The British tenor is the quintessential lieder singer. He shares his cerebral approach to song with Maxim Boon.

Ian Bostridge is the archetypal English tenor, and not just because of his flexibly agile, clarion tones. With his natural gift for dramatic artistry, clearly he follows in the footsteps of his vocal forbears Peter Pears and Philip Langridge. 

Bostridge also exhibits the classic British propensity for self-deprecation. “When my career really took off, I was singing things I wasn’t well prepared for,” he says over the phone from the UK. “I suddenly started getting a lot of attention before I’d really learnt to sing, so I had to learn to sing on the job. That was quite a challenge.”

Bostridge’s humility might seem false modesty, considering the accolades (he has no less than 13 Grammy nominations to his name) and critical adoration he has received since beginning his career in earnest in the mid-nineties. His 1994 operatic debut, performing the role of Lysander in Baz Luhrmann’s Indian-infused production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Opera Australia at the Edinburgh Festival, was followed less than a year later by his Royal Opera House debut in Strauss’s Salome. A future as one of Britain’s great operatic luminaries seemed assured, and indeed his career has featured numerous engagements with opera companies, yet Bostridge’s vocal powers are anchored in a very specific spectrum of the operatic soundscape. 

Possessed of an instrument that is altogether different from the brute-force bludgeoning required of a Wagnerian heldentenor or the bel canto melodrama of Verdi and Puccini, Bostridge also flourishes on the recital platform. His delicate, fiercely insightful accounts of art song, and in particular Schubert lieder, have seen him carve out a niche all of his own, as an expert interpreter of this repertoire. However his induction into the world of professional singing was far from myopic. 

More of a keen, although undeniably talented amateur in his late teens and twenties, Bostridge’s double-life in his formative years might well be the ineffable ‘something’ behind his mastery of song. Not for him the traditional, well-trodden route of music college training. Bostridge shared his passion for singing and his “teenage obsession” for lieder with a commitment to academia that yielded scholastic accomplishments almost as impressive as his vocal laurels. He secured a first in modern history from St John’s College, Oxford, followed by a master’s degree in history and philosophy from St John’s College, Cambridge, before heading back to Oxford for a PhD on the significance of witchcraft in England, 1650 to 1750. Finally, he reached the pinnacle of academia as a post-doctoral fellow teaching political theory and 18th-century British history at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. And all before the age of 30. 

Earning Oxbridge credentials of this scale is no mean feat, but studying at these two hallowed seats of learning also played a subtly valuable role in Bostridge’s fledgling years as a singer. “In some ways the shift from academic to performer was very gradual. I was always singing, and I had a huge enthusiasm for lieder, but I didn’t take it that seriously. I became a bit more focused when I did my masters degree at Cambridge because there was a big tradition of singing there and so I was able to have some more lessons,” he shares. Even further back, the impinging influence of music has an uncanny connection to Bostridge’s schooling. “I had a fantastic German teacher who used to teach through song. In one of our first lessons he played Schubert’s Der Erlkönig and I completely fell in love with it. So the seeds of my eventual switch to singing were planted when I was a teenager (although I was never really conscious of it), perhaps because I didn’t believe then that it was a realistic goal. But I never stopped loving it. Really it was singing lieder that became the foundation of my career, although it took a very long time. From that first hearing of Der Erlkönig to becoming a professional singer was 15 years.” 

An excerpt from David Alden’s film of Winterreise

Now aged 50, Bostridge has spent almost two thirds of his life immersed in Schubert’s songs, and one work in particular has been a significant preoccupation for the tenor: the brooding, romantic, and harrowing masterpiece Winterreise. His first professional presentation of the work at his Purcell Room debut in 1994 firmly cemented Bostridge in the British vocal elite, and three years later he starred in a film adaptation of the 24-song cycle directed by David Alden for British television’s Channel 4 (which Bostridge describes as “a sort of pop video”), further strengthening his growing reputation as one of the finest interpreters of lieder of his generation. Most recently, accompanied by composer, pianist and close personal friend Thomas Adès (the role of Caliban in Adès’ second opera The Tempest was written specifically for him), Bostridge gave a recital of Winterreise considered by many of those fortunate enough to have attended the sell-out performance at London’s Barbican Centre, as one of the most adept and erudite accounts of the piece in living memory.

“He’s enjoyed a collaborative relationship with many of the opera directors he’s worked  with – he names Baz Luhrmann and Deborah Warner as mentors”

Bostridge believes the secret of his deep affinity for the work is an innate match with his personality. “I can’t really explain it except for that it somehow just meshed with me. The first time I heard it I just loved it, the intimacy of it. But saying that, I’ve always had a very strong love for theatre. In fact one of the things I considered doing when I was a teenager was theatre direction,” he reveals. He’s enjoyed a collaborative relationship with many of the opera directors he’s worked with – he names Baz Luhrmann, David Orbin and Deborah Warner as particularly valuable mentors – and this has honed his keen aptitude for dramatic clarity. “To be really involved in the genesis of the whole process, deciding what to do and how to do it – that I love. That’s far more important to me than just being an opera singer drafted in for a series of performances every year. I love the whole creative process.” 

It’s this deep appreciation for narrative and theatrical potential that has made Bostridge’s presentations of Winterreise so seductive. The song cycle is chock-full of dramatic opportunities, both intimate and epic. The central protagonist, tormented by an undisclosed calamity (perhaps of a romantic nature) embarks upon a gloomy trudge through the snow and ice of winter. Schubert sends his lonesome refugee on a journey wrought with strange, cryptic meaning, but vividly painted and emotionally complex. Bostridge, in suitably intellectual fashion, references the late 18th-century German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller to explain his approach, citing the importance of  “the naïve and the sentimental” in the piece.

“You never want to lose ‘the naïve’ when singing something like Winterreise, but at the same time the older I get the more my approach changes”

“I don’t mean naïve in a bad way, rather it means something unreflective, or straightforward, whereas sentimental means to perform with a full consciousness of the subtext and irony, in a more sophisticated way.  You never want to lose the naïve when singing something like Winterreise, but at the same time the older I get the more my approach changes. I’ve been thinking about this piece for 30 years.” 

One would rightly assume therefore that Bostridge knows a thing or two about this music, and unsurprisingly he has recently turned his considerable intellect to the task of analysing Schubert’s foreboding cycle in a new book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. This is not the first foray into scholarly writing for the tenor, having written two previous books (about witchcraft and his experiences as a singer respectively). However, here Bostridge combines his multiple personalities as a conscientious (and Oxford accredited) historian, razor-minded analyst and, crucially, experienced interpreter of this music, which he describes as a “secret coded lament for the reactionary climate at large in Germany and Austria in the 1820s.” 

Bostridge with Thomas Adès at their sell out Barbican perfomrnace of Winterreise

Perhaps equally synonymous with Bostridge is the music of Benjamin Britten, due in no small part to certain uncanny similarities in vocal quality and interpretive prowess he shares with Britten’s principal collaborator and partner, Peter Pears. This has made him heir apparent for many of the roles Britten penned specifically for Pears, such as Captain Vere in Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw’s Peter Quint and Death in Venice’s Aschenbach. 

He has similarly inherited Pears’ reputation for informed readings of Britten’s songs – Bostridge’s recording of Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings, Les Illuminations, and Nocturne (accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle) shares the visceral, unapologeticaly idiosyncratic gift for communication that made Pears Britten’s most compelling muse. 

The War Requiem, which he has performed over 70 times, “more than any other work apart from Winterreise or those other Schubert cycles,” according to Bostridge, is another piece he has pondered at length. The list of his previous performances makes for impressive reading (under the batons of Sir Colin Davis, Rostropovich and Antonio Pappano to name just a handful), but despite his familiarity with the work, its significance is still front of his mind. “It’s an amazing statement against the barbarity of war, but beyond that it’s a true requiem. It’s about a confrontation with death, and in that way it fulfils all sorts of functions. It’s a very, very deep, and wonderful piece.”

Ian Bostridge performs Britten’s War Requiem with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on June 11 and 12 at Hamer Hall, and a solo recital on June 15 at Melbourne Recital Centre.

1. Feature: Following the Lieder
2. Essential Bostridge Listening

Essential Bostridge Listening

The Red Cockatoo and other songs 

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War Requiem 
LSO Live  LSO0719

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Ian Bostridge performs Britten’s War Requiem with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on June 11 and 12 at Hamer Hall, and a solo recital on June 15 at Melbourne Recital Centre.