When did you start singing formally?
I was first encouraged to learn piano so it wasn’t until I was 14 or 15 that singing was the thing. And even then it wasn’t classical, I was listening to things like Phantom of the Opera and The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance. It just so happened that at the time there was a really good music program at my school, so things took off from there. But what got me into singing was the theatricality of it, the declaiming of text to bring a story to life. That intrigued me.
Have early and baroque music always felt like a natural fit for you?
Always and from the very beginning. I’ve always had a deep affinity for this music and I’m not sure why. I think it’s an aesthetic thing because I find it to be super passionate and Romantic in the truest sense of the word. The boundless possibilities of expression interest me very much and I just feel so at home with it.
David Greco. Photo: Courtesy of David Greco
Who would you consider your touchstone interpreters in that repertoire?
It’s funny. Even though I make my career singing Bach and Handel and Monteverdi and Schubert, I always say Maria Callas, none of whom she even sang. I think the earliest she went was Gluck and Mozart. But she has this very special place in my heart because I find her powers of expression to be completely unmatched, and whilst I don’t necessarily try to emulate her specific vocal devices or phrasings, I have learnt a lot from her intrinsic musicality. A lot of people don’t get it and think my answer is totally incongruous with my repertoire but I can’t think of anyone else. She’s still so crucial to me.
Can you identify any important milestones in your career thus far?
Absolutely. The first time that Emma Kirkby came to Australia on a Musica Viva tour, I was singing in Cantillation and was asked to perform a duet with her that was subsequently recorded. This is a woman almost in the same league for me as Maria Callas in terms of extraordinary powers of interpretation. To have always admired her and then have the opportunity to sing alongside her, it’s amazing. And probably very influential in terms of singing Bach all over the world; when I was still a student of about 20, Paul Dyer gave me my first professional gig. He asked me to sing the bass solo in a couple of Bach cantatas with the Brandenburg Orchestra in 2001 or 2002. It was a complete baptism by fire.
You’ve been based in Europe for much of your career. How has that benefited you?
First and foremost language. There’s nothing that prepares you for going to Europe and singing these works in the language of the audiences listening. It’s scary because you feel a sense of responsibility and you just can’t fudge it. I struggled with that the first year or so but I tell you what, you get it under wraps quickly otherwise you don’t pay your rent, because people just stop asking you. And also just working with ensembles that have existed longer than many of the ensembles we have here. Some ensembles I sing with have been in existence before Australia was white settled.
Your forthcoming release of Winterreise is Australia’s first recording of the song cycle on period instruments, is that right?
It is, the very first. I perhaps wouldn’t have chosen Winterreise to start my recording catalogue because talk about baptism by fire, but this project felt right timing-wise because as my voice has matured I’ve started singing a lot more Romantic music. It also ties into the study that I’m doing at the moment. I’ve always been fascinated by old recordings and performers from the very beginning of the recording catalogue, like Melba and Patti, and trying to work out how these 19th century singers sang Schubert. That’s what my PhD is on, which is being supervised by Erin Helyard at Melbourne Uni. So when the opportunity to record the work came up, it just seemed a logical fit for the both of us [Helyard plays the fortepiano on Greco’s recording] to try and put into practise what we’ve learnt about some performance practises that have maybe fallen by the wayside.
In preparing and recording Winterreise, what were the greatest discoveries for you?
I actually went back and listened to the very first recorded singers from about 1904 that sang Schubert. One of them was actually born five years after Schubert died, and some of his phrasing, his use of portamento and tempo modification, was incredibly helpful to our process and understanding of the work. And of course you can’t do Winterreise unless you’ve listened to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I find it odd when musicians don’t listen to any of the recordings of the work they’re preparing. I just don’t understand it, because for me, a piece of music is not just the score itself but the sum of all of the performances of it as well.
Do you remember how you felt when you were given the opportunity to record it?
Oh, just fear. Everywhere I’ve studied, I was always warned off – “you can sing The Trout but don’t touch Winterreise.” Elisabeth Schwarzkopf always said a young singer was never to sing it, not until they were 45 years old at least, which is stupid because in many ways it is a young person’s cycle. Yes, it’s deep and morbid and frightening but these are things that young people feel as well. One of the things Erin and I were able to do was turn it around a bit and not be so afraid of youthful expression, which is always shied away from. So overcoming the canonisation of the work was tricky. It’s about having the faith to just go for it.
How did it sit in your voice in particular?
We played a lot with different keys. We tried to go for the high middle voice because that was closer to who Schubert wrote it for, which could have very possibly been himself. Technically it’s a very large range and that’s to highlight the extremes of emotion. But for me the most technically difficult aspect was trying to make the text never sound superfluous to the musical line. And I suppose I wasn’t afraid of sounding pained at some moments when perhaps others would smooth over it and make it this homogenous thing.
It’s a big year of Schubert for you as you’re also performing new chamber arrangements of his songs with the Australian Haydn Ensemble. How involved have you been with that?
With Artistic Director Skye McIntosh, I’ve been quite focused on choosing just the right songs that would transfer smoothly into orchestral arrangements, as I don’t think all of them would benefit from that treatment. It’s been great, and kind of a postmodern thing we’re doing because we’re arranging Schubert for small orchestra but on period instruments.
We’ve thrown in a couple of songs from Winterreise as well, so it will be a really great program to tackle.
What’s next for you in terms of repertoire?
I’d like to explore Schumann, Wolf and Brahms more. Medieval, baroque and classical music have all been given the vocal period treatment, but for some reason it’s not been the case with 19th-century song. It’s remained the great untouched, so I’m really interested to see what would happen if we were to sing Brahms the way he intended. I don’t have a Verdi baritone but if I did, I would find that an interesting challenge.
David Greco’s recording of Winterreise is out on ABC Classics on September 7. He tours to Berry, Sydney, Canberra and Newcastle Music Festival with the Australian Haydn Ensemble, August 10 – 17
Correction: In the What’s On section of the August 2018 issue of Limelight Magazine, the prices listed for the Newcastle Music Festival, $100 – $140, were for Festival Passes only. Individual tickets for this concert are $25.00 for concession tickets, $35 for adult tickets and $80 for families.