Growing in Stuttgart - an interview with baritone Ronan Collett
Baritone Ronan Collett was born in Norfolk and received his musical education in the UK, at Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Music, benefiting from a number of bursaries and awards, before launching on a career that has taken him to increasing success in Europe.
I spoke to him, as the autumn 2013 season in Stuttgart was announced, one which sees him debuting as Marcello in La bohème, reprising roles such as Papageno and Harlekin and, it seems, having a lot of fun along the way. 'Papageno in Peter Konwitschny's Zauberflöte is the most fun I've had on a stage', he tells me, 'that and Bohème, which I did at La Monnaie (Brussels), when I played Schaunard. Now it's Marcello and I'm very excited about it. It's a gorgeous role and perfect for my voice. It's such a great ensemble role. I'm also thrilled to be doing more Harlekins in the Wieler/Morabito production of Ariadne auf Naxos.
Collett seems to be well settled into life in Germany, where the opportunities for young singers are very different from those in the UK. 'At home there's a real emphasis on concert work, coming out of a great tradition, but there's perhaps less chance for growth. Lieder are probably still my first love but it's wonderful to get the grounding in stage work that Stuttgart offers.
'The UK has some of the greatest opera houses in the world but, you must remember that in Germany there are 70+ opera houses - that's almost one for every big town - and huge state subsidy. That gives the young singer a real chance to learn their craft. The German opera system suits me down to the ground. And there's an audience for it. We did a broadcast recently on several channels and it seemed as though the whole of Stuttgart was watching, including a live audience in the Schlossgarten. There's a real appetite for opera here'.
He describes the move to Germany as the best career and life move he's made and is clearly reveling in the ensemble life that has also seen him playing Masetto, Kalchas in Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide, as well as smaller roles, giving him a real grounding in the lyric baritone repertoire. He talks in glowing terms of Stuttgart Opera as a working environment.
Konwitschny had him playing Papageno as a chat show host, with an onstage audience. 'That was a real challenge', he says, 'not only singing to a German audience in German but having to talk the language as well'.
The weekend before we spoke, Ronan had jumped in to the role of Harlekin at St Gallen, his debut at the house, with just an evening's chat with the director and a day of studying the production on video. 'It was nervewracking but it went really well. I was only disappointed it took me three attempts to rip off my trousers during Zerbinetta's aria'.
He seems so immersed in the present that he's difficult to draw on what the longer-term might hold. He describes himself as a high baritone and, when pushed, says there are lots of roles he aspires to. 'I'm happier talking about my current repertoire but if you wanted my wish list for the future it would definitely include roles such as Don Giovanni, Figaro (Rossini) and Pelléas. I love Russian and Czech music too so Onegin and Forester (The Cunning Little Vixen) would also get a mention'.
He talks more easily about the directors he admires and cites his current mentors - Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito at Stuttgart - as inspirational. 'They tell you their concept then expect you to realise it onstage in your own way. It's a collaborative process that really works for me'. It's maybe at odds with the way audiences in the UK see so-called Regietheater, where singers can seem hamstrung by directorial concepts.
Collett is unusual as an artist in that he has a twin brother, Gerard, who does the same job as him. I apologise for asking him the obvious question, one he's probably asked often, and that is if they ever get mixed up. 'No', he laughs, 'we are identical twins but our voices are actually very different. Gerard's fantastic. I'm his biggest fan. He really has the most beautiful voice. We're hypercritical of each other but very supportive too. We very much have our own careers'.
Ronan, a Twitter regular, tweeted recently that he'd discovered who Godot is (he tells me he's a huge Beckett fan) and then teasingly withheld this vital information. He now tells me he sees the elusive character as everyone who's ever sat in an audience: 'the audience is Godot made manifest. It turns out he was there all along'. The thought came to him while performing Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" in the season just finished, where the Gnädige Herr who commissions the entertainments in the opera is noticeably absent from the stage. 'The directors transposed the Prologue and Opera, which was revelatory. It felt as though it were a world premiere (incidentally the opera was originally premiered in Stuttgart). It was very exciting to be involved with. Anyway, maybe my Godot theory is a bit pretentious', he says as an afterthought. Perhaps, living and working in Germany, where such speculation is rife, is rubbing off!
With Collett about to start a new season at Stuttgart, and set to stay in Europe for the foreseeable future, and no London dates on the horizon, one can't help thinking that Germany's gain is the UK's loss.