A Musical Swansong: Robert Tear and Turandot [The Royal Opera’s Turandot, 22 December 2008-23 January 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Welsh tenor on the eve of his retirement from singing…

Robert Tear. ©Ben Campbell White

About six years ago I interviewed Robert Tear for the long-lasting but now defunct magazine What’s On in London. Looking ahead, he said at that time, “I shall go on so long as people ask me to sing, and when they don’t, I’m retired”. In practice things have worked out differently however. This quickly emerges when we talk at Covent Garden where he is appearing as the Emperor in the latest revival of Andrei Serban’s production of Puccini’s Turandot. Before our meeting, I’ve been told that this appearance is to be his last in the house where he first performed in 1970, the opera then being Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden. Any decision to retire from singing will be a blow for his many admirers, so it has to be this issue that I raise with him first of all.

“Yes, I’ve decided to stop singing, and that applies to concerts and to recording as well as to stage appearances unless, of course, something astounding happens. But I’m not expecting it to. I’ve stopped conducting as well and, although my voice is fine, I’ve run out of the need to sing really. It’s a very demanding occupation and to have done it for fifty years is an awfully long time. As I’ve said, the voice is still fine, but the body doesn’t want to go on much longer. I don’t like saying that I’m going to stop – but if I don’t say that I’ll stop, then I won’t.”

Conversation is something that Bob Tear enjoys, particularly when it relates directly to art and life. Being a man who not only sings but who writes and paints, philosophical speculation is a part of his nature, as is a sense of humour distinctly personal to him. Not many singers, I suspect, would choose to refer to their careers as “singing for money” or would remark on their impending retirement that “I really want to spend what’s left of my life more productively”. If he looks back and sees his life as one monopolised by music, that is linked to another assertion that he makes: “I don’t believe that we have any choice in life at all.”

That absence of choice is mentioned when I ask how this one-time choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge came to consider a career as a solo tenor. “From early on I was singing and at King’s I was pretty good. When I left there my parents wanted me to go into teaching, but I didn’t want to do that because I’d been bitten by the bug. Consequently I went next to St Paul’s Cathedral. From that moment I began to be a singer, so that was it. There was no choice.”

It could be argued that the decision to retire from singing comes closer to being a choice, although there are factors in play here that are very different from those that influence most people when they think of stepping down. In the case of singers it is easy to imagine that ceasing to perform is to lose something crucial to their pleasure in life, but Tear’s comments reveal a more complex picture. “It’s been a wonderful life, but don’t forget that it’s a profession in which you have to be virtually terrified every day when you wake up. You can never relax at all, because every morning the same questions face you: will your memory be there, will your voice be as it should be, and is it good enough for work? Now I want to live without the fear that I’ve accepted in the past – accepted because it’s the same for everyone and, like horn-players, we singers are mostly totally mad or are driven to it!” As he says this and laughs, one might question the whole business of opting for a singing career, but what Tear says is amplified by what he told me during the interview in 2003: “I think that one does what one does, whether it is fearsome or not, simply because one has to. For me singing was always a bit of a frightening experience, but when you actually do it, when you actually get to the moment of performing, it is remarkably liberating. You suddenly realise that the stage is a kind of home which you recognise.”

There’s also another factor that gives this particular retirement a special character. Bob Tear may have felt compelled to sing, but he has always been aware of losing something else on account of that. “It doesn’t give you any time to be the other person you might be.” This means that what has been somewhat sidelined – his painting and his writing – will now gain fresh prominence. “If I live as long as my father, I might have about ten years left and there’s so much that I want to learn and to get on with. I’m writing all the time and some of my poems have been set to music. Also I review for The Oldie magazine. But what I hope will be taking up some of my time will be to write, if I can, a very serious book on passionate agnosticism.”

Robert Tear as Emperor Altoum in the Royal Opera's 'Turandot'. ©Johan Persson

Such comments confirm that we are discussing re-alignment rather than retirement and, in some respects at least, music will remain central since Tear is a visiting professor of Opera at the Royal Academy of Music and teaching is not something that he plans to give up. “I like teaching and I think that in my way I’m quite good at it. What’s more you keep hearing wonderful people.” Asked if the newer artists make him confident about the future of music, he confirms it by instancing as examples two younger men, both conductors. “Vladimir Jurowski is staggeringly gifted and so is this man Nicola Luisotti who is conducting this Turandot – I’ve rarely seen any one so naturally gifted and especially in this repertoire. So it’s all in good hands: the graveyard is full of indispensables!”

With this mention of Turandot, we move on to this opera and to Tear’s appearance in it as the elderly Emperor. I wonder if it is sometimes difficult for an artist to feel himself or herself truly part of a production when the role in it is, like this one, of short duration? “I think it depends on how good an actor you are and how you see what you are doing. To my mind, there are no parts at all that can justifiably be thought of as small parts: if seen as such, then they are not being done properly. In the case of this little role in Turandot, the only difficulty – says he, hopefully – is that Puccini marked it to be sung with the voice of a very old man. Now what we cannot do – what any singer mustn’t do – is to sing it with anything but his own voice. You can’t act a voice like that because if you do then nothing comes across. So I have to ignore Puccini and sing it as I sing it. On the other hand, he’s a man whose whole life has been steeped in blood and who is utterly and completely tired of it. Because all of the unsuccessful suitors for the hand of the Princess Turandot pay the price of being executed he tells the Calaf who is the latest candidate to leave. In effect, he says: ‘Give me a break: go away because I can’t stand this anymore’. If you say that as though you are absolutely shot to pieces then you suggest the effect this situation has on you as you get older and perhaps wiser. That’s how you play the part: that’s how I play the part. The only performances I’ve heard and haven’t liked were those where you encounter a kind of put-on character rather than a real one.”

Popular as Turandot is, it is a work, regardless of the exceptional popularity of ‘Nessun dorma’, which has never quite equalled the appeal of La bohème and Madama Butterfly, and I suggest that this may be because, with the exception of the tragic servant girl Liù who sacrifices herself out of love for the Calaf, the main characters are ones that don’t easily win the audience’s sympathy. “That’s probably right, although the houses are usually packed. But, yes, bohème is a much more sympathetic story and, of course, Puccini didn’t quite finish Turandot. However, you can’t really say anything bad about Puccini: he’s a wonderful, wonderful composer and this is one of the most staggeringly modern scores for its time that you can imagine. It’s a quite marvellous piece and one that never becomes vulgar. It’s written with such taste, and yet it’s hugely romantic and his work is a joy to do. To finish on Puccini is lovely.”

Reaching the conclusion of a career is an occasion for looking back, so I ask about the memorable occasions, the ones that stand out in Bob Tear’s memory. “Obviously one remembers one’s first performances here, especially Lensky in Onegin and my first Loge. Then in Paris there was the first complete Lulu with Boulez and Chéreau: that seemed to me to be a big show. Also I’m bound to mention productions of Salome: I’ve sung Herod more than anything else, over a hundred and fifty times altogether, so many of those stick out. Of course, you remember the ones that went badly even more, the times you lost your voice on stage: that’s not a good thing to do.”

Another aspect of looking back is to remember those who influenced or helped you. Bob, despite his belief that dwelling on the past leaves too little room for other things, offers some thoughts. “I remember perfectly when I was in school in Wales listening to Peter Pears. That was certainly important and so a bit later was Richard Lewis. Also part of it and in a very nice way was Wilfred Brown who helped me to learn the Evangelist when I was very young. I’ve admired singers like Gedda and conductors like Solti, and David Willcocks was absolutely essential to me in terms of getting work. But probably the most influential regarding how to sing, or at least how to do it in the way in which he wanted me to do it, was Colin Davis.”

Favourite composers include Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Strauss and he has been especially associated with Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. “Michael was always a great friend and I liked doing his work even if it wasn’t always as friendly for the voice as it could have been. He was a lovely man. As for Ben, I think that he is a great composer and he has played a large part in my career.” In this connection, I ask Bob which of the Britten song-cycles he favours most – his answer is Nocturne – and which Britten work he regards as the most under-estimated; he goes for an orchestral piece: Sinfonia da Requiem.

I have two more questions to put. The first is to ask what advice Tear would give to a young singer, what to do or what to avoid. “Basically, what I would say is this: ‘Be brave’. If you haven’t tried something, you don’t know what’s to be avoided. For example, I enjoyed singing Alfredo for Scottish Opera, but I discovered at once that it wasn’t suited to my temperament. So my advice would be to know yourself as well as you can, but not to be put off by those who say that you’re not quite ready because you never know if you are.”
Last of all it seems apt to ask someone who has given so much of his life to singing just what satisfaction it is that music gives. “Essentially, it takes the self away: you become immersed in something so universal, so big, that the emotional impact of it won’t let you be small. You can’t be short-sighted or small-minded: you can’t be without love. What it gives is charity, ‘caritas’ that is to say, and love – ‘agape’. It’s a unifying force and, if only for a small while, it removes all sense of separation.”

The Classical Source wishes Robert Tear all the very best for the future.

  • Performances on 22, 27 (at 7 p.m.) & 29 December and 2, 5, 8, 12, 14, 17, 20 & 23 January at 7.30 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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