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2007.03.13 “In Tune” interview with Ian Bostridge

BBC Radio 3 “In Tune”, 13 March 2007

Petroc Trelawney (PT) interviewing Ian Bostridge (IB) and Simon Keenlyside (SK).


PT: Ian Bostridge and Simon Keenlyside in just a moment but first of all we’re going to hear Simon Keenlyside on CD in Cilea’s opera L’Arlesiana, “Come due tizzi accesi” – “Like two embers from the top of the cliff she saw the eyes of the wolf staring at her; she did not utter a cry”. Poor woman. Ulf Schirmer conducts the Munich Radio Orchestra

tales of opera

tempest posterWe’re going to start by talking about the Tempest on the programme today. By Thomas Ades, the big operatic event of 2004. First came the race against time to get the show finished with Ades penning music up to the eleventh hour, and the run sold out by opening night, the premiere turned out to be a glittering occasion with comparisons made to the first night of Britten’s Peter Grimes half a century earlier. After the curtain came down the applause went on and on, even the orchestra stayed in the pit to cheer the work of the 32 year old composer / conductor. Well, the Tempest is back, the revival opened last night with Simon Keenlyside as Prospero and Ian Bostridge as Caliban. Both men are here, welcome to you (SK: IB: Hello)

How is it to be back?

SK: ….fun, because nobody’s shouted us off the stage which is always a bonus.

PT: Returning to it after 3 years?

IB: Great, ‘coz it’s sort of… well it was ready before the rehearsals rather than after the rehearsals and it was… it’s sort of grown a lot I think in the midst it’s a wonderful, wonderful piece.

PT: There were all sorts of stories last time about Thomas Adès writing stuff at the eleventh hour and things changing right up until the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute. Are you in a position to tell us whether that was true or was it all rather calmer than the media have made it appear to be?

IB: Ummm, I think he’d say he was definitely he was writing. There were a lot of stories about other people writing bits, which weren’t true. But, he was definitely working on it right to the end and I think everybody knew that the overture didn’t arrive until, I don’t know,

SK: The morning, with the orchestra

IB: Yeah

PT: That’s rather exciting isn’t it? It’s like going back to the 18th century.

SK: Very exciting

PT: Being reunited, the majority of the original cast are back. Cyndia Sieden is there, Toby Spence is there, Philip Langridge, how does it feel for the team to be reunited?

SK: Well they are lovely people so it wouldn’t matter if it were the first or the second time. It’s still hard though, it’s still a very, very difficult piece and I think there’s more pressure because it is a great work.  And now, this time, there’s more expectation from the public, the cognoscenti musical public to say “come on, let’s have a look to see if it really is”. To some extent it’s not like “Boheme” or the little perfect crystal of Boheme or even “Marriage of Figaro” where… where even a college cast could sing it and it would still be evidently marvellous. Tom’s music requires, I think, professional singers who are in their game. Because it’s very, very extreme and it’s difficult music.

PT: I think Cyndia Sieden when she first saw the score and her incredibly high part, laughed, she was so surprised.

SK: Everybody still laughs now! [laughter]

PT: That’s right, but he makes, he’s certainly making as you say, absolutely huge demands on his singers, isn’t he?

SK: There’s nothing like Cyndia’s role other than Magic Flute, Queen of the Night and it’s very different from that.

PT: The fact that the opera’s now been done in Strasburg, Copenhagen and Sante Fe as well as these first performances at Covent Garden. Has much changed? Has anything changed?

IB: Umm, bits of the orchestration, details in the orchestra have changed some, there are extra sounds that one can hear. I don’t think much has changed in the production except that I think everybody feels… I just get this sense that everybody’s much more inside it than they were last time.

2004_TempestCG_Rehearsal3SK: Also Tom is a realist and turns out to be very much a theatre animal. I mean obviously he writes, his writing for theatre, his theatrical writing is beautiful for the voice. Dramatic writing is fantastic, but also his understanding of the compromise that is theatre. That is singing, so that permission, to give you enough rope to, to, do your stuff and maybe it’s not always, speaking for myself, as accurate as Tom would like it but hopefully it’s dramatic, and I think he… he gave me the nod on it.

PT: And what is he like in that sense, to work with? He’s presumably open to the fact that this is what I’ve put down and this is what I had in my mind to begin with if it turns out to be something slightly different then that’s fine.

SK: No

PT: He won’t have that?

SK: No and it’s very admirable… he knows very much what he wants. Very much. He may allow singers, such as myself, to do something on the stage that isn’t exactly… but only if it’s for a good reason, only for a dramatic reason. But if you were singing, he knows what he wants to a “T”.

IB: And there are musical things that are built into his conception of, you know, the way the opera works. I mean, there’s a bit at the end of the opera, where I keep… which is a very simple sort of unchromatic music. Which sort of represents the island being cleansed of anger and everything. And I kept getting it wrong and introducing a sort of chromatic note or something. Which sounded, you know, perfectly natural but was totally wrong. And that was the only… I’m sure I was making lots of other mistakes, but that was the mistake that really mattered.

PT: That he picked up on.

IB: Yeah.

PT: You’re still in your costumes. My favourite critical line was “Twiggy styled as Ghormenghast”. [laughter]


IB: Yes, I’ve had various. Someone said I looked like their maiden aunt, yesterday. I’ve heard a whole range of “Grace and Perry”, [laughter] David Bowie.

SK: Well it does a bit, doesn’t it?

IB: Tom likes the idea it’s David Bowie. I think it’s a bit more grubby and so on.

SK: Yeah, that’s a…

IB: It’s a fantastic… I must say it’s a fantastic … I don’t like the weight but the costume’s fantastic…

PT: And comfortable to wear?

IB: Not very, but it’s I think it’s an amazing… it’s a really great idea of this sort of renaissance cost… bits of renaissance costumes that have been picked up on a beach as it were. And deconstructed, but with sort of flesh and veins showing. It’s really beautiful as well. It’s extraordinary.

PT: Well, lets pause and hear you, Ian, in action from the BBC radio 3 broadcast of the… the first round of the opera. We are going to hear you in act 2 as Caliban in  “Friends don’t fear. The Island’s full of noises. Sounds and voices. It’s the spirits”.



PT: The orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Thomas Adès. Ian Bostridge singing from act II of Adès’s opera “The Tempest”.

He is here, as is Simon Keenlyside. I read somewhere that there are as many as 200 operas based on Shakespeare. Only half a dozen of them in the repertoire. Why? Why do you think this one, Ian, has caught the imagination?

IB: Ahhh, because it is, it’s drama in music, it’s not… I mean it’s got… Tom has a dramatic conception that is there in the music. It succeeds as an opera, that’s what an opera is. Drama in music and it’s there.

PT: It’s also, it seems to me, very faithful at least to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play. I mean it feels like Shakespeare. What Meredith Oakes has done with the libretto is… may have changed the words and the order of the words but someone said it’s a bit like picking up a modern bible after a King James bible. You’re rather relieved to see that the message still clearly shines through.

IB: I think it changes the emphasis from the play in a way. I mean by changing the, just, I mean the self-centred way of thinking about my own role. They’ve picked up on one particular throw-away line about Caliban. I mean Caliban in the play is introduced in a rather haphazard, renaissance way. He says some very beautiful things but they’re in the middle of ridiculous comic scenes. Whereas in this, the most beautiful speech of all, the one that we just heard, we heard the aria based on it just now. That’s plucked out and given a sort of central musical position. I think that’s very different from the play. It’s different from the spirit of the play in that sense.

SK: Mmmm.   I think there’s something about Shakespeare which appeals to, obviously to, to all composers, has done in the last hundred years anyway. Mention Verdi of course, amongst them, and that is something about the expansion or contraction of time. Shakespeare’s use of time in his plays. That you have a narrative and then the character will stop and expand a moment, a second, a minute, into a whole scene and I think that suits opera very well.

PT: What are your impressions? What were your first impressions when you first heard it? Of the score of the whole piece? I mean it has these wonderful colours, a sort of dreamy sense to it.

SK: I’m bound, you expect me to say “marvellous, marvellous” that’s why we’re in the studio, but it’s not true. It’s something that occurred to me when you… I know you didn’t mean it that way, when you said that  the clapping went on, on the first night blah blah. But it always does, clapping always goes on, on the first night. People always go “hurray”, but people are not always dealing with great new masterpieces, and this is. And what right do we have, we, to say that? Mmmm, don’t need to be a genius to know genius and we, in our singing lives, have encountered, secondhand, many of our predecessors who were our teachers who were involved in the first Britten operas, or all sorts of things. And I’ve always asked them if they knew they were dealing with great works of art and they’ve all said, quite gently “Yes, of course”.

IB: Mmmm

SK: As I know this is. So,

IB: It’s interesting, one always knows that from the first moment. OK time will change that in certain things

SK: Yeah

IB: that certain things go out of fashion, but,

SK: The danger is more of a vain thing. You think, “Oh, am I going to be an idiot in saying “look this is fantastic”? Am I going to sound like a fool amongst my colleagues to say this is a great work?” And people are very cagey, and don’t really say anything until the general consensus is taken, and then everyone says “marvellous, marvellous”. But it doesn’t really matter. It is a great work.

PT: Let’s hear you singing from it now

SK: Oh dear, must we?

PT: Prospero singing about his power to dim the Sun, make the wild ocean run and break Jove’s stout oak. This is from act III.



PT: Simon Keenlyside singing Prospero, from Act III of Thomas Adès’s “The Tempest”, that from the radio 3 recording made back in 2004. It’s back on at Covent Garden.

We’re discussing it this afternoon with Simon Keenlyside and Ian Bostridge. Simon, you did 1984 and then into this, but I think you’re at pains to point out that you’re not turning into a new opera specialist.

SK: Tell Tom that, see how much he cackles! No, I don’t have the wherewithal, I’m not clued up musically enough to be able to be a specialist in modern stuff. I did it by default. I’d heard Tom’s “powder your face” when I was in the car one day and liked it, and it was at home and kept me at home. And that was, it’s not insulting to Tom, it was a stroke of luck for me.

PT: So this is dramatically more work than doing a Mozart opera?

SK: Dramatically not. Vocally, very much more difficult. Because Tom has a… well it seems, an astigmatism almost, an oral astigmatism. He just loves extremes and, by golly, he gives you them!

PT: There is a sort of, if not a new work connection, Ian with you, but certainly a sort of a Britten, Britain in both sense work, in that you go from this to do “Death in Venice” at English National Opera.

IB: Yeah, and also to do the Hölderlin fragments with piano of Britten, with Tom playing. And there’s a connection between them and Death in Venice, one of the songs in the Hölderlin fragments is very related to Death in Venice. But that’s a different kettle of fish!

PT: that’s May, isn’t it?

IB: May, yeah, May, June.

PT: Before that you’re both involved in the Adès festival at the Barbican next month. You’re going to be singing the lieder “eines fahrenden Gesellen” but in the arrangement for ensemble and piano.

SK: Mmmm It’ll be fun, I’ve never done anything with Tom other than these Tempests and I’m looking forward to them.

PT: What are you going to sing with him?

IB: I’m doing a programme we’ve done before of Dichterliebe and these Hölderlin fragments and some Kurtag songs and Tom plays some Kurtag piano pieces and the Wagner, the Lizst transcription of the Wagner Lieberstod. But what’s really interesting is it makes Dichterliebe seem like a completely different piece. He plays it much slower than I would ever normally do it but it… sort of you see Schumann and Wagner are sort of somehow related. Fascinating.

PT: That’s on April 3rd at…

SK: What are the Kurtag songs like?

IB: It’s very, very short with sort of ppppppppp in it. [Sings] “Dies” “Da”  very short.

SK: I heard some at the Wigmore, just wonderful!

IB: It’s a wonderful song,

SK: How do you pronounce it?

IB: It’s about a minute and a half long, and it took me a very long time to beat it into my head. [laughter]

SK: Yes!

PT: Well, April 3rd, we have to look forward to that. You were just saying Simon, that you are absolutely not even thinking about the Mahler until you…

SK: No! no I can’t. I wouldn’t be able to sing the Mahler without  a good few days between this and that. But that’s the nature of opera anyway, the one requires a lot of iron, and… in your voice, and one a lot of the iron taken out. And the Mahler is very delicate and the mezzo voce that you don’t really need a lot for the big opera, for the opera houses you definitely need for the chamber music.

PT: You have your farm that you run in Wales that you retire to every so often. When you go there, do, is it a music, obviously not a music free zone, but is it a work music free zone or do you work on things there?

SK: I have to work on music wherever I am really. You know I like breakfast, but I don’t eat it all day, so of course I’ve got a piano there and I work there but most of the day is a music free zone. Yes. Yeah, I’m disciplined enough to switch it off, it’s not difficult.

PT: Enjoy the next few weeks!

SK: Thank you, we will

IB: Thank you

PT: Physical strength keeps you through it and we are going to finish by hearing you, Ian, singing some Wolf from a CD of Anabandera, American lieder; “to a cheerful little town I’ve come, the streets bathed in the red glow of sunset”. Thank you both very much indeed for being with us, Simon Keenlyside and Ian Bostridge.

IB: SK: Thanks!


you can buy a CD of Simon and Ian singing “The Tempest” . For details click the picture


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