In the Spotlight

3rd November, 2015

How did you feel the first time you stepped out on the stage?
To tell you the truth I was so young when this first occurred that I have absolutely no recollection. But, my mother insists that I took to the stage like a duck to water. I was three when I competed for the first time, not in singing, but reciting a poem. I was a tad confident, maybe over confident! Thankfully the stage did not bother me even at that young age.

Who had a major influence on you in your professional life?
Geraint Evans the famous Welsh bass-baritone. He rang Sir George Solti, who lived in a Swiss Cottage in London and said: "Can you please listen to this young singer?" I got a pianist and we went to meet him.

I remember exactly what I sang that afternoon. I sang 'Flieder Monologue' from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and 'Non piu andrai' from Le nozze di Figaro. From that meeting I got two jobs - Antonio, the gardener, in Le nozze di Figaro and Der Geisterbote in Die Frau ohne Schatten in the Easter Festival in Salzburg. It was a fascinating period and of course it opened doors for me. It was definitely a crucial afternoon.

What has been your favourite role?
Without a doubt…Verdi’s Falstaff. I hope I never stop singing it. 

When you started your career as an opera singer, did you ever imagine that your art would be acknowledged and that you would receive the title of the Commander of the British Empire or that you would be awarded the Queen's Medal for Music?
Never in a million years! I am very proud to have received both awards. I am so lucky to be doing a job that I love and to get an award for it is an incredible bonus. 

In 1996, you began singing Wagnerian repertory for the first time. What were some of your experiences in making the “jump” to Wagner? Did you find it a particularly difficult shift vocally, after coming from an operatic background of Mozart, Verdi, etc.? You are known for your incredibly precise diction — how did this play into the process of learning the Wagnerian repertory? 
I got offers from many houses to sing Wotan and Hans Sachs from the very start of my career but thankfully I was able to resist the temptation. You have to be both vocally and physically mature for these roles. If you’re not 100% there’s absolutely no way you can get through a piece like Die Walküre. The sheer length of the role of Hans Sachs makes it a brutal undertaking. My first Wagnerian role was Wolfram which is lyrical and full of colours, none of the big Wagnerian singing associated with other Bass baritones Wagner roles, so it proved a good transitional role from Mozart. The vowels of the Welsh language make it easier for me sing in other languages and during my competitor days the adjudicators always emphasized how important the diction was in order to portray the feelings of the poet to the audience. I guess that’s the most important rule when you’re on stage for 5 hrs.!

With which composer (dead or alive) would you like to have dinner with and what would you talk about?
It would certainly be Verdi. We would talk about pasta, red wines, Milan and then I'd throw in a cheeky question about why he didn't write more for the bass-baritone voice. Very selfish I know, but at the moment, my only singing of his music has been the roles of Ford and Falstaff. I will never ever sing Trovatore, Traviata, Rigoletto, Boccanegra. Travesty!

How do you prepare for new roles?
Meticulously. I have to prepare as if I was not born with innate musicality and I’m not a good reader of the music.  If I sing a new piece, the first time is ok, second time its better, third time is really good and fourth time it’s memorized. I have a very strong aptitude to memorising.

I start with reading a score. Then, I get to know the director’s vision and the conductor’s interpretation and then I mould myself to what they want. If I go in already thinking “I’m going to do this that way and this is the only way I’m going to do it” it’s not conducive. As I’ve said earlier I’m listening to other people.

But when the role of Scarpia is concerned I have read books that people wrote about Scarpia, like Tito Gobbi’s book or the memoirs of people that had sung “Tosca”. 

What one song would feature on the soundtrack to your life?
One I've sung since I was seven years old, 'My Little Welsh Home'. There's a word in Welsh, 'hiraeth' which is all about longing. Travelling performers and businessmen are all like little birds wanting to fly home. 

Imagine you have to lose all your scores except one: which one would you keep and why?
It would have to be two - my Rheingold and Walküre scores given to me by the widow of my favourite bass-baritone George London.

Besides music, what inspires you, and what do you do for fun or to relax?
I am a fanatic Welsh rugby follower. Golf is an obsession! Following my favorite football team, Manchester United, is a must. Stocking up my wine cellar and enjoying them has become a ritual. Walking the mountains of Wales is also a privilege and last but not least, being there for my children is paramount to me enjoying any of these.

Golf club:
Sunningdale Golf Club, 45 minutes from my home in Kensington. 

Wine Shop:
BerryBros & Rudd in St James's Street. Undoubtedly one of my favourite London establishments. 

The Book of Mormon. I've seen it three times. 

Penderyn Whisky, a Welsh whisky brand. Beautiful with one block of ice. 

What work of art would you most like to own?
I would cherish an original, hand-written score of any work by Mozart.

In the movie of your life, who plays you?
It would have to be a Vinnie Jones who's put on weight, or Gérard Depardieu. I've been mistaken for Depardieu in Paris, and for Meatloaf in New York. 

What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Grow your hair. I looked like a farmer early on in my career. 

Any piece of advice to promising ambitious singers?
Be true to yourself. However enticing, do not accept any role unless you are 100% sure you are totally capable of singing it.