Oke stands tall for the best of Britten

Whatever else we may hear during this year’s Benjamin Britten centenary, the work that remains most closely associated with the composer is Peter Grimes, an opera about a man at odds with himself and society. So it is fitting that Aldeburgh, the Suffolk coastal town where the composer lived and founded a festival, should make Grimes the centrepiece of its 2013 celebration.

It is equally fitting that Alan Oke should be cast in the title role. Oke has carved a valuable niche for himself in recent years by portraying some of the most unclassifiable parts in the tenor repertoire – Aschenbach in the Aldeburgh performances of Britten’s Death in Venice, Gandhi in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at English National Opera, Caliban in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. This will be his first Grimes, and he can’t wait to immerse himself in it.

Surprisingly, it is also the first Grimes to be performed at Aldeburgh, the place that inspired the opera, and the festival seems determined to make a memorable occasion of it. After two concert performances on opening weekend at nearby Snape, where the majority of festival events take place, Grimes will be staged in the open air on Aldeburgh’s shingle beach, with an endless expanse of sea and sky as its backdrop – the very environment in which the fictional Grimes made his living and met his death.

At 59, Oke comes to the role relatively late. But anyone who witnessed his graphic performances as the Prince/Marquis in Welsh National Opera’s recent Lulu, or the sugar-daddy in the Royal Opera’s Anna Nicole, will know how mesmerising he can be in the theatre – an English lyric tenor who sings lustily and acts everyone off the stage.

For a singer who started out as a baritone before “finding himself” as a tenor, it has been a late flowering. “My voice is working as well as it ever has,” he says, adding that he is at that “lucky” point in his career where “you know a lot of stuff and you’re still physically up to it”.

That’s as good a way as any of saying that maturity has benefits – as long as the singer has a strong technique. “When you get older, you become interested in other things [than singing Puccini and Verdi, which Oke did in the 1990s, his early tenor years]. I’ve now had a string of leading roles that are ‘characters’ in a way that Alfredo La Traviata] isn’t.”

Born in London but raised in Scotland, Oke says he is not so much daunted by the challenge of singing Grimes as excited by it. He finds an echo of the opera in Thomas Vinterberg’s 2012 film The Hunt, in which a nursery schoolteacher in a small Danish town is wrongly accused of sexually abusing a child, and is ostracised by the community as a result. He also sees parallels between Grimes’s fate and some of the witch-hunts pursued by Britain’s tabloid press.

“It’s the innocence thing,” he says, relaxing at the Edinburgh home where he and his family have lived for more than two decades. “Once you have been accused of something in a small community, that’s it – your reputation is gone. That’s definitely the case with Grimes. The people of the borough are not sophisticated: nobody is going to say ‘hang on a sec’ before condemning him.”

The difference between Grimes and the protagonist in The Hunt, as Oke acknowledges, is that the latter is innocent – whereas Grimes is indirectly responsible for the death of an apprentice. Oke says he intends to play the part “as if he hasn’t actually killed the boy. It was an accident, he is careless – he doesn’t do ‘care’.”

Does this not reduce the ambiguity written into the part? Not if you take into account Oke’s thoughtful reflections on the opera. “Montagu Slater [the librettist] and Britten took a one-dimensional character from George Crabbe’s poem and turned it into something far more complex. The challenge lies in portraying that complexity. There are vocal challenges, of course, but the greatest challenges are the psychological ones.”

Meaning what? Oke sees Grimes as a man who lives his life in a state of fear – fear of poverty, nature, society, love. “And fear of himself, because he doesn’t trust himself in different situations, either with the boy or with other people. He is a misfit but I don’t see him as a psychopath, which he is in Crabbe’s poem. He thinks he wants acceptance, respectability, a ‘normal life’, but he recognises by the end that he is incapable of ever achieving it.”

Some commentators see more than a hint of autobiography in Britten’s handling of the story. Oke demurs, while acknowledging a “sense of victimhood and otherness” in Britten’s life and some of his other tenor roles. I wonder aloud whether this includes Aschenbach in Death in Venice.

Oke’s performance at the 2007 festival was notable for the way he kept the character’s emotions under control for the first half of the opera, so that his portrayal of decline in the later stages became doubly moving. He is not convinced that Britten saw Aschenbach as a self-portrait. “I’m no Britten scholar but my impression is that he was comfortable in his skin by the time he wrote it [in the early 1970s], which he wasn’t when he was writing Grimes [in the mid-1940s].”

He says that while the sexual context is more overt in Death in Venice, the plot is clearer and does not hang on a moral issue, leaving less scope for a variety of interpretation. The character of Grimes, by contrast, “is quite ambiguous morally. Fortunately, the music gives you 90 per cent of it. I rely a lot on instinct: when you get down to it in rehearsal, things have a habit of becoming clear. If I analyse too much, it sounds affected, and that’s something I want to avoid at all costs.”

After Aschenbach and Grimes, Oke surely deserves a try at Captain Vere [Billy Budd], the one hefty Britten role he has yet to play. He would also make an excellent Captain in Wozzeck and Loge in Das Rheingold, “but I don’t really go in for wish-lists.” Not even for Eisenstein [Die Fledermaus], a role for which the debonair but down-to-earth Oke would seem predestined? “I don’t think I’ll get asked now,” is his typically mild response.

I wouldn’t be so sure. Alan Oke has reached his prime at an age when many singers are well into decline. The best is yet to come.

‘Peter Grimes’ opens the 2013 Aldeburgh festival on June 7; www.aldeburgh.co.uk

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