End of Royal Opera Season: Daniel Grice at Covent Garden for Madama Butterfly and Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance – “there is so much pleasure in being evil!”

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the British baritone…

Daniel Grice. Photograph: www.markkendallartists.com

This January I attended Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at The Royal Opera and was impressed by the singer who had been entrusted with Fiorello. Since that character is the first to sing he had the added responsibility of getting the opera off to a good start and he succeeded handsomely. He is Daniel Grice, now appearing in the latest revival of Madama Butterfly (until 16 July) and in the Summer Performance concert featuring all of the current Jette Parker Young Artists (17 July).

As a child Daniel would hear records being played by his parents and found that he was more attracted by the classical music that they chose than the Bob Dylan they also favoured. Daniel can pinpoint the precise moment when operatic voices made an impact on him. “It was when I saw the film version of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus and one particular scene in it stood out, the one featuring Don Giovanni. Until then I had had no serious interest in classical music, but the sound that these people made was fantastic and it made me curious as to how it is done. Because of that I spent a long time teaching myself to sing. I may have been working as a chef and later as a nurse, but it meant that I could also please myself and my friends by singing. I had no idea beyond that until one friend suggested that I ought to get my voice heard professionally. The local conservatoire was in Birmingham so I auditioned there, but for good measure I picked out another one in London at random. That was how I came to audition for the Guildhall School of Music. I didn’t know if my voice constituted anything at all, but both colleges thought it did because each one offered me a place.” Thus it was that Daniel arrived at the Guildhall at the age of twenty-six to study with Penny MacKay and Jessica Cash. “Then Robert Lloyd came into the picture. I felt that I needed a male teacher, someone aware of the difficulties that a man could have with his voice and a friend recommended Robert. I went to see him convinced that I was a bass, but he quickly said ‘I’m a bass, but you’re not!’ So I did a kind of re-training with him working on a different placement. We hit it off at once – we have a similar sense of humour – and he’s now been my teacher on and off for the last five years or so.”

Daniel was accepted into the Jette Parker Programme to start last September but, exceptionally, when he arrived he was not a stranger to the Covent Garden stage. “Like everyone does, I had gone along to audition for Peter Katona. That was when Covent Garden was casting a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo in 2008 and he figured that I had a sound that would do well for one of the Flemish Deputies. It’s one of those roles for which you can put in someone who has had little or no opera house experience.” Small as the role is, Daniel did well enough (and was being conducted by Royal Opera music director, Antonio Pappano) to be invited back for the work’s revival in 2009. Nor was that all. “Peter Katona saw me at the Queen Elizabeth Hall when Chelsea Opera did a performance of Adriana Lecouvreur in which I was the Prince de Bouillon. In consequence I was invited to cover the role of Leone in Handel’s Tamerlano. He approached me, not I him, which is the nicest way.”

Daniel Grice as Papageno (The Magic Flute, ETO)

Some singers who apply for the Young Artists scheme have already been heard in some major roles, but in Daniel’s case what he had already achieved by singing for a variety of British companies was remarkable. Papageno and Dulcamara are among the parts he played, and the title role of Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress had marked his first major appearance, put on at the Aldeburgh Festival. Daniel had been chosen out of many hundreds. At Covent Garden a Young Artist can usually expect no more than small roles along with the possibility, by no means certain, of some covers, so did he hesitate to apply? “It wasn’t the easiest decision but, having learnt a lot from what I’d already done, I had come to the conclusion that I needed a developmental period: a time to finesse and also to cement some vocal technique. Mark Packwood, one of the Royal Opera coaches with whom I had worked, thought it was the thing to do and I discussed this move with Robert Lloyd too. Robert was very much in favour of my joining the Programme because he thought that if I were to get to the quality that he believed I was capable of reaching then a Programme like this would be the best facilitator.”

Although he could not anticipate what might be assigned to him, Daniel found that the 2010-11 Season included for him not only the role of Fiorello but cover for two important roles. One was the already-worked Papageno and the other was Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. “The latter was something of a risk on their part, I think, and on mine too because it was a departure and a test.” In the event he had to go on for a matinee performance of Tannhäuser when Christian Gerhaher was unable to get back to London. I ask him to compare that occasion with doing the scheduled role in Il barbiere di Siviglia. “There is definitely a contrast between the two. With Barbiere there was the pressure of opening the piece, but I enjoy those kinds of responsibilities. In any case I had learnt the role long before it was necessary to be ready. Also I had seen the production on a DVD. But going on as Wolfram was nerve-wracking. In one sense there was less responsibility because you can’t not be the hero: you’re saving the show. Unless you are completely dire, the audience will support you. However, it’s a long sing and, in doing the role for the first time, ideally you’d like to have had the chance to pace it properly, to learn where you need to back off and where you can give more. Furthermore, you are aware of the quality that you must deliver at the Royal Opera House. But the conductor Semyon Bychkov was wonderfully supportive both during a brief rehearsal in his dressing room and during the show itself. All things considered, I think that I delivered a good performance.”

In contrast, Daniel’s current role as the Imperial Commissioner in Madama Butterfly lasts for less than three minutes. “He comes on, marries Butterfly to Pinkerton and goes”. When Daniel played Fiorello he found it worthwhile to invent a back-story for his character since Fiorello and Almaviva know one another. “You find something to motivate yourself to do things in the tiny little space that you have. I do a rather abrupt exit so I figure that he is probably rather bored by being at a wedding and is therefore anxious to leave.” Daniel covered a comparably small role, Prince Yamadori, in Anthony Minghella’s production of Butterfly for English National Opera. “I think Royal Opera’s production is less cinematic and more-sparse in the way that it concentrates on essentials. Also there’s an emphasis on the westernisation of Japanese culture that was missing at ENO. But, whatever the emphasis, Puccini’s operas always show what a great dramatist he was. They deliver a rare theatrical punch: Butterfly brings tears every time, while Tosca is spine-tingling.”

Daniel Grice as Nick Shadow (The Rake's Progress, Aldeburgh)

The Summer Concert of the Young Artists is an annual event with a different theme each time devised by David Gowland who runs the Programme. This year it’s excerpts from six operas set in Venice. Three are by Rossini, but with plenty of contrast, Il signor Bruschino, Bianca e Falliero and Otello. The second half begins with Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and ends with the appropriate strand of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, but it is the 25 minutes from Act Two of Britten’s Death in Venice which provides the most substantial offering. How does David Gowland plan a programme like this? “I think that his priority is to find pieces and scenes that will show off to best effect the voices and characteristics of the singers in the Programme. In some years they can be quite diverse, but he hopes too to come up with a theme that will bind everything together. He often likes to pick operas that are not heard often but deserve to be. That influenced him when choosing Haydn’s L’isola disabitata for the Meet The Young Artists Week last October and here we have Rossini’s Otello and not Verdi’s. To do the latter might have been exciting, but most of us are not yet vocally ready to deliver repertoire like that whereas the Rossini offers lots of vocal display and it’s a really healthy sing for everybody.”

The Otello segment is one of several being conducted for the Young Artists by Paul Wynne Griffiths, but the current crop includes two conductors and a pianist and each has his own spot. Volker Krafft, who conducted the Haydn, leads Il signor Bruschino and Geoffrey Paterson handles the Britten in which Jean-Paul Pruna will be heard in the piano part and he provides continuo for two of the Rossini opera. Paterson is described by Daniel as a defender of all things Britten. Death in Venice perhaps provides the greatest challenge since it ranges over several locations. It is directed by Rodula Gaitanou, herself a Young Artist. “I’ve talked to Rodula and she has outlined her ideas for the characters, but I don’t yet have much idea of what to expect. I imagine that a lot will be done by lighting, but I can tell you that there is a Tadzio coming along to join us, not a Young Artist, but a very young artist!” In the role of the writer Aschenbach who becomes obsessed by Tadzio we have Steven Ebel. The latter also performs with Daniel in Otello before they and everyone else get together for the Hoffmann finale. Daniel’s roles in the Britten are the Hotel Barber and the Leader of the Players. When I met Daniel he was still formulating ideas for the latter role but knew that for the Barber he wanted to channel the camp soldier as portrayed in The Jewel in the Crown. “I would like to get that undercurrent of knowingness into the Barber’s seemingly benign talk while Aschenbach is sitting in the chair: I remember from the TV piece the sense of a character who knows something fundamental about a person whom he doesn’t know and I recall strongly the air of threat that comes from that.”

These roles may not be vocal showcases but Daniel sees both as great character parts and he is strongly attracted to roles in which words really count. Indeed theatre appeals to him greatly and he enjoys the physicality in Papageno even more than singing his music. It’s no surprise to learn that he is looking forward to the close of the Britten which, in order to bring the extract to an apt close, will require him to dance. And what of things to come? “One day I would love to do Scarpia – I can’t imagine any baritone or bass-baritone who wouldn’t. However, my favourite composer is Verdi and that‘s a repertoire I would love to sing. Iago is my dream role. I wouldn’t want to behave like that in real life, but I love nasty characters: I don’t know why, but there is so much pleasure in being evil!”

  • Madama Butterfly until 16 July 2011
  • Summer Performance at 1.30 p.m. on Sunday 17 July 2011
  • Royal Opera

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