Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson is currently in demand at some of the most prestigious opera houses throughout the world and recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Gunther in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. He also sang Jochanaan in Salome at this year’s Salzburg Festival under Rattle to critical acclaim, so his star is definitely in the ascendance. He’s had a close association with ENO for many years and is currently appearing as Figaro in Fiona Shaw’s new staging of Mozart’s masterpiece. We caught up just before the first night, and like so many singers, a career in singing was not initially something that he thought he would embark upon.
“It was an accident really. I had always led the school orchestra and basically I had to choose between doing extra music or extra maths so not being an idiot chose extra music and I ended up performing the role of the Police Sergeant in the Pirates of Penzance. I was seventeen at the time and I obviously made a good impression as I went along to the RSAMD and they offered me a place as a singer so I took it.”
Iain did four years at the RSAMD and graduated with a degree in Music and went on to do the first year of the opera course there before joining the Opera North chorus where he remained for several years. On leaving Opera North he joined the Young Artists’ Programme at ENO, was contracted as a soloist, then decided to pursue a career as a freelance singer in 2005.
Whilst at Opera North one of his big breaks came when he performed two performances of Leporello in Don Giovanni. “I was understudying Jonathan Best, and the late Keith Latham – a wonderful baritone – was singing Germont père in La Traviata on the same tour, and after hearing me went to the Opera North management and told them that they should be thinking about giving me some serious roles to do, and Keith was one of many people who persuaded me to get out of the chorus and go solo, so that really was a turning point in my career.”
Another pivotal event in his burgeoning career almost didn’t happen. Iain was singing Schaunard in a dress rehearsal of La Boheme in the morning and Figaro in the evening at ENO some years back. “My agent Julia had arranged an audition for the afternoon. I didn’t know who it was for so I came in and begrudgingly battered my way through a couple of arias for this woman - I had no idea who she was but she turned out to be none other than Eva Wagner-Pasquier, and thankfully she heard something that she liked, and that’s how I got my Met debut and she’s recommended me everywhere she’s been. And I have to thank Julia as I did my best to get out of that audition.”
Good fortune was obviously on his side that day as that audition also led to Iain’s debuts at the Paris Opera, Vienna and will see him appearing at the Bayreuth Festival, although he won’t be drawn on what he’ll be singing there, “as it’s a long way away, but it’s a good role. Yes, a really good role and it’ll be after 2013.”
He’s already made his mark on the international Wagner scene and has especially fond memories of singing Fasolt at the Salzburg Easter Festival. “I was a late replacement for somebody else, and again Eva got me the engagement, and I remember standing on stage and feeling awestruck by this incredible orchestra (the Berlin Philharmonic) and I think Sir Simon (Rattle) saw that I was a little bit nervous so called me to the front of the stage and said, ‘Just do what we did in rehearsal, you’re doing the right thing and we’ll accompany you’, and not surprisingly my ego went through the roof!”
Talk turns to ENO’s new staging of The Marriage of Figaro, directed by acclaimed theatre director Fiona Shaw. It’s a work that everyone thinks they know, so how difficult is it, I wonder, to find something new to say about it? “One of the problems that you have with Figaro is that there’s an ‘antique mentality’ to the work that for example doesn’t extend to Don Giovanni - people expect to look a certain way, and one of the reasons for this is that it’s set in a very specific time and place, and there are only so many things you can do with it to make the drama work.”
“Fiona has been very keen not to dictate characters to us, she’s wanted everything to come from us so the performances that you see on stage have actually come from us but she has honed and sanded our interpretations in order that she can get what she wants out of us. There are some ideas that she has put forward – Figaro isn’t measuring up for a bed in the opening scene for example…”
With her experience as an actor, no doubt Fiona Shaw’s staging will be exciting and innovative and as Iain says, “instantly recognisable to the audience.”
ENO’s new staging of The Marriage of Figaro runs until 10 November 2011.www.eno.org.