Wednesday, February 16, 2011

British tenor Nicholas Mulroy back in Israel to sing Bach

On February 3rd 2011, I interviewed British tenor Nicholas Mulroy. Nicholas performs a wide repertoire, from early music, Baroque oratorio and opera to recitals and contemporary works. Nicholas Mulroy will be in Israel to solo with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in J.S.Bach’s B Minor Mass under the baton of the orchestra’s honorary conductor Andrew Parrott on March 13th at the Enav Centre (Tel Aviv) and March 14th at the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. Nicholas Mulroy will be in Eilat at the end of March, to perform Bach’s St John Passion. Today he lives in London with wife Annie, an opera singer, and their 10-month-old daughter, Catherine.

PH: Nicholas, what are your earliest musical experiences?

Nicholas Mulroy: I was born in Liverpool. My grandfather was a very keen amateur violinist. Perhaps more importantly, he was a teacher who believed that music was for everyone, and I remember him as a keen listener of just about anything. I started singing as a chorister at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral at around age eight, and sang there for five or six years. Several other choristers from my time there are now professional musicians; choirmaster Phillip Duffy had great enthusiasm for music and instilled in us the joy of singing.

I also played the oboe in the local youth orchestra and was a keen pianist in a school jazz quartet and a Doors tribute band. (The Doors was an American rock band of the ‘60s.) I also played more standard repertoire. I performed much at school, where music was enthusiastically promoted.

PH: Where did you go from there?

NM: I went on to Clare College, Cambridge, where I read Modern Languages. It was there that I got involved in singing again, mostly with the choir, with which we toured to all sorts of places, but also doing consort singing and some solo recitals.

I went on to take a Lay Clerkship at St. George’s, Windsor.

I then took four years of postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music, London. At Clare College and the Royal Academy of Music I studied singing with David Lowe and later with Philip Doghan, both of whom have given me enormous help and support.

PH: Would you like to talk about ensemble versus solo singing?

NM: Yes. I joined I Fagiolini (directed by Robert Hollingworth) around the same time I was beginning studies at the Royal Academy of Music and sang, whilst there, with other British consorts like The Tallis Scholars and The Cardinall’s Musick; I focused on solo singing (of all kinds, really) at the RAM, whilst keeping the consort side of things going in the “outside world”. I have always enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) both kinds of music-making. I find singing vocal chamber music in those kinds of groups very fulfilling and it provides opportunities to sing Renaissance- and early Baroque repertoire – like Byrd, Victoria and madrigals of Monteverdi – which I have always loved.

I was in Israel with I Fagiolini in the 2005 Israel Festival, singing a concert comprising of Monteverdi’s 4th Book of Madrigals. It was called “The Full Monteverdi”. The program was pretty gruelling, both in terms of scheduling and vocal demands. Taking it to many countries, we performed the program some 80 times, never getting tired of just how rewarding the marriage of text and music is in those pieces.

PH: You perform much Baroque music.

NM: Yes. Baroque music is, I suppose, what takes up the majority of my schedule. I never really planned it that way, and feel it is good to be conversant in as many styles as can fit one’s voice, personality and temperament. I have sung a lot of Bach, particularly the Evangelist roles, and also Handel. I love how these two giants of Baroque music are so different – Bach’s eyes always seem to be raised heavenwards, while Handel’s music is, I suppose, much more terrestrial; Handel is capable of extraordinary insight into humanity.

PH: You will be singing the tenor solo in Bach’s B minor Mass in Jerusalem. How does that feel?

NM: It is, indeed, special to perform a piece like this in Jerusalem, where I found, last time, that the immediacy of the geography of the Christian story is so striking. It is also a supreme manifesto of faith by Bach and so it is interesting to perform it in a place which is so central to many strands of faith. But I’m also inclined to think that the important thing is to give the optimal performance and that the audiences find in it the most fulfillment, however they choose to do so. This, I think, is important in music generally and especially in performing Bach where, I believe, the performer must always be mindful of being a vessel for the music and the truth (and whatever else there is) within it, rather than imposing too much of one’s self or one’s musical ego on it.

PH: What about opera and modern music?

NM: I do some opera. Have just finished a run of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” for Glyndebourne. And yes, modern music is important, of course. In fact, when I get back from Jerusalem, I go straight to Scotland to premiere four new works with a terrific group there called “Mr. McFall’s Chamber”. I have performed new works of many composers and feel that there is a particularly rich pool of British contemporary composers.

PH: Do you feel performances get enough rehearsal time nowadays?

NM: Certainly in the UK the answer is that we’re generally under-rehearsed, from my experience. Most musicians in the Baroque field, for whatever reason, tend to have the capacity to work very quickly. (Many also work in churches where one rehearses maybe 20 minutes before an hour-long service.) This gets taken advantage of to an extent, there often lacking the spirit of investigation or getting under the skin of the music; it becomes an exercise in getting through it in time. While this can produce exciting results, I think the most rewarding and memorable musical experiences I have had have been when we have had time to develop an understanding of the music, the text and our musical colleagues. This is true especially in music as richly textured and meaningful as that of Bach and I am looking forward to spending some quality time with it in Jerusalem.

PH: Nicholas, when it is not music, how do you like to spend your time?

NM: My spare time has become mere limited than it was since the birth of our daughter Catherine; however, I enjoy reading (I have a special weakness for William Boyd and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and films and I am a keen sports fan. – Liverpool is my football team.

PH: Nicholas, many thanks. We are very much looking forward to your performances in Israel soon.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Talking to opera singer Enas Massalha

On December 29th 2010, I had the pleasure of talking to operatic soprano Enas Massalha. Born in Deboriah, Israel, Enas is a graduate of the vocal department of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

PH: Enas, do you come from a musical family?

Enas Massalha: We have always had a tradition of singing at home – my immediate family as well as aunts, uncles and grandparents all like to sing. Singing was an important part of life, as was discussion about music. To cite just one incident, my maternal grandfather suffered a stroke and heart attack and his condition caused him to have a major loss of memory. To calm him, we would sing songs he had known and loved; he would remember the lyrics and sing with us. This was our way of communicating with him and the way he engaged with us. He would be enthusiastic to sing more with us and would request songs. This is always a constant reminder to me of how important music is in life.

PH: When and where did your musical training begin?

EM: When I was five years old, my mother wanted me to learn the piano. I loved music but was not keen to play piano. What I had always wanted to play was the harp, but there was no harp teacher in our vicinity. I had always loved singing and sang classical Arabic music at school and for school events, also performing as a singer of traditional music. A friend told me about a conservatory in Emek Yizre’el (Jezreel Valley) close to where we lived. At age 17 or 18, I enrolled to take voice lessons there, although I had no idea about European classical singing. I figured that by taking lessons I would improve my singing of Arabic music. Nancy Nagan was my first teacher. However, when I started lessons, I discovered a whole new world of singing – the technique, the sounds - a totally new method of voice production.

PH: Were did you go from there?

EM: I had a lot of thoughts and questions running round my mind but had not considered taking up music as a profession. However, when I was studying at the conservatory, the principal suggested I audition for the Academy of Music. Not confident I would be accepted, I decided to discuss the matter with my father. He said he did not know what the life of an opera singer would hold, but if that was what I wanted, we should give it a go! Together he and I went to Jerusalem, I auditioned and was more than surprised to be accepted.

PH: So you had chosen to be an opera singer.

EM: I always feel that the life of a classical opera singer had “chosen me” and now my life was to shape itself around this new opportunity. My teachers at the Jerusalem Academy were Gila Yaron, Miriam Meltzer and Marina Levit. The Academy was a warm and supportive school, connecting me to the life of professional singing; it gave me so much confidence and opened doors for me; in short, it was much more than just a place to study.

PH: You came to the Academy with a very different background to that of other students.

EM: Yes, indeed. I was one of very few Arab girls studying there and I was away from my own culture. I was often asked why I was studying opera and whether my own music was not good enough. Today, they are proud of the first Arab opera singer trained there. I do feel I am an ambassador of my people.

PH: What followed your graduation?

EM: I took part in the Aviv Competitions. I did not win, but the manager of the Israeli Opera was present when I sang there and invited me to join the Opera Studio of the Israeli Opera. After passing the audition I was given a two-year contract to sing at the Opera Studio. They were to be a very interesting two years for me. However, life becomes more difficult when you take a leap up from being a student to a singer dealing with all the responsibilities of being on stage, from having “potential” to getting work, to finding one’s own niche and understanding what one wants. The classical repertoire is so broad and complex; I needed to know “who I was”, where my voice wanted to go and what I was looking for. The Opera Workshop was my first important professional experience and it provided me with many professional tools.

PH: Enas, you talk about “finding your own voice”.

EM: I am constantly looking for what this voice wants to say and asking myself where I am going. No longer the same person, I am now a collage of cultures – international, more sophisticated, more aware of the world. I was raised to be open to music and cultures, as a girl I spoke languages (today I speak five) and I was prepared to be part of a new experience. But being exposed to all these different cultural experiences does change one.

PH: You had left the Opera Workshop. What next?

EM: It was 2006. Once again, I was looking for direction. I now had a voice teacher in Berlin – Mrs. Abbie Formansky. She mentioned a program for young artists at the Berlin Staatsoper (State Opera) and suggested I give it a try. This situation found me at a crossroads in life and I needed to make a decision. Should I return home to the way of life expected of me – marriage and children – or continue with my singing career? I felt the need to further my career and called the Staatsoper Berlin to request an audition with its musical director, Daniel Barenboim. Barenboim, they said, was not there: he was in Ramallah. I decided to go to Ramallah. A few days later, I was at the conservatory in Ramallah. I was working in a rehearsal room with Barenboim’s assistant when Barenboim entered. He listened to my singing and then asked me three questions: what were my plans for August, what were my plans for tomorrow and would I accompany him to the Salzburg Festival. (At the Salzburg Festival, Barenboim was organizing a concert featuring some of the world’s greatest singers – Dorothea Roschmann, Waltraud Meier and Thomas Hansen. I also sang there; in fact, I sang two Mendelssohn songs, with Barenboim, himself, accompanying me at the piano.) I swallowed my tongue! The next day I was to sing for Barenboim and Zubin Mehta during a break at a rehearsal for the concert celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. All the musicians had left the stage; it was just Barenboim, Mehta, myself and television crews from all over the world! This was my audition and I felt it was a matter of “life or death”, but I managed to control my nerves. Following that, Barenboim organized a scholarship of two months of lessons for me with people working at the Staatsoper. I was then a member of the Staatsoper Studio from 2007 to 2009.

PH: Would you like to tell something of your time at the Berlin Staatsoper?

EM: I was one of the first to make a debut there as Papagena. A bigger role was in the world premiere of Prokofiev’s “The Gambler”. A few months after the premiere, we spent a month performing “The Gambler” seven times at La Scala in Milan.

PH: What are you doing now?

EM: I live in Berlin and freelance in projects that interest me. And the search for direction goes on. It is ironic that all a singer’s work and life revolves around the voice: you listen to it constantly and ask yourself what you want of it. The present and future mean reinventing oneself, searching and thinking. On one hand, I am a woman with the desire for a family and a “normal life”; on the other hand, I want more. The journey of ideas is to take the singer where he/she wants to go, but one does not know where it will lead. And it’s a tricky journey, demanding courage. The performer is a “nomad”, traveling where his/her voice or instrument will travel.

PH: One final question: what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

EM: I love to cook and am very keen on attending movies and theatre.

PH: Enas, many thanks for your time and sharing your thoughts and the many sides of your singing career. I wish you continued joy and success.