The Perfect Fit: Barry Banks and Don Pasquale [The Royal Opera’s Don Pasquale, 12-21 September 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the British tenor whose famed bel canto singing can be heard in the Covent Garden revival of Donizetti’s comic opera…

Barry Banks. Photograph: Christian Steiner

Home for Barry Banks was once Stoke-on-Trent (in the Midlands of England) but it’s now New York City and he confirms when we meet that the prime reason for this is that the Met now plays such a strong part in his career – he has done some thirteen or fourteen roles there. Growing up in Staffordshire he could hardly have imagined that he would one day live in America and it’s also the case that as a youth he would have been equally surprised to know that the musical career that would take him there would be centred on singing. His family did not provide a musical environment but his great love for instrumental music became evident at an early age. “For some reason I became fixated on the trumpet at the age of eight and started to play it when I was eleven: it was my great love and I retain an immense passion for it. I still play for pleasure.”

Enamoured of brass bands by the time that he sought to enter the Royal Northern College of Music, Barry went for an audition bringing his trumpet with him and anticipating a joint audition that would also extend to singing, that being something to which he had been introduced as a boy soprano in his local church. “In the event I discovered that it was an advice audition for singing and the person who auditioned me was the late Alexander Young. His verdict was that I should come back for a full audition – so I did, and I got in.”

Despite this, the busy 16-year-old did not narrow his range on arriving at the college. “I was out every day: each day was a rehearsal for something and, as well as joining the BBC Northern Singers under Stephen Wilkinson, I was, I think, in three brass bands, a jazz band, a youth choir and a madrigal group. At that age you don’t really think of it in terms of a career: it just took over. It was while still in college in Manchester that I got the chorus part of my career over with. That was because John Manduell was wonderful in allowing me time off from the college to be in the Glyndebourne Chorus. I spent six months there over two years and that enabled me to return to the college knowing what I wanted. I did some Mozart there but mainly a diet of Handel and Haydn and quite a lot of oratorios, which made for fabulous experience. But it was only after that, during a tough year at the National Opera Studio in London when I was singing in all sorts of styles, that I started to consolidate the sort of repertoire that I do now.”

Barry Banks (right) as Ernesto (Don Pasquale, Royal Opera, 2010). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

It may well be that few bel canto singers have studied the trumpet but Barry does not regard that interest as divorced from what he does in the opera house. “When playing the trumpet I discovered how to spin a tune and it’s the same instinct that you need to spin a vocal line. I’m lucky in that many people have said that they think that I’m a natural musician when it comes to phrasing and, if I am, it all comes from my days of playing the trumpet. That aspect is important to me, as is my love of word-painting, finding the vocal colours for different situations.” Since this is how Barry approaches his roles, it might be thought that the role of the lovelorn Ernesto in Don Pasquale would be ideal casting and it certainly seems so now, but it was not always the case. “I had a bad deal with Don Pasquale when at college because the aria from it, ‘Com’è gentil’, was the first operatic aria that I looked at. It was just too much for me as a nineteen-year-old. I couldn’t cope with it and consequently for many years I had it in my mind that this was not an opera for me. But then, years later, somebody dropped out of a recording of it and I was asked to step in. I didn’t have time to think – I learnt it on the Saturday and started to record on the Sunday and through doing that I found that it fitted me like a glove.”

If Barry took some time to find his feet with Don Pasquale, his fine lyric tenor would nevertheless make him a notable exponent of roles created by such as Rossini and Donizetti. But to be accepted in this repertoire presented Barry with a challenge and that was due to him lacking the height of the average tenor who performs romantic leading roles, which he comments upon in some detail. “I did some bel canto stuff in London at the Opera Studio but it wasn’t obvious what I was going to do because when I started off I had the vocal facility but my size belied it. However, I made a decision: I determined to be single-minded – which is, I suppose, a polite way of saying belligerent: I would refuse all character roles for a year and if, by the end of that time, I didn’t get the lyric roles I wanted I would re-think. Luckily, however, the Rossini and Mozart stuff did come in towards the end of that year. I did, though, take a few gambles with roles that could be seen as character parts provided that they contained lyrical elements: it was as Beppe in I Pagliacci that I first appeared at Covent Garden and my Met debut was as Flute in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which offers a pastiche of Bellini.”

Barry Banks (right) as Ernesto (Don Pasquale, Royal Opera, 2010). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

In the development of Barry’s career two roles have been particularly significant, one being Almaviva in The Barber of Seville. In addition to doing it for Welsh National Opera Barry was hired to cover the role for English National Opera and one night had to go on (“ENO picked me up because of that and I’ve had a very happy association with them”). Another cover, for Tamino in The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne, had even wider repercussions and that was without going on. “What happened was that I drove down from Glasgow overnight to watch the first rehearsal but, as I was having breakfast, I got called to the stage. The tenor was indisposed and I had to sing it from the side. The conductor was Lothar Zagrosek. He looked up when I started to sing and thereafter he turned and conducted me at the side. Then three hours later, at lunchtime, he took me for a walk in the gardens and offered me Tamino in Leipzig where he had just been appointed music director. It was doing that which led to my being asked to audition for Gérard Mortier which meant that I did Tamino in Brussels and in Salzburg as well. I have developed a great affinity with the role and I recorded it for Chandos with the late-lamented Sir Charles Mackerras. Funny note here: when I did it in Salzburg I incorporated one of those ornaments for which Sir Charles was noted, although he was not conducting. However, as soon as I did it, there was an audible in-take of breath and a voice called out: ‘Nicht im Salzburg!’ Later, I told Sir Charles that story and he howled with laughter.” (Sir Charles Mackerras was scheduled to conduct Royal Opera’s Don Pasquale.)

Among the parts that Barry has played Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is one of his favourites (“it’s a beautiful singing role and an exquisite acting role and as long as I am asked I will continue to do it”). However, the fact that his memorable appearances at the Met include both La fille du regiment and La sonnambula with Natalie Dessay, Armida with Renée Fleming and L’elisir d’amore as well as Don Pasquale with Anna Netrebko emphasises the extent to which bel canto has become his sphere. “I’m very lucky to have become known as a bel canto singer because for that to happen you really do need to have a facility for it and full understanding of the style. Even so, I don’t like to be pigeonholed and I sometimes wish that people would offer me more Mozart. I am about to do Mitridate which is great, but I would love to do more Taminos and to have another crack at Così fan tutte – but, then, the grass is always greener. In any case I find it exciting that these days we are not just doing Barber and Cenerentola but also incredible [other] operas by Rossini, and by Donizetti too, that belong to opera seria. Although I do seem to have a good sense of comic timing, I love to get my acting chops around the more serious stuff.”

The Don Pasquale staging in which Barry is appearing at Covent Garden is a revival of the acclaimed Jonathan Miller production noted for a set that looks like a huge doll’s house, an approach as apt as it is unexpected. Not surprisingly Barry’s previous appearance in this work – the one at the Met with Netrebko – was very different. “It was a production by Otto Schenk and the sets were very traditional, as was the whole concept. Being a fluffy bel canto piece makes it difficult to play, to find real emotion amidst the funny stuff. So the doll’s house is a typically inspired Jonathan Miller concept: you only have to look at his Rigoletto or Mikado to know that when Jonathan gets it right it’s absolutely right. His idea here is beautiful because we are all dolls in a doll’s house and we have lovely costumes and, as such, it’s quite easy to play the plot. We don’t realise that we’re dolls though: that’s the wonderful thing about it.”

With his experience in Donizetti extending not just to the three great lighter works but to such dramatic roles as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, I ask Barry for his comments on the differing character of these works. “Some of them are star vehicles. That’s always going to be true of La fille du regiment and Edgardo in Lucia is a star role, especially now that the days when the opera might end with the ‘mad scene’ are long gone and the tenor has the aria and the cabaletta to end the show which is fantastic. Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore is different again, but it’s Don Pasquale which is the real ensemble piece. When I arrived [at Covent Garden] I hadn’t previously worked with any of the other singers but we just gelled on the first day and that was wonderful because, in a piece like this or Così, you have to behave as an ensemble. So it was a delight to walk into the room and just click with everybody. There are no egos fighting and we are completely at ease with each other. To say that may sound like an exaggeration, a cliché, but in this instance we really do.”

Before concluding, we talk about some of the big moments in the Don Pasquale as far as Ernesto is concerned. There’s an off-beat duet in Act One in which he expresses his emotions thoughtfully but with the eponymous character providing a murmuring accompaniment which nevertheless does not undermine Ernesto’s gravity. “It’s similar in treatment to the duet in L’elisir in which Nemorino sings a beautiful long line and Dulcamara is doing the patter underneath. But Nemorino isn’t a comic figure because once you get to ‘Adina credimi’ it has to be real and you have to have the audience in tears. Similarly here: the duet is extremely passionate music so as Ernesto I sing it passionately. As for the solo aria at the start of Act Two there may be something of self-pity there but, whatever other views there may be, I can only deliver it as heartfelt. Nevertheless when it comes to the love-duet between Norina and Ernesto in Act Three there is an element of send-up as we strike typical operatic love-scene poses. It’s a joy to be doing this with Iride Martinez who is fiery and passionate. Furthermore, while I now regard my size as a problem for others who choose to treat it as such and not one that I have myself, it is a real pleasure that Iride is petite and that we fit together so perfectly.”

One last reference to Act Three involves the fact that Ernesto’s delightful serenade preceding the love-duet follows on from the great comic piece by Pasquale and Malatesta which is guaranteed to bring the house down. Is it difficult to follow a show-stopper of this kind, or is this change of mood what the audience really want, even if subconsciously? “I have no worries here as the opera switches back to the serious business. It’s so quiet – two guitars and a tambourine – and if you can use the quietness to make the audience sit forward in their seats then you bring them back to you after that blockbuster duet. Previously in this production the tenor did all this on-stage, but I have asked to go back to how it was originally conceived with the first verse off-stage before entering to sing the second. There’s something charming about hearing it first in the distance.” This is a detail but characteristic of Barry as an artist who is sensitive enough to make this declaration: “Although I’m an Englishman, I’m extremely passionate and I sing passionately – but I love the discipline of being able to rein it in.”

  • Don Pasquale – Six performances at 7.30 p.m. from Sunday 12 September to Tuesday 21 September 2010 (7 p.m. on first-night)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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