Friday, October 28, 2011

Interview with Tenor Nick Phan About His New CD - Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of the interview with tenor Nick Phan about his new recording, Winter Words featuring the music of Benjamin Britten, click here to read it in full. Opera Fresh would like to thank Mr. Phan for the generosity of his time and willingness to discuss his feelings about the recording. Here now is the second and final part of the interview:

Of all the poems, why did Britten focus on these eight of Hardy and seven of Michelangelo?
Britten would often pull books of poetry down from the shelf and peruse them, collecting various poems in his head over time. So the poetry that he would choose to set were often poems he had been ruminating on over a long period of time. I think in the end it came back to the importance of theme for him.

Does Britten's setting of Winter Words hold up to other great song cycles like Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel or Winterreise of Schubert?
Totally. While there isn't a narrative to Winter Words that links the cycle together as there is in both Winterreise and Songs of Travel, the thematic link between the songs is incredibly strong. Also, structurally, he works a bit of genius – the cycle is structured like a palindrome. Both the first and eighth song reminisce about times past, the second and seventh songs both deal with a young boy in a train station, the third and sixth songs both deal with young birds, while the fourth and fifth songs provide the center around which the other songs are reflected. It's pretty brilliant, because it provides this amazing cohesion between the songs.

Do you feel there is a more intimate immediacy in communicating text of songs in recital with piano versus performing full-costumed operas with orchestra?
Yes, definitely. When a singer is alone with a piano, you are the most naked and vulnerable you could possibly be. There is nothing to hide behind – it's just you and the audience. I love that about songs – I think that is what makes them so powerful. There is the possibility for real intimacy and an incredibly deep and direct level of communication.

How much influence do you think Britten's life partner, tenor Peter Pears, had on the composition of Winter Words and Seven Sonnets?
A huge influence – Pears and Britten worked very closely on much of his composition, and these songs were most definitely tailor-made for Pears' voice and technique.

The music for Winter Words was written in 1954 when Britten was 41 and Pears was 44. Do you think Winter Words is a song cycle that perhaps gets more poignant as you perform it at different stages of your own life?
Definitely – the thematic material makes it much that way. The whole cycle is about viewing innocence through that lens of experience. I think that as we get older, the layers through which look back only deepen, and so the way we relate to it will become richer and richer as we age.

The Seven Sonnets was composed by Britten 14 years earlier than Winter Words. Can you distinguish the growth in the composer's writing?
A bit. Mostly, it is pretty clear that Britten knew the intricacies of Pears' voice and vocal technique by the time he wrote Winter Words. At the same time, it is a bit difficult – compositionally, Britten was going for a very specific effect in the Michelangelo sonnets, trying to give a nod to Italian music and vocalism – which is incredibly successful at. Winter Words has a much more British musical feel, and in that sense, it is a bit like trying to compare apples and oranges.

As Michelangelo's sonnets were largely dedicated to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, do you think that Benjamin Britten as a gay man was somewhat drawn to these works beyond their poetic nature?
I assume so – there are many homosexual themes to much of Britten's music, and it is evident that it was something that he wanted to explore in his work. Billy Budd, Death in Venice, and his first Canticle all have heavy homosexual overtones. Still, in my research, I didn't encounter much written about that particular subject when it came to Britten's composition of the Michelangelo Sonnets.

Were there any specific translations that you sought out for the Italian sonnets?
In addition to my own translation work, I worked between Pears' translations at the front of the score, James Saslow's translations from his book The Poetry of Michelangelo (which provided really helpful biographical and historical annotations), and Carl Johengen's translations which are used in the liner notes.

As you perform these two different song cycles, do you feel that Britten succeeds in composing for the Italian language just as well as his native English? Are there any detectable differences in his writing to accommodate the language?
I do feel that is equally successful in both languages – his setting of the Italian is really impressive and colorful. Both cycles are incredibly colorful and full of texture in the realizations of the texts, and I think both show off his exceptionally virtuosic skill at setting text to music.

Three Britten songs are tagged on at the end of the recording. Do they hold special significance for you?
We included Britten's folksongs much like Britten and Pears included them on their programs. The material of this album is incredibly intense, and we felt that it needed some "lighter" music to break up the intensity and provide a bit of breathing room in the program. I love all of the folksongs on the album – I think Britten was a master at making you hear something so familiar and rooted into our western cultural consciousness as if you were hearing it for the first time. His arrangements of these folksongs are truly masterful.

Has interpreting the songs of Britten affected how you look at some of the composer's opera roles for tenor in Albert Herring, Peter Grimes, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Death in Venice or Turn of the Screw?
I haven't had the chance to perform any of his operatic roles yet – but I am bursting at the seams to get the chance!

Given any choice of composer or repertoire, what would you like your next recording project to be?
For the next album, I'm planning on deepening my exploration of Britten's music. I'm particularly fascinated with Britten's relationships with some of the other musicians he collaborated with in addition to Peter Pears. I explored a lot of the music he composed for these musicians in great detail during my summers at Marlboro, and I'd really like to take some of that music into the recording studio now . Down the road, other composers I would really like to explore in the recording studio would be Schumann, Bach, Handel and Mozart, but for now I'm mostly focused on trying to explore Britten. He wrote so much for the tenor voice, and especially as the centenary of his birth approaches in 2013, it seems really timely that my fascination with his music and life is blossoming now.

Check out these sources for more information about Nick Phan and Winter Words:

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