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15 Questions to Allan Clayton

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello! I’m in Malvern, England at the moment – Edward Elgar country... – as I’m singing three concerts at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester this week. My family live here so it’s been a great chance to come and see them for the first time in too long, and to perform in the oldest music festival in the world. I sang at my first 3CF in 1993 as a Worcester Cathedral chorister, so it’s a festival I know and love.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Once these concerts are finished, I have a bit of time off. I’m going to spend the rest of the month in Glasgow where my girlfriend is singing Cenerentola for Scottish Opera preparing a little-known Mozart oratorio – Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots – which The Classical Opera Company are staging in London in September, a couple of recitals (including my BBC recital debut in Aberdeen) and a new Jonathan Dove opera for Opera North, Pinocchio, in which I play the naughty schoolboy Lampwick! It’ll be nice to play the bad bloke for once instead of the usual starry-eyed tenor love-interest. Then a Wigmore Hall recital and some more BBC concerts/broadcasts.

If you hadn’t chosen for music, what do you think you would do right now?
I have great ambitions to write a book one day, but then everybody thinks they can do that don’t they? I always thought about being a writer  or a journalist whilst growing up, but deadlines terrify me and I always miss them. If I really had my way though, I’d be playing football for Liverpool FC..

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist?
I’m not from a musical family, though my parents enjoy listening to classical music, so I wasn’t exposed to opera and song until I was at university. From a young age though, even through his church music, Benjamin Britten’s writing has always inspired me. It seems very cliched for a British tenor to highlight him as an inspiration but I have always felt a very strong connection to his musical language. I don’t like to listen too much to other singers (it’s nothing personal!) as I think it’s important to find your own way of doing things, but I could spend all day listening to Philip Langridge who I think is one of the most incredible singers. Not a single note or word is left to chance with him – he demands you listen and experience his joy, sorrow, anguish, whatever it might be. I also think Fritz Wunderlich was astoundingly good and I would love to have had the chance to hear him in the flesh.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?
The hardest thing is being away from home so much, although I’ve yet to experience the worst of it. Seeing family and friends suddenly became very difficult about three years ago, because even if you are working in Britain, then you’re still working very anti-social hours. The out of hours committment to singing is also quite hard work – I enjoy a beer now and again so I might have to curb that slightly... The best thing is creating something amazing and getting it right!

What’s your view on the classical music scene at present? Is there a crisis? 

To be honest, I’m not that well-placed to comment on it. From my lowly position at the bottom of the pile though, it does seem that conservatoires are churning out more and more young musicians (singers especially) who are convinced they are the next great thing when the harsh reality is that there isn’t enough work to go round the very best, let alone the rest.

Some feel there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before. What do you tell them?
I can’t imagine anyone wants to listen to one version of anything forever do they? Every performer should have something fresh to say through the music they choose to sing or play, and if they do, then it deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
I think that live performances depend very much on the rapport you establish with your audience. There are so many factors that can affect how you perform – the music, the venue, or even how much sleep you had – but if you’re feeling below par, an audience can make you raise your game if you feel that you have engaged them. If I can recognise people after a concert then I feel that I have tried as hard as I can to sing to each and every one of them. Of course, with opera you don’t have such a direct connection with the audience, but as long as you believe wholeheartedly in each and every phrase, then the acting is an extension of that intent to communicate. Though we aren’t known as a selfless bunch, I think that’s what singers certainly strive to be, because if we don’t then no performance can live.

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?
Not a great deal I’m afraid. One doesn’t claim to ‘interpret’ a novel, but simply to read it. Each reading will always be subtly different and that is what is so exciting about approaching words or music for the first time.

How do you balance the need to to put your personal emotions into the music you play and the intentions of the composer?
For singers, the clue to the intentions of the composer are so often in the text that he or she has set. I always start learning pieces by reading the words to find what it is that the composer has seen in them, and the music that has resulted. Of course I don’t always agree with a composer’s reading of a poem, but that’s what makes performing so captivating – whilst one never ignores the composer’s wishes, a pianisssimo marking can mean a hundred different things in the hands of one person.

True or false: People need to be educated about classical music, before they can really appreciate it.
Nah! Everyone responds to music of any sort. Classical music has its reputation and I don’t think that will ever change, but I don’t think you need to have an education in something to find it hideous, beautiful or bland.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?

The complete Shostakovich symphonies, Machaut Messe de Nostre Dame, Adès Arcadiana, Elgar Dream of Gerontius, Britten Peter Grimes, Paul Lewis playing anything he wanted, Reich Pulses, Strauss songs with orchestra, Walton Belshazzar’s Feast, Schubert Winterreise.

It would need to be quite a big hall....

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument?

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?

I was one of the worst clarinettists this country has ever produced. I was relegated to the fourth desk in my school orchestra before moving to the percussion section to become a part-time timpanist and triangle beater. I also play the piano, though at the age of fifteen my teacher told me, “It’s strange, because your brain obviously understands what should happen when you see the music, it’s just that the message gets lost somewhere between your head and your fingers...”

Allan Clayton at Ingpen & Williams

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