In between, he’s perfect at capturing both the pathos and comedy of great parts such as Falstaff and the multiple baritone roles in Britten’s Death in Venice (which he played in Deborah Warner’s ENO production but in Brussels). One of his most outstanding performances of recent years was as Birtwistle’s Mr Punch in ENO’s first Young Vic season two years ago.
He took time out from rehearsals for the forthcoming new production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love at the Coliseum to talk to us about working with director Jonathan Miller on the opera and his career in general.
SIMON THOMAS: Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love must be a fun part to play (and ideal for an actor/singer like you).
ANDREW SHORE: It is. I first played it here (at ENO) about 10 years ago in Jude Kelly’s production, which was very different from this one, although we had a car in that and I have to go back to rehearsal shortly to work with a car in this one.
Updating to 1950s America, as Jonathan Miller does here, seems very popular these days (eg ENO’s Candide and The Rake’s Progress which has just been revived at the Royal Opera House). Why do you think that place and period is such a good fit for some operas?
I don’t know generally but it certainly works for this one. The American mid-west, small town, provincial with a naïve outlook on life, suits the opera perfectly. Dulcamara (the wily, quack doctor in Donizetti’s comedy), of course, takes advantage of all these small-town people. He travels around and wherever he goes he tells them he was born there, as part of his patter, so wins favour and convinces them that he’s offering these potions to them at a special price. He then has to skedaddle and move on to the next place before he’s found out.
What does Jonathan Miller bring to it?
He brings a healthy distrust of operatic convention, which 19th Century operas like this are laden with. Years and years of traditional interpretation are stripped away. Jonathan shakes a piece like this up and he’s honest with his approach to it. He’s very good at winkling out the traditions. For instance, Dulcamara is found out at the end and it typically ends with everything wrapped up very quickly and neatly. Any distress or embarrassment is smoothed over. Jonathan asks why smooth it over and instead of an acceptance of Dulcamara, the crowd turns on him and tells him to clear off.
Does that mean changing the words (which you can do with a translation)?
There’s tremendous leeway with a translation of course (which in this case is excellent, by the way) but, in fact, there’s very little actual alteration. Instead of the chorus singing “What, an elixir!” they sing “Not an elixir!” (American accent) in a sarcastic way. It’s more a difference of attitude.
Are you singing in an American accent (as opposed to Candide, where there was a tendency for the dialogue to be US with the songs reverting to terribly English tones)
We are. At least, that’s what Jonathan is trying to get us to do. In this setting, it’s so obviously set in America that, in a sense, you have to do the accent. It’s always difficult singing opera in an accent, because of the nature of the vocal production. Having to modify vowels can cause havoc with the voice, especially for the higher voices. But Jonathan’s very keen that we should try and do it.
One of your many outstanding performances of recent years was Mr Punch in Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy. How was that experience?
Well, it was totally engrossing. It’s a wonderful acting role, although the music was very difficult to learn but once you get used to it you find the right way to do it.
Did you like the music? I personally veer back to Tippett (I’ve done King Priam) and that is wonderful music, still modern but very beautiful. The Birtwistle is more broken up, percussive. I loved it as music theatre. (Chuckles) A good friend of mine said afterwards that he really enjoyed it but wouldn’t be rushing out to buy the CD.
You are commonly thought of as a great acting singer. How did that develop through your career?
It was there from school days, I think. The highlight of school for me was the school production – one year we did a straight play, the next a musical and I lived for it. The first opera I was involved in was Carmen at school and before that I’d done Oklahoma. I still love Rogers and Hammerstein; they’re at the pinnacle. I went on to do opera at university (Bristol) and they did a lot of unknown or little-known stuff. I realised that’s what I enjoyed more than anything. Singing. And I also did quite a lot of directing then. Professionally, I started off as a stage manager (with what was then Opera For All). I’d done vocal training but I really enjoyed a couple of seasons on the road. I started taking small parts with them and then decided that the singing was what I wanted to do, so moved on to Kent Opera. From there, I started getting principal roles. I’ve been singing at ENO for almost 25 years now and, luckily, all over the world.
Who have been the major influences on you throughout your career?
Geraint Evans was a great influence, singing a lot of the roles that I now do. When doing the buffo roles, I like to listen to the great performances of the past. You learn so much from people like Fernando Corena, Sesto Bruscantini, Domenico Trimarchi. I have them all on record and they all do it differently. It’s extremely valuable for anyone doing these roles. As far as acting is concerned, I’m as much a fan of British comedy films of the last 50 years as anyone –Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness and TV people like Tony Hancock and Morecambe and Wise. Playing for audiences here at ENO, everyone knows these people. So much of opera comedy is supposedly comic but isn’t actually that funny but I’ve always tried to make people really laugh.
What are your personal aspirations for the future? What parts are there left for you to play?
There are not a lot of roles I want to do that I haven’t done already. Beckmesser, perhaps. I played him at the Edinburgh Festival in a concert performance and I’d like to do that fully. But I’ve been very fortunate to play the roles I have. I have no complaints.
What specific projects do you have coming up?
I’m returning to Bayreuth as Alberich this year (my fifth year there) and I’ve got Katya Kabanova (Dikoj) in Dallas, as well as something at ENO. I’m also doing Pooh-bah in The Mikado in Chicago, which I’m looking forward to enormously.
Andrew Shore appears as Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love at English National Opera from 12 February. Tickets are available on 0871 911 0200 or www.eno.org