British baritone Jonathan McGovern is rapidly being recognized as one of the most exciting rising stars. Following initial studies at King’s College London, he continued his studies at the London Royal Academy of Music. He went on to win prizes at the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial competition, the Royal Over-Seas League Music Competition and the Les Azuriales competition. Both a fine operatic artist and a notable recitalist, he has made debuts on major lyric stages including the Komische Oper Berlin, the Hamburg Staatsoper, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma as well as major concert venues such as the Konzerthaus Berlin, the Verbier Festival and the Wigmore Hall. His discography includes albums of songs by Debussy and Mendelssohn. Recent, current and future engagements include Pelléas at the Komische Oper, Papageno in Hamburg and Garsington, and the Johannes-Passion in a staged production by Calixto Bieito at the Teatro Arriaga in Bilbao. I caught up with Mr McGovern in London between rehearsals for the new Zauberflöte at the Garsington Festival.
Mr McGovern, you are currently rehearsing the role of Papageno for a new production at the Garsington Festival. Tell us a little bit about the show we can expect to see.
I’ve just come straight from doing our Papageno-Papagena scene and it’s great fun, not kitsch. Expect a feisty Papagena. Mozart’s women are so well drawn in general and Netia Jones, the director, is really into embracing that. Pamina in Zauberflöte is strong and determined and a good match for some of the less than reputable characters. Netia’s also exploring the idea of Masonic rituals in the piece; what people are devoting themselves to and whether this really is the right path. My character, Papageno, in this production is a proper Naturmensch – a bit grimy, a bit grotty, covered in dust with twigs in his hair, a couple of teeth missing. You wonder why anyone would like him. He’s got his head screwed on so maybe someone can look past the layer of muck!
You actually sang Papageno in Hamburg, in German for a German-speaking audience. How did you prepare for a piece that does have a lot of dialogue?
I suppose I started preparing for it when I was still in secondary school. At that stage, I was just starting to discover song and I realized that I wanted to study music and languages. At sixth form college in Godalming, Surrey, I had a wonderful teacher called Frau Stephens who encouraged me to look at German. That’s where it really started. Music, languages and lieder – they all come together back then. Even though I speak German, I’ve always tried to keep up with my languages. Before I went to Hamburg, I did a lot of work with German coaches who were very patient with me getting to a level that sounded idiomatic and native. Then, when I got there, there were some brilliant people who worked with me to get it absolutely ready. The dialogue was quite heavily cut in the Hamburg production but the German coaching also helped with the arias. I’d known that this role was a great fit for me ever since I was at music college, but getting a role to an international standard is another level of work. It was a process of immersion and repetition and just being in Germany, bathed in the language really helped. And a lot of hard work! Even now, in this production, we have a German coach in the room who is helping us to get it to sound natural. I’ve worked hard to get it to sound utterly idiomatic.
Indeed, with this Garsington production you’ll be performing Zauberflöte in German for a British audience. Do you think you’ll be making any adjustments due to that?
The dialogue in general, even in German productions, is cut normally. There are very few houses who do it in its entirety, untouched. I think the key is to keep the Singspiel spirit and get the gaps in between the numbers to be as compact and as tight as possible. I think that if we can pull it off from an honest, emotional place, audiences will know what’s going on, hopefully without having to even look at the surtitles!
This of course represents a return for you to Garsington, a country house opera festival. What are the differences for you between performing at a festival such as this and at a traditional opera house?
It’s a lovely atmosphere there. Everyone is so relaxed and warm. Getting some opera, having a picnic with friends, and then going back in for some more opera – it’s pretty wonderful. The company has exceptionally high standards and I’ve been lucky to share the stage with incredible colleagues. The biggest difference, and this applies to the Zauberflöte at the moment, is the light. We start in the afternoon and the only time you can really start lighting is late in the evening. It can be an unusual feeling to go onstage and feel the natural light on your face. There’s also a long interval. From a purely technical point of view, I need to make sure I stay warm. I need to make sure I don’t eat too much and have a bit of a sugar crash after that. It’s more of a case of snacking and making sure that I’m still with it and not weighed down, feeling full. Hay fever can also be an issue – occasionally I suffer from it. I used to have it very severely, but most often it’s worse in London because of the pollution (as well). Last year in Pelléas, it was a challenge to keep the voice in one place. Because of the light, Michael Boyd, who directed, decided to move the interval to a non-conventional place. It meant that straight after the break of one and a half hours, I had to come on with the tower scene. It’s lovely when it comes at the end of a first half because you’re all oiled up and ready to go – but launching straight into it after the long interval was very tricky. It’s the age-old adage that you must never leave your voice in the dressing room, that’s one I’ve learned recently.
Let’s talk about Pelléas because it’s one of your most notable roles. You’ve done, if I’m not mistaken, three new productions with a fourth next year. How important is this role to you in terms of personality, vocal fit?
I’ve always loved Debussy and I love how pliable Pelléas is about to interpretation. It leaves so much in the realm that isn’t to be understood empirically. Having done the Garsington production with Michael Boyd and then done a completely different one with Barrie Kosky in the same season, it’s special that both interpretations are so completely in the piece and loyal to it in every way. That’s the beauty of that opera. It’s also so multifaceted and so challenging in terms of what it asks for in vocalism. For me, as a high baritone, the area of where a lot of Pelléas happens isn’t as much of a gear change in my voice as it might be for other baritones. That’s not to say it was easy, but I find I have more opportunities to have access to that music and then think of solutions to the technical challenges. Pelléas is a very gentle character and in a strange way, he shares a lot of characteristics with Papageno – both are very honest people, honest to a fault. Their communication with the public, with the environment and with nature in the story, is blazingly sincere.
And how about the language? How do you find using the text in that particular role?
Pelléas asks for so much from the voice – one minute lyric high tessitura lines, then a scene of nearly five minutes of Sprechstimme. It’s fiendishly hard, to drop in and out of singing and go to that style of vocal production. The grotto scene took me a long time to get right, to get the accents right and to find a colour that sits and fits on top of Debussy’s grunge and grime in the orchestration. Then, in the final scene that I have, there are more arioso sections that can come out of nowhere. The language is always your ally in any case. All the consonants are there to help, but they’re charged with such incredible energy in this piece. I suppose it comes from keeping the voice in the right place on the body and embracing how much of a wealth of colour there is in the language that Debussy gives you the opportunity to get across. It’s fascinating.
Let’s talk about recitals. You’ve released two albums of song. What for you are the differences between opera and recitals?
Recital is really where I cut my teeth, especially when I was at college. I loved the repertoire, I loved the poetry. My approach in the last year has changed a lot towards song. I haven’t done a great deal of recital, of late, and with the changes in my voice in the last couple of years I had to really address going back to relearning a lot of songs, technically. My teacher and I call it blueprinting! I’ve started to approach song in a more operatic way, not necessarily making it on a bigger scale, but bringing out the detail to the technical choices; making sure I’m singing with my whole body. As far as differences are concerned, I don’t think there’s much difference in that respect. There’s obviously more of a chance to exploit colour in smaller spaces and take risks than on the operatic stage. It’s still me performing and I think I need to be true to myself. I’ve always brought opera into song, not necessarily in terms of creating a character, but bringing it from a place that’s entirely honest.
Do you see it as storytelling for example?
I think it’s inhabiting the story. Sometimes you do have to tell the story. But I think a lot of the time it’s being present within the poem. I think you are the story. I have to be ultimately immersed in it. It’s the same feeling that I have when I’m doing an opera on stage, in costume. It’s as if I stop thinking with the ‘chatter’ part of the brain – the part that thinks about the technique, how I’m feeling, the weather – and instead you go into this area which just responds to the music and the words and you communicate the genuine core of a song to get it across to the audience. It’s the same feeling when you hit your stride whether in song or in opera, it’s hard to describe but you know when you’re in it.
How about the contact with the audience? Very often, in a recital room, you can see who you’re singing to, whereas in a theatre, you’re much less likely to get that.
I’m definitely aware of the energy of an audience. I keep referring to this ‘chatter’ part of the brain – that constant assessing, looking at something, analyzing, processing it. Once that’s gone, you find yourself in this quite subconscious experience. Of course, one can still make choices but when the rather analytical part of your brain switches off, you make these choices from a deeper level. It’s almost like improvisation. When you feel that with an audience, it’s an intangible, instinctive feeling. If I’m ever aware of an audience, the shuffling, the coughing, that’s when I feel that I’m not on my game. That’s quite a scary feeling, actually. It’s as if your ‘me’ is switched back on. People often think that being on stage is an egotistical process. I’ve never felt that. It’s been a place of absolute freedom and liberation, where worries are left to one side and I can switch off those problems. Being on stage has always been an area of great release for me.
Moving on from song to concert work. You recently did a staged Johannes-Passion directed by Calixto Bieito in Bilbao. Was this a work that you had done in concert before doing a staging of it?
I did a lot of song and a lot of opera in my early career but I haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot of oratorio. My colleagues and I often joke that I’ve never sung a Messiah. I did a staged Carmina burana in Rome a few years ago, but in terms of concert work, this was my third ever Johannes-Passion. Normally with a work like this you might have a day or a day and a half of rehearsal. In Bilbao we had three and a half weeks of full rehearsal before going into the performances. I got to spend so much time with an incredible director, an incredible man, who adored this piece and getting to spend some time inside one of the greatest pieces of music ever written was just a joy. As Calixto said through it all, ‘the music is first’, and that’s what it was. We were given the freest environment to respond as artists, to create something. There was lots of improvisation and many of my colleagues had feelings about what they wanted to express about the piece. Together with the very strong ideas that Calixto had, we created something very special. Essentially, it was the same process as putting on an opera. It’s a testament to how great that piece is, that it’s got enough rigour that it can take quite an avant-garde and contemporary slant when being brought to life on stage.
How did you discover your voice?
Normally, one expects British singers to have come up through the cathedrals. That wasn’t my route. My primary school had a school choir. I was incredibly lucky that the ethos in the school was that singing was cool. We even loved hymn practice! Once a week we had hymn practice and people had favourite hymns, calling out, wanting to sing. So, I was always singing. I was also learning violin and piano at the same time and I played recorder in a consort. I adored that. I still play the recorder when I go home.
And they all gave you a good foundation in music.
Exactly. And music was never something I didn’t do, in some form or other. From the age of 12 to 18, I suppose this was the real time it fermented, I was part of the National Youth Music Theatre. Most summers I auditioned and I went away and put on shows. I worked at the Edinburgh Festival, the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, on tour to Tokyo. I learned so much about stagecraft, about being on stage, being around people who were enthusiastic about performance as well. Then, I went on to King’s College London and did an academic degree in music. It really opened up a wealth of music to me and just being able to immerse myself in the joy of music.
And then you went to the Royal Academy of Music?
Yes, I auditioned and I got in. It opened up a world of repertoire for me. Art song, language class, acting and movement coaching. A big break, while I was studying there, was winning the Royal Over-Seas League competition. That’s when I thought things might be starting to happen for me. Throughout my time there I also worked as a page turner at the Wigmore Hall. This was like having a free lesson every weekend, sitting so close to the greatest artists in the world. Shortly after that, I got to the final and won the duo prize with one of my university colleagues, Timothy End, in the Wigmore Hall Song Competition. I went from being a page turner to singing on the stage in the same year.
In terms of your vocal range, the voice sits quite high and the top opens up quite wonderfully, how did you develop that?
I’ve always had a certain height and freeness to the voice, which I can thank my first teacher Philip Doghan for. I was, however, lacking an evenness and strength in the voice. For the last three years I’ve been working with Ben Johnson and it’s been amazing because he’s helped me focus on the middle, which I’d neglected for a long time. If you listen to the old, great Italian school the focus is on the middle of the voice. If you get the muscular strength there, the top looks after itself in a way. Now that the voice has evened out, it’s given the voice real freedom. The freedom comes from having the correct vowel position and that correct vowel position is at the base of everything. It’s taken a while for me, lots of exercises of moving over and over a third, using the bright, proper Italian vowels. For the voice to spin and fizz and be amazing on the top, it has to be at the fundament a real Italian vowel. What I realized with Pelléas, was that I was singing it best when I was singing it with my whole body and for a long time I hadn’t done that. It’s also very easy to get waylaid with a forward nasal ‘French’ sound and forget the Italian base.
You’ve already made a number of important debuts, you have a flourishing career as an opera and concert singer. If you think back to those days when you were at King’s or at the Academy, if you had to give one piece of advice to your even younger self, what would it be?
It’s something I’ve thought of a lot, lately. There were things that I needed to solve in my singing and for a while I was in a bit of denial about this. But things happen when they happen. We are our voices and often to question our singing, or our technique or our artistry, feels like having a dig at the deepest core of who we are as a person. But in the same way as many other things that are less artistic, it yields to reason. I think it’s to have the bravery to ask those questions that are so difficult to ask. It’s easy to be very dogmatic as a singer. I think it’s good to question constantly the things we’re dogmatic about. Once you’ve asked the questions, there’s such a great freedom in realizing that most problems can be solved. There are solutions and there is information out there if one wishes to seek it. Ultimately, it’s to not be afraid of seeking the information.
You just made your debut at the Komische, you’ve recently returned from the Teatro Arriaga in Bilbao, you’re about to return to Garsington, what else can we expect from you?
War and Peace at Welsh National Opera, I can’t wait for that. It’s very exciting. It’s more of a lyric direction for me, which I’m thrilled about. Prokofiev writes so masterfully for the voice. You look at it and realize that the Russian school was so well taught on the mechanics of the voice and vowels, it’s fascinating. The last time I worked with David Pountney was back when I was at the Royal Academy of Music, so I’m really looking forward to working with him again. That’s between September and November. I’m also going back to Pelléas in Klagenfurt in February next year. I’ve got my Concertgebouw debut with Christian Curnyn in Dido and Aeneas and Blow’s Venus and Adonis as well in November. I’m singing the Fauré Requiem in Liėge later this year with Hervé Niquet. Pelléas and Papageno are like my old friends, of course, and one role I’m dying to do again is Orfeo. I did it in Bilbao last year with Barbora Horáková Joly, who just won the International Opera Award for Best Newcomer. That was an absolute joy. All three are roles I feel connected with. I have a relationship with these roles that goes very deep.
Where would you like to see yourself going longer term?
The one role I really want to sing is Onegin. I’ve also got my Don Giovanni debut next year. I now feel that I’ve got the strength in my voice to do that and I’d like to explore the Italian repertoire further. I’d love to sing some Bellini and Donizetti at some point, but they rarely come up and aren’t the bread and butter of younger singers. I’m also interested in the German rep – I’d love to do a tote Stadt, a Harlekin. I’m really looking forward to exploring more.