Whilst dance takes over the London Coliseum, ENO have decamped for their annual presentation south of the river in association with The Young Vic. Over the last few years they have enjoyed public and critical success with works such as Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers, Dido and Aeneas and Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy – all pieces that have benefitted from the more intimate space that the Young Vic affords.
This time they’re back for a staging of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses to his homeland, directed by Benedict Andrews, one of Australia’s most up and coming directors. In the title role American tenor Tom Randle makes a welcome return to the company following his memorable performances as Steva in David Alden’s staging of Janacek’s Jenufa a couple of seasons ago.
We meet in the bar of the Young Vic during a break in rehearsals and given that Tom has appeared so regularly on the operatic stage in this country over the last twenty or so years, it comes as something of a surprise that when he began his musical studies, opera was not high on his list of ambitions. “Music has always been my default setting but as far as opera is concerned I didn’t really think much about it at all. In my mid-twenties when I was studying composition and conducting I didn’t have respect for the art form. After that I was happy earning a living by singing in concerts and oratorios, so opera never figured in my plans til much, much later.”
That was about to change in 1985 when he was scheduled to sing some concerts in his home city of Los Angeles. Sir Michael Tippett was undertaking a concert tour of the USA with the pianist Paul Crossley to celebrate his 80th birthday. “Sir Michael was doing some conducting and had written a new sonata for Paul Crossley and the management of the Los Angeles Philharmonic contacted me as they couldn’t find anyone to do sing this piece called Songs for Dov which is a thirty-minute song cycle where some of the music is taken from his opera The Knot Garden. It’s a ridiculously hard piece and in my naivety I didn’t really know how hard it was but new I wouldn’t get an opportunity like that again. So I learnt it in about a week, performed it and it went well.”
Then in September 1987 he received a call from ENO asking him he was available to sing Tamino in Nicholas Hytner’s new staging of The Magic Flute. “It was 6.00 in the morning and I thought ‘Man, this has to be some kind of joke’. It was really late notice as the performances were in the following February so I shook off the cobwebs and said ‘Yes, sure’ and they asked me to send them a recording. I crawled back into bed and the phone rang again so I thought ‘this has to be a joke’ and the voice at the other end of the line said, ‘We just want to check that we have the right person – did you sing in a concert with Michael Tippett a few years ago?’ so I said ‘Yes’. They flew me out to London, I sang on stage at the Coliseum and they then gave me the part.”
The rest, as they say, is history as Tom has gone on to sing in most of the world’s major opera houses and not only impresses with the beauty of his voice but has brought a variety of roles, including Pelleas, Tamino, Laca, Steva and Florestan, to vivid dramatic life. He cites working with Phyllida Lloyd on her ground-breaking staging of Gloriana for Opera North as one of the most enjoyable and momentous in his career as not only was it a stunning production but it almost single-handedly rescued Britten’s opera that had been languishing in the doldrums since its premiere in 1953. One of his favourite roles is Tom Rakewell in A Rake’s Progress. “I’ve been a fan of Stravinsky since I was a teenager and was delighted when I discovered that he’d written an opera, so thought to myself that if I sang any role in any opera it would be that one. I first sang it in Rotterdam about thirteen years ago and I love singing it. If I had to choose any dream role that would be it.”
Talk turns to Benedict Andrew’s forthcoming staging of The Return of Ulysses to his homeland and given that the audience will be a good mix of opera and theatre goers I ask what we can expect from this new staging. “The design itself is so beautiful and striking, it’s like another character and we retell the story in a modern setting. Essentially it’s about a man and a woman who reconnect who have been separated for whatever reason, in this case war, and how they find their way back to each other. Even when they get back together there’s something ‘hanging in the air’ - we’ve all experienced it as we’ve had long separations from people we care about, people we love and when you get back together you don’t just fall into each other’s arms. It takes a while to figure each other out as you’ve both changed. What makes the opera so wonderful is the way in which Monteverdi focussed on this and how it still manages to speak to a modern audience over 370 years later.”
Given the intensity Tom brings to all his operatic roles, this particular retelling of the Ulysses’ story promises to be unmissable.
Benedict Andrew’s staging of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, a collaboration between the ENO and Young Vic, opens at the Young Vic on Thursday 24 March. www.eno.org.