Danish baritone Johan Reuter is not only a regular visitor to Covent Garden these days, but has established himself as a firm audience favourite. He has sung the title role in Wozzeck, created the role of Theseus in Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, and made two notable Strauss’ role debuts in Elektra (Orest) and Salome (Jokanaan) for the company and is about to add a fifth role, Grigory Gryaznoy, in the company’s first ever staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, an opera that is little known in the west but as I find out, is hugely popular in its native Russia.
“The Russians love it. Many of the cast have sung it before and my colleagues (including Marina Poplavskaya and Ekatarina Gubanova) have told me that it is the most played opera in Russia and is even more popular than Boris Godunov or Eugene Onegin – they love it. It’s just the Russian opera par excellence and I see why as it’s a very good piece. The pacing and the story telling is working really well. There’s nowhere where you think ‘OK – let’s move on here, this bit is holding up the story’, as there can be in other operas. In the old days going to the opera was very different to how it is now. People talked, played cards, and had sex in the boxes; there were long intervals when people had dinner, which is perhaps why the story-telling in opera used to be so abrupt.”
Johan points out that in this day and age where people are used to going to the cinema any continuity problems are glaringly obvious, “and you can’t say that there aren’t continuity problems in the operas by Verdi and other composers form that time - there are continuity problems galore, but The Tsar’s Bride is very well crafted for a modern audience. There’s nowhere where twenty years elapse during the break, somebody dies and then someone is revealed as the long lost daughter of the main character, it’s a very modern story.”
Scottish director Paul Curran is making his Royal Opera debut with this work, and Johan is effusive in his praise for him and is very excited about the look and feel of the staging. “Paul has updated the story to the here and now and it’s working fantastically well. He has the idea that the composer didn’t want to write a story about what happened just before the year 1600, but wanted to write a piece about society, and there are almost no anachronisms when you update it – it’s going to be pretty amazing and I’m delighted to be back here, performing again in my favourite opera house.”
Music has always been an important part of Johan’s life, “I’ve always loved music, since before I could talk, and always wanted to become a musician. I started playing drums and recorder at school and then began singing in the choir. My original plan was to play in an orchestra but I never learnt an orchestral instrument – and if I had have done, I probably wouldn’t have followed a career in singing.”
Johan combined his singing with drama lessons and then joined the opera school at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. It wasn’t long before he was taking on roles with the Opera and about ten years’ ago began singing with the Hamburg State Opera and the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, and unlike many singers young singers didn’t have to go down the route of appearing with many of the smaller houses in Germany before hitting the ‘big time’.
Despite a burgeoning international career he continued to appear at his ‘home house’ in Copenhagen, most notably as Wotan in Kasper Holten’s epoch-making production of Das Rheingold (which is luckily immortalised on DVD). “I would have to say, all in all, that his staging of Rheingold was the best theatrical production I’ve been in. It was really, really good. It was so well crafted and a total joy to be part of.” Holten succeeds Elaine Padmore as Head of Opera at Covent Garden this year, “so congratulations to Kasper for coming here. I think it’s going to be great for the House and for Kasper. I think it’s a win-win situation.”
Johan loves performing at The Royal Opera and talk turns to the role of Theseus which he created in Birtwistle’s The Minotaur. “When you do something new it’s always like walking on eggs. There’s no safety net. If you do Le nozze di Figaro you almost can’t destroy it, but when it’s a brand new piece there’s no point of reference and everything you do is new. With Figaro everything’s been done before, there are really no new ideas, but working on The Minotaur I actually felt that I was taking part in creating the piece. I mean, when is an opera an opera? It’s not the book, it’s not the score, it’s not the text – it’s only when you put in on stage does it really become an opera. It is such a serious piece of work, and that’s what came through and it was great working with Harry (Birtwistle), David (Harsnet – the librettist) and Tony (Pappano – the conductor).
Having performed at many of the most important opera houses around in the world including an unscheduled appearance at Bayreuth where he jumped in at the last minute for an ailing Albert Dohmen in Das Rheingold last year, he still cites his appearances as Tomsky in The Queen of Spades with the Royal Danish Opera as one of the most important in his career, “as that was the first time I did something vocally when I thought ‘right, I am going to go all in’, I can do this now, I have the weight in my voice and the experience to dare to sing with all of me, and it paid off. I also met my agent then, whom I have been working with for ten years, and was invited to Hamburg so all in all it was a very important moment in my career.”
Unfortunately Johan won’t be returning to The Royal Opera next season, as dates just didn’t work out, but I’m assured that he will be back for the 2012/13 season but he can’t say in which role(s), but given his great track record with the House, they’re bound to be memorable.
Johan Reuter sings the role of Grigory Gryaznoy in The Tsar’s Bride with The Royal Opera in Paul Curran’s new staging, conducted by Sir Mark Elder from 14 April. www.roh.org
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