“It’s good to hear that audiences are enjoying themselves, as that is our job” – Gwyn Hughes Jones & Pinkerton [English National Opera’s Madam Butterfly – showing until 2 June 2012]

Written by: Kevin Rogers

Interview with Gwyn Hughes Jones

10 May 2012 – The Coliseum, London

Gwyn Hughes Jones

I meet Gwyn Hughes Jones three hours before curtain-up for the second performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in the late Anthony Minghella’s production at English National Opera, revived for the fourth time, in which he is singing Pinkerton. I am very grateful that he has afforded me the time just before a performance: “It is quite rare that [singers] have the opportunity to talk and so it is important that we do it.”

We begin by discussing the role of Pinkerton, which in Gwyn’s assumption, and this production, makes him out to be less of a cad. “I think that as it is written you have to get the balance of both. It is important that the opera isn’t a sugary, over-romanticised love story – it is not that at all – but it is important that the excitement of the experience is brought forward, because it is a little bit like somebody going to Las Vegas, to have a good time. There is also the clash of cultures [between the United States and Japan], so for him that first experience is all very exciting and very new, and it doesn’t really occur to him, to begin with, the gravity of what he’s doing. He is very dismissive of Sharpless when he tries to prod his conscience. I am sure that there are elements of his job as Consul that Sharpless finds distasteful, but he still represents America and what it aspires to, so he has to play for the team, despite probably having seen what Pinkerton is doing before.

Gwyn’s view of Pinkerton has some ambivalence, unsurprisingly. Perhaps we should feel sorry for this naive young man who has found himself in the most novel of candy stores with a blank cheque-book. “Puccini is very clever because when there are opportunities for Pinkerton to think about what he’s doing Puccini interrupts them and brings in something else, such as the wonderful scene where Butterfly shows him her little box of possessions. It is an intimate moment, almost sacred for her, whereas for Pinkerton it is a side-show, a curiosity and not much more, and he does not get the significance of what she’s doing, or the importance of the fact that she has put her family behind her as well as having given up her religion in order to do everything she possibly can to make [their union] work, to save herself from poverty and shame. She has to fall in love with him, not thinking for a moment that for success he needs to fall in love with her, too. It is only at the end that Pinkerton begins to understand the gravity of what has happened; when he does understand he is reluctant to acknowledge it, which sounds a little selfish: ‘Yes, I know what I have done, and I will never be able to forget it’. He has no comprehension that what happens to her is much worse than what could possibly happen to him. He can’t face this and he runs away. This is what is interesting about the character: who of us, in finding ourselves in this situation, in this new world that you have not experienced before and that you have heard so much about, might not behave in a similar way”. I suggest that it is a what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas situation for Pinkerton. “This is the world where everything can happen, and very much in the American spirit of going ‘out there’ and ‘planting your flag’, almost an imperial spirit, but certainly one born of self-belief, with energetic innocence and discovery. Pinkerton goes from thinking things are curiosities to some appreciation of having destroyed beauty.”

Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton (Madam Butterfly, ENO, May 2012). Photograph: Clive Barda

Opera is filled with characters who are heroes, yet Pinkerton is one, like the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto, who lacks morals and who some tenors conspicuously avoid. I ask Gwyn to offer his insights into performing such parts. “You have to accept him as you find him. He is an everyman, mostly at his worst. Yes we are flawed and we have to tell those stories as honestly as we can; but, I don’t like him, although I can understand how he can find himself in that situation. As an artist playing the character he is very interesting because of the balance of innocence and youthful enthusiasm that he has. To tell that story is a great challenge, and a lot of singers stay away because if you do your job properly you may get the audience reaction as happened on the first night.” On this occasion boos were directed at Gwyn at the curtain-calls, and I suggest that this is inappropriate as opera is not a pantomime. “It is difficult because what [the directors] Anthony and Carolyn Choa did was make the curtain call stylised, that is we remain in character. Personally, I’d like to acknowledge the individuals, as the curtain has come down and the curtain-call is for us the singers to be presented to the audience. Nevertheless, I respect absolutely the directors’ choice. I can’t go through life just playing the parts that get the greatest applause; the challenge is to touch people regardless of the characters’ personalities such that they cannot help but react, and with a part like Pinkerton if you’re able to do that then great, whilst acknowledging that he is not Cavaradossi, Manrico, Calaf or Rodolfo – he is not heroic.”

Having sung Pinkerton on at least forty occasions in this production at the London Coliseum I wonder if Gwyn approaches the role differently from those previous occasions. “I am artistically and vocally more mature. I was reluctant to take on the project again, having done so many performances here, and for obvious reasons: because of Anthony’s association with the piece. It was very difficult because Carolyn is not involved either, and [this revival’s director] Sarah Tipple has done a fantastic job, but the person I wanted to go and ask the questions that I have been mulling over the past five years on about aspects of the character is no longer with us. But, then again, I felt some responsibility to face that challenge, and bring my experience to it, and to think about how he would want me to develop the part. Vocally I am capable of delivering more expression to phrases from five years ago, and therefore that is where some of the excitement is in this run for me.”

I’m curious about the role that Anthony Minghella played in shaping the characterisation of Pinkerton within his conception of Butterfly, and specifically any things that Minghella said about the part that surprised. “What he said that was really important was that the audience must see Butterfly through Pinkerton’s eyes, because we all know the story, but what we have to understand is why things happen the way they do. We have to discover every experience as audience members even though we know how it unfolds very well. Every gesture has to be for the very first time. That was the challenge that he set, and that is the challenge I set myself all the time when in performance.”

Clearly Gwyn has a lot of respect for Anthony Minghella. “The thing about Anthony was his humility, and he had so much knowledge of the visual, though he had directed opera before. He knew he had to learn about a theatre’s space and what we singers need, such as stage positioning. Anthony was superb at getting people to produce their best work: he saw this in people then managed to extract it. It was his ability to see the opportunity that made him a genius. I miss him terribly.”

We move on to discuss Gwyn’s background and how he came into singing. “There was always music around when I was younger. I was born and raised in an area where there was a lot of culture, especially in the Welsh language. Events in an Eisteddfod, which is a competitive festival, cover areas such as literature, music and performance, and is a tradition that dates from the twelfth century. It is like a pantheon of the arts, and is a great unofficial school for Welsh-speaking people, and it was there I was raised in a chapel, where I was exposed to fantastic writing. You know the Bible written in Welsh is written in the language of the poets of the Middle Ages and it is some of the most beautifully poetic language, such that it sings. Of course, in the chapel we had lots of hymns, with their inspired poetry and music, that made you want to stand up and sing. This was probably where I discovered my voice, but it was never my intention as singing is just what we all did. Yes, I sang, but I heard much good singing, too. I would hear voices in those times that had quite extraordinary raw material, but they either never had the opportunity to take up singing professionally or they never had the inclination. So, if you have that kind of inspiration it is very difficult to not want to aspire to try and be as good, if not better. Aged eighteen it was a choice between History and Music, and it was the love of singing that then brought me to the Guildhall School – as a baritone. Up until 1992 my teacher always said that he was not going to tell me if I was a tenor or baritone: ‘you just sing what you can sing, and in time your voice will tell you where to go in order to give its optimum’. In late-1992 the choice was easy: tenor it had to be.

The future is looking good for Gwyn, with Manrico at the Metropolitan Opera next season. “I debuted Manrico with Welsh National Opera, which was a seventeen-show tour, last year. It was a great way to learn the part, and spread over just six weeks it was demanding, but I discovered so much about it and knew I could do it. It is a part I have always wanted to sing: my vocal heroes sang it, and it is thrilling stuff. It is one of the most demanding tenor roles, and if you have a great success in it, it is difficult for anybody to deny your status as an artist of quality. So, it is a great opportunity for me. But, you need a lot of discipline and legato line, along with the requisite excitement and ringing voice for this spinto part. He is a character that is being manipulated for others’ ends, so dramatically his is an interesting story to tell: he is not just a hero, but he is a victim of his circumstances.”

The confidence that Gwyn exudes is disarming, as is his mellifluous speaking voice. He seems content and very happy but I wonder if there are ever moments that are daunting to him as a performer. “People have high expectations; and most people want you to do well. People have paid money, and they might not know you from Adam but they certainly demand, quite rightly. At somewhere like The Met there are people there who remember the likes of Jussi Björling [a hero of Gwyn – he wears a badge sporting his portrait] singing Manrico. Charles Anthony, who recently passed away, said one of the first performances he did was with Björling – to be able to have that kind of link with that generation is an incredibly sobering thought. If you want to talk about singing opera as being like a job, then it is about putting the history of performance, the learning, and your own experiences all together to produce a unique and memorable account. The great thing about singing is that on one night you may well sing the best Manrico thus far, but that means the next time has to be better.”

To date Gwyn has focussed on Italian and French repertoire. Where does he see his voice taking him in the years ahead, and what parts would he particularly like to tackle: “I have studied a particular kind of repertoire, and as a British artist that is not easy, because we are encouraged to be all things to all people. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and a broad palette can be useful, but the great singers have excelled at specific things. To be flexible is what we would hope for, but the special thing is to be the best at a few things. It was difficult when I started because people try to channel you down many various streets. The aspirations for my work are to sing the Italian and French repertoire, so I had to be very patient. It was only when I worked in America for six years that I got the opportunity to sing the kind of rep that I was built to sing. Cultivation of an artist is important, so that the possibilities can be spotted and seen. I’m doing my first Chevalier des Grieux (Manon Lescaut) at the beginning of 2014. Parts like Andrea Chénier I would really like to do, and I have been approached about singing Wagner. But I wanted to get some solid Italian repertoire done first before confusing people by singing him. People love their music and singing. ENO audiences are enthusiastic. It’s good to hear that audiences are enjoying themselves, as that is our job.”

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