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Brief Encounter with...Australian baritone Duncan Rock

We caught up with rising operatic star Duncan Rock on the eve of his debut as Tarquinius in Britten's 'The Rape of Lucretia' for Glyndebourne on Tour.

Who or what was the biggest musical influence in your life?

I have had several strong influences. Initially it was the recordings of Bryn Terfel. Growing up in Western Australia I didn't have a huge opportunity to see live performances so I spent hours in the library listening to different singers and operas. I had a bit of a complex being a baritone because I thought it meant 'second best' (such was my lack of knowledge) with 'tenor' being the best - I guess some tenors would still argue this is the case! Hearing Bryn's voice for the first time was something of a revelation. Here was a low voice, like mine, singing so beautifully (and often as the lead role) - I didn't have a complex from then on. Since then my influences have been too numerous to mention, but I always try to learn something from everyone I work with - singers, directors and conductors.

What made you want to pursue a career in opera?

© Paul Mitchell
It happened very organically really. I was at Law school in Perth and wasn't very happy. I had been involved in music in high school (playing guitar mainly - but I could always sing naturally) and really enjoyed it so I started to 'pinch' units from the music faculty at my university. The more I did music the more I loved it (and the more I did Law the more I hated it) - so it started to become obvious I was in the wrong field. I started singing for the West Australian Opera and they put me forward for the Australian Singing Competition in 2006. I won the competition and it gave me a scholarship to come to the UK and study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I have never looked back!

If you had to single out three career-defining moments what would they be and why?

The first would be winning the Australian singing competition back in 2006. This gave me the opportunity to come over to the UK, as well as the confidence to start thinking I had a chance at making a career as a musician. Secondly, my UK debut at Glyndebourne - as the Novice's Friend in Billy Budd - really stands out in my mind as memorable. There was a real sense in the air that it was a special night and I was completely overwhelmed by the audience reaction. I remember thinking to myself, 'Yeah, I could get used to this'. Then in 2011 I had to step in last minute as Don Giovanni for Welsh National Opera. It was a HUGE responsibility! But the confidence of being able to do that under such difficult conditions will stay with me forever.

You are about to sing Tarquinius for the first time, hardly a sympathetic role – how have you prepared for this challenging role?

It is very important to remember that all characters, even the 'bad guys', are entirely human and have motivations and reasons for their actions. I don't believe anybody actually considers themselves 'bad' and are always able to justify their actions to themselves. So when playing a character like this I feel a responsibility to find some sort of empathy so that my portrayal doesn't come off as some kind of pantomime villain. Practically I like to look at related art forms (in this case quite a lot of visual art and Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece) and, of course, many, many hours in the practice room to work out the role vocally.

You have sung, to great acclaim, Duncan and the Novice's mate in Billy Budd at ENO and Glyndebourne. Many critics were of the opinion that you were ready for the title role. Is this something that is on the cards?

I certainly hope so! I would love to sing Billy and think I would now be ready to do so. The role has tended to be cast with a slightly different voice type to mine in recent years. Theatres usually use lighter, higher voiced baritones - so for a while I thought the role wouldn't be right for me. However when I was at ENO Gwynne Howell (who was singing Dansker) said to go listen to Peter Glossop. After hearing Peter I realised that I definitely could sing the role - but in a style that is more of a throwback to the old school, but certainly every bit as effective.

The Rape of Lucretia has often been described as being one of Britten's most ‘difficult' operas – what can you say about the opera that would encourage audiences to ‘give it a go'?

Certainly it deals with difficult, heavy subject matter, so I would encourage audiences to come ready for that. Also I find the text in the libretto to be extremely (sometimes even overly) poetic and 'flowery' - so it can take a little while to adjust your ears to the language (perhaps similarly to the experience one has when seeing a Shakespeare play for the first time in a while). But there is some absolute gold in this piece both musically and textually and I feel that this production really brings out the operas strong points. It sheds light on many significant and difficult issues - sexuality, marriage, masculinity and femininity - and I think it will encourage some thought and discussion.

You've played a straight Don Giovanni and a gay Don Giovanni – which did you enjoy the most and why?

I actually really enjoyed both! Don Giovanni has already played a substantial role for me in my career (and will continue to do so over the next few years), so it is always fun approaching a new production. The gay production (at Heaven nightclub) obviously presented a very different challenge. I was initially sceptical, but the production team and director had such a clear, well thought out (and I thought quite brilliant!) vision for the production that the modern, gender-bending interpretation fit seamlessly. Thankfully the character is so complex I think I could do 100 different productions and not get bored.

What advice would you give to any budding singers who want to follow an operatic path?

Make sure your heart is in it. I really think that people should only pursue this life if they cannot see themselves doing anything else. But if you love it, work hard and commit yourself it can be the most wonderful and rewarding career.

What's next on the horizon?

I'm in involved in a new commission with the royal ballet in November. It's a chamber piece about Elizabeth I which requires a singer to be on stage with the two dancers. I am thrilled to be able to share a stage with Carlos Acosta! Then next season I am singing Marcello in La Boheme (my favourite opera) with Opera North and Opera Frankfurt, as well as making my US debut as Don Giovanni for Boston Lyric Opera.

You're stranded on a desert island but are allowed one musical score - which would you take with you and why?

Too difficult! I'd probably take my Xbox instead.

Duncan Rock sings Tarquinius in Fiona Shaw's new staging of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne on Tour, which opens at Glyndebourne on 19 October.


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