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S & H Interview

John Mark Ainsley in interview with Melanie Eskenazi


If it is true that, as Ernest Newman wrote, 'The higher the voice, the lower the intellect,' then the tenor John Mark Ainsley must be an exception, as indeed he is in so many other ways; I found him not only warm and congenial but also highly intelligent, witty and articulate. It would be difficult to find another tenor whose versatility embraces Monteverdi's 'Orfeo,' in which he is the acknowledged master of our time, definitive performances of English song, and a superbly idiomatic understanding of the French classical repertoire. There are also more 'expected' areas of eminence such as the Bach Passions Evangelists, Schubert Lieder and Mozart's Idomeneo and Don Ottavio.

Ainsley has just made his Covent Garden debut in that role and I asked him why that debut has come so relatively late in his career (he is 38). 'It did take a long time for me to get there and that certainly wasn't my choice; of course, I would have liked to have sung there a good deal sooner, but unless you are an automatic world star - like Bryn - and / or a very obvious operatic animal - and you're British! - it can take time, and it's no coincidence that my debut there is as Ottavio, which is the role I've sung more than any other, at Glyndebourne, Aix, San Francisco and so on, so I assume they thought it was safe to have me do it! '

Critics were divided about his singing of the part, with some using terms such as 'honeyed' and 'stylish,' whilst others expressed doubt about the fullness of his tone, but all were united in praise of his musicality and his convincing stage presence, two areas in which he is indeed exceptional in every role he sings. This may be related to his feelings about the characters, since he actually likes Ottavio. 'People think of him as a wet blanket but I have formed a different opinion; the challenge of the role is not just singing, beautiful and difficult though that is, with its set pieces and so on, but to marry the formality of the music with the man, the human being, that's the interest for anyone doing it, and I don't think it's true that there's no acting in it.'

His 1995 Glyndebourne Ottavio in the modern-dress production by Deborah Warner, thankfully preserved on video, remains, for me, the standard by which others are to be judged, and he acknowledged that the production had a great deal to do with his own satisfaction with the performance. 'It's such an incisive piece of direction, and the minimalist, expressive designs echoed it - I'm interested in the whole marriage of design, music, characterisation, interaction - for me, that is the ultimate aim, and the challenge of making them marry is one I still find incredibly stimulating, and it's really the only reason I appear on stage!

'It's the nature of live performance that you do about 75% of them at around 75% of your capability, and if you get above that then those are the nights to remember, but you have to trust to the spirit of the audience, that they are going to have enough channels open to receive on the other levels - the crucial parts; if you're going to duck out of, say, being expressive because it's too risky, then they've missed out, and if something occurs to me in the course of an aria that's within the broad bracket agreed with the conductor and director then I would rather make the experiment, I'd rather be on that side of the line. You can't really expect an audience to get every line of thought you've developed, but then that's partly the director's responsibility, to make a hierarchy of the visual; some people complained about my wig, for example, but that kind of thing is not an issue for me. It's part of what the designer wants my character to look like, so I put it on and try to be my version of Ottavio, looking like that - transformation is an important part of being onstage, isn't it?'

Ainsley is definitely one of that rare breed, a tenor who sees opera as a 'gesämtkunstwerk' and not merely a vehicle for his own performance, so I was interested to hear his views on avant-garde productions. 'The extreme does not worry me, the gratuitous does; I have talked to colleagues who have asked for guidance and been told no, don't worry your head about that, or oh, it's expressionistic and beyond explanation - well, no! That's not for me, at all; if I have to make 2,000 people believe it, it's not a matter of believing it myself, but you have to have a handle on what you are going to project.'

Would he have been happy to take part in the recent, controversial ENO production, which featured Don Ottavio and Donna Anna in scenes of some intimacy (or, as he put it less delicately, 'they were shagging, weren't they?') He would never say never, since he does not believe in opera as something which belongs in a holy vacuum, beyond the dirt of this world, and he recognises that if you walk in the street or listen to the radio you will be aware of plenty that is not sacred, 'and we can't always have this attitude which sees the great works as somehow good for you, and which regards rethinking Mozart as like fucking in church.' His concern, however, is that whatever turn directorial ideas take, they must 'add up - they must mean something. For example, in 'Don Giovanni,' it's not just the class system but the fine tuning of what everybody means to everybody else; if that's secure I think you can do more or less what you want with it, but if you have spent all your time creating an atmosphere of outrage and skimped on creating those relationships then there's nothing left.'

He also made the point that some elements of avant-garde productions may well draw on a wider knowledge of the subject, since at the time when they were written many of the great operas were experienced by a public well read in the classics, for example. Directors will now often use oblique glimpses into that world, as, for example, in a production of 'Orfeo' in which he sang the title role and his character was not carried off to Heaven but 'torn to pieces' by women. This was regarded as bizarre by some people, but in fact was not at all extreme since it exists in one form of the Orpheus myth.

'Orfeo' is of course the other role with which he is associated, although he does not regard his recording of it as amongst his best. 'It's correct, but at the time I had not done it on stage, and it shows; I'm not ashamed of it, I'm not saying 'Oh, darling, don't listen to me on that because I'm so bad on it - you're never bad on a recording, they are documents of a certain time in your life, but I have had other thoughts about it since, and I'm very much hoping to get the chance to record it again.' He acknowledges the powerful influence of Nigel Rogers on the singing of the immensely challenging part, although 'I've got a more beautiful voice than his!' Indeed he has, although he rightly recognises the older tenor's supremacy in the florid music of Caccini and other composers.

It is the drama of the role to which John Mark keeps returning. 'In terms of a staged work, the Oxbridge collegiate tradition (and I am from it myself) doesn't exhibit the dramatic spirit which I think is an essential part of it, not an any 'operatic' sense but in the way of approaching the music so that it is made expressively pictorial. Monteverdi is clear about where you can make that step into rage, frustration, sadness, self-pity - all those mantles can be worn by the music at various points, and that's why I find Orfeo so endlessly stimulating, because you can make such a complete person of him. I remember being criticised by one reviewer after the ENO production, along the lines of 'Ainsley did not sing the role consistently beautifully.' and I thought, this is missing the point altogether! There's a strong element of anti-hero in this character - he is only 'Semi'-Deo,' and it is always the human part of him which fails; one can't respond directly to critics but I did feel annoyed that this one should not have credited me with enough intelligence, experience or musicality to have chosen not always to 'make nice' with early music! There are moments in 'Orfeo' where you are right on the edge of the emotions, and this was clearly too much for him, but others may have been galvanised by it.' (This critic certainly was!)

The production itself came in for some adverse comment, notably for the brief glimpse of Orfeo naked (although how anyone could object to that in his case, is somewhat surprising) and for its staging of the dazzling virtuoso aria 'Possente Spirito' on a rock, but this did not present too much of a challenge to him. 'That production was revolutionary when it was first seen, and I went along with the rock - Orfeo is singing for his life, her life, one false move and you're done for, and that's true musically as well.'

He will extend his interpretation of this role at La Monnaie in Brussels, in early May this year, when he will be directed by Trisha Brown in what is sure to be a fascinating experience for us as well as a demanding one for him; it will certainly be an unmissable production in linking her style to that of this Orfeo, with his unusual commitment to the dramatic and emotional elements of Monteverdi's great work.

Another unusual aspect of his career is his intimacy with, and affection for, the great French lyric operas of Rameau and other composers, not least in his near-flawless French diction and sensitive feel for the shape of the music. His assumption of the role of Dardanus, in the recording under Minkowski, was praised by 'Opera' magazine for its '. passion, eloquent French delivery, distinctness and security of articulation, stylishness and ease in encompassing the wide range of the vocal line.' and he looks forward to extending such interpretations into other similar roles. He describes such roles as Dardanus and Pylade as being 'Helden - Haute - contre' roles, for which his voice is eminently suited, since for such music 'it is not enough to have a high, pretty, fast voice - they need some singing, they've got to have dramatic weight.'

John Mark describes himself as a 'quasi French speaker' who is just beginning his odyssey through French song, an area in which he already excels. His recent recital of Fauré, Chausson and Hahn at the Wigmore Hall was rapturously received, although he confesses to some doubts about programming Hahn's 'Chansons en dialecte Vénetien,' since they are 'just on the cusp of being admissible in a 'serious' recital, and I worry that they might belittle people's memory of the rest of the music.' I assured him that in his performance, this was not the case, 'Well, I'll keep putting them in then! They are ravishing, and I am quite keen on music that goes in at this level (heart) before this one (head).' Those who have not heard him in this repertoire will have the chance to do so on Thursday 14th, when BBC Radio 3 is repeating that Wigmore Hall concert at 1.00 p.m. GMT.

His appearances in recitals have been fairly infrequent, at least in this country, because, he says, he finds Liederabende 'pretty intimidating.' With typical self-deprecation he remarks that his response to the German Lieder composers is 'limited; I very much enjoy and feel I understand Brahms and Schumann, but with Schubert, I go in and out of the light. It's the texts, for me - I'm fine with Goethe or Mayrhofer, but I find others very obtuse, and there are some great Schubert songs set to poems by the likes of Seidl. I am quite a slow burn on recitals; it takes me a long time programming them, agonising over them, and I hate the idea that at the end of a song people are going to quiver and say 'Ooohhh! How lovely!' - which seems so insubstantial!' So how would he like his audiences to react? 'Oh, I want people to slit their wrists or cry or be transported and leave changed! I know that's a mistaken association I have with the amount of agony I go through preparing them, and I want everyone to share in the suffering I've gone through to get there!' Well, this is one audience member who is more than willing to share in his suffering, and who certainly has left the concert hall changed after his 'Auf dem Strom' and 'Schwanengesang!'

There are critics who regard his Lieder singing, for all its beauty of tone and musicality, as lacking in intensity, and he is aware of such views. 'If you like intensity to the point of mannerism then you're not going to enjoy me so much; I think that tension and over-energising can easily be mistaken for intensity, and I know what I put in to the songs - which in the end are always bigger than the performer. It is a challenge to distil what I think is the emotional, spiritual and dramatic sense of a song and deliver it, 24 times in an evening, and that is where I'm aiming. Maybe it is easier for me to convey what might be called intensity in something like the 'War Requiem,' where the poetry is so sensationally matched to the music and where there is more of a shared responsibility.'

Ainsley is forthright about what he calls the 'cult of the Uber-Liedersingers,' and has no illusions about the recording industry. 'Exclusive contracts have to be fulfilled even if companies have collapsed, and to keep the stable going, you have to put out all these recitals, which in a way is great, but also has unhealthy elements. It's rather like the days of Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf and so on, they were seen as 'the last word, and everyone imagined that that was how the songs were done, followed by years of 'this is the next DFD.' I saw him once performing 'Die Schöne Müllerin,' and it was an astonishing experience; I know that cycle very well, but his intimacy with it and understanding of it somehow took the bar lines away, and I found that incredibly stimulating. He is a great artist, but in the parts of the repertoire that I have covered which he also did (and he did everything!) I have made different decisions and come to different conclusions; he is not the last word, and neither am I.'

I have always found John Mark's Lieder singing very close in spirit to that of DFD, especially in the exceptional tenderness with which he sings some of the more intimate songs such as the Kerner 'Wiegenlied' on the Hyperion recording. It is not an easy question to ask a man why or how he is able to convey such tenderness, but he took it the right way and pondered carefully before answering that everything is in response to the poetry, that you have to make the marriage just as the composer did, finding the colour that fits that emotion, and that he sings '.as I might read the poem aloud without singing it, in an honest attempt to express with my voice, what the words and music mean to me.'

This honesty of approach is also strongly present in his singing of Bach; he is widely recognised as one of the greatest Evangelists of our time, and indeed many, including the present writer, would regard him as pre-eminent in that role; I recall a magisterial performance of the St. John with Polyphony a couple of years ago, after which Michael White wrote that Ainsley's Evangelist was 'perfection, the most distinguished singing you could hope to hear.' His way of colouring the words and giving nuance to the diction without over - accentuating or altering the musical line, and his understanding of the theatricality of the part make it especially sad that none of the more prominently available current recordings feature his singing of it, and he hopes to record it again, whilst feeling an affection for his part in the Ozawa version, idiosyncratic though that recording may be. He sees the Passions as dramatic narratives, and recognises that his Evangelist is more theatrical than that of other tenors; 'It's meant to be gripping, it's supposed to galvanise people, and it needs some vocal authority. I'm not into the solo bow for the tenor and all that, but you are given a tremendous responsibility in that role; it's passionate and surprising music and I don't know how a singer could help but express those feelings if they are sensitive to what Bach has written, unless they don't have the technical capacity to do so.'

Mention of technical capability led us on to his singing of Lensky at ENO last season, a role for which he might not be seen as the most obvious choice in vocal terms, although histrionically he was as near-perfect a Lensky as could be imagined, making complete sense of this romantic, impulsive, poetic character. He was aware of the risk he was taking. 'I'm not sure if I brought it off as I wanted to, although it was easier in Cologne in a smaller house and in the original language. I think the man is interesting, but I know the role is right at one end of my vocal possibilities - that music is just so irresistible to me, and I know it's the sort of tenor I'd like to be - I've got quite a romantic character in my voice and can sound reasonably Italianate, but it's not an obviously operatic size.' Does he find this frustrating? 'Yes, I do, because I feel I have something to say about those roles, but all I could do was my best, and hope that it wasn't such a mistake that people said 'What on earth did you think you were doing?' Fortunately, the critics were kind, and that's really your only benchmark because anyone who comes round after the performance is not going to say 'you were terrible.' but most critics, although they were aware of vocal shortcomings did find other elements which usually aren't there - if you can sing Lensky like a bulldog you don't have to make the character, so I got away with it. I'm very realistic about it, and hope to grow into a more vocally convincing Lensky later on.'

Another role in which he has already made his mark and into which he feels he is growing into is that of Idomeneo, which he sang to great acclaim at Sydney Opera House. In the opinion of the present writer, 'Idomeneo' is one of the greatest of all operas and it is a piece which any enlightened opera house should be mounting solely for this tenor, since both his voice and personality are so well suited to its demands. Discussion of such matters as to why opera houses mount certain productions with certain singers brought us to another of his roles, that of Jupiter in 'Semele,' which he has sung at ENO and in San Francisco. London audiences will be unlikely to forget his beautifully sung, convincingly acted lecher of a god, and it is a pity that we are not destined to hear him in the role when the Royal Opera revives the production it took to San Francisco, since it is, incredibly, being staged in London with an all-American cast.

Many people have expressed surprise at the fact that one of the first things one reads about this tenor in his concert programmes is that he 'continues to study with Diane Forlano.' One might imagine that such an established singer, with some 110 recordings to his name, might not feel the need for further formal study, but Ainsley will have none of the cult of the shell-on-the-head singer who simply 'emerges' as a 'star,' and he is similarly disparaging about those who list only the very well known as their teachers. 'I think it's a professional courtesy to acknowledge her; I do have lessons, not every week or anything like that, but she knows my voice better than anyone; it is nothing like it was when I first started, and it will change, there will be technical challenges to come. I can't conceive of not having lessons; it all relates to whether you're busy developing a cult of yourself or developing as a musician, and I'm doing the latter. I still have plenty to learn.'

Asked to name the recordings of his which he would recommend to those who have not heard him before, he chose (after some hesitation) the 'ravishing high tenor solos' of the recording with Trevor Pinnock of Purcell's 'Odes,' the Hyperion 'Schubert; the Final Year,' (the settings of Rellstab in 'Schwanengesang') his title role in 'Dardanus,' and his recent Vaughan Williams disc. The Schubert recording is obviously very dear to him despite his reticence in singing this composer in recital. 'I felt with this one that I'd really broken through with my own identity on German Lieder on a recording; I have never just surfed, I am always diligent, but maybe it was the poems here; I think that 80% of what I meant comes out, and that's a lot. I liked the idea of splitting the 'cycle' between Anthony Rolfe Johnson and myself, because the Rellstab and Heine are so different - the Rellstab are 'Ooh, I'm so in love, it's awful, but I'll feel better tomorrow!' whereas the Heine are ' O my God! I'm so in love, it's awful, I'm going to die tomorrow!' so it made sense to divide them between two similar voices but which have the same instincts.'

I told him that in my view, his is the finest recording I know of the Rellstab songs, and he was clearly delighted at this, although it can hardly be an unusual opinion: in Hugh Canning's 'Gramophone' review, the distinguished critic describes Ainsley as 'easily the equal of Ian Bostridge, maybe even more penetrating as an interpreter...' and this searching interpretation is one of the great joys of his singing on the disc. To me he achieves the perfect balance between text and music, and his singing of such lines as 'Wiege das Liebchen in Schlummer ein' ('Liebesbotschaft') is unequalled in its tenderness; as he said, that poetry is not powerfully dramatic, and one does not want to be hectored in it - the emotion is contained, not always able to be expressed, and all the more powerful and intense for so being.

Many music-lovers would especially associate John Mark with English song, and this is a connection he cherishes. Just before our meeting he had been at the BBC to record some songs of Peter Warlock with Roger Vignoles, and he is soon to make a BBC 'Voices' programme consisting of music by Britten and Tippett and a new song cycle written for him by Alan Ridout to poems by Stefan George. He has recorded the Britten song cycles but professes to like only the 'Nocturne' on that recording, and 'I'd like a crack at some Britten operas.' He is an unashamed champion of English song; 'I recently heard another tenor saying that only Britten had composed worthwhile English song, but that seems to me to be a short sighted view! There is some wishy-washy stuff, but also much that is incisive and elegant. When I sing 'Dichterliebe' and Brahms Lieder in places like Frankfurt and Amsterdam, people come along with their CD s of English song and say 'That was fantastic but why didn't you sing any of this?' So, I'm going to.' His recent recording of 'On Wenlock Edge' must surely rank as one of the greatest, and he clearly loves the work: 'It's marvellous, a real dramatic statement of the depths of someone's soul, and I think that with this recording I've got to the bottom of it, I've said what I want to say.' Indeed he has, since in John Steane's words, his performance on this recording comes 'very close to the heart's desire, ' with its '..fine poise, in breathing, phrasing, expression and the even emission of quite beautiful tone.'

So what is next for this versatile tenor who seems to be always seeking to expand his knowledge as well as his repertoire? Apart from that May 'Orfeo' in Brussels, he will sing more Don Ottavios in Munich and Dresden, as well as the Matthew Passion Evangelist several times in the near future, including a Proms performance on August 4th, and he will also be at festivals in Tanglewood, New York and Munich. Nearer to home, audiences will have plenty of opportunity to hear him in English music in the very near future. This Thursday (14th) he will take part in the South Bank's Walton Festival, singing the rarely performed 'Anon in Love' written for tenor and guitar, as well as songs by Howells, and on Sunday 24th, he will perform Britten's 'Les Illuminations' under Rostropovich as part of the latter's 75th birthday celebrations.

As for recordings, he has a few 'on the back burner,' although not, surprisingly, Schumann's 'Dichterliebe' which I heard him sing with Vignoles, and which I thought surpassed any other version of this cycle in its beauty of tone and balance between serenity and barely suppressed hysteria, as well as its superb accompaniment - 'I'd record it tomorrow, but it has not come my way.' Fortunately for us, a great deal else has come his way, and it is not too much to hope that he will one day record this work to add to the already impressive discography of a singer who always delights with his musicianship and sensitivity as well as his wondrously beautiful voice.

© Melanie Eskenazi

The photographs are © Marc Eskenazi and should not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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