Praised as having “one of the most glorious sounds to be heard on the opera stage today” by the Express (London) and described as “superb” by The New York Times, Iestyn Davies is a Grammy Award-winning and Olivier Award-nominated countertenor whose other recent awards include the 2013 Critics’ Circle Prize for Exceptional Young Talent and both the 2012 and 2014 Gramophone Recital Awards. Davies is a regular singer at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall as well as across the globe at The Royal Opera House in London and La Scala in Milan. A versatile performer equally at home on both the opera and concert stage, Davies has also sung for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Paris’ Opéra Comique, English National Opera, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and at the Munich and Vienna Festivals.
Q&A with Iestyn Davies
Q: How do you treat/maintain your voice after performing six nights a week for 4 months?
Iestyn: In addition to the health routine I developed, I worked very hard at not trying to produce something magical all of a sudden, which you can do when you’ve had days of rest between operas or concerts. Instead, I had to be very monk-like and follow an almost religious path of ablutions, vocally speaking. I kept my warming up routine to the minimum necessary for the show and tried not to sing anything until each afternoon to give myself ‘recovery time’ after performances. Like athletes, when we use our vocal muscles, at least half of the preparation for a future performance is in the recovery from the previous one. Without recovery, you are singing on tired vocal cords. Inevitably, after weeks of day to day performing, the cords and vocal muscles accumulate tiredness, but the pay-off is that they also acquire a resilience.
Q: What is your favorite opera to perform?
Iestyn: It’s a difficult thing to nominate a favorite opera to perform because there is the music and then there is the dramatical side of things, which can often be deadened for you by a limp production. But I’ve had enjoyable times performing Britten’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as the character Oberon, a role written specifically for a countertenor which holds a special place in the canon for all countertenors. My most memorable experiences performing in operas have been when the cast gels and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so for example this summer we performed Handel’s ‘Saul' (strictly an ‘oratorio’ not one of his operas but staged at Glyndebourne Festival Opera very successfully by Barrie Kosky). The energy that Barrie brings to his productions rubs off on every performer, and this piece relied a great deal on that energy coming from the chorus, who were phenomenal. You feel part of a team of dozens of performers instead of being one of a few ‘stars’ trying to hold a show together! Much more enjoyable.
Q: Who are your greatest influences?
Iestyn: The single greatest influence on my musical life was my time singing as a boy in the Choir of St John’s College at Cambridge. To me, it was more than just another choir. I can listen to 100 recordings of different choirs and tell you exactly which was at St. John’s. There is a tradition of singing in the choir that somehow passes down the ages of each new group of performers that favors a very emotional commitment to words and from that the phrasing of the music sounds very persuasive. To the untrained ear, I suppose it translates as a sense that by listening you are being literally transported. I remember singing as a boy, and even now watching the boys there sing, they remain, as I was, very physical and demonstrative in their delivery of the music. It is not the rigid, cliché ‘English discipline’ you’d expect. It gets in your bones when that is your upbringing. It’s true in anything I suppose; one’s early experiences imprint themselves on you for the rest of your life. For me it was that - the emotional delivery above everything else - perfection was never talked about. What is it? we were taught that by being emotional and therefore very expressive we would bring something to the music that the composer had been unable to render in the printed score - like reading between the lines. you could call that ‘interpretation’ but that is often something you sit down and discuss. This was more than interpretation as it was spontaneous expression. I liked the ephemeral quality to that sort of music making.
Q: You performed “Farinelli and the King” for six months in 2017/ 18. How is Broadway different than opera?
Iestyn: The actual number of shows, and demands this made on me as a singer, was like running a marathon, and I can’t think of a better way to compare it to singing in an opera. This past summer, for example, I performed in an opera at Glyndebourne Festival Opera to the tune of 13 performances, which is considered a ‘heavy load,’ and that was spread over five weeks! On Broadway, I took part in six per week for four months. I think I sang over 100 shows. The audience is very different, too. In pure terms, they are a ‘theatre audience’ accustomed to plays and musicals. I met a great deal of people who had never seen or heard any opera. So many times, I was quizzed, ‘do you sing opera,’ to which the simple answer was always, ‘yes, that is what I do!’ But looking back now, I think that was a small success of that play; it crossed over to people who would otherwise have never committed to an opera, and reminded me that essentially what I do is sing music with a story or an emotional message that just happens to be part of a bigger. In its simplest terms, I performed songs, and that is the same raw musical structure that anybody can identify with and understand. The other weird and wonderful thing about performing in a Broadway show is that your company of actors and musicians is all consumed by the day-to-day, week to week, month to month habitation of one single space. The community of coworkers such as backstage, box office and front of house people becomes your support network and family. It’s a great and rewarding feeling, which contrasts enormously with the life in an opera house, where the singer or performer often feels like a house guest, constantly asking where the bathrooms are and how to get to the stage door to leave!
Q: Do you get nervous before going on stage? If so, how do you get over it? If not, where do you get that confidence?
Iestyn: The older I get, the more often nerves surprise me in a way they never used to. I watched the New Tom Volf documentary ‘Maria by Callas’ last weekend at the New York Film Festival, and Callas said something which resonated with me: “when you are young you do things (perform) that are instinctive, and when you grow older that ebbs away.” I suppose, in going through life, we learn from experiences which goes hand in hand with making us more aware as human beings, more able to predict circumstances ahead. It should mean we become better at controlling nerves, but actually I think it makes one more aware of the potential of failure. When you start out, failures are few and far between, everybody wants a newcomer to succeed and failure is measured against no evidence. To deal with nerves you have to understand why they are there and how to channel them into the right place - nerves are helpful in helping you focus and concentrate if used correctly. A lot of the time you have to stop listening to the inner voice in your head telling. Take your mind of it by talking to someone or quickly changing your activity in hand, distract yourself. Then find ways of making the fear be something serious that slows your breathing and calms your nerves. Remember to exhale and take in the audience in front of you, remind yourself they are there because they want to be entertained or be moved, and then think of enjoyment. It’s always good to be aware that nobody is making you do this job of performing - you chose to do it, it didn’t choose you, or if you believe it did be grateful for that. Enjoy the nerves because they are there to remind you that it’s not easy and we’re fortunate to be the person or people who are still able to overcome those difficulties.
Q: When did you discover you had your voice/ talent?
Iestyn: Twice in my life my voice was ‘discovered’. The first time was really all down to nurture. My parents sent me to be a chorister in the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge where we sang the daily service of Evensong for the eight weeks of University term. By the time I was 13, I had learned to sing in a way that worked well, and I was able to be expressive. Once my voice broke, I lost that vehicle for musical and emotional expression, so then it was a discovery that had to find my countertenor voice. I didn’t plan to be a countertenor; I just flipped my voice into falsetto one very boring afternoon in a school chamber choir. The person next to me thought my falsetto range ‘sounded quite good,’ and I took him at his word and explored it. Looking back, I remember it feeling like a door at been opened that wasn’t open since I had sung as a treble, so perhaps that was the ‘discovery’.
Q: What advice do you give to young singers just beginning their career in opera?
Iestyn: My favored piece of advice is twofold. First, singers are by their very nature unique. It’s important to remember that without feeling egotistical about how it might sound. No matter how much training and guidance you have that falls in line with your colleagues, your very DNA and hence physical make up will dictate a sound to your voice independently recognizable to that of anybody else. After that there is a whole host of other factors that will complicate life and you can’t always be in control of these. But, remembering you are you and not in competition with anybody but yourself is a good starting point. Secondly, but possibly more importantly, have a sense of humor. It’s always a good piece of advice, as there is no joy to a singer’s performance who appears to be weighed down with the duress of the act of making music. It gives you perspective, and perspective should translate into a sense of humor. A colleague of mine rather glibly said ‘in the end it’s just dressing up and singing songs in a room’ - but I rather like that.
Q: What do you do to relax when you’re not on stage?
Iestyn: I enjoy cooking and good wine, and I’m obsessed with good coffee -- making it properly and drinking it. I studied Archaeology at University, so I have a penchant for antiquities, and in particular historic architecture. I’m a supporter of Liverpool FC so that takes up the odd afternoon in front of the television (don’t get me started on how difficult it is to actually get a ticket to a game – it’s much more elitist than opera!). I’m also constantly on the brink of getting a dog. I think the one thing in the entire world that takes me from stress level 100 to chill level 0 is the presence of a dog in a room…they are disarmingly magical in that sense. Labrador, please.
Q: What is your life motto?
Iestyn: I’d hate to pin my colors to one mast, but if I had to for the sake of answering a question like this I suppose I always do try and look on the bright side of everything. It’s never worth getting angry about something (maybe for a short while) but better to push that aside. I know people think the English bottle things up, but time is a great healer and if you do put something under the carpet you’ll often find the payoff is many more days of joy compared with a few days pushing the vacuum reluctantly under the carpet.