2005.12.01 Transcription: BBC Radio 3 “In Tune”

Transcription: BBC Radio 3 “In Tune”

1 December 2005

Simon Keenlyside (SK)John Tomlinson (JT) and Timothy Robinson (TR) talking to Sean Rafferty (SR) about Billy Budd

SR: The time: the turbulent closing part of the 18th century. The place: aboard his majesty’s HMS Indomitable, where the Captain is king. Based on a dark tale of good and evil by Herman Melville, libretto by EM Forster and Eric Crozier, music by Benjamin Britten, English National Opera’s recently anointed House Composer. Well, Billy Budd opens there on Saturday, the three main protagonists join me tonight. The good but indecisive Captain, Starry Vere, and the two we now hear meeting for the first time, Simon Keenlyside’s winsome and open-hearted Billy Budd, John Tomlinson twisted and vengeful as Master of Arms John Claggart. And here meeting too the other unfortunates who’ve just been press-ganged.

Music: Act 1, Scene 1; from “First man forward. Your name?” to “I heard, your Honour”


SR: Well, that’s part of Act 1, scene 1 of Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten. Simon Keenlyside and John Tomlinson in that recording of the LSO and Richard Hickox. Well two of them are here and we have an extra captain for good measure, and just as we were listening to that they were all discussing the merits of the erm singers on that recording and I’m glad to say that they all got the thumbs up so that’s all to the good (SK laughs) – Simon Keenlyside is looking horrified – Simon Keenlyside is Billy Budd in English National Opera’s new production. How many times is that for you Simon, well from the last time at the Royal Opera?

SK: Not so many er, I do some runs occasionally in in Vienna. Probably only four times in all. So this is the last time, so it’s four times.

SR: Yeah four times, so very different in um in Viennese production than in the London one.

SK: Yeah, there’s always the, for us there’s always the biggest thrill is doing the, well I think, one of the biggest thrills is doing any piece, any masterpiece, to an audience in the language which they’re speaking. So that’s right here, good here.

SR Well the last dark tones we heard there of course were Sir John Tomlinson, the dastardly Claggart in this production, erm, really between Simon and you we have the epitome of good and evil don’t we, I mean in you characters?”

JT: That’s right. Yes. Well that’s what they say, er, I mean that’s the overall picture, but I think when your playing an evil character it doesn’t particularly help to think of it as evil actually. It, for me playing Claggart, it’s, it’s tragic, it’s tragic. It’s an empty, soulless character who’s, you know, lived a life of power and control and then Billy Budd is catapulted into this existence and creates turmoil.


SR: So it’s this, it’s this goods.. this open goodness (Yeah) that he can’t (Yeah) he can’t deal with.

JT: Yes. I think he probably, in a very pure way, adores Billy Budd. You know, but, is an unbearable, an unbearable thing for this particular character.

SR: And so he takes it, as indeed so often in history has happened, out in violence and loathing

JT: Well I think he thinks life – this is me speaking of my interpretation of the part – life cannot go on, either Billy Budd must be exterminated or we both must die, as we do. I don’t think Claggart cares if he dies himself, I think the confrontation with Billy is almost suicidal. It’s… In this morning’s dress rehearsal it was almost that I was inviting him to kill me (Yeah) it almost felt, you know “I don’t want to live any more, life is meaningless. Since he came on the scene”

SR: And of course the goodness goes because Billy with the stutter can’t confront you, or doesn’t confront you but in fact kills you. Is it easy to reconcile this Simon, with supposedly this innate goodness and openness and sunniness of Billy Budd?

SK: Well it’s funny I don’t think of the… I don’t think of Billy… I think it’s difficult… How do you play goodness? You end up Bambi-ing around the stage, and it’s fatuous. I think of it more… I mean what… aach… its very easy to… What I’m about to say can, could sound laughable but what, what 17-year old, naive 17 year old, beautiful, young man, is anything other than good? Er, he’s not Christ, he’s, he’s just a young, open, optimistic, beautiful young person (yeah, yeah) and, and seen even more beautiful through the eyes of an old man, i.e. Vere. I think that is, sort of, the fondness of old age (yes) if we, I think sometimes we hook in too much on what Vere says and we treat him as an angel. He’s just a young man. Claggart himself talks about fists and temper. He’s just a young man.

SR: Well indeed, well Captain Vere is Timothy Robinson, erm, a, a voice indeed to watch, he’s been doing increasingly well, here and abroad, and doing your first Captain Vere so how do you feel, and are you this nostalgic old man caught between these two strange characters or how do you see it?

TR: Erm, yes, I, I erm, I mean going back to this good and bad thing, erm, I er (clears throat) certainly don’t see myself as a as a bad character that, that, it’s very hard to feel you’re doing wrong when you play this role and of course I am responsible for Billy’s death directly, but erm I, I feel quite a lot of sympathy for Vere, and for the reasons that he does what he does, erm the times of course were very much demanding the kind of straight-laced action that he took. Erm yeah, I mean, I feel very at home with the role, with the character as well

SR: So there he is this figure who’s king at sea at the end of the 18th century when your rule is absolute, but you’re a kindly man and you’re a philosopher and you read well, and you see goodness in this young man and you see a certain amount of evil in Claggart, yet the rules say when someone kills someone, that’s it. They must die. And is there a huge amount of recrimination in your head about that?

TR: Erm, sorry I don’t quite get the recrimination thing…?

SR: Do you not regret that somehow this innocent young man has.. who has been provoked has gone to his death, do you not…

TR: Of course, he’s totally destroyed by, by the fact that he’s causing his death, but in his, erm in his mind he, he feels he has absolutely no choice about it, its Billy has killed the Master at Arms he has to be punished in strict naval discipline. That’s, there’s no choice. Er, erm, of course it destroys Vere, completely. Uhm, as it would.


John Tomlinson

SR: Here’s just before, I suppose, you have to break the news, and erm thinking about what the consequences might be. You haven’t recorded it yet so it’s Simon, John Tomlinson Philip Langridge

Music: from Vere “Claggart,  John Claggart” to Billy Budd “DEVIL !”

SR: Many dramatic moments in Billy Budd when young Billy strikes Claggart, and of course it has hideous consequences. Philip Langridge as Captain Vere there, and Simon Keenlyside is with us as Billy Budd and John Tomlinson as Claggart, and erm Timothy Robinson is making his debut at English National Opera as um Captain Vere. We were just discussing you know the longevity of roles (yes) and saying to young Timothy, “well Captain Vere can be with you for life”, and Simon were you a little bit wistful that maybe in three or four years time you won’t do Billy Budd again?..

SK: Yeah. Now. I think this will be it for me. You think this will be it? I think so, because it’s not in my diary for two or three years and that’ll take me to I’ll be too old for it. But look! The truth is… better singers than I it has never come their way. It’s come my way I think at the right time. I think I’m very lucky.

SR: Well, you know you certainly in the Zambello production at Covent Garden it was wonderful, it was incredibly physical, and of course you can do all that being a bit of an athlete.

SK: yeah… too much of that is ridiculous though. There’s a thin dividing line between a man rushing around the stage saying “Oo look at me, I can do these things” and the physicality required to show youthful exuberance, and I think (laughing) you have to have a good producer to slap you down – I’ve had my fair share of that…  (laughing) Yeah, not too much rushing around… and you can’t sing if you do that …no, well exactly. But it is quite physical, and that confrontation between erm you as Billy Budd and John Tomlinson as Claggart, does that demand a lot from you physically?

JT: I’d like to just divert for a while if I may and tell you a little story. I’d like to give my greetings at this moment to two avid listeners of this programme called Mr and Mrs Hopgood who live in Tirral in Cumbria, and they, as good Samaritans stopped and rescued me when I fell really badly in the Lake District and my knee exploded, and I’ve had to have an operation since, which has been very successful, everything’s fine (So you can covort about on the stage?)  when they said they were called “Hopgood” in this situation we all found that very funny, but I’d just like to say hello, and thank you for being so generous on that occasion and hope you’re enjoying the programme.

SR: Well, there you are you see, if you listen to this programme you are full of the milk of human kindness (laughter). Without them maybe you wouldn’t have been doing this role? Because that, you know, that you have to be able to get around physically as well as the athleticism of the voice haven’t you?

JT: Yes, actually this production is, I play the character quite still and slow, but having said that there are, it’s a pneumatically operated platform which goes very steep, er you know there are quite steep slopes at various times, so knees are important, and er fortunately my left knee is er strong again.

SR: Um, What do you feel doing your first Captain Vere Timothy? What is your… I mean presumably you knew the piece, you knew, you knew the opera, (Yeah) you knew Britten, but immersing yourself in something as dramatic, as intense as this.

TR: Yeah, I adore this piece, I was Novice when Simon did Budd at Covent Garden, so I know it really well. I, it’s just fantastic and, I do feel that I suit Britten and erm so it’s just a dream role. It’s quite, it’s quite overpoweringly… well its daunting, it’s a big role and it’s different to anything I’ve ever done, but er it’s just fantastic, I love doing it.

SR: That’s interesting, so what do you think is the quality you’ve got that suits (laughing “Ho hoo”) or maybe I should ask the other 2 (Oh Gosh) is there a particular voice do you think?

TR: Well I just , my… I just think its to do with it being written for Pears, and erm, I mean, I’m not going to say I sound like Pears, but he was certainly the first tenor I ever listened to, and and erm, the sort of weaknesses I have, I think, are nicely covered up by Britten’s writing (laughter, general comments)…

JT: Your wonderful comment about the English language, your use of the text is fantastic…

TR: I just love singing in English

SR …there you are it’s the English choral tradition coming out…

TR: I’m afraid so…

SR: … you can spit out the words…

JT: …and wonderfully human…

SR: There’s an interesting quote Simon, in when you were talking you know about your depiction of the character – what young, beautiful 17 year old, how can you say they’re good, there not, there not one thing or the other – EM Forster writing to Britten when they were going through the whole thing about the libretto, he said you know it was a difficult attempt, he said the ordinary, lovable and hateable human being is concerned with immensities through the tricks of art. Billy is our saviour, yet he is Billy, he’s not Christ or Orion and I believe your music may effect the connections better than our words. Erm that’s really what you were saying, does the music then help the characters? Does Britten’s use of major keys and minor keys and things somehow say things that it’s difficult for a performer to say or sing?

SK: Well John’s thanked the Hopgoods so I don’t see why I shouldn’t thank EM Forster (laughing! General laughter) Well you need those sorts of supports because you know you can… I think sometimes we are in danger of having the role, the character hijacked by various people, erm by various groups, and… Yes. I don’t know about the keys, I don’t know them, er I think they serve me without me noticing, noticing it. I mean, I think we, on platform don’t – it’s what we do all the time – don’t, don’t distinguish, don’t keep the music and the words apart, it doesn’t seem unusual for us to be singing this play, it’s a play with music. It’s just you do your preparation, you climb in, you leave your preparation in the wings and you go for the ride, and er it’s living it with of course a half a pace of professionalism away from total involvement, but erm, I the, what’s happening to the keys underneath me… some of it’s literal, some of its visceral and literal and some of it’s a conversation that may contradict what we’re singing about or may confirm it. I couldn’t talk about the keys.

JT: Perhaps the only analogy with Christ is that, you know, he came into the world and the world could not bear his presence and he had to be exterminated. You know, I as Claggart see it sort of that way that his presence is unbearable. That’s perhaps one connection worth mentioning.

SR: Well it’s a masterpiece whatever way you look at it and er Billy Budd of course goes to his his death not seeming to show any hatred to what has gone before and we’re towards the end of the opera when he’s in irons and facing his future

Music: Billy in the Darbies

SR: A suggestion of the birds as Billy Budd contemplates his end. Simon Keenlyside in Benjamin Britten’s opera, the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. Well Simon Keenlyside, John Tomlinson and Timothy Robinson, my guests before that, appear in the production at English National Opera. Billy Budd opens on Saturday directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Andrew Litton and then it’s in repertory until Dec 17th . You can hear it here on radio 3 on the 10th December, Opera on 3 is at half past six.


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