Who or what inspired you to take up singing and make it your career?
In terms of music in general, I’ve always wanted to play an instrument or do something with music. I can recall being extremely young (maybe only 2) at playschool and having an overwhelming attraction to the piano. However, my parents could not afford for me to have lessons, and I started to teach myself the piano from about aged 10. By the time I was 13, my parents and music teacher, Keith Foley, realised I had some ability and somehow lessons were arranged for me at school with a fabulous teacher by the name of Andrew Mann. By the time I was 18, I had reached Grade 8 but big holes caused by a lack of discipline in my practice appeared and I stopped playing seriously at the age of 20.
It was then, after major surgery on my jaw, which left me having to relearn to speak properly, that I was encouraged by a lady named Elizabeth Banks to take up singing. She remains a huge influence. Within 3 years, it was clear that I was significantly better singer than I was ever a pianist, and I never really looked back.
However, I had a further set back at the age of 25. I was diagnosed with a non-malignant tumour on my pituitary gland (a condition known as acromegaly). I had to have invasive surgery through my right sphenoidal sinus to remove the growth. The doctors had told me that I would likely not be able to sing again. A year later, I went back to having lessons with Tim Ochala-Greenough (who now sings with Opera North and ENO) who convinced me to give up being a school teacher, as I was at the time, and to pursue a professional career as a singer. I owe Tim big time for this as it was the best move I have ever made (even if I have become a poor, penniless musician by doing so!!!)
Who or what are the most important influences on your singing?
It’s funny; even though I’ve been principally a singer for 15 years (7 of those, professionally) there is a warped part of my brain that still thinks I’m a pianist! So when I first saw the question, names like Chura Cherkassky and Dinu Lipatti as well as Claudio Arrau and Hélène Grimaud spring to mind. But this choice of musical personalities probably says as much about how I approach my singing and repertoire choice/programming as the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Bryn Terfyl or Sir John Tomlinson. In fact, if I were to go one step further, as a child I listened endlessly to the soundtrack to Walt Disney’s Fantasia and a life-long love of Stokowski maybe coloured all of these choice influences!
Now I’m a more “mature”(!) musician, I can say that one philosophy of performing overwhelms everything. It must be honest. When I sing Winterreise and Kindertotenlieder or perhaps German’s Just So Songs and Sinatra hits, I try always to believe in every word and every note that is written. To me, this is the only way I feel believable and maybe even credible to those who come to see me perform.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Balancing parenthood with a career! Currently, I’m taking a little time out from opera to concentrate on raising a family (I have a very energetic 21 month old son who keeps me very busy indeed) and teaching, whilst getting my technique to the next level required (whatever that may be). I’m still “young” for a bass-baritone and who knows where I could be when I’m 46 and my children are established in school. My health in the past has told me that life is too short not to spend time in the here and now and my family are too important for me to be away from on tour for weeks and months on end right at this moment.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?
Being a singer, you get the best of both worlds. In opera and oratorio, you work with an orchestra and enjoy all the colours and contrasts. It does demand a tip-top technique but it does not mean that one should have to shout to be heard (even in Verdi or Wagner). One of the best singers I have worked with over my short career, Mary Plazas, has the most astonishing pianissimo I have ever heard which is still audible at the back of the opera house whilst the orchestra are playing, yet sounds so intimate when you are nearby. However, we also get to do Lieder and this is where my heart truly lies. When you have a good pianist (and I have one in Philip Robinson, with whom I am working on a Winterreise at present), you can bounce ideas off one-another left, right and centre to produce the best interpretation and performance you can. We can be critical with one another without risk of insult or injury whilst being free to compliment each other or simply disagree where necessary too. I feel I can do so much more vocally with a pianist than with an orchestra and I feel truly alive when doing so!
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
Am I allowed to mention an entire town? Buxton is astonishing. Here you have this small, market town with a pretty ordinary demographic and yet there are not one but THREE major festivals that go on there (Buxton Opera Festival, The Buxton Fringe and the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival). I made my operatic debut with Buxton Opera Festival back in 2007 in Dove’s Tobias and The Angel – not in the opera house, which I adore, but in St John’s Church, next door. It is a magnificent building with a lovely acoustic. I have performed there a few times now through the Festival and enjoyed each one immensely.
Who are your favourite musicians?
How long have we got? My musical tastes are truly eclectic. I remember once being almost psychoanalysed in a little independent CD shop (sadly, no more) in my hometown of Stamford as I had purchased a Robbie Williams CD, Paranoid by Black Sabbath, a recording of Tallis’ Spem in Allium, some Frank Zappa, a recording of Górecki’s Second Symphony and some romantic period piano music! Poor chap had to run half way around the world to find all the CDs to put in the cases from all of his drawers!
However, if you were to pin me down and point a loaded revolver at my head to make me choose just one, it would be Hélène Grimaud. She is not afraid to be adventurous, either in her programming or her performance. I do not always agree with what she has to say musically (I’m struggling a little with her recent recording of Mozart’s great A minor Sonata K310) but that’s the point. She doesn’t always want to play safe and I like, indeed admire, that a great deal. Her Credo CD (with Corigliano followed by Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata and the Choral Fantasia and topped off by Pärt’s Credo) is a personal favourite.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Would you be surprised to hear that I have two? Both, coincidentally at the Royal Festival Hall. One was when I was just 18 and I went to watch Peter Jablonski playing the Rach-Pag. Amazing. But that was not what blew me away. The second half of the concert was just one work, Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No4/Symphony No. 5. Just stunning! The second movement – to a young man who was actually studying to be a composer at the time – and its backward variations of a unfinished fragment of Mahler’s just completely rewired my brain as to how composition should be in the modern age. Then, about 8 years ago, I got the chance to watch Hélène Grimaud there. Same row, coincidentally – row E in the stalls! She was playing the great B flat minor sonatas of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. She came on stage to rapturous applause for the second half and opened with that dramatic downward arpeggio of the Rachmaninoff sonata. The extraordinary thing was that she managed to time her bum hitting the seat precisely with the striking of the big bass B flat octaves at the end of that arpeggio! A bit of a stunt perhaps but, my word, great fun!
Very close behind this was the chance to watch Alfred Brendel’s last performance of the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata. Again, Royal Festival Hall (I do frequent other venues, honest guv!) and his encore… Für Elise! Wow.
What is your favourite music to perform? To listen to?
Professionally… as a singer, Schubert Lieder all the way, although Puccini’s operas are all so rewarding too. However, like so many pianists, I love to play Chopin, I do a reasonable impression of a performance of a Beethoven sonata and I’ve been known to butcher the Bach/Busoni Chaconne on occasion!
To listen to… almost anything! Depends on my mood. Could be Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things or Ocean Colour Scene, Fat Boy Slim and Röyksopp!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
Again, I have to say, be honest. What is on the page? Singers have to get so much out of what is on the page it’s delightful. There is the musical detail (often in the piano part in songs) but there is also the literary detail which is often the rewarding place to go. Read the poetry, read between the lines (just as your GCSE English teacher told you too) regardless of the language. Know what every word means and its context in the sentence, paragraph and entire story. Only then can you colour the music “correctly” (if there is such a thing… there is certainly an “incorrect”!) Knowledge is power!
What are you working on at the moment?
Schubert’s Winterreise with my accompanist, Philip Robinson. I am hoping to have that ready to go in the next 6-8 months. It is a mountain – a true journey if there ever was one. I am also hoping to record this and have that published but one step at a time. However, I am also about to do a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, often referred to as “The English Winterreise”. It’s quite an eye opener doing that again after 7 years but also to be working on both side by side. So different and yet telling a very similar tale. Wonderful.
However, in my “time out” I have taken on a male voice choir called “The Belvoir Wassailers” – a bunch of working men, originally from the estate of Belvoir Castle (although no more) who make an honest noise. I love it. Without the grassroots music making of groups like theirs, music would truly have no meaning.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In the recording studios of either DG or Naxos recording an ambitious and audience-challenging cycle of songs from a cross section of composers. Or I’d settle for full-time chorus at one of the major houses…
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
…OR I’d settle for being at home, teaching talented (and not-so-talented but keen and passionate) students with my wife and child(ren) around me.
What is your most treasured possession?
Born in Stamford, Robert-John originally trained as a pianist and composer at Middlesex University and had small choral works performed at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church and Lincoln and Winchester Cathedrals as well as at some local churches. He trained as a singer in his twenties and attended the Birmingham Conservatoire as a Postgraduate, studying with Henry Herford, scoring a distinction and winning the PGDip course prize in 2007.
Whilst at music college, he performed the roles of Dr. Katafelto in Williamson’s English Eccentrics, Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, Antonio in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and had four separate roles in Matthew Locke’s rarely performed Psyche.
His professional roles include Benoit/Alcindoro in Puccini’s La Bohème for Co-Opera Co, Priest/Cadmus/Somnus in Handel’s Semele for Operamus , Ashmodeus in Jonathon Dove’s Tobias and the Angel and The Alcade in Mendelssohn’s Die Hochzeit der Camacho (both for Buxton Opera Festival) whilst being in the professional chorus of several productions for the Buxton Opera Festival, Carl Rosa Opera and Stanley Hall Opera. As a professional understudy, Robert-John has covered the roles of Shadbolt in The Yeomen of the Guard, the Colonel in Patience (both Carl Rosa Opera), Harapha in Samson, Pancratius in Der Wildschütz, Father Phillippe in The Wandering Scholar, Gubetta in Lucrezia Borgia and Don Quixote in Die Hochzeit der Camacho at the Buxton Opera Festival.
Robert-John is extremely active as a teacher in his native Rutland and still performs with the church choir in Stamford that started him on the road to a singing career. He is also very active as a soloist both as a recitalist and with choral societies, performing many Messiahs and Creations over the past few years.