Alexander James Edwards - Italian tenor, made in England
The star of ETO's Tosca talks frankly about his voice, his career and life on the road
A star will shine brightly when Alexander James Edwards sings Cavaradossi the length and breadth of Britain this spring. English Touring Opera's new production of Puccini's Tosca travels from Hackney to Perth and all points west until it shutters in Blackpool sometime in June. That's 31 performances at 23 venues, and Edwards—aka @thetenoruk—is living up to his Twitter handle by appearing in over half of them.
The Essex-born tenor spoke recently to WhatsOnStage at the Royal Opera House in a conversation that ran the gamut from the standard to the startling.
There aren't a great many British tenors who specialise in Italian repertoire.
No. With me it happened by elimination. I was on the Young Artists programme here at the ROH between 2003-5; it was my first job as a tenor after I'd switched from baritone. And most of the stuff I did then was Italian: I covered for Don Pasquale and sang Pong in Turandot. But it's only in the past two years that I've been focused on singing Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti.
I said to my agent, James Black, ‘Look, I do this well and I really enjoy it. It's easy for people to identify me with, and from a singing point of view I don't want to keep chopping and changing the styles I sing in'. I liken it to an athlete who specialises in sprinting: they don't run cross-country as well! And Italian music makes my blood run hot.
I first spotted you as Pinkerton in one of Raymond Gubbay's Albert Hall arena productions of Madam Butterfly.
Yes, a couple of years ago they offered to put me on salary, but I said no because I'd have been poorer! Gubbay's seen as commercial, which is a dirty word to some though not to me. I owe him a lot because he saw my potential back in 2006. I wasn't the finished product then, yet I got to sing my first Pinkerton at the Royal Albert Hall.
Since then I've sung over 100 performances there in Carmen, Bohème, Butterfly and the classical spectaculars.Those gigs are becoming an increasingly acceptable part of a singer's diary. Even Jonas Kaufmann has worked for them. So yes, I have an ongoing relationship with Gubbay, and while my work for them is bread-and-butter it also helps create an audience for other work I do such as this tour with ETO. The two audiences overlap.
When I worked with David Freeman on Butterfly, he put it like this: when they do boxing at the RAH, the boxers don't box bigger. Tennis players don't play tennis bigger. It's the same with us: we don't exaggerate. The less you do and the more ambiguity you put into it, the more you engage the audience. You don't ham it up just because it's the Albert Hall.
But the Raymond Gubbay operas are ‘product': commercial opera on a big scale, triple-cast, rehearsed in four weeks with a lighting plot that's set in stone. So I can't reinvent anything; it's all written down.
Are the RAH operas still happening? It's gone very quiet.
Rumour has it that the operas may be coming back, and that's due to a change in the personnel managing the company. We're all praying it's the case, because a lot of people owe the Gubbay crew a great deal. They give the Glyndebourne Chorus three months work out of season for one thing.
Have you sung Cavaradossi before?
No, this is my first Tosca.
How come it's happening so late?
I just saw it as a big, scary grown-up role, which it actually is! But the best thing about doing something new is that I don't have any bad habits and I won't turn up to the rehearsal with preconceived ideas. I'm a blank canvas.
I've been in many different productions and worked in Regie [director's theatre] in Germany. But now before I accept a project I meet with the creative team. Because if I sign up to something two years in advance, then turn up to find out it's set on the moon... [He trails off...]
I saw a Tosca recently in which Cavaradossi didn't die at the end; he was rescued! And the manner in which Scarpia was killed was grotesque. So I would find it pretty hard in that circumstance to be put there, needing the money and the contract, and being told to go against everything I believe. So now I have a meeting with the director, and when I'm happy about that I sign up.
You're not against Regie as such, then, so long as it doesn't betray the composer?
Exactly that. I don't understand what gives us the right to change the story the composer and librettist created. It's only my opinion, but I get really cross about it. But at the end of the day I'm the employee and I have to get on with it.
Last time we met you told me that you used to be confrontational in your younger years...
...and what you say there suggests that maybe you've still got that fire in you.
It isn't just fire. I simply found it quite hard to communicate differences of opinion with the people around me. Recently I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndome, and knowing that gives me a greater understanding of myself and why I may have had some issues in social communications. That's one of the things that was highlighted in the diagnosis. So now I 'get' why I was even more unable to deal with people's lack of logic, and I have the tools to deal with it. The people I work for are aware of it too, so it makes for a much smoother process. But my intention and my passion for wanting to do the best for my art... it's cost me so much.
But if all else fails I hug the conductor, because we all want to be there and we all want to put on a good show. So I can laugh about it.
You mentioned Germany. Do you sing more abroad than in the UK?
Yes, I have done. I'm increasingly doing more in the UK, and I've sung The Rake's Progress in Gothenberg and A Little Night Music at the Châtelet in Paris; but yes.
It's a very different way of working in Germany. It's more direct; everyone has their role—it's a set thing. If you disagree about something you say so. I do speak basic German but the language barrier often cuts out a lot of crap when people speak to me. They won't be ironic, for example. And it's a very big system. They put on a ridiculous amount of shows all through the year and they really need the people to do them, whereas at home work is relatively sparse and of course we're flooded with singers. So it's tough. It's not just about how good you are, it's all the other stuff. Meetings, team building... These are things I'm learning to do and my agent helps me a lot. I want to be seen as someone who's really keen to take part and isn't just a machine.
How do you juggle family life with travel?
My children are used to it and so is my wife [the mezzo-soprano Marie Elliott]. I say ‘See you in a week' or even ‘six weeks' and it's normal. I come back bearing gifts, and my son Alex, who's nine, sends his own emails now, but it's tough and you have to be bloody hard to take it. But then again I also get time at home that people with conventional jobs don't get. I can be at home for a whole week and do both the school runs each day.
Are there future roles lined up that you can talk about?
There might be Un ballo in maschera soon, and I have some more Toscas in Germany. I've done most of the roles on my wish list—all the Puccinis—and, well... Verdi's Otello is my favourite opera, so in ten years time who knows?
I'm often told that people want a big sound from a tenor, but I try to refine what I do. I work on sounding authentic rather than blowing people away with a big noise. Yes, I have to sing a big "Vittoria!" in Tosca, but it's not like that all the way through.
So I'm already doing the stuff I want to do. I've sung 70 Verdi Requiems and there's another one on the way, and I could eat that one for breakfast. But I've never yet sung Nemorino [in L'elisir d'amore]. It's a pretty obvious role for me but it hasn't come my way.
English Touring Opera's Tosca, which is directed by Blanche McIntyre, opens at the Hackney Empire on 4 March and tours to Poole, Sheffield, Bromley, Snape, York, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Cheltenham, Cambridge, Guildford, Buxton, Warwick, Canterbury, Durham, Perth, Exeter, Truro, Norwich, Stoke-on-Trent, Ulverston and Blackpool until 10 June 2017.
Alexander James Edwards alternates as Cavaradossi with the tenor Samuel Sakker.