In one hand Mark Padmore is clutching a heavily pencilled paperback copy of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. In the other is his well-fingered score of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, the 1960 opera inspired by Melville’s novella, with a libretto by EM Forster. And somewhere in Padmore’s mind lies a quotation he is searching for but can’t quite remember. When it comes, it seems tangential, if not irrelevant to our discussion of the tenor role of Captain Vere, which Padmore sings for the first time next month in the Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd.
“Have you heard of Niels Bohr, the Danish Nobel Prize winner?” Padmore asks. “He said, ‘If you’re not shocked by quantum theory, you don’t understand it.’
“That’s what I feel about great music,” continues Padmore, 52, whose high standing in the ranks of English tenors has been further enhanced by a flurry of performances celebrating this year’s Britten centenary. “Great music should go deep, it should be disturbing. Like the St Matthew Passion [the Bach oratorio with which Padmore has enjoyed many successes], Billy Budd is not a piece that was written complacently, and should not be experienced complacently – by the Glyndebourne audience or any other. My hope is that they will be disturbed, and acknowledge they have seen love on stage – love between men. To deny it’s there is to lose a fundamental, powerful part of the story.”
Britten’s opera about all-male life at sea in the Napoleonic wars has clearly motivated Padmore to dig deeper into the text and its literary hinterland than is usual for busy tenors. As those who have come across his work will know, we should expect nothing less. Renowned for his experimental interpretations of Bach’s St John Passion (without conductor) and Schubert’s Winterreise (with poetry and sound effects), as much as for his lean, sinuous voice, Padmore is the thinking person’s tenor – an artist for whom creative fulfilment has always been more important than career development.
Born in London and raised in Canterbury, he graduated in the English choral tradition at King’s College, Cambridge, before gaining a professional apprenticeship with baroque-leaning choirs such as The Sixteen and Les Arts Florissants. It was only about 15 years ago that solo engagements began to take over, and most of his work today is in the recital hall, not the opera house.
Is that because his keen-edged voice is perceived to be of a lighter timbre than is required for a broad operatic repertoire or because he has not sought a career in the lyric theatre? Padmore says he “never had a particularly operatic voice, and never aspired to it. There’s not a lot of repertoire I’m suited to or want to work on.”
Even so, having done his share of Mozart and baroque opera, he would gladly do more Britten if someone gave him the chance: amazingly he has yet to be offered Peter Quint (The Turn of the Screw), Male Chorus (The Rape of Lucretia) or Aschenbach (Death in Venice), all of which would suit his vocal poise.
But there are other issues at stake. Speaking over lunch backstage at Glyndebourne, he says, “I don’t want to be away from home six weeks at a time” – he and his wife, the designer Vicki Mortimer, live 30 minutes from the Sussex opera festival – “when I can have a career that requires me to be away for only three days at a time. Singers of Don Giovanni and Figaro can get by for months without having to learn anything different, whereas I do up to 70 concerts a year, and a lot of that is completely varied repertoire. What I love is discovering things, rehearsing with different pianists, getting the chance to work on the music and learn something.”
This suits devotees of rarefied art-song just fine. Padmore’s interpretations of the romantic Lieder repertoire are internationally celebrated but he is just as keen to champion new work. He premiered a new Harrison Birtwistle song-cycle at this summer’s Aldeburgh Festival, and recently recorded a CD of songs for voice and guitar by Alec Roth.
In contemporary music or old, Padmore’s mission is to “make people listen as if for the first time. That’s what it’s all about.” He cites his experience of working with the American director Peter Sellars on Simon Rattle’s St Matthew Passion at the Berlin Philharmonic, which they will repeat in October at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Philharmonie concert hall.
“I know the piece well but doing it with someone who knew the theology made me think of new things. Classical music has a problem: too many people go into the concert hall and listen to their memory of the piece [instilled by recordings], prompted by the performance that’s going on. The idea that you sit back and let the music wash over you without actively participating is not what it’s about. I want people to be on the edge of their seats.”
Whether Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd will follow that precept remains to be seen but we can be confident Padmore’s Vere will provide a focal point. The naval captain who, out of a misplaced sense of duty, condemns a beautiful young conscript to death, is “a heavily repressed man who probably went on board ship at 12 and never left that society of men. He has never been allowed or enabled to express his [homosexual] feelings or have them reciprocated. You can see how that chimed with Britten.”
Does that mean Vere’s personal feelings for Billy should be made clear in performance? Padmore says that, as with so much in Britten’s music, the key to the piece is ambiguity.
“We sometimes forget that Britten lived at a time when homosexuality was illegal. He was used to living by a code, of words and gestures. People hate it when Billy Budd is reduced to homosexuality but to ignore that subtext and pretend the music doesn’t address specific issues is to deny a great part of what Britten was about.”
‘Billy Budd’, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, East Sussex, August 10-25 www.glyndebourne.com