The door of an elegant terraced house opens to reveal a man as slender as a rake and as tall as the sky. He seems astonished to see me. “Yes, of course I was expecting you,” says Ian Bostridge hesitantly, brandishing hands caked in food. Britain’s best-known tenor, 46 but still fresh-faced, is getting a late lunch for his two children at their north London home. His wife, the writer and critic Lucasta Miller, is busy with the ironing.
It’s reassuring to discover a down-to-earth, domestic side to the lanky, head-in-the-clouds dreamer who sings about love and loss in the world’s recital halls. Of course, making lunch is not the only non-musical string to Bostridge’s bow. He is as much a scholar as a singer. He started out as a high-flying Oxford academic, specialising in history and the philosophy of science, and gaining his doctorate on the significance of witchcraft in England from 1650 to 1750. His thoughtful writings – a new book of essays is to be published in September – reveal an easy style and an intellectual curiosity undimmed by the pressures of international stardom.
And here’s something even more unusual about Bostridge: he never received formal musical training, and didn’t become a professional musician until he was in his late 20s. It was only after winning an award from the National Federation of Music Societies Award that he was able to turn his extra-curricular hobby of singing into a full-time vocation.
While he finishes his kitchen duties to the children’s audible delight, I find my way upstairs to the silent music room, and by the time he re-appears bearing cups of tea, I have had time to peruse the scores on his piano. Schubert and Britten are no surprise, for Bostridge is a renowned, if controversial, interpreter of their song-cycles. But what’s this? Parsifal? Bostridge’s voice may well be expanding in range and expressivity, but Wagner would be a leap into the unknown for an English tenor renowned for his reedy lyricism. And yet Bostridge’s anti-heroic stage persona, tarnished but vulnerable, would bring something new.
“I was just looking at it,” he says almost guiltily, when I ask if we can expect to hear him singing Parsifal soon. It transpires that Brian McMaster, the former director of the Edinburgh festival, wanted Bostridge to sing the role there, “and I pooh-poohed it. But I’ve always thought it could be done differently [to the way dramatic tenors traditionally sing it]. I’m just interested in it historically. I do so little opera now. In fact, there’s no opera in my diary.”
That’s a surprising admission, for Bostridge has always seemed natural in costume. Think of his transparently dignified Aschenbach in Britten’s Death in Venice, his wonderfully weird Caliban in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. But as the father of school-age kids, Bostridge is reluctant to spend long periods away from home. Having reached the stage where he can pick and choose his engagements, he says he has the feeling that “I’ve got lots of time and I’ve got none. When I find myself studying [rehearsal and performance] schedules from symphony orchestras and opera houses, I feel a certain lack of freedom.”
His diary may now be dominated by Lieder recitals and short concert tours, but he hasn’t completely abandoned the lyric theatre. He loves working with the director Deborah Warner, which explains his involvement in her staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for English National Opera in 2013, the composer’s centenary year. And he will happily return to The Rape of Lucretia at the Aldeburgh festival next month because it is being performed in concert: he won’t have to spend weeks rehearsing a staged production.
Britten’s first chamber opera, about the rape of a virtuous Roman wife by the son of an Etruscan tyrant, has been dogged by negative perceptions – of misogyny and overwrought language – ever since its premiere in 1946, and Bostridge, who sings the Male Chorus, is by no means uncritical. He acknowledges that lines such as “the oatmeal slippers of sleep” can’t help raising a laugh, and that the spluttering invective of the Male Chorus’s opening section can be problematic. “I’m still in a state of flux about what it all means,” he confesses, “but I’m always moved when performing or listening to it.”
The mistake, he says, is to take everything in Ronald Duncan’s libretto literally: that only reveals its puritanical, “highly gendered” surface, instead of the allegories and ambiguities beneath. “I used to find Tarquinius [who rapes Lucretia] so annoying, but he’s not just a thug. His motivation is rather muddled, because he is sort of in love with her and wants to prove her chaste. As for Lucretia, when he wakens her, she sings the line “In the forest of my dreams you have always been the tiger”, as if she is attracted by him and his Etruscan way of living, sexualised and violent. As in most human relationships, there’s an ambiguity: why does he rape her and what does she feel about it?”
That ambiguity extends to all Britten’s operas, says Bostridge, but it’s The Rape of Lucretia that marks the start of the composer’s maturity. “With The Rape he begins a musical story that doesn’t end until Death in Venice [nearly 30 years later]. It’s an experimental work, deliberately thinner and more austere, but relieved by brilliant orchestration.”
Bostridge believes Britten’s later operas reflect his ability to work better with librettists who weren’t primarily writers, “and that’s when he showed how powerful his own dramatic instincts were. Aschenbach is a self-portrait of a slightly joyless man. If you leave behind the tawdry obsession with pederasty, Death in Venice is about death and wanting to be young. Like Britten, Aschenbach has reached a point of creative exhaustion and can’t bear being this stuffy old literary lion. That’s why the love music for Tadzio is not rapturous or sensuous – it’s clotted, and it’s not a pleasure to sing.”
It is, nevertheless, a pleasure to listen to, and we will be hearing more Britten during Bostridge’s residency next season at London’s Wigmore Hall. It starts in late September with Handel and Scarlatti, continues with Dowland and Warlock before Christmas and includes a duo recital with Angelika Kirchschlager, who will be Aldeburgh’s Lucretia.
By his own admission Bostridge’s way of marrying words to music has been influenced by American popular singers such as Billie Holiday, so I ask him how far classical singers should feel constrained by matters of style.
“Each musician has to be idiosyncratic to be different, but also conformist in order to reach out and convince, rather than alienate. There is no right or wrong. I could never sing Schubert like a Bob Dylan song, but when I sang Winterreise in Moscow in December, I did the penultimate song in such a way that [inspired by Dylan’s example] gave me the anger, the emotional route, to deliver the finale in a less classical way. The nasal element was not imitating Dylan, but it made me realise you can move away from bel canto.”
And what about Bostridge’s quasi-expressionistic manner in recital? Many critics find it a turn-off, but he insists that “it’s not something I’m putting on. I don’t sit in a room beforehand working out what to do with my face and hands. If I were to rationalise it, I’d say I’m burrowing into strong emotions. I had my 10-year-old son with me in Salzburg last summer when I sang Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch. It’s a pretty hard-core piece, and he asked me afterwards ‘Daddy, why do you lean on the piano and make horrifying faces?’. Performing music is a mannered activity in which we try to communicate. When I’m performing at my best, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. You, the listener, need to be taken out of yourself. If I haven’t done that for you, I’ve failed.”
‘The Rape of Lucretia’ is at the Aldeburgh Festival, Snape, Suffolk on June 11 and 13