The Time Is Ripe: Gidon Saks and The Tales of Hoffmann [The Royal Opera’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, 25 November-13 December]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Playing the four villains in the Covent Garden revival of Offenbach’s final opera, Gidon Saks talks to Mansel Stimpson…

Gidon Saks

Fate took the form of a regulation regarding age when it played a key role in deciding the career of the bass-baritone Gidon Saks who was born in Israel but grew up in South Africa. “I had an aunt who was a musician and one of the few opera singers in that country. Indeed, she often took part in many works new to South Africa including pieces by Britten and she was the first to sing Les Illuminations there. But as for myself I wasn’t interested in being a singer at all even though I loved music, opera included. What I wanted to be was an actor, and at the age of sixteen I decided to leave school because it was legal to do so and I really hated it. I’d heard that there was a possibility of getting into drama school – that was in Cape Town – and I went to audition. Their response was to say ‘We’ll take you in but you have to be eighteen’ and, having no idea of how to fill that gap, I was taken aback. But they suggested that I take lessons of some kind and mentioned dancing, singing and even learning to fence. I was so naive that I asked ‘If I do that, don’t I have to wait until I’m eighteen?’ but the man said: ‘No, you can start now’. So I did and had a singing lesson with Frederick Dalberg who, having been the first Claggart in Billy Budd, had retired to Cape Town, and he told me that I should consider singing as a career. So that was how I came into opera-school without expecting to do so, and from the very first week there I knew that it was the most wonderful thing in the world to do. Nothing could have been more exciting.”

Encouraged by his father to avoid the military conscription for which he was eligible, Gidon, after a year in opera-school, set out for England and was lucky to find valuable teachers and mentors both there and in Toronto. First there was the baritone John Cameron who was at the Royal Northern College of Music. “Unfortunately I was only with John for a year before going to Canada but he was nevertheless pivotal in my life and helped me to find my true voice as a bass baritone. He was immensely generous and always had such a sparkle. I remember hearing him sing in class when he must have been over eighty and it was moving and magnificent – and audacious, too, because he performed a Wolf song with lots of double entendre and he really went for it. Later, when I’d returned to England after studying with others, he still looked out for me and in his warm and encouraging way was ever ready to give advice. I think perhaps that being from elsewhere – he came from Australia –gave him a sense of connection with me. I’d arrived from another sunny clime but my mother is a first-generation Glaswegian of Ukrainian descent and my father was a first generation South African of Lithuanian heritage. Consequently I’m basically Eastern European but influenced by growing up with that South African culture. My other bond was one that developed in Toronto where Patricia Kern took me under her wing. She encouraged me to think beyond opera-school and to get out there and sing. It was because of her that I auditioned for The Mikado when I was twenty-two. She’s just turned eighty now, but is still teaching and raising hell and since my next job is in Toronto I will be seeing her again. She’s an inspirational human-being and, although I’m not a very religious person, I do feel that I’ve been blessed by being connected with these people during my development, people who have really nurtured and looked after me.”

Gidon Saks. Photograph:  Jorg D'Hondt

When Gidon set out as a singer he was in love with Leontyne Price, or more precisely with the kind of sound she made. “I experienced the sensuality of music and at that time she seemed able to sing the simplest note in a way that made it full of joy and colour and history: indeed it was so full of everything that what it offered seemed limitless and without end. She set a standard about what a sound should contain. I’ve never been quite so excited by male voices, except perhaps when I heard George London for the first time or listened to recordings by the young Franco Corelli. Then I have to come inevitably to Maria Callas, for that to me was music to make you fly. But today the singer I come back to most often is Brigitte Fassbaender because her artistry gives you so much: spirit, passion, poetry and vulnerability.”

One feature that distinguishes Gidon from many other singers harks back to that childhood desire to become an actor. “Early on, I was encouraged to think of myself as an actor who can sing and, in contrast to lots of singers who would rather run a mile, I’ve always welcomed the opportunity to do a role that has spoken text in it. Furthermore, when invited to take on roles, I would tend to think about what the character had to offer in terms of human emotion and development rather than how suited it was to my voice. That was dangerous, and eight years ago I really crashed when I assumed the title role in Der fliegende Holländer. The emotional journey of that character appealed to me so much, but singing it nearly killed me. That experience forced me to step back and to think about how I was using my voice. For the first time in my adult career I went back to a singing teacher and found the incredible Susanna Eken. It’s fair to say that she rescued me, not so much because my voice was a mess but because my confidence had gone. I’d never before been fearful on a stage, not even on my Covent Garden debut in 1995. That had been as Mr Flint in Billy Budd and there had certainly been a sense of occasion, but no sense of fear or of being in an inappropriate place.”

With his faith restored by Susanna, Gidon is now enjoying a richly rewarding time, not least because he is now getting not just one but two opportunities to appear in a work he has long loved, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. At the time of our conversation, he was rehearsing for the latest Covent Garden revival of John Schlesinger’s much-loved production, and he is shortly to reprise the roles of the four villains in a production in Santa Fe by a director he much admires, Christopher Alden. As a youngster starting out on his career Gidon had sometimes fantasised about how, had he been born a tenor, he might have appeared as Verdi’s Otello, but he nevertheless relishes the roles available for a bass-baritone, especially when they are as interesting as the four distinct characters who together spell the nemesis of the poet Hoffmann. The latter’s hopes of finding his Romantic ideal are continually dashed as failure overtakes him in each of the three tales he narrates about his past and, finally, in the surrounding framework narrative too. As is often the case, the three former loves of Hoffmann will be sung at Covent Garden by different singers: Olympia, who proves to be a clockwork doll however lifelike, is Ekaterina Lekhina (or at certain performances Vassiliki Karayanni); the untrustworthy courtesan in the Venetian episode, Giulietta, is Christine Rice and the ill-fated Antonia is Katie Van Kooten. Each time, however, the role of the man who destroys Hoffmann’s hopes, be it Coppélius, Dappertutto or Dr Miracle, or indeed Lindorf in the framing episode, is taken by Gidon.

A scene from the Royal Opera's Les contes d’Hoffmann. Photograph: Clive Barda

As it happens, this is not quite Gidon’s first encounter with this opera or even with these roles. “When I was a young artist in Toronto in 1984 we would do a summer season in a tent: we offered potted versions of operas and Hoffmann was one of them. I did the villains and my Hoffmann was Ben Heppner whose sound was already glorious. It was one of my dreams to do this work properly but, just as I’ve come to think that I’ll never be asked to do Papageno which I would love, I’d more or less decided that it wouldn’t happen. But here I am, and I’m so lucky to be working for the first time with Tony Pappano. I’d heard from colleagues of the amazing experience they’d had with him – and that’s what it is. I don’t want to sound gushy or seem to be sycophantic, but every singer dreams about working with a conductor who can really hear them: how they breathe, how they phrase, and with the ability to take in their personality and spirit and to recognise where the strongest parts of their voice are. He’s really remarkable and, with this great cast and with Christopher Cowell as the revival director and Eleanor Fazan handling our movements, it’s all pretty fabulous.”

This being effectively Gidon’s debut in these four roles, how does he prepare? “I find French the most difficult language in which to sing so I’ve been having very helpful language coaching and have listened to recordings by José Van Dam and various native French speakers to get some idea of their approach and, in José’s case, of his definite sense of style. But I don’t listen to recordings more than once or twice, and very much at the beginning of things. However, there’s no limit to one’s advance preparation: you try to arrive for the first day of rehearsal as if the first performance were the next day. But from that point on you just continue taking in more and more information. In an environment like this, everybody has something to say and 99.9 percent of it is of value: that’s what makes the rehearsal process so exhausting. But I do find it exciting to arrive for the first time when you’ve done everything you possibly can and then, through an exchange of information and ideas, to discover that there are reams more to go. That’s one reason why it’s been so valuable working with people like Christopher and Eleanor.”

Gidon Saks as Lindorf. ©Bill Cooper

In this particular case I wonder if playing four characters makes a difference to how he approaches each one. “Having done all four I just can’t imagine doing only one, and you do come with definite ideas about the contrasted physicality of each of them. Getting the costumes helps, and then too you discover physical things through the way that the music is coming across. A few days ago we were doing the Antonia scene and we kind of realised that the way the hands are used could carry echoes of Nosferatu. Being as tall as I am, it’s bit more challenging to bring out the differences because, especially for anyone sitting way back, you are inevitably perceived as this person onstage and to seem different when facial details may not be so clear depends on appearance: how your elbow extends from the rest of your body, how your knees are bent or whether or not your back is arched or straight. These distinctions are hugely important.”

It also emerges from our talk – and this is something that I had not known – that there are different editions of this opera with the result that the order of scenes can vary. At Covent Garden the Giulietta episode in Venice precedes that featuring Antonia, but elsewhere they are now usually done in the reverse order. Gidon can see virtues in both approaches. I have suggested that the scene featuring Antonia, the voice of her mother and Dr Miracle has a Tchaikovskian intensity that makes it in many ways the emotional climax of the opera. “I understand that context, one that ensures that the highlight comes at the end as we see the death of the most human and real of Hoffmann’s loves whose loss would mean the most to him. Nevertheless, I think that Offenbach intended that Hoffmann should first of all fall in love with something quite plastic and then with someone wholly real, so that afterwards the idea of going off to Venice and the courtesans is a desperate last measure that fails horribly and in the course of which he loses his reflection thus coming to the end of his story. That makes better sense dramatically.”

As for the close of the opera, what is the balance between the positive and the negative since Hoffmann loses out – yet again – romantically but is given some hope of immortality through his poetry by the Muse who speaks to him? “The ending is essentially sad because I don’t think that there’s any glory in a reputation if the quality of the life you live is severely compromised to achieve that.” When it comes to Gidon’s own situation, which is little negative about it, even if there do remain roles that he would like to play but which have not come his way. Orest in Elektra is one of them and the list also includes several Britten roles from Collatinus to Bottom and certainly extends to the figures who, not without an echo of Hoffmann’s villains, provide a nemesis for Aschenbach in Death in Venice. But sometimes a delayed opportunity can be all gain and that’s how Gidon regards working on Les contes d’Hoffmann now. “I’m very, very grateful that it didn’t come my way before, because the size of the challenge is great, but I think that I’ve now got enough technical knowledge and sufficient emotional maturity to do justice to it and not just to scrape by – and that’s a very good feeling.”

  • The opening night of Les Contes d’Hoffmann is Tuesday 25 November 2008 at 6.30 p.m. and runs until Saturday 13 December (at 6 p.m.)
  • The performance on 7 December begins at 3 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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