Interview with Benedict Nelson – Britten’s Billy Budd at ENO: “…the opera is not really about Billy… It’s about Vere, he’s the one that has the journey. Billy is the vehicle of his moral dilemma…” [Opens 18 June 2012]

Written by: Ben Hogwood

The new English National Opera production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd reunites the successful team behind its Peter Grimes, with director David Alden and conductor Edward Gardner once again in partnership. Playing Billy is the fresh-faced baritone Benedict Nelson, whose striking image stares out of the promotional poster, a noose draped around his shoulders.

Benedict Nelson. Photograph: Chris Gloag

Benedict has sung a Britten role at ENO before, but his first encounter with the composer’s music was overseas. “The first thing I did was Peter Grimes when I was at the Guildhall School. A group of students was taken to be part of the chorus out in Salzburg, with the most tremendous cast. Trevor Nunn directed it, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were playing, Sir John Tomlinson was playing Balstrode, Amanda Roocroft was doing her first Ellen Orford and John Graham-Hall was playing Boles. It was tremendous, and a real seminal experience for me. In terms of music, it was the most enormous chorus. It was extraordinary, my first Britten experience – and I’ve done quite a bit since then.”

His modest claim includes the substantial role of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, given in 2011, and he has also recorded Songs and Proverbs of Williams Blake as part of Malcolm Martineau’s odyssey through the composer’s songs for Onyx. Has it been a natural progression to play Billy Budd? “I hope so, though I wouldn’t say natural. It is a dream role for a young baritone, it’s perfect – every young baritone wants to play it, and you’d be hard pushed to find someone who says they would not be interested. It’s such a gift of a role, but it has a shelf life, and you can miss out on doing it. Gerald Finley never did it, which I’m always surprised about, and there are a good few baritones who never did it, and were too old to do it later on. It doesn’t come up that much, popular piece as it is, because it’s not in rep very often, so in a generation only a handful of people get the opportunity to play it. I’m very fortunate, I feel very lucky – I’m very aware of that. With Britten’s centenary coming up there will be a lot more, I’m sure, but it is certainly a lucky thing.”

Central to the plot are the problems Billy encounters with a stammer, which Nelson has been working hard to perfect. “There are four big occasions where he stammers, and then you have to make the choice as to whether you suggest it at other times. Kim Begley, who is playing Captain Vere, was telling me he did it with Rod Gilfrey in Paris, and he mentioned a couple of occasions where he put little hints of it in again. That’s a decision you have to make, but Britten was so meticulous in the way he wrote it in, he notated it all. It’s the hardest bit to learn. Right up until yesterday I was struggling, because it’s so hard. He’s so specific about how each individual one sounds, and when notated they have crescendos, decrescendos. It’s so specific and they’re hard to get right!”

Benedict Nelson. Photograph: Chris Gloag

A key aspect of this is communicating the affliction without comedy, an aspect Nelson is keen to stress. “Stammering is traditionally thought of as a comic thing, in theatre as well, so it’s quite hard to get a stammer that gets a sense of empathy, of sympathy. I’m sure it’s not funny for anyone who has a speech impediment like that, but when you look at Don Curzio in Figaro, the stammer is a comic thing. It’s hard to get it so that it becomes a painful thing, an angst-ridden thing. We did a lot of work with a physical expert, and working on how it would come across. Funnily enough Michael Palin, in A Fish Called Wanda, is incredibly good at it. When they did Billy at Glyndebourne they had Derek Jacobi perfecting the stammer, and he had done it in I, Claudius, so I watched that too. Really Britten does most of the work for you, with his notation.” A feature of the composer’s method is the very detailed nature of his directions within the score. “There is almost no interpretative work for you to do, because he is so specific about everything he wants, which is nice.”

Recording Britten’s songs has helped give a sense of perspective, too. “His is such a unique style, and it is so recognisable to anyone who knows his music that it is Britten. Even looking at the music on the page, you can look at it and straightaway and know it’s by Britten. Those Songs and Proverbs are a wonderful thing to record. They were written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but you can tell they were written for him because not only is Britten’s music very hard to perform, but the fact that he had someone of the technical ability of Fischer-Dieskau to write for meant he could give him a free range. They’re harder than any of the operatic things; really tricky to sing and to interpret, and that is partly because Blake’s poetry is so complex. The poems alone you have to spend so much time deciphering them and learning how to inflect them. He was so ahead of his time, a visionary poet completely unappreciated in his lifetime. He was a poetry genius.”

Returning to the role of Billy Budd – did Benedict look at other people’s interpretations while perfecting his own? “You can’t help it, but I didn’t want to do it too much, because you want to put your own stamp on it, your own ideas. It was hard not to see how people did things though. I listened a lot to Simon Keenlyside’s recent recording, Thomas Allen obviously is a port of call for most things as a baritone, and I listened to Jacques Imbrailo on DVD from Glyndebourne. I borrowed a lot from him. I tried to wait until I’d learned it before I watched other people doing it, because it’s too easy to become influenced by others.”

Benedict Nelson as Billy Budd (Billy Budd, English National Opera, June 2012). Photograph: Henrietta Butler

Benedict has nothing but praise for the Alden and Gardner partnership. “Ed’s fantastic, we’ve worked together before, and it’s great to work with him again, he has such a clear musical vision. He’s sung himself, so he knows what you’re doing, which really helps. David has got just such a good knack for Britten. I worked on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with his brother Christopher last year, and it runs in their family, because he knows the score better than anybody in the room. He has such a fantastic affinity with the weirdness, the dark world of Britten, making that kind of atmosphere. It’s that slightly abstracted reality that you can create.”

Our chat about the composer turns into something of a mutual appreciation of his stage work. “Britten was such a theatre animal! He chose his subject matter so cleverly as well; and always worked with incredible librettists – E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier for Budd, Shakespeare, Montagu Slater for Grimes – these people are literary giants in themselves. Britten always puts his own imprint on their words.”

One aspect of performing the composer’s music that presents difficulty for singers is keeping the right pitch, as Britten’s unusual harmonic sleights take their melodies into unexpected tonal areas. “After doing Britten for a while, you stop being able to pitch octaves! Suddenly an octave becomes the most alien thing in the world, because it has such a big effect on your musicality. It gives a short-term shift in your own idea about tonality, and it’s good for you because it makes you so vigilant about rhythm and meticulous about reading music. It’s really healthy.”

To complement his Britten performances, Benedict is continuing to sing Mozart and bel canto. “They all feed each other.” Yet for now his focus is completely on the English composer and how to perform him. “When people think of singing Britten they think of people like Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who sang the repertoire as competently as anyone.” In the light of Britten’s writing for Pears, a tenor, is it possible Britten’s music for baritone goes underappreciated? Benedict smiles. “He did tend to write a lot for Pears, yes, but I read he originally conceived Grimes as a baritone. A lot of the songs too, though, are for Pears, and the Songs and Proverbs is one of the few substantial works in the song repertoire for baritone. In the operatic roles, mind, there is a good selection to choose from.”

Benedict’s casting as Budd means he gets to interact with most other members of the cast. “That’s true, I hadn’t thought about that. Billy is the title-role, and a rare baritone title-role for Britten, but the opera is not really about Billy, as David quite rightly pointed out to us on the first day of rehearsals. It’s about Vere, he’s the one that has the journey. Billy is the vehicle of his moral dilemma, but the opera should be called ‘Captain Vere’. That’s not to diminish my role in the piece” – Benedict laughs – “as there is still a substantial amount for me to do! It’s such an incredible group of people to be working with, a lot of peers who I grew up with – all these guys who are musically together from conservatoire age. It’s so touching and quite poetic, especially working with Kim Begley, there’s quite a nice symmetry in that. He’s been an amazing reservoir of advice and generosity.”

As with a number of ENO productions, a sense of family comes across. “It certainly feels that way to me. ENO gave me my first job out of college, and employed me since, so it’s been a journey up to this point. You do see a lot of people come back, there’s a lot of fondness. Gwynne Howell had his birthday the other day, and he was singing for ENO back in the 1960s, so you can only imagine how it feels for him.”

Benedict’s immediate plans include a new role. “I’m off to do a new piece by Craig Armstrong with Scottish Opera, which we will take to Edinburgh. It’s called The Lady from the Sea, and it’s based on an Ibsen play, which looks very exciting. I don’t know much about the production yet; I had the music two days ago. Then I’m back at ENO doing The Pilgrim’s Progress, and then The Barber of Seville.” Benedict is excited about working with Armstrong. “I have got previous experience of doing newly composed pieces, and one of the obvious benefits is that the composer is not dead, so you can meet with them and collaborate with them and talk about what might suit your voice better.”

The mix of new music and established roles suits Benedict Nelson well. “To have the variety is good. I’ll finish next season with Rossini, and then I am singing in I Pagliacci at Holland Park, so variety is the spice, as it is with the song recitals too. It’s nice to have a mix of different languages, composers and styles, it keeps you going!”

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