Getting the Sums Right: Colin Lee and La Fille du régiment [The Royal Opera’s La Fille du régiment, 17 May-3 June 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the South African tenor who is making his second Covent Garden appearance within two months…

Colin Lee. Photograph: Robert Carpenter Turner

When Colin Lee left his place of birth, Cape Town, and headed for England he was twenty-three years old and not without musical experience. In particular from the age of nine to twelve he had been a member of the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir and travelling in that capacity to Europe and to the States. Nevertheless when he departed from South Africa it was without any intention of developing a singing career for he had already qualified as a chartered accountant and pursued this profession on arrival in the UK. However, Colin was well aware that singing meant a lot to him – as a member of school choirs and taking lessons in Cape Town simply for the pleasure of it. “I’d become absolutely fascinated by the voice through listening to people like Pavarotti, Domingo and Gigli. How they did what they did absolutely entranced me. I’d always had singing within me and I had a voice, but I would try to escape that fact at times and then be drawn back to it. Most tenors require a lot of work because it’s not so much a natural voice as a cultivated one which has to be developed with real care. My teacher in South Africa put me on the right path but, although at that stage the voice was musical and it was sweet, it was no good for opera. I lacked entirely that Italianate style which so intrigued me.”

There was enough music in his background to encourage Colin on reaching England to take spare-time singing lessons with the tenor Jeffrey Talbot whose advice would play a crucial role when it came to a final decision about Colin’s career (he is his teacher still). “With him I was able to build the lower side of the voice of which I then had very little. At times it was a frustrating process – for all of seven years I would have two hour-long sessions each week with him and not only did I never sing in public but for fifty minutes each time we would just do vocal exercises. Then, just to make me feel better about myself and in acknowledgment of what it was all about, he would let me sing an aria for the last ten minutes. He was a very wise counsellor, and he used to say to me, ‘When you are as good a singer as you are an accountant, you’ll be ready to be a singer, but you’re not quite there yet’. Of course, things like that never do quite balance, but at the end of 1999 I was offered a small contract to sing to passengers taking a millennium cruise on the QE2 and on a couple of other ships. It was just for three months but naturally I couldn’t do it without giving up my accountancy job, and I thought that this was perhaps just what I needed to push me. So I made the decision taking the view that if it were only going to last three months it would certainly be a fantastic three months aboard those ships going around the world. So I resigned from my job at the close of 1999 and started out in the big unknown.”

There was no looking back and after those three months Colin went to the Savoy Theatre for Ian Judge’s production of The Mikado, travelled to Dublin for Gianni Schicchi and landed his first leading operatic role – Don José in Carmen – with a small company from Northampton. He went to Buxton as well, but then came the step that mattered most: “I was asked if I could audition for ENO to cover in The Elixir of Love and then, being a cover, I got into rehearsals and then they offered me a position on their Young Artists Programme. And that’s how that happened, how it started really.”

The job choice had been settled but it’s not, I think, fanciful to feel that something of the accountant remains in Colin even now. During our talk at Covent Garden I get a clear impression of someone very capable when it comes to assessing his career and how to progress it fruitfully: if, on the one hand, he is not a man of false modesty, he is, on the other, acutely aware of the role that luck plays in any singer’s career and of the fact that success requires hard work. In what he has to say he is both direct and open. “There are so many wonderful young voices out there and I was very lucky to get the breaks that I did, as at ENO when I was unexpectedly asked to do The Barber of Seville not just for four performances as initially planned but for all twelve. I think with hindsight I made some right decisions in those days, even if some of the professionals who were representing me at that time didn’t necessarily agree.”

Colin’s current engagement at Covent Garden is his fifth. His debut came in 2005 in Mozart’s Mitridate, Ré di Ponto when the conductor was the late Richard Hickox. “It was a fascinating period and the role of Marzio is one that I’ve gone on to do subsequently a number of times. It’s a difficult role because, apart from some earlier recits not always done in full, you wait around for three hours and then you sing this ridiculously demanding aria. But it was exciting to be here and it gave me perhaps a little foothold – the director of casting, Peter Katona, is a very loyal man to those who deliver the goods and after Mitridate the opportunity was given to me to return in 2007 to cover Juan Diego Flórez in this production of La Fille du regiment which was then new and to do one scheduled performance in it. And that was the real beginning of what’s proving to be an enjoyable relationship that I’m having with the house – and a surprising one.”

Third up at Covent Garden for Colin was Il barbière di Siviglia at the end of the 2008/09 season, a truly memorable event for reasons not foreseen. It was in this production that Joyce DiDonato won people’s hearts not just because she was so good but because she bravely performed from a wheelchair following a fall on the first night and wrested triumph from potential disaster. However, although he had been asked to sing Count Almaviva at two performances, Colin himself was ultimately not so lucky. “Joyce is fantastic – she really is such a trouper. I don’t think that it ever entered her mind that she would not sing all those performances, although I’m sure it entered everybody else’s. To sing the role of Rosina from a wheelchair is extraordinary in every way: to sing it standing upright is difficult enough, but to be bent over in a chair and co-ordinating the wheels! She made it something special, but for me personally there are also memories of a different kind. I did one performance with maestro Pappano conducting and was looking forward to doing it again under Paul Wynne Griffiths. I felt that I was going to be more relaxed and would enjoy it. But then I picked up a cold that got right inside my throat and there was just no way that I was going to be able to sing it that day. And because it was a matinée there was no time to get a replacement rehearsed in, although Toby Spence was fortunately able to sing it from the side. It was such a disappointment to me because I was acting the role but really not feeling well, and the last thing you want is to be on-stage when you can’t sing. The best quote I can give you about that occasion came from Peter Katona, ‘this’ll be one for the memoirs: we had a mezzo who could sing but couldn’t walk and a tenor who could walk but couldn’t sing, and all in one performance!’ It was in fact the only performance in the year that I had to cancel.”

This spring saw Colin appearing as Don Narciso in all seven performances of Rossini’s Il turco in Italia. “I’ve just done that here with Aleksandra Kurzak who also made her Covent Garden debut in Mitridate and just before Il turco we did Tancredi together – in that she was my daughter and in Il turco my lover. So only in opera can you go from being the father one moment to being the young lover the next: thank goodness for opera!” These titles and Colin’s return now for the first revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of La Fille du regiment underline the fact that bel canto roles are currently at the heart of his repertoire. “It was certainly never a conscious decision to emphasise those roles, but after I did The Barber at ENO it sort of gathered its own pace and people seemed to realise that I had sufficient agility and accuracy to be a viable proposition in that kind of thing. But it’s always been a lot of work, a lot of notes. The accountant in me says that if you take your fee and divide it by the number of notes you have to sing then Rossini offers the worst pay per note in the business!”

A partial shift in repertoire is suggested when Colin declares that he might like to make Rossini less central now, much as he admires the man’s music (knowing that some people find it too formulaic he remarks “if you have a formula that works, then you use it – and the fact that his operas have stood the test of time speaks for itself”). He explains his desire for a somewhat different emphasis. “I am slightly more of a romantic, I think, and my voice is probably rather better suited to a lot of Donizetti and Bellini. I think that’s really my niche – and, of course, certain Mozart roles.” But Colin has also in mind some very different parts. “Peter Grimes! That role could be very interesting: the psychology of the man is quite a lot to handle and I would really like to get to the point when I feel that as an artist I could explore that. It does require a certain colour, but vocally I think it’s within my range, so, perhaps, some day. Of the more serious Rossini roles, I enjoyed Tancredi because I was playing someone a little bit older than I am: a father, a politician and quite a complex character. Comedy works best when it’s based on playing it for real, but I do find myself drawn to serious roles that require you to find something more within you. I think that I’m a slightly tortured soul by nature and to be able to explore that would be really interesting.”

In the near future Colin will be turning to the French Baroque with the title-role in Rameau’s Platée. “I fully appreciate that I am taking a bit of a chance here.” However it’s another opportunity to work with René Jacobs who has made it clear to Colin that he wants to avoid a certain French tenor sound and believes that Colin’s voice is what he needs. But for the rest of our time together we return to comparisons between Donizetti and Rossini and discuss the challenges offered by the role of Tonio in La Fille du régiment which this time around finds Colin set to perform three performances. On the other days the part will be taken by Juan Diego Flórez and I wonder if sharing a role with such a popular artist is in itself daunting, although word had reached me that Natalie Dessay, now reprising the title role, had been impressed by Colin’s work when the production was new in 2007.

“I would never make comparisons between myself and Juan Diego, an artist I respect and who is rightly at the top of his game: but the fact is that there are many tenors who sing the same sort of repertoire and each one is different. One has to appreciate that some people will like you and some won’t. With La Fille the recording that sticks in my mind is by Pavarotti and Sutherland who did it here at Covent Garden and it was wonderful when in 2007 people said that Laurent’s production was a worthy successor to that one. I myself was lucky to be in it because the role of Tonio suits my temperament and it suits my voice. Also it was great being the cover for Juan Diego because his schedule meant that I had the first ten days of rehearsal before he arrived to create the character of Tonio. Of course he came in and made it his own, but I had had the advantage of working out the moves and creating the character in my own body initially.”

Having been written for Paris, La Fille has some distinctive features including the fact that Donizetti was setting a French text (“I believe that it was one of his greatest achievements that this Italian composer gave it such a genuinely French character so different from, say, Don Pasquale, which again I love”). Paradoxically, despite a plot that could have been used by Gilbert and Sullivan (a whole regiment having adopted the story’s heroine expect a say in her marriage), La Fille illustrates perfectly the way in which Donizetti’s work differs from the more exclusively comic world of the lighter Rossini pieces. “However unlikely the story the human interactions somehow create a different kind of humour from what you get in Rossini and at times it can be heart-rending.” Colin Lee agrees when I suggest that if La Fille is not far removed from the world of operetta it is the romance and vivacity of that genre that it evokes even more strongly than the comedy. However, Colin does surprise me when I close the interview by asking him about the arias he has to sing: the famous one with the nine top Cs in Act One and that which follows it in the Second Act and which is much less remarked upon. “Tenors who can sing that Act One aria love the role. In some Rossini operas like Il turco the singer who plays Narciso has to do what he can to get on terms with the audience while singing in the ensemble. This is the opposite: we all know that everyone in the audience is waiting to hear those nine top Cs. Of course, if you fail with them, it’s a catastrophe. But provided you have those top Cs the first aria is not all that difficult since it’s a simple, uncomplicated tune. But the tenor’s second aria comes right at the end of the opera and you really have to sweat blood over it. It’s highly sustained with an incredibly long legato in which every note has to be perfectly in line with the next. So without doubt that’s the more technically challenging aria.”

  • Eight performances at 7.30 p.m. from Monday 17 May to Thursday 3 June 2010
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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