British baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore has not only enjoyed a rich and varied operatic career at home, but has been in demand in most of the world’s top international houses as well including the New York Met, La Scala Milan and the Vienna Staatsoper.
I caught up with him after the general rehearsal for The Royal Opera’s revival of Madama Butterfly in which he plays the American consul, Sharpless and discover that initially it was a life on the parade ground, rather than the stage that beckoned.
“I never really intended to become an opera singer. It was only when I went to University in Newcastle and began spending a lot of time in the music library that I began to broaden my range of musical knowledge and also took part in a lot of amateur competitions in the North East of England. I sang as a boy treble and at school but never really considered it as a career, but having sung some solos with choral societies in that part of the world I started to think that this was something I should explore.”
Having always enjoyed outdoor activities and all things military, Anthony had joined the army at the age of eighteen. Personal circumstances also helped in shaping this decision, so he ended up going to Sandhurst and was commissioned as an officer. “They were doing a sponsorship deal at university, so when term finished at Newcastle, I would go back and join in army manoeuvres.”
It was in his second year that it dawned on him that he had made a pretty big mistake – not so much that he didn’t like the army, but that he liked singing so much more. On completing his degree he decided to resign his commission, “The army were fine about it, but because I had signed for 8 years, I owed them several thousand pounds and they were keen to know how I would pay them back.”
Anthony told them that he was going to do a post graduate teaching degree, became a teacher and agreed to pay them back a certain amount each month which they were happy with. He took up a teaching post in Crowborough, and began private singing lessons with Eduardo Asquez and to get performance experience began singing on the oratorio circuit and appeared with the English Bach Festival.
Despite auditioning for most of the UK’s opera companies in the mid-80s, he kept being told that he wasn’t quite ready so decided to play the game and went to study at the Scottish Academy. “At that time the Academy had a very close association with Scottish Opera so I did a couple of covers for them but then there was nothing for six months, and I began to seriously think about giving up.”
Just as he was contemplating throwing in the towel things began to pick up, and Opera North asked him to cover Marcello in La Bohème and also offered him the roles of Creon and The Messenger in Oedipus Rex. At the same time Covent Garden were looking for a young baritone, so he auditioned for them and was offered a contract and then went on to win the Pavarotti Competition, and had the same agent as the late, great Italian tenor. Pavarotti was an important influence in Anthony’s career, “as he advised me to have a look at the Verdi baritone repertoire – well the higher baritone roles, anyway. At the time I had tended to stick to low baritone, high bass stuff but his advice was instrumental to my career.”He is also indebted to his singing teacher, Eduardo (and then Jeff Taylor whom he met at RSAMD and then worked with for 25 years) and his first agent John Coast for giving him a sound platform for his future development, and the advice and nurturing that they also provided over the years. Anthony is also quick to acknowledge how supportive The Royal Opera and Opera North have been where has been able to expand his repertoire and give some of his most notable performances.
He’s back with The Royal Opera to sing the role of Sharpless in the revival of Madama Butterfly in Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s conservative staging. “The staging in a way speaks for itself. It tells the narrative and is very realistic. We’re not trying to make bold statements about the subtext. It is what it is, but within that structure it’s possible to play with the character and having the cameras in (both for a live relay to the BP Summer Big Screens on 4 July and a 3-D recording in the opera house in July) allows you to be a little bit more subtle than perhaps normal because this is quite a large theatre. Sharpless is not a complicated man, he’s diplomatic, worldly-wise, calm and experienced and it’s possible to play him without a huge amount of drama and angst.”
Looking to the future I’m keen to find out what roles are on Anthony’s wish-list. “There are a couple of things that have been suggested including Wozzeck, which is a very attractive proposition as it is something very different along with Jochanaan in Salome and the title role in The Flying Dutchman. Taking on such roles can send out the wrong signals to casting directors as it may look as though I’m changing my fach, so I have to be very careful if I sing these roles and where I sing them. But let’s see what happens.”
Anthony Michaels-Moore sings the role of Sharpless in The Royal Opera’s revival of Madama Butterfly until 16 July. www.royalopera.org.uk.