If it is true that, as Ernest Newman wrote, 'The higher the voice, the
lower the intellect,' then the tenor John Mark Ainsley must be
an exception, as indeed he is in so many other ways; I found him not
only warm and congenial but also highly intelligent, witty and articulate.
It would be difficult to find another tenor whose versatility embraces
Monteverdi's 'Orfeo,' in which he is the acknowledged master of our
time, definitive performances of English song, and a superbly idiomatic
understanding of the French classical repertoire. There are also more
'expected' areas of eminence such as the Bach Passions Evangelists,
Schubert Lieder and Mozart's Idomeneo and Don Ottavio.
Ainsley has just made his Covent Garden debut in that
role and I asked him why that debut has come so relatively late in his
career (he is 38). 'It did take a long time for me to get there and
that certainly wasn't my choice; of course, I would have liked to have
sung there a good deal sooner, but unless you are an automatic world
star - like Bryn - and / or a very obvious operatic animal - and you're
British! - it can take time, and it's no coincidence that my debut there
is as Ottavio, which is the role I've sung more than any other, at Glyndebourne,
Aix, San Francisco and so on, so I assume they thought it was safe to
have me do it! '
Critics were divided about his singing of the part,
with some using terms such as 'honeyed' and 'stylish,' whilst others
expressed doubt about the fullness of his tone, but all were united
in praise of his musicality and his convincing stage presence, two areas
in which he is indeed exceptional in every role he sings. This may be
related to his feelings about the characters, since he actually likes
Ottavio. 'People think of him as a wet blanket but I have formed a different
opinion; the challenge of the role is not just singing, beautiful and
difficult though that is, with its set pieces and so on, but to marry
the formality of the music with the man, the human being, that's the
interest for anyone doing it, and I don't think it's true that there's
no acting in it.'
His 1995 Glyndebourne Ottavio in the modern-dress
production by Deborah Warner, thankfully preserved on video, remains,
for me, the standard by which others are to be judged, and he acknowledged
that the production had a great deal to do with his own satisfaction
with the performance. 'It's such an incisive piece of direction, and
the minimalist, expressive designs echoed it - I'm interested in the
whole marriage of design, music, characterisation, interaction - for
me, that is the ultimate aim, and the challenge of making them marry
is one I still find incredibly stimulating, and it's really the only
reason I appear on stage!’
'It's the nature of live performance that you do about
75% of them at around 75% of your capability, and if you get above that
then those are the nights to remember, but you have to trust to the
spirit of the audience, that they are going to have enough channels
open to receive on the other levels - the crucial parts; if you're going
to duck out of, say, being expressive because it's too risky, then they've
missed out, and if something occurs to me in the course of an aria that's
within the broad bracket agreed with the conductor and director then
I would rather make the experiment, I'd rather be on that side of the
line. You can't really expect an audience to get every line of thought
you've developed, but then that's partly the director's responsibility,
to make a hierarchy of the visual; some people complained about my wig,
for example, but that kind of thing is not an issue for me. It's part
of what the designer wants my character to look like, so I put it on
and try to be my version of Ottavio, looking like that - transformation
is an important part of being onstage, isn't it?'
Ainsley is definitely one of that rare breed, a tenor
who sees opera as a 'gesämtkunstwerk' and not merely a vehicle
for his own performance, so I was interested to hear his views on avant-garde
productions. 'The extreme does not worry me, the gratuitous does; I
have talked to colleagues who have asked for guidance and been told
no, don't worry your head about that, or oh, it's expressionistic and
beyond explanation - well, no! That's not for me, at all; if I have
to make 2,000 people believe it, it's not a matter of believing it myself,
but you have to have a handle on what you are going to project.'
Would he have been happy to take part in the recent,
controversial ENO production, which featured Don Ottavio and Donna Anna
in scenes of some intimacy (or, as he put it less delicately, 'they
were shagging, weren't they?') He would never say never, since he does
not believe in opera as something which belongs in a holy vacuum, beyond
the dirt of this world, and he recognises that if you walk in the street
or listen to the radio you will be aware of plenty that is not sacred,
'and we can't always have this attitude which sees the great works as
somehow good for you, and which regards rethinking Mozart as like fucking
in church.' His concern, however, is that whatever turn directorial
ideas take, they must 'add up - they must mean something. For example,
in 'Don Giovanni,' it's not just the class system but the fine tuning
of what everybody means to everybody else; if that's secure I think
you can do more or less what you want with it, but if you have spent
all your time creating an atmosphere of outrage and skimped on creating
those relationships then there's nothing left.'
He also made the point that some elements of avant-garde
productions may well draw on a wider knowledge of the subject, since
at the time when they were written many of the great operas were experienced
by a public well read in the classics, for example. Directors will now
often use oblique glimpses into that world, as, for example, in a production
of 'Orfeo' in which he sang the title role and his character was not
carried off to Heaven but 'torn to pieces' by women. This was regarded
as bizarre by some people, but in fact was not at all extreme since
it exists in one form of the Orpheus myth.
'Orfeo' is of course the other role with which he
is associated, although he does not regard his recording of it as amongst
his best. 'It's correct, but at the time I had not done it on stage,
and it shows; I'm not ashamed of it, I'm not saying 'Oh, darling, don't
listen to me on that because I'm so bad on it - you're never bad on
a recording, they are documents of a certain time in your life, but
I have had other thoughts about it since, and I'm very much hoping to
get the chance to record it again.' He acknowledges the powerful influence
of Nigel Rogers on the singing of the immensely challenging part, although
'I've got a more beautiful voice than his!' Indeed he has, although
he rightly recognises the older tenor's supremacy in the florid music
of Caccini and other composers.
It is the drama of the role to which John Mark keeps
returning. 'In terms of a staged work, the Oxbridge collegiate tradition
(and I am from it myself) doesn't exhibit the dramatic spirit which
I think is an essential part of it, not an any 'operatic' sense but
in the way of approaching the music so that it is made expressively
pictorial. Monteverdi is clear about where you can make that step into
rage, frustration, sadness, self-pity - all those mantles can be worn
by the music at various points, and that's why I find Orfeo so endlessly
stimulating, because you can make such a complete person of him. I remember
being criticised by one reviewer after the ENO production, along the
lines of 'Ainsley did not sing the role consistently beautifully.' and
I thought, this is missing the point altogether! There's a strong element
of anti-hero in this character - he is only 'Semi'-Deo,' and it is always
the human part of him which fails; one can't respond directly to critics
but I did feel annoyed that this one should not have credited me with
enough intelligence, experience or musicality to have chosen not always
to 'make nice' with early music! There are moments in 'Orfeo' where
you are right on the edge of the emotions, and this was clearly too
much for him, but others may have been galvanised by it.' (This critic
The production itself came in for some adverse comment,
notably for the brief glimpse of Orfeo naked (although how anyone could
object to that in his case, is somewhat surprising) and for its staging
of the dazzling virtuoso aria 'Possente Spirito' on a rock, but this
did not present too much of a challenge to him. 'That production was
revolutionary when it was first seen, and I went along with the rock
- Orfeo is singing for his life, her life, one false move and you're
done for, and that's true musically as well.'
He will extend his interpretation of this role at
La Monnaie in Brussels, in early May this year, when he will be directed
by Trisha Brown in what is sure to be a fascinating experience for us
as well as a demanding one for him; it will certainly be an unmissable
production in linking her style to that of this Orfeo, with his unusual
commitment to the dramatic and emotional elements of Monteverdi's great
Another unusual aspect of his career is his intimacy
with, and affection for, the great French lyric operas of Rameau and
other composers, not least in his near-flawless French diction and sensitive
feel for the shape of the music. His assumption of the role of Dardanus,
in the recording under Minkowski, was praised by 'Opera' magazine for
its '. passion, eloquent French delivery, distinctness and security
of articulation, stylishness and ease in encompassing the wide range
of the vocal line.' and he looks forward to extending such interpretations
into other similar roles. He describes such roles as Dardanus and Pylade
as being 'Helden - Haute - contre' roles, for which his voice is eminently
suited, since for such music 'it is not enough to have a high, pretty,
fast voice - they need some singing, they've got to have dramatic weight.'
John Mark describes himself as a 'quasi French speaker'
who is just beginning his odyssey through French song, an area in which
he already excels. His recent recital of Fauré, Chausson and
Hahn at the Wigmore Hall was rapturously received, although he confesses
to some doubts about programming Hahn's 'Chansons en dialecte Vénetien,'
since they are 'just on the cusp of being admissible in a 'serious'
recital, and I worry that they might belittle people's memory of the
rest of the music.' I assured him that in his performance, this was
not the case, 'Well, I'll keep putting them in then! They are ravishing,
and I am quite keen on music that goes in at this level (heart) before
this one (head).' Those who have not heard him in this repertoire will
have the chance to do so on Thursday 14th, when BBC Radio 3 is repeating
that Wigmore Hall concert at 1.00 p.m. GMT.
His appearances in recitals have been fairly infrequent, at least in
this country, because, he says, he finds Liederabende 'pretty intimidating.'
With typical self-deprecation he remarks that his response to the German
Lieder composers is 'limited; I very much enjoy and feel I understand
Brahms and Schumann, but with Schubert, I go in and out of the light.
It's the texts, for me - I'm fine with Goethe or Mayrhofer, but I find
others very obtuse, and there are some great Schubert songs set to poems
by the likes of Seidl. I am quite a slow burn on recitals; it takes
me a long time programming them, agonising over them, and I hate the
idea that at the end of a song people are going to quiver and say 'Ooohhh!
How lovely!' - which seems so insubstantial!' So how would he like his
audiences to react? 'Oh, I want people to slit their wrists or cry or
be transported and leave changed! I know that's a mistaken association
I have with the amount of agony I go through preparing them, and I want
everyone to share in the suffering I've gone through to get there!'
Well, this is one audience member who is more than willing to share
in his suffering, and who certainly has left the concert hall changed
after his 'Auf dem Strom' and 'Schwanengesang!'
There are critics who regard his Lieder singing, for
all its beauty of tone and musicality, as lacking in intensity, and
he is aware of such views. 'If you like intensity to the point of mannerism
then you're not going to enjoy me so much; I think that tension and
over-energising can easily be mistaken for intensity, and I know what
I put in to the songs - which in the end are always bigger than the
performer. It is a challenge to distil what I think is the emotional,
spiritual and dramatic sense of a song and deliver it, 24 times in an
evening, and that is where I'm aiming. Maybe it is easier for me to
convey what might be called intensity in something like the 'War Requiem,'
where the poetry is so sensationally matched to the music and where
there is more of a shared responsibility.'
Ainsley is forthright about what he calls the 'cult
of the Uber-Liedersingers,' and has no illusions about the recording
industry. 'Exclusive contracts have to be fulfilled even if companies
have collapsed, and to keep the stable going, you have to put out all
these recitals, which in a way is great, but also has unhealthy elements.
It's rather like the days of Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf and so on,
they were seen as 'the last word, and everyone imagined that that was
how the songs were done, followed by years of 'this is the next DFD.'
I saw him once performing 'Die Schöne Müllerin,' and it was
an astonishing experience; I know that cycle very well, but his intimacy
with it and understanding of it somehow took the bar lines away, and
I found that incredibly stimulating. He is a great artist, but in the
parts of the repertoire that I have covered which he also did (and he
did everything!) I have made different decisions and come to different
conclusions; he is not the last word, and neither am I.'
I have always found John Mark's Lieder singing very
close in spirit to that of DFD, especially in the exceptional tenderness
with which he sings some of the more intimate songs such as the Kerner
'Wiegenlied' on the Hyperion recording. It is not an easy question to
ask a man why or how he is able to convey such tenderness, but he took
it the right way and pondered carefully before answering that everything
is in response to the poetry, that you have to make the marriage just
as the composer did, finding the colour that fits that emotion, and
that he sings '.as I might read the poem aloud without singing it, in
an honest attempt to express with my voice, what the words and music
mean to me.'
This honesty of approach is also strongly present
in his singing of Bach; he is widely recognised as one of the greatest
Evangelists of our time, and indeed many, including the present writer,
would regard him as pre-eminent in that role; I recall a magisterial
performance of the St. John with Polyphony a couple of years ago, after
which Michael White wrote that Ainsley's Evangelist was 'perfection,
the most distinguished singing you could hope to hear.' His way of colouring
the words and giving nuance to the diction without over - accentuating
or altering the musical line, and his understanding of the theatricality
of the part make it especially sad that none of the more prominently
available current recordings feature his singing of it, and he hopes
to record it again, whilst feeling an affection for his part in the
Ozawa version, idiosyncratic though that recording may be. He sees the
Passions as dramatic narratives, and recognises that his Evangelist
is more theatrical than that of other tenors; 'It's meant to be gripping,
it's supposed to galvanise people, and it needs some vocal authority.
I'm not into the solo bow for the tenor and all that, but you are given
a tremendous responsibility in that role; it's passionate and surprising
music and I don't know how a singer could help but express those feelings
if they are sensitive to what Bach has written, unless they don't have
the technical capacity to do so.'
Mention of technical capability led us on to his singing
of Lensky at ENO last season, a role for which he might not be seen
as the most obvious choice in vocal terms, although histrionically he
was as near-perfect a Lensky as could be imagined, making complete sense
of this romantic, impulsive, poetic character. He was aware of the risk
he was taking. 'I'm not sure if I brought it off as I wanted to, although
it was easier in Cologne in a smaller house and in the original language.
I think the man is interesting, but I know the role is right at one
end of my vocal possibilities - that music is just so irresistible to
me, and I know it's the sort of tenor I'd like to be - I've got quite
a romantic character in my voice and can sound reasonably Italianate,
but it's not an obviously operatic size.' Does he find this frustrating?
'Yes, I do, because I feel I have something to say about those roles,
but all I could do was my best, and hope that it wasn't such a mistake
that people said 'What on earth did you think you were doing?' Fortunately,
the critics were kind, and that's really your only benchmark because
anyone who comes round after the performance is not going to say 'you
were terrible.' but most critics, although they were aware of vocal
shortcomings did find other elements which usually aren't there - if
you can sing Lensky like a bulldog you don't have to make the character,
so I got away with it. I'm very realistic about it, and hope to grow
into a more vocally convincing Lensky later on.'
Another role in which he has already made his mark
and into which he feels he is growing into is that of Idomeneo, which
he sang to great acclaim at Sydney Opera House. In the opinion of the
present writer, 'Idomeneo' is one of the greatest of all operas and
it is a piece which any enlightened opera house should be mounting solely
for this tenor, since both his voice and personality are so well suited
to its demands. Discussion of such matters as to why opera houses mount
certain productions with certain singers brought us to another of his
roles, that of Jupiter in 'Semele,' which he has sung at ENO and in
San Francisco. London audiences will be unlikely to forget his beautifully
sung, convincingly acted lecher of a god, and it is a pity that we are
not destined to hear him in the role when the Royal Opera revives the
production it took to San Francisco, since it is, incredibly, being
staged in London with an all-American cast.
Many people have expressed surprise at the fact that
one of the first things one reads about this tenor in his concert programmes
is that he 'continues to study with Diane Forlano.' One might imagine
that such an established singer, with some 110 recordings to his name,
might not feel the need for further formal study, but Ainsley will have
none of the cult of the shell-on-the-head singer who simply 'emerges'
as a 'star,' and he is similarly disparaging about those who list only
the very well known as their teachers. 'I think it's a professional
courtesy to acknowledge her; I do have lessons, not every week or anything
like that, but she knows my voice better than anyone; it is nothing
like it was when I first started, and it will change, there will be
technical challenges to come. I can't conceive of not having lessons;
it all relates to whether you're busy developing a cult of yourself
or developing as a musician, and I'm doing the latter. I still have
plenty to learn.'
Asked to name the recordings of his which he would
recommend to those who have not heard him before, he chose (after some
hesitation) the 'ravishing high tenor solos' of the recording with Trevor
Pinnock of Purcell's 'Odes,' the Hyperion 'Schubert; the Final Year,'
(the settings of Rellstab in 'Schwanengesang') his title role in 'Dardanus,'
and his recent Vaughan Williams disc. The Schubert recording is obviously
very dear to him despite his reticence in singing this composer in recital.
'I felt with this one that I'd really broken through with my own identity
on German Lieder on a recording; I have never just surfed, I am always
diligent, but maybe it was the poems here; I think that 80% of what
I meant comes out, and that's a lot. I liked the idea of splitting the
'cycle' between Anthony Rolfe Johnson and myself, because the Rellstab
and Heine are so different - the Rellstab are 'Ooh, I'm so in love,
it's awful, but I'll feel better tomorrow!' whereas the Heine are '
O my God! I'm so in love, it's awful, I'm going to die tomorrow!' so
it made sense to divide them between two similar voices but which have
the same instincts.'
I told him that in my view, his is the finest recording
I know of the Rellstab songs, and he was clearly delighted at this,
although it can hardly be an unusual opinion: in Hugh Canning's 'Gramophone'
review, the distinguished critic describes Ainsley as 'easily the equal
of Ian Bostridge, maybe even more penetrating as an interpreter...'
and this searching interpretation is one of the great joys of his singing
on the disc. To me he achieves the perfect balance between text and
music, and his singing of such lines as 'Wiege das Liebchen in Schlummer
ein' ('Liebesbotschaft') is unequalled in its tenderness; as he said,
that poetry is not powerfully dramatic, and one does not want to be
hectored in it - the emotion is contained, not always able to be expressed,
and all the more powerful and intense for so being.
Many music-lovers would especially associate John
Mark with English song, and this is a connection he cherishes. Just
before our meeting he had been at the BBC to record some songs of Peter
Warlock with Roger Vignoles, and he is soon to make a BBC 'Voices' programme
consisting of music by Britten and Tippett and a new song cycle written
for him by Alan Ridout to poems by Stefan George. He has recorded the
Britten song cycles but professes to like only the 'Nocturne' on that
recording, and 'I'd like a crack at some Britten operas.' He is an unashamed
champion of English song; 'I recently heard another tenor saying that
only Britten had composed worthwhile English song, but that seems to
me to be a short sighted view! There is some wishy-washy stuff, but
also much that is incisive and elegant. When I sing 'Dichterliebe' and
Brahms Lieder in places like Frankfurt and Amsterdam, people come along
with their CD s of English song and say 'That was fantastic but why
didn't you sing any of this?' So, I'm going to.' His recent recording
of 'On Wenlock Edge' must surely rank as one of the greatest, and he
clearly loves the work: 'It's marvellous, a real dramatic statement
of the depths of someone's soul, and I think that with this recording
I've got to the bottom of it, I've said what I want to say.' Indeed
he has, since in John Steane's words, his performance on this recording
comes 'very close to the heart's desire, ' with its '..fine poise, in
breathing, phrasing, expression and the even emission of quite beautiful
So what is next for this versatile tenor who seems
to be always seeking to expand his knowledge as well as his repertoire?
Apart from that May 'Orfeo' in Brussels, he will sing more Don Ottavios
in Munich and Dresden, as well as the Matthew Passion Evangelist several
times in the near future, including a Proms performance on August 4th,
and he will also be at festivals in Tanglewood, New York and Munich.
Nearer to home, audiences will have plenty of opportunity to hear him
in English music in the very near future. This Thursday (14th) he will
take part in the South Bank's Walton Festival, singing the rarely performed
'Anon in Love' written for tenor and guitar, as well as songs by Howells,
and on Sunday 24th, he will perform Britten's 'Les Illuminations' under
Rostropovich as part of the latter's 75th birthday celebrations.
As for recordings, he has a few 'on the back burner,'
although not, surprisingly, Schumann's 'Dichterliebe' which I heard
him sing with Vignoles, and which I thought surpassed any other version
of this cycle in its beauty of tone and balance between serenity and
barely suppressed hysteria, as well as its superb accompaniment - 'I'd
record it tomorrow, but it has not come my way.' Fortunately for us,
a great deal else has come his way, and it is not too much to hope that
he will one day record this work to add to the already impressive discography
of a singer who always delights with his musicianship and sensitivity
as well as his wondrously beautiful voice.
© Melanie Eskenazi
The photographs are © Marc Eskenazi
and should not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.