Catching up with the globetrotting countertenor whose chart topping recordings are going off down under.
Iestyn Davies may not have been to Australia as yet, but mentioning that I’ll be speaking to him produces impressively positive responses. From the hungry look in the eyes of certain Festival directors and prospective concert programmers the 34-year-old British countertenor is clearly in the sights of several.
I’m catching up with him on the phone from New York where he’s recovering from the launch party for his new Dowland CD on Hyperion. “These friends of mine have this amazing apartment,” he tells me. “They have a sort of concert hall for a living room and as record companies don’t tend to do launch parties anymore I thought I’d do my own. We had about 70 people here last night. It was a joint launch with a friend of mine’s birthday. We sang a bit and we got free CDs!” The Dowland disc forms part of an enviable and exciting body of recent work, including his Handel Oratorio Arias disc with the King's Consort and his Wigmore Hall recital recordings.
Davies is one of the exciting new breed of countertenors, savvy, smart and globally mobile, but his journey to the top wasn’t always an obvious one. “Was there something that inspired me to become a singer?” he muses. “Not really. I’ve been singing since I was six or seven and I don’t think any child of that age is inspired to start singing necessarily. My dad’s a cellist and I grew up in a musical family so I suppose in some sense it was inevitable that I was going to become musical. When I was five or six I used to walk from school to York University and meet my dad who would be finishing up his quartet rehearsal. So I was used to professional music making going on around me. When my parents said ‘we’re going to send you off to boarding school to a choir in Cambridge and you’re going to audition’, it didn’t really come as a shock.”
School for Davies was St John’s, Cambridge where he was a treble for six years, between the age of eight and thirteen. When his voice broke he went on to Wells Cathedral School in Somerset learning oboe and piano. “I didn’t have singing lessons or anything like that,” he tells me. “But I sang in the school chapel choir where my voice slid down through tenor and bass. I started singing countertenor really just because I was just a bit bored and it felt quite nice to sing quietly in the background in falsetto – it had a buzz about it. Looking back, it made singing feel unique again. Someone next to me said ‘that sounds OK, you should take it more seriously’ and so I pursued it from there. Even then it wasn’t until I was in university that I twigged you could sing Handel opera and things like that.”
Davies went back to St John’s where he opted to study archaeology and anthropology though he’s quick to assure me they were never viable alternatives. “The nice thing about doing a degree in England is that if you’re not set on being a doctor or architect, you can still enjoy the course – it’s a university of life kind of thing. I really enjoy archaeology but it’s more the antiquarianism thing of finding something amazingly old that’s just been in the ground. I wasn't particularly interested in the science side of it. I went to an anthropology lecture, and we were doing genetics and stuff, and I thought ‘oh God, what have I done’. So it was never going to be a career. Whereas I think music would have turned me off because the music degree at Cambridge is really academic – keyboard harmony and writing fugues. But I got everything I needed musically from singing in the choir.”
Even so, his singing teacher David Lowe wasn’t bowled over with the wannabe countertenor at first. “I went in and sang Music for a While,” Davies explains. “At the time my range was appalling. I mean I had the stamina of an asthmatic ant! David was worried that I was one of those people who try to reclaim their lost days of singing treble. I had no technique, because as a treble you don’t really do that, you just sort of let yourself go, and you get into habits. So really I had to start again and learn how to breathe and all of those things.”
The Royal Academy followed for three years, and in year two Davies got lucky. “I entered the London Handel Festival,” he explains. “I’m not particularly a fan of competitions, but I felt that this sort of fitted the bill. As a counter tenor you sing a lot of Handel, and it was good to put my flag in the ground and say that I was a soloing countertenor rather than just a choral countertenor. Anyway, I invited an agent along – it was the agency who used to look after my dad’s string quartet. I said ‘I trust you, and I haven’t written to anybody else and you used to look after my dad’, and they took me on, which was great.”
Almost immediately Davies got an audition in Zurich where Nikolaus Harnoncourt cast him for the last three performances of a run of The Coronation of Poppea. “I was basically standing in, but it was a baptism of fire because I had no rehearsal at all and it was my professional opera debut. I remember I had an hour with Harnoncourt and then I went into the rehearsal studio and the assistant director walked me around and showed me where I went on stage. I met all the singers onstage in the actual scenes. You can imagine: Nero was Jonas Kaufmann! I remember thinking ‘this tenor’s really good’ That was back in 2005. A couple of year’s later everyone was like ‘wow, who is this guy’, and I was like ‘yeah, yeah. I heard him in Monteverdi…’”
More than anything else, the experience gave Davies the confidence boost he had been looking for. “It was terrifying but also it went to show that everything leading up to that – singing in choirs, learning to sight-read and all those things – were there in the back of my head. It’s how I’ve managed to keep working really, because I think people appreciate singers who don’t cause a fuss and just do the job.”
From then on he’s never really looked back, juggling careers in opera and oratorio with recital work and increasingly busy recording schedule. “I think it’s good to spread your net wide if you want to have a healthy career. I would never specialise just in opera, and likewise I would hate a career without opera because I love acting. I suppose a couple of operas a year is enough, because for six or seven weeks you’re in a rehearsal room and generally you’re not paid to rehearse. From an economic point of view, you’re staying somewhere without being paid for six weeks, you’re having to rent an apartment, you can’t do recitals, and you’re not being paid until the final show, which is possibly a month later. But you do get to travel the world and hang out with some really nice people. It’s a bit like being in the Big Brother house!”
So how does he describe the voice at this moment? For Davies it’s very much a matter of where you come from. “In England, the counter tenor tradition has always been to do with the church really,” he tells me. “Your range is always going to be the range of the countertenor in the choir. So basically you learn to sing between say an A below middle C to the D an octave higher. In America, a lot of countertenors don’t come from choirs. They come to it from the conservatoire angle and have lessons often with a mezzo soprano or a soprano. I see myself, though, safely in the alto range I suppose, similar to say Andreas Scholl.”
So how does that affect repertoire? We discuss two roles that he seems to have made very much his own: Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ottone in Poppea. “I think a healthy voice has a good low range,” he says. “When I hear countertenors who don’t have a good falsetto in the low range (when you hear people struggling with Poppea and stuff ) I always wonder whether it’s because they haven’t looked after it properly. With any singing voice, it’s the low range that goes when you’re tired.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is extremely low. Alfred Deller came from a different tradition and he didn’t really push himself. If you listen to his recordings it’s extraordinary what he does when he goes up high. He suddenly goes into this kind of vortex and you hear him just disappear. It’s really beautiful but it’s very, very mannered. I think it was a letter in one of the Britten books where Deller writes to Peter Pears and says ‘will you tell Ben to be kind and not give me any high notes’ or something like that. Lots of countertenors avoid Midsummer Night’s Dream because of that, but I find it really depends on what else I’m doing. Two months doing MND is fine because by the end your low voice is in such good health. But the next day you can’t go and sing the Matthew Passion. It’s like training for the long jump and then suddenly doing the high jump. I’d love to be able to do everything all at once, and be able to sing two octaves all the time, but it just doesn’t work like that, because one end will suffer as a result.”
Following on from the example of Deller and Britten, who explored new roles for the countertenor voice, Davies is also keen to embrace contemporary repertoire when he can. George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin is a prime example. “That is a great opera with a capital G,” he enthuses. “It’s so well written for the voice. I’m so lucky to have been alive when it was written. I remember saying to George when he was writing it ‘you have the chance to write something that countertenors will be able to take to auditions – because all we have is that Midsummer Night’s Dream aria’. Later on he texted me and said ‘there’s an aria at the end that’s great’. Sadly, that aria at the end has glass harmonica in it, so it turns out it’s not something you can take to an audition after all!”
Reflecting on career highlights to date, his Metropolitan Opera debut as Unulfo in Handel’s Rodelinda was a definite. Less obvious, but possibly more significant, was his recent residency last year at London’s Wigmore Hall. “For John Gilhooly to choose a countertenor to have a residency was a really bold step”. His trip to Moscow last December where he sang in Death in Venice for the first time under Gennady Rozhdestvensky was another memorable experience. “That was an immense event especially because it was Moscow. If you’re going to do an opera about a man who is potentially a paedophile, or whatever, in Moscow, that’s a pretty significant thing.”
And has he learned any lessons the hard way? Are there things he’d prefer to forget? He’s been refreshingly candid so far and he doesn’t disappoint with a potential career low involving a St Matthew Passion at the Tonhalle in Zurich. “We did two in succession, one each day, and it was at modern pitch, so very high – but also Zurich pitch is a bit sharper than 440,” he recalls. “I remember in the rehearsals Ton Koopman saying ‘good – lots of countertenors say no to this at modern pitch’, and I suddenly thought, ‘uh oh’. The first concert was fine, though Erbarme Dich at modern pitch, if the violinist starts slowly, is a real killer.”
“Then the next day was an early concert, and I’d left it too late to eat, so I was feeling a bit faint. Anyway as I started singing the inner voice, which you should never listen to, started to say, ‘you can’t do this, you can’t breathe this phrase’, and my breath got higher and higher and higher. It was like I was hyperventilating. I just kept looking ahead and seeing these long top E’s and I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I’m going to collapse’. I remember doing these ridiculous baroque affectations where I would come off notes five beats early just to get through it. There was a moment when I thought ‘shall I fall over now because then at least it looks like I’m ill’. And then, at the final phrase, I thought ‘I can’t do it’ and so instead of going to the top E, I went down the octave. I saw Ton Koopman playing the organ, his soul just going into spasm. It was absolutely horrible.”
“Afterwards we were invited to a dinner to meet sponsors and stuff but I was so embarrassed that I just left. James Gilchrist who was singing the tenor arias wasn’t very impressed with his own performance and texted me saying ‘I’m really sorry, I won’t join you for the drinks – I’m afraid I sang like a toilet’. I texted back saying ‘I’m not going either cause I sang like I was in the toilet’! So I’m never going to sing the St Matthew Passion at modern pitch, I’ve learnt my lesson there.”
Steering the conversation back onto a more positive note Davies turns out to be surprisingly starry-eyed about meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace. “I was expecting this sort of monosyllabic conversation where she says ‘what do you do?’ and I say, ‘sing’ and she walks off. By pure chance I was standing next to a friend of mine who works for the Windsor Festival and she knows obviously a lot about that so we got into a deep conversation. We spoke for about five minutes about a friend we have in common – a choirmaster at St John’s College Cambridge called Chris Robinson. I said I’d been to his 75th birthday, and she said ‘goodness is he that old’. We talked about music and I said I enjoyed the music at Prince William and Kate’s wedding. She said ‘Charles had a lot to do with choosing the music’ and I said ‘well, yes, I know he’s musical because he played cello next to my dad in the Cambridge University Orchestra’. And she laughed and said ‘gosh he doesn’t play the cello anymore!’ It was like having a conversation with your grandma – totally down to earth and not like the rest of the Royal Family who are a bit bonkers. I went away buzzing, thinking she’s the greatest thing on earth!”
So that’s a Royal role model, but what about singers? Davies’ list of favourites includes John Mark Ainsley, contralto Sonia Prina and the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson. James Bowman and Alfred Deller get a special mention: “In the countertenor community we’re all grateful for the careers of those singers. James is the first one to admit that technically he couldn’t do what people do today, but what’s amazing is that he still does recitals and he’s 72. He’s got so much youth and personality – it’s a real example of why people shouldn’t get hung up on technique and virtuosity all the time. It’s not necessarily what an audience is listening for. What James does so well is to communicate. He hardly needs to open his mouth to get people to love him and I think that’s a really good lesson.”
On that note it’s time for Davies to pack for the next stop on his American tour and me to go to bed (it’s gone one o’clock in the morning in Sydney). Just time for one more nugget of wisdom from the countertenor of the moment: “Every person is different,” he says, reflecting on his fellows, “and you should never be jealous of anyone else or worry about competition. It’s daft, because you are winning the competition of your own life – if you see what I mean.” And I think I do.
Iestyn Davies’ disc of Handel Oratorio Arias with The King’s Consort is out now on Vivat and his Dowland Lute Songs are out on Hyperion.
Bonus track for those who've read thus far. Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford perform Thomas Morley's under rated classic, Will You Buy a Fine Dog?