Leigh Melrose – 'It's all coming off the rails'

One of Britain’s busiest and most exciting baritones prepares for another new opera

Leigh Melrose (foreground) with Mark Le brocq in Biedermann and the Arsonists (Independent Opera)
Leigh Melrose (foreground) with Mark Le brocq in Biedermann and the Arsonists (Independent Opera)
© Max Lacome

As Independent Opera marks its tenth year with the UK première of Biedermann and the Arsonists, Šimon Voseček‘s adaptation of Max Frisch’s classic absurdist play, we talk to one if its principal singers. Leigh Melrose has earned an enviable reputation as a singer of contemporary opera as well as appearing for ENO in roles such as Ned Keene (in Peter Grimes), Escamillo (Carmen) and the title part in Berg’s Wozzeck.

Leigh spoke to WhatsOnStage during rehearsals ahead of tomorrow’s opening at Sadler’s Wells.

How did you become involved in this project?

The short answer is they asked! I live down the road, and with my wife [the soprano Sarah Tynan] being away on tour with Glyndebourne it fitted in nicely. And Independent Opera were prepared to work around my child care issues, so I said yes.

Biedermann and the Arsonists is a new work based on a major 20th-century play. What new dimension does opera bring to it?

It gives a certain tension. Of course, that’s the difference between plays and operas. With plays the timing’s much more fluid, whereas with opera there’s that rhythmical impetus which is unavoidable. So there can be excellent moments of heightened farce because the rhythmic drive keeps things ticking over and pushing forward ever faster.

The director, Max Hoehn, is the recipient of Independent Opera’s Director Fellowship. What qualities do you see in him?

It’s very rare for young directors to be handed such a set up. We’ve got a mix of experienced old lags and new people and he has to manage us all. He’s dealt very well with it. I have no idea how the production will be received but there are some thrills and spills and turns that should be interesting. I hope it comes over well!

It must have involved a lot of work for just three performances. Are any more planned?

No, it’s just these three. But that’s the thing with contemporary opera: there are very few performances. This one does seem to have some legs, though, because it’s been performed a few times before and there are other productions planned elsewhere.

Leigh Melrose as Escamillo in Carmen (ENO)
Leigh Melrose as Escamillo in Carmen (ENO)
© Sisi Burn

You've performed in a great many new works. Is modern opera in a good state, do you think?

My feeling about many contemporary pieces is that they need an editor. Composers sometimes write at too great a length or complexity, with no real benefit. Perhaps it would be useful for someone to look over their shoulder to say 'what are you trying to achieve?'. It’s the same with balance. I’ve said it to composers before: something may look good on the page but when we perform it there’ll be a moment when a loud passage in the orchestra drowns out the soprano who’s singing in her lower register. All the singers have to be heard.

Wozzeck is your calling card these days. Your performance at ENO caused a stir, but more recently you’ve jumped in to replace Christian Gerhaher in Zurich and London. Big shoes to fill. Was that nerve-racking?

It sort of was, but it all happened so quickly that there wasn’t really time to think about it. And Gerhaher was a lovely gentleman to work with. He didn’t want to take a curtain call but I dragged him on because he’d done all the acting. He was so embarrassed! No one wants to be sick, so I felt sorry for him.

Wozzeck is a role that seems to suit me well. There are a lot of roles that other people can sing better than I can, but at least with that one I think I can contribute something.

You have an extraordinary stage presence not only as a singer but also as an actor. How did you arrive at that?

That’s where I get my enjoyment from, and it probably explains why I do so much contemporary stuff – because I get to act as well as sing. And I like that coming together of words and music and make-up and costumes. I get excited by that.

I’m trying to ease back into more conventional repertoire now, though. I’ve just done my first Alberich [in Wagner’s Ring cycle] and there are more to come. You can still bring the energy of contemporary performance to classical repertoire and make it click.

Alberich seems like a perfect fit for you. Will we get to see it in the UK?

Um… [long pause] Not immediately. There are roles on my hit list, but forgive me for being slightly cagey. However I will be coming back to ENO to do Twelfth Night, the new Ryan Wigglesworth opera.

I’m away for most of next year, which is good professionally but we do have two young children and they’re the best thing in my life so balancing things is hard. Sarah and I have been very lucky for the last six or seven years as our work has naturally dovetailed without our really having to try, but it’s all slightly coming off the rails at the moment.

Biedermann and the Arsonists plays at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells, on 14, 17 and 19 November 2015.