International tenor Ian Storey talks to Connoisseur Magazine about his career, pre-performance rituals, family, hobbies and more.
You have just finished singing Tristan in Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde” in Barcelona and are being touted as the greatest Tristan in History. The renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim is quoted as saying: “It’s a wonderful thing for him, a wonderful thing for La Scala, a wonderful thing for the music world, because Tristans don’t grow on trees.” What is Your next role after this? I understand from press articles that You are booked as far as the year 2013.
Daniel was very kind, the role was born with him and Patrice Chéreau and now it is maturing. This season sees 6 different productions and about 40 performances of Tristan in just about two and a half years. Now I am studying both Siegfrieds but the next new one I will do is Énée in Les Troyens for the Deutsche Opera in Berlin. I limit the number of new roles I have to learn in order to not overcrowd my schedule – singers need downtime too
Being an opera singer was not your first choice. You studied Furniture Design then took up teaching and became a keen sportsman. When and how did you begin your singing career?
It was not even a thought – my career came out about by accident – literally. I was living in New Zealand – teaching and doing some freelance studio design work – designing and making bespoke furniture. Sport took up a lot of my free time – Badminton and Squash – I had an accident playing Basketball that tore ligaments in my ankle and I had an op to replace them with tendon – this meant over 2 months in plaster and 2 years without sport – not even jogging – to maximise the healing process. I had studied piano from the age of 5, loved classical music and could sing in tune – I saw an ad in the local paper for tenors and basses for the Hamilton Civic Choir – I went to meet them and the conductor asked what I had brought for the audition – I hadn’t a clue that one needed to audition… I saw a church hymn book and said that I knew them as I had been in a church choir for many years. After singing a couple of lines he asked if I was tenor or baritone – I said that I could sing either – he said they were short of tenors and so put me in the tenor section – after 3 months he said that I was to lead the tenor section – didn’t go down too well with some of the old hands – then after a year or so he asked if I had ever thought of being an opera singer – I told him not to be so stupid… years later – around the time of my debut at La Scala a pal in New Zealand saw the conductor Guyon Wells in the street and asked if he remembered me – he said yes and that I had gone to UK to study voice. My pal told him I had just made my debut in La Scala – he laughed and said: “He told me not to be so stupid”. Basically he pushed me into having lessons with Anthea Moller (ex teacher of Keith Lewis amongst others) and once I sang my first piece I was hooked. Every lunchtime in the school chapel I learned and practiced stuff with my accompanist, great friend and second mother Peg de Winton. I owe so much to her and her late husband Tom.
Given the fact that You come from a family of coal miners how supportive of Your choice to become an opera singer were Your parents?
Very – all my family members are musicians of one thing or another – Mom was church organist for 44 years and Dad had a very fine Bass-Baritone voice – totally natural. I thought Mom would think I was daft for giving up security and changing direction but she just shrugged and said: “From when you could walk if you decided to succeed in doing something – you did!
Why is it that You have done so much work in Europe yet You have never performed at English National Opera?
Realistically the only opera I would be interested in doing there is one written in English – I don’t sing in translation and it was a decision I took early on in my career that “why learn something in translation and sing it once when I can learn it in the original language and sing it anywhere in the world”. This is not a thing about English translation per se – I have sung Vĕc Makropulos in Czech, Italian and English. Makes much more business sense for me to stick to the original language. I remember the late and wonderful Richard van Allen saying to me that when he did Cosi he had done it in 6 translations and that it was usually a combination of them that came out when he sang – I remembered thinking “that is a lot of reworking” because it is not a question of the time spent on the different words but usually there will be some change in rhythms and even sometimes notes to help the words fit the music – the composer more often than not managed that without any problem so it is also a matter of respecting the art-form and the work of the creators. Once WNO was roundly criticized for doing Katya in Czech and that it was elitist especially as there was hardly any chance of a Czech speaker being in the audience – would they say this about ROH? Surely it is more elitist to feel it is right to meddle with the original. It has its place but it isn’t for me, a matter of personal choice – in Germany, for example, many smaller theatres did and still do opera in translation but the larger and more renowned almost always work in the original.
Still have You any plans to finally perform in London in the nearest future?
None as yet – I did Aegisth in Elektra with the LSO this year and maybe will be with them again for something more substantial – I came from rehearsals in Barcelona for Tristan to sing Aegisth – you can do the maths in terms of minutes of singing but it really was from one extreme to the other.
Even though You are performing all over the world You still consider Britain Your home and You built a house there. Did You really do the bricklaying and roofing as reported in the press? How often do You get the chance to spend time there? Incidentally whereabouts is Your home in Britain?
Basically YES – I have photos to prove it – my reasoning is that if you can build or make one thing it is only a question of learning new techniques to do something else – everything in life is about technique, but there are things like cutting in a roof (i.e. not roof trusses) where you need 4 hands so a pal came and taught me to do it – so we worked alongside each other. The first walls I built alone were overseen by a builder pal – I called him one night (he says in a blind panic but I contest that strongly if I was that worried I would have knocked it down and started afresh) and said that I was 4 mm out over the length of the wall – he swore and said: “Call me when it is over an inch yer daft bugger”… If I was even 0.4 of a mm out in a piece of furniture I WOULD be twitching.
In December 2007 with Your debut as Tristan in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” You were a part of a significant milestone for modern opera. You performed to six prime ministers and presidents and the cream of Italian opera world at La Scala. Would You call it the highlight of Your career?
Maybe the highlight is yet to come – it was certainly a defining moment and consolidated my position in the business. I was rather unbelievably in hindsight untouched by all the “goings on”. Yes, there was the rather Hollywood style press conferences and the intense media interest in the production etc. but the fact was I had a job to do – it was a mountain to climb and I had to concentrate.
You are now performing Tristan at different European cities. Do You ever get bored with singing these arias time after time or is it a huge challenge every time?
More dissertation then arias. It is NEVER boring and always immensely challenging. James Vaughan, friend mentor coach and HD of Music at La Scala said that it is surely the most difficult role conceived for ANY voice. The challenge of recreating the reality of this role defies description and I LOVE IT. I jokingly say that singing Tristan is like head-butting a wall – it feels great when you stop. Basically it is almost like singing 3 Otellos in one evening…
You have performed this opera in Berlin as well. Is there an additional pressure performing a German opera to a German audience given the fact that You don’t speak the language?
I have probably been even better received by the German public than in the other countries. They love the piece and know it so well. I am very thankful that they like what I do with it. I am always happy to return to Berlin and despite my best efforts I am picking up bits of the language. I speak Italian and basically will learn German the same way – working there and not being afraid of trying it and sometimes ending up looking like an ass… Early on in my career I got two Italian words muddled up and asked in a bar for “blow-job juice” rather than Grapefruit juice – pompino – pompelmo – what can I say – a pal was teaching me the bad words and…
Is every performance identical?
Never – this piece technically is about control – ultimate control – of voice, emotion, physicality and concentration. Without this you don’t make it through. And there are always things that reveal themselves to you. Many times I have had a new perception during the performance – when you are immersed in a character so completely, as you have to be with this role, new things always seem to come to the surface. A slight difference in approach or even pre-performance preparation, your state of mind, health etc. can all have an effect and change things – I was told years ago by David Barrell: “Figure out what you 80%er performance would be and try to never drop lower”. Consistency is very important and no one can perform at 100% every single time.
How do You prepare before a performance? From a human point of view do You have to prepare Yourself as a sportsman would – with self-visualization? Do You have any specific rituals? Presumably it requires a lot of concentration and energy.
Relaxation is the most important additional tool. I don’t get particularly nervous – I become VERY focused – one conductor said that he can set his watch by me – 15 mins before the performance I go elsewhere metaphorically. In the intervals for Tristan I sit quietly and rest and focus on what I have to achieve in the next act. Keeping concentration is so important. Numerous times people have said after Act 2 “well done” etc. but I am now focused on the Act 3 and its demands – as I said back: “Thanks – the big bit is over – now I have the large bit to do”.
Fitness is important – when I was studying Tristan I had a short time to prepare it as I was hired late in the day as a replacement. I had 5 months to be ready for the start of rehearsals. 5-6 hours sometimes 10 hours a day of nothing but Tristan. To help build up the physical stamina needed I spent 1,5 hours every day in the gym from 08:00. A singer is like an athlete and we should treat our bodies as such. The only thing I do insist on is that all the prep – makeup etc. is completed 30 mins before a performance, as that last 30 minute period is “my time” for mentally tuning in.
Do You ever become nervous before a performance?
Not really – focused yes – I suppose this controls the energy into a positive thing – nervousness can be negative and impair control.
When You are performing is there any interaction with the audience?
Part of my job is to play with the emotions of an audience, you have to captivate and mould them into feeling what is the “truth” of the character and action. I describe my job as “re-creating a reality” and then hopefully drawing in the audience to feel and experience.
You have performed in such a diverse range of cities including Genoa, Montpellier, Mexico City, Riga, Munich, Torino, Los Angeles etc. Does this experience make you feel like a citizen of the world and less British in your outlook?
I am me – that simple really. I never felt particularly British in that “stiff upper lip and wobbly bottom one” kind of way. I left home at 18 to Loughborough University – in the days when moving to the next village was seen as traitorous, I left the University for New Zealand as I decided I wanted to use my degree to travel and work in many different countries… I fell in love with New Zealand and stayed there for 6 years, becoming a citizen and then finding Opera. Square peg round hole perhaps, but I have always been one to “plough my own furrow”.
From all the different cities and opera houses You have performed in which are Your favourites?
Difficult question – but am glad you made it plural – most only ask this in the singular; Glasgow and Edinburgh as I spent a lot of time there learning my trade with Scottish Opera and Sir Richard Armstrong – very influential in my development. Venice – well it IS Venice and I love whiling away an evening in La Mascareta – a wine/champagne bar where the owner Mauro opens the champagne bottles with a sword – even when he’s had a bit too much himself – great host and a great evening with good wines antipasti and a fantastic local bean soup. Berlin – such a beautiful city – so much to see and important also for me as it is also where I work with Daniel.
Which operas do You enjoy singing the most and why?
Big challenging roles – I like the challenge. I love singing Herman, Don Jose, Otello, among others but the only role I absolutely LOVE is Tristan – I enjoy the singer/actor roles that demand so much that every time you do them you find new depths. That is also a reason why I have become very choosy about where when and with whom I do certain roles. I love the psychology of the characters and enjoy the exploration of the different facets in the rehearsal process. With Tristan, every single time I do a rehearsal or performance I find something new to play with – especially working with Waltraud Meier – I discover new things with her ALL the time – her experience in the role is such a well of info to tap into.
You have just finished performing in Barcelona, how did you find the city? Any particular favourite haunts or places to visit?
I quite like the city BUT don’t wear expensive jewellery or carry your cards with you – it seems there is always someone waiting to steal from you. A gypsy tried it on with me at a cash point – she is now enjoying 3 meals a day in a government run holiday resort!
When in Barcelona I eat regularly in La Crema Canela and Taller de Tapas – it will be hard to better them. LCC does a lunch-time special and for €9.80 or so, you get 3 courses, a glass of wine and bread – service is warm and efficient and you won’t be hanging around. For the evening (also lunchtime actually) the Tuna spring roles at LCC and their a la cart menu is delightful. El Paraigua – “the umbrella” is an interesting Art Deco bar that does good tapas and cakes (if your diet allows it) – and a good choice of single malts. Taller de Tapas – you always eat well there.I travel with my Border Collie “Boss”. Walks by the beach and up Montjuïc are a joy and great exercise and I don’t have an excuse to stay in when it rains!
What do you do in Your spare time? In view of Your proud and well documented working class background do You enjoy the pursuits of the common man – playing football or drinking beer in a pub?
Apart from being “Bossed” about – I read a LOT – mainly escapist fiction, crime thrillers etc. but I also love historical novels especially of Medieval times. My favourite book recently – “1421: The Year China discovered the World” – absolutely fascinating, also it’s amusing that the American publishers didn’t think it would sell well under that title in the US so they changed “World” for “America”!
In Your opinion are the cultural pursuits such as going to the opera accessible and appreciated by the so called working classes or is opera and the arts an exclusive domain of the social and economic elite?
This is something that I have thought about and I keep coming back to one thing in my experience. This is the only country in which I work that talks about elitism and opera in the same sentence – it only seems to happen here. Basically it is not a huge part of our heritage or culture, never has been and probably never will be. The arts in general and Opera in particular are VERY poorly funded compared to many other countries and this won’t change especially in the current economic climate. There are Opera lovers from all walks of life and also Opera haters, so it is fairly nebulous exercise to attach labels, or to try to categorise the opera goers in terms of, for want of a better phrase “class structure” and with the offering of cheaper tickets in the houses affluence is not necessarily a barrier either.
Ian Storey’s favourites:
Favourite Restaurant – “Dragon I “– Hope Street, Glasgow – fusion oriental food – incredible ambience and a never ending joy to spend an evening there.
Favourite Bars – “Eletrautocadore” (a converted auto electrical garage) in Milan that has great choice for breakfast, good lunchtime menu and specials in the evening when basically it is a cocktail bar – open from 07:00 to whenever people leave the next morning – every day! They always have really good “Culatello” – literally means “little backside” – a particular form of Prosciutto that leaves others in its wake. Also in Milan “Taverna degli Amici” in Via Spartaco – simple ambience – great food and wines – no nonsense, friendly, family run.
Favourite wines – I love the Ozzie reds – “Brothers in Arms” and “Turkey Flats” – NZ Cloudy Bay whites, a good Rioja and the Nero D’Avola wines from Sardenga and a regular for me – Masi – Amarone – (and Caipirinha – but with sticks of sugar cane!)
Favourite clothing – I wear mainly Boss and Armani – basically suits from Boss as it is one of the few suppliers where I can walk in, buy and walk out and wear. Armani jeans for the same reason – they always fit! – don’t buy much in Italy as they are too short and don’t buy often in America as they are too long and wider fitting. But my ideal shopping trip is to not have one – I hate shopping – when I am down to my last 2 pairs of jeans I will go and find some that fit, buy 6 pairs and that is it for a while – most shopping I do the same way and always only when there is a sale. Tails, suits, DJ’s and casual jackets (not Boss) I have bespoke.
Spare time activities – I spend a LOT of my spare time building…I am developing my property – have extended it 3 times – latterly building a large studio space for the office and singing. Last project was a 90 sq m patio with water feature (because I hadn’t done one before). We are now designing and planning the demolition of the original dwelling to replace it with new-build to higher specs and interior design – kind of the idea that Miami comes to Herefordshire – a country feel exterior but Miami interior. I will do most of the work myself as usual but due to the time constraints of my schedule I have pals who will do the construction and I will take time out for the interior work. The 2nd of 3 extensions that we are keeping I built from the ground up alone… One day I had a call from Opera North to see if I would go to Leeds the following day and sing Tosca performance for them – I said no as I was standing in the foundations and had to have them finished for the following morning to pass inspection so I could pour and lay the flooring the next afternoon. This last summer we had a slow leak that necessitated ripping out half of the interior of the old part of the property. Glyndebourne called early evening and asked for me to sing Tristan the next afternoon. As the plumber was coming next morning I had to finish building 2 stud walls (finished at 01:30) so I couldn’t go down to Glynde that night. After the show I was in the bar with a few people and a couple came over – “Could we ask you a really serious question?” – “Yes (wondering if it would be musicologically too difficult) – “did you get your walls finished?” – It is a small world!
Interviewed by Axel Ritenis