Return of the native
As Allan Clayton prepares to reprise the title role of Britten’s Peter Grimes, which opens at the Royal Opera House on 17 March, he discusses his preparation for the role, the balance between singing and acting, and how he sees the opera world changing
The first Britten I ever sang as a child was his Ceremony of Carols – I was in a boys’ choir and we used to perform it at Christmas time. I still remember hearing the harp interlude for the first time and realising that Britten could write special music for instruments as well as voices. It remains one of my favourite of his pieces.
From the age of ten I was a cathedral chorister, which gave me more exposure to his church music. I discovered how he turned texts with religious overtones into something so much more dramatic. He wasn’t a church musician himself – he was a confirmed agnostic – but he had an instinct for church music and his musical language wasn’t dimmed by the setting. His music is rooted in the music of earlier composers, such as Purcell, and you hear traces of them in the big orchestral and dramatic works, but he always makes it his own. Like any great composer, he had his own voice.
I saw Peter Grimes on DVD before I ever watched it live, when I was at university. I got the score and Philip Langridge’s ENO version and was bowled over by it. A few months later I had the chance to work on it with Philip, which was an amazing eye opener. He was so kind, and I still have things that he told me written in my score. For example, Grimes sings, ‘I am native, rooted here. By familiar fields...’ Philip asked me, ‘What colour are the fields?’ I dithered and said, ‘I don’t know!’ He told me, ‘Well, you’ve got to know. They’re familiar and they’re your fields!’ So I said, ‘They’re purple,’ and he replied, ‘Good, go on then, they’re purple!’
As native English speakers, we don’t often get to sing in our own language, and when we do it’s easy to forget to do the work that we would for other languages. Usually, the first thing I do is write a word-for-word translation in the score, because you can’t possibly sing anything without knowing what each individual word means – both literally and poetically. Philip impressed on me the importance of doing that for English as well.
We also make acting choices. In last year’s production of Peter Grimes at Teatro Real, I was very specific in my mind about where the fields were – I gestured offstage right, along the coastline, where they were in my imagination. That’s how we make the music speak as much as possible for the audience.
I didn’t study acting, but it was something I wanted to do and came naturally from the first student productions I was in – maybe because I’m a show-off! I immediately felt comfortable and able to inhabit characters. Some people take to the acting naturally and some are more comfortable with the singing – you can approach it in different ways. Some singers don’t move much on stage but sing with a searing intensity that means just as much as someone who chucks themselves around. Early in my career, I prioritised my acting at the expense of my singing and didn’t care what I was doing on stage, so my vocal performance suffered. Now the balance is more like 60/40, with vocal technique secondary, and I just sing how I sing and am lucky to be able to do that – if I overthought it I’d probably start to struggle.
It’s such a weird job to be producing this manufactured noise, and such a difficult balancing act. I remember singing Belmonte in an Opera North production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail when I was only in my 20s. It’s a hard role and I hadn’t learnt how to sing it properly. It’s a long work with a big aria in the last act, and I used to obsess over that aria, singing it backstage the whole time. I started listening to myself on stage, which is dangerous. You become paralysed because you’re worrying about the noises coming out of your mouth rather than how you’re portraying the character on stage.
A role like Peter Grimes is a gift both for singing and acting – the music is so well written, and dramatically, it’s very satisfying. The final scene, known as the ‘mad scene’, when Grimes comes back to the Borough on his own while the mob is hunting him, is one of my favourite things to sing. It’s virtually unaccompanied and is as close as a singer gets to being an actor. We’re always bound by metre, timing and notes, so we can’t take time to make something truly individual. Here we’ve got words and notes, but the timing is virtually our own, which makes it very exciting – we don’t get to do that very often.
I have a framework in my mind and I get to a similar point each time I perform it, so it’s not completely different every time, but there are moments when I’m more focused on one particular word over another. At this point Grimes is seeing the ghosts of all sorts of things – his own problems, dead people – so there might be a night when I’m more focused on one of those things, or it leads me towards a different part of the stage.
An important thing Philip told me about this scene was that you don’t play ‘mad’. This person is undergoing something hideously traumatic. He’s not the murderous villain that the mob claims him to be. He’s certainly negligent, and you wouldn’t want him to babysit, but he’s not an evil character. He’s undergone traumatic incidents – people running around with flaming torches wanting to tear him from limb to limb – and it’s important for me to try to understand what that was like for him.
Another central moment of the opera is the pub scene, where Grimes comes in and sings the ‘Great Bear’ aria. His temper’s up and he says the most beautiful, insightful things, asking for a deep understanding of human existence. It’s poetic and visionary, but they all think he’s mad, drunk or an idiot. It’s important for me to understand the character shifts that happen before the final scene, so I read articles by psychiatrists, including one by Gloria Durà-Vilà, which examines him from a medical point of view – how and why he turns out as he does.
By the end of Grimes, I’m absolutely gutted. I don’t feel as exhausted as something like Hamlet, which is a longer piece, and I’m barely able to register a reaction at the end. There’s relatively little to sing in Grimes, but if you have thought about it, it’s heartbreaking. The way the interlude from the beginning returns, with its high string sound, is so powerful.
It’s vital for opera to address current themes, but only if it works. If you shoehorn in issues, people switch off. Peter Grimes has taken on a significance that Britten and his librettist Montagu Slater couldn’t have known and wasn’t part of their production. When Deborah Warner first addressed us in Madrid, she talked about the community in which the production was taking place – an impoverished coastal community of the present day. The main character is the chorus – not Grimes or any of the other protagonists. It’s about a community, and questions of society and the individual, which are relevant post-Brexit. Rather than being imposed on the piece, the theme lives very comfortably in an updated production.
The pandemic has shifted views on how we do things, not just in the arts. For performers, it has demonstrated the power imbalance in favour of theatres. They hand out the contracts and pay us when they say they’ll pay us. The pandemic has brought this into consideration, and I hope the way contracts are done will change in the next few years.
Representation is improving, which can only help diversity in opera. More fundamentally, the more exposure kids have, the less rarefied it becomes. On the first night of Mahagonny at Komische Oper, there were children in the audience – and it’s not exactly a child-friendly piece. Komische Oper does a specially written children’s opera every year with the main ensemble. These things help to normalise opera for children.
Recently, I’ve had an overwhelming response to things I’ve said in articles or on Twitter. This is indicative that singers are scared about saying anything that might make them unemployable by an opera house, which is unhealthy. We are the people who are creating opera and we’re rarely asked about important issues. I can’t think of any singers who run or cast for big opera houses, which means we don’t hear the voices of those who know the business from inside. That doesn’t mean that every position should be held by a singer, but organisations should seek out singers in the same way that footballers expect to become coaches and managers. It would help the industry if there were people from our side who were involved in the planning and administration of opera.
It’s important to get different opinions. Philip Langridge told me, ‘I’ll never stop having lessons because I’ll never have got where I want to go – I’ll never have fixed everything.’ We’re always learning, because our voices are always changing. We don’t develop a set technique that sees us through our entire career – our muscles and bodies change and our voices develop.
There’s a proprietary issue at music colleges, which I think is still the case, that you have one teacher and one vocal coach, and they get defensive if you consult others. Music college is the one time in your career when you’re surrounded by experts and have the chance to have a coffee or a consultation with them. That doesn’t mean you don’t rate your own teacher – it should be about getting as many opinions as you can.
Peter Grimes opens at Royal Opera House on 17 March, directed by Deborah Warner in a production that was originally staged at Teatro Real Madrid in April 2021.