way to put it.  People imagined I was going to go into more heavy tenor rep, it was quite a dark, heavy voice and then I lost weight and it changed.  My voice started going up gradually, it’s gone higher and higher, which has served me well, but it certainly wasn’t what I expected.  It wasn’t easy for me singing high when I first started being a singer. I think it’s not just understanding how you sing technically, but it’s also having the confidence or the bravery to do it and rely on it.  I think that’s a big part of it.  It’s very vulnerable, it’s the bit that’s least likely to work for you.

You mentioned playing a wide repertoire as a brass player and something that comes up often is the idea of performing in a stylistically appropriate way.   You have quite a massive range in your repertoire, going from Monteverdi up to Janáček and beyond.  Tell us a little about your approach to the style of the music you’re performing.

I think I try to be appropriate to the music I am singing.  I have worked with people who’ve done a lot of French baroque and they’ll correct you, or the conductor will tell you what’s what, when to do it, and why do it.  I listen to other singers a lot, I enjoy hearing others, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some who are more experienced in the style.  It’s just about having an ear for what sounds stylish, back to that point about mimicking.  I certainly wouldn’t sing Purcell or Rameau in the same way I would sing a Janáček piece.  It isn’t wholly to do with vibrato, but it’s a part of it, I think it’s about making a conscious decision to alter your vibrato occasionally, to maybe not sing through a phrase with a constantly spinning vocal line, to make decisions based on text, not voice. that’s the main one.  Taking vibrato out of the voice does feel like you’re holding your instrument because you’re trying to stop it vibrating so much, but that doesn’t mean it’s not healthy singing.  Mostly it’s musical – a violinist would do it instinctively, a brass player will do it instinctively and that’s where it comes from I think.  My feeling is that’s why I’ve a wide repertoire, because I can be appropriate to each style and I think that goes back to your previous question because when I was an instrumentalist I had to do that sort of thing constantly, to be stylistically appropriate.

In il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria © Robert Workman
In il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria © Robert Workman

We’ve talked about how you started as a singer, we’ve talked about what you’re working on right now, how about where you’re going.  What can we expect from you in the future?

I have quite a busy, varied summer coming up.  I’m doing a concert tour where we’re performing Gesualdo and Arvo Pärt with a viola da gamba.  I’m at the Edinburgh Festival doing some Beethoven and I’m also doing a BBC Prom. It’s been a while since I’ve been at the Proms so I am really looking forward to it.  There’s a concert we’re doing of three Bach Magnificats by JC, JS and CPE Bach and we’ll be recording them with Arcangelo for Hyperion.  It’ll be interesting to hear grandfather, father and son all together, different generations, same text.  I’m also singing Arnalta the Nurse in L’incoronazione di Poppea in Venice which will be really interesting.  Then in the autumn I’ll be returning to La Monnaie with René Jacobs to sing an opera by Gassmann.  I really like working with René Jacobs.  I find he’s always amazingly well-prepared. He’s the kind of conductor who will tell you about ornamentation and why you should do what.  He’s always got a book on the go in rehearsals which he’ll dip in and out of, such as an essay on performance practice or the context of the opera. There’s certainly never a sense of going through the motions with him, he does it because he loves it.

Thomas Walker on Facebook


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