Ahead of his debut at the Welsh National Opera singing Tamino in The Magic Flute, Benjamin Hulett spoke to Charlotte Gardner about his year of exciting debuts…
You’re in Cardiff at the moment, preparing to make your debut with Welsh National Opera in The Magic Flute as Tamino. What are you most enjoying about the rehearsal process?
Well to be honest, the thing I’m most enjoying, because it’s a revival and because I’m in the second cast to get going, is that it’s all up and running. So really, it’s just a question of slotting in and trying to find our own way around it, rather than replicating exactly what other people have done, and that’s just making for a very, very pleasant, relaxed atmosphere. Plus, I’m surrounded by lovely people. It’s a lovely company.
It’s an extraordinary production visually, isn’t it? Are you enjoying that side of things too?
I am. It’s very simple. When I saw Act 1, I thought, ‘Gosh that’s beautiful, I wonder what the set is for Act 2?’, and really it’s just more of the same. It’s a single set, and actually compared to some of the other Flutes I’ve done, which have been quite abstract or scenically complex, it’s very refreshing that the characters themselves are front and centre. It’s a very helpful set to perform on, as well. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and in the use of colour. Wonderful to look at.
Tamino is a familiar role to you, and one you’re becoming known for. Is this production making you approach him in a different way?
It is. It’s also the first time I will have sung the role in English, and so to that extent it really is a question of starting again: a lot of the things I would automatically do in German, I actually can’t do in English. The stresses of the text are slightly different. There’s also something about it that, even with the strict structure of rhyming couplets, makes even the highest language seem somehow more colloquial. I’m finding it quite refreshing to relax a bit, because as Tamino you can be the caricature of an uptight prince. Toby Spence once described him as “Ponce Charming”, and so doing it in English just softens some of the reactions.
Given all that, what is it about the role of Tamino that appeals to you, and makes you keep returning to him?
I don’t know. I think, in a purely selfish way, it was an ambition! I didn’t always know that I wanted to be an opera singer, but I do remember a conversation with a teacher at school when I was pushed to say what I wanted to do, and I mentioned singing the role of Tamino. To be honest, it was probably the only role I knew at that stage – I wasn’t a big opera fan and I didn’t know very much – but I just said it, and then ten years later I sung it a few times in Hamburg and I’ve sung it a few times since. I worked extremely hard on it, and I’ve continued to work extremely hard on it. There are some pieces that I continue to take to my teacher, even though I’ve done them a lot, and Magic Flute‘s one of them. It’s the whole piece, the whole aesthetic, that draws me to it.
The lyric style must be satisfying to sing in.
Well it is, but it’s deceptive because there are moments that are much lighter. Some of the ensembles include some slightly more comic, or lighter lines for Tamino, which are sung in a different way to some of the arias. Then of course, the centrepiece is the famous speaker scene, which is notoriously difficult for pacing: it’s very dramatic as Tamino becomes increasingly frustrated and angry, but then finishes off with a very light and jovial aria, which again has a middle section of doubt. Tamino is all about the arrogance of a prince raised from Day One to believe he is above all others, battling against doubt and at every turn his self-belief is questioned.
Moving on to something completely different, you’ll be making your Glyndebourne debut this summer in Handel’s Saul. Does that feel like a big moment for you?
Well, as an English tenor, to work at Glyndebourne is one of the high points of a career, and what’s particularly great about this debut, and also my debut at Covent Garden last year, is that I know that I’m returning next season too. I like that very much because it’s the feeling of beginning a relationship, rather than being hired as a one-off. Plus, I’m certain that this production of Saul will be challenging. Barrie Kosky, the director, has a reputation for getting fantastic results and working his cast very hard, which I love because I love to work hard. It’s the moment where you find massive gaps in your schedule, or a director scratching their head and saying, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t really know what to do with you here’, that can get depressing. So to have a director who’s notorious for knowing what he wants and doing his utmost to get it is very good fit for my work ethic. I’m singing the High Priest, and I have three or four short arias and some recitative. It’s enough to make a mark, to ease myself into a new situation, to enjoy Glyndebourne, and to see some of the other things going on. Then also, one of the things I’m going to be doing while I’m rehearsing and performing the High Priest, is learning the role of Jonathan, which I’ll be singing for the tour. So it’s a double Glyndebourne whammy.
Your Royal Opera House debut last year was with very different repertoire, in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.
The exciting thing about being a lyric tenor, and especially a British lyric tenor, is that there’s a sense that we’re valued for our flexibility and musicianship as well as all the other things that go with being a singer. That said, to be singing Handel at Glyndebourne feels very right, and then to make a debut at Covent Garden singing Puccini felt like a world away. I’ve sung so much English and German repertoire, that to break into Italian repertoire was a daunting prospect. Luckily, the person who heard that quality in my voice was Tony Pappano, and if you trust the boss then it’s going to go well. There’s a dichotomy; do you make your debuts in roles whose styles are unfamiliar to you somewhere where people won’t notice so you get a dry run? Or, do you do it with the best in the world, who are going to instantly make you do it better? I’m very fortunate that I’m doing it with the best in the world. That’s just the way it’s worked out, and I’m extremely excited about it. Also, like at WNO, my time at Covent Garden was a highlight because there are just so many wonderful people there.
You’re making your US debut soon, as Gonzalve in a concert performance of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, with the Boston Symphony orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit. Tell me about that.
To work on French repertoire with a man of the standing of Charles Dutoit is an absolute dream. In fact, it’s all a fantasy world, really! My schedule for the next couple of years contains some of my role debuts and house debuts in houses and in roles that I (like every tenor, to be honest) have dreamed of singing. Including my first Tom Rakewell…
Yes! I was coming to that one. That’s a brilliant role to get your teeth into.
Yes, and again it’s a piece I’ve always loved. I sung the Madhouse scene at college and it’s very hard not to be drawn to the work of Britten and Stravinsky when you’re an English tenor. Britten in particular is so important to my career, and Stravinsky wrote one of the best operas in the English language of modern times. So, to be able to do it, and do it many times – it’s a co-production with four of five french theatres, so there will be many different performances in many different theatres – it’s just a dream. We will get to really get into the piece.
You’re also performing with the Rotterdam Philharmonic soon, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.
Yes. I have various concert performances coming up that I’m excited about, including a Fidelio with the BBC Philharmonic, but this will be my debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic after many years of trying. I’ll be singing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis which is a piece, like the Messiah or Magic Flute, that comes around often enough to be called an old friend, and it’s very comforting to make a debut with a world famous orchestra whilst performing an old friend. Furthermore, of the many times I’ve performed it, the most notable occasions have been with Philippe Herreweghe. We’ve performed it all over Europe together. We’ve recorded it as well, which was a very interesting project: Philippe wanted slightly less soloistic performances from the soloists, which was great because it meant we were really listening to the inner workings of the quartet and the orchestra.
This is your year of British debuts, Covent Garden, WNO, Glyndebourne…. Does it feel like a watershed moment from where you’re standing?
It does. I went to Germany very early after music college, settling in Hamburg, and rightly or wrongly what it says to me is that my time in Germany was extremely valuable. Learning repertoire in Hamburg, and performing on a daily basis with many of the best artists in the world in large German theatres, has been a fantastic beginning. As an Englishman, the sense of returning home having actually achieved something is very important.