ENO's new Harewood Artists: meet Rowan Pierce and Elgan Llŷr Thomas

Two of the brightest young talents in UK opera discuss their careers

Rowan Pierce
Rowan Pierce
© Gerard Collett

"Once in a while the odd thing happens, Once in a while the dream comes true."

WH Auden's lines from Paul Bunyan, his early collaboration with Benjamin Britten, could well apply to the exclusive band of young singers who are accepted annually onto English National Opera's Harewood Artists scheme. With the company's new staging of Paul Bunyan set to open at Wilton's Music Hall on 3 September, two of its cast members talk to WhatsOnStage. Rowan Pierce (RP) plays the heroine, Tiny, and Elgan Llŷr Thomas (ELT) is Johnny Inkslinger in a semi-operetta that's structurally confused but rich in musical radiance.

What does being a Harewood Artist involve?
RP: Coaching, working with respected conductors and directors – and it gives you a foot in the door.

Is this your entry into opera?
RP: I sang Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro for Nevill Holt Opera a few months ago, but yes, this is a starting point for me. That was quite an easy role. It helped to have the challenge of being drunk and singing upside down! Although I didn't know beforehand how hard it would be to make being drunk believable.

Elgan, you've done quite a lot of opera before, haven't you?
ELT: I did my undergraduate course at the Royal Northern College of Music and I was lucky to sing Albert Herring there, which was fun. I've done a lot of Britten. Then I did two years on the opera course at Guildhall. I found that very challenging, but it needs to be so that they can suss out if you're up to the job. There I did The Rape of Lucretia (more Britten!) and went to Scottish Opera as an emerging artist. They gave me a small-scale tour of The Elixir of Love, some Philip Glass… It was a great way in. And the future head of casting at ENO saw me there, so I got lucky.

Are you opera through and through?
ELT: Yes, though I am doing a song recital with Rowan and Iain Burnside in Ludlow next year and I'm really looking forward to that.

RP: Lots of AE Housman settings, mostly by female composers.

ELT: I only became a Harewood Artist a few months ago and my first assignment was to cover Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, but my first real job with ENO was The Turn of the Screw earlier this summer. It was strange to make my ENO debut not at the Coliseum but at Regent's Park, but it was an amazing experience. We were double-cast, which I really enjoyed because you can bounce ideas off your counterpart.

RP: I missed the whole of that run because I was away doing Figaro. Nevill Holt is such a beautiful venue, and it has a brand new opera house that they only finished building the day before the dress rehearsal. And the sound is awesome.

ELT: I haven't been there yet.

With all your Britten experience surely you could be in A Midsummer Night' Dream there next summer?
ELT: Hmm… It's true that Lysander is a role I'm waiting to sing…

What does the coming season hold for you both?
RP: at the moment I'm covering the Woodbird in Siegfried at the ROH, which is another new experience as I haven't covered a role before, and in March at ENO I'm playing Papagena in The Magic Flute. Then next summer I'll be singing Barbarina again, this time for the Grange Festival.

I'm doing a concert of Purcell's The Fairy Queen with Paul McCreesh and recording it together with King Arthur in January, then with the Early Opera Company I'm singing Cupid in Venus and Adonis alongside with Lucy Crowe and Jonathan McGovern.

Elgan Llŷr-Thomas
Elgan Llŷr Thomas

ELT: I'll be in Lucia di Lammermoor at ENO, singing Normanno and covering Arturo. I'm looking forward to seeing what I sound like in the Coliseum because I have no idea! Then I'm doing Almaviva in The Barber of Seville in Bordeaux. Last time I sang that role was in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and I was terrified. This time I'll be able to relax more because it's the same Laurent Pelly production and I know my way round it. But the thing I'm especially excited about is singing Tom Rakewell for Barbara Hannigan in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. I'm doing that in Brussels and then in California. It's a role I've wanted to do for years, although it is a nightmare to learn.

Is it easier to get work in summer than the rest of the year thanks to all the country house festivals?
ELT: The problem for many singers is that the major houses have their own young artist programmes so it can be hard for anyone else to break in. Roles like Brighella in Ariadne auf Naxos tend to be cast from within, which is why I was lucky to get that part at Scottish Opera and then transfer with it to Opera Holland Park. So yes, the summer festivals are great for providing experience.

RP: They're great for building audiences too. People want the sun, the long picnic in the middle, the whole experience. A lot of those I spoke to were there for that and didn't necessarily know much about opera. They went because they wanted to see a beautiful place and experience something special. We have to think about reaching different audiences now, and we shouldn't be sniffy about people who don't know anything about opera.

What of the future? Where would you like your career to take you?
RP: I'm not really a forward thinker. I'm happy to get work, see how my voice develops and take it from there. I've done a lot of baroque and I'd happily sing that for the rest of my life but I don't want to be pigeon-holed. That's why the Harewood Artists scheme is so good for me.

ELT: I'd like to do the bel canto repertoire, so at the moment I'm working on Tonio in La Fille du régiment. I can manage the high Cs but in reality it's a couple of years away for me in terms of stamina and nerve. Basically I'm drawn to the lighter Donizetti and one day perhaps the lighter Verdi roles, and I love to sing contemporary opera. And Britten of course.

Your voice is a great fit for Britten, but I guess you don't want to be known just for that.
ELT: The four roles I've done I've really enjoyed and I'd do any of them again with real pleasure because you always find so much more in them. For some reason I 'get' Britten more so than any other composer, and I want to keep doing it.

I feel my voice is changing all the time. It's hard to keep up with it sometimes. It seems to undergo microscopic growth spurts, and rather than moving into different repertoire the future's about singing the same things but adjusting my technique

RP: That's a good thing about being a Harewood Artist: you're not resting on your laurels, you're being listening to and you're getting feedback. I'm always scrutinising myself and I love to work like that.