Opera Scotland

Iain Paterson speaks to Opera Scotland

Posted 2 Jan

Iain Paterson, a bass baritone and graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RSAMD at the time he studied there) hails from Drumchapel, Glasgow.  Iain has sung among others for Opera North, English National Opera (ENO) and the New York Metropolitan Opera.  He is booked to appear at Bayreuth later this year.  Iain recently spared some time from rehearsals at ENO's Lilian Baylis studios in North London to speak to Opera Scotland about his career and to share his insights on making a career in opera.

What are you rehearsing at present?

I've been singing Hans Sachs for three hours.  All this is in aid of a concert performance with Mark Elder in spring 2013 - a community involvement, one of Elder's 'mad ideas.'

How did you become involved in singing?

My father had some interest in music, taking me to RSNO concerts and on a couple of occasions got us tickets to Scottish Opera as a child.  But it was my grandfather who had more of an interest in music - he sang in an amateur choir. he was really the only singer in the family. I sang in church as treble, the odd solo.  My first instrument was a violin which I played from the age of around six.  When I was seventeen or so, I had a rugby injury so there were some spare hours on my timetable.  I'd always played in the school orchestra and now I was presented with the choice of doing extra maths or being in the school show.  We did the Pirates of Penzance.  I was the police sergeant.

And then you went to the RSAMD (as it was then)?

Yes, the music teacher at school, Peter Douglas, suggested to me I should apply with violin first study and voice as second study.  It so happened that a singing teacher, a man called Neilson Taylor was on the panel.  He didn't fancy me as a violinist and persuaded the panel to offer me a place as a singer.  I thought I'd o it for a year - this was in 1991.  Geoff Taylor (Neilson Taylor was his stage name) was such a good teacher I started to enjoy it and even won a prize in a singing competition at the end of the second year.

Were they doing opera productions then?

Not really.  The course had not been lead by people who were performers/singers and there had been no student productions of opera the way there are now.  Mostly we sang scenes from operas.  Chris Underwood and Tim Dean set up the new programme and I just caught the leading edge of that.  For opera, there was a one year course offering a certificate and I did that.  I remember Le roi l'a dit by Delibes, (that famous opera everyone knows!).  I sang one line in that I think!  I performed in Curlew River, going to Japan, and that was a good experience, arranged by Philip Ledger.  I didn't really learn any mainstream roles at the Academy.  And then I left in '95, had my tonsils out and  a year off.



Tell us about the first steps afterwards

I did a couple of things with Clonter Opera.  I went for an audition with Opera North; I was auditioned and they offered me a job in the chorus.  I was 21 years old.  I did that for four years.  Opera North were very good to me and I hadn't had to stick to chorus work.  I got minor roles.  I was able to keep going to my singing teacher, who'd retired to Holmfirth.

I left the chorus in 2000 and got a place on the Young Singers scheme at ENO (Jerwood at that time) for a year then a year then a three year contract with ENO as principal.  ENO were very good when I was in the Young Singers programme.  They had allowed me to take other work elsewhere; WNO and others.  Then when that finished I went on contract with ENO.  WNO were the first to offer me something substantial, four performances of Timur in Turandot and cover for the rest of them because Stephen Richardson couldn't do the dates.  It was my first official freelance contract.  Looking back I think I'd actually done surprisingly little chorus work at Opera North and even done some Leporellos.

You haven't sung much in Scotland?

No and never for Scottish Opera.  I have been offered parts but I've been booked up.  I'd love to sing with Scottish Opera.  I've sung at the Festival a few times.  It's all about dates and booking far enough ahead.

You are singing Don Giovanni for English National Opera at present?

Well, I'm croaking my way through it at the moment, I've a bit of a cold.

You've sung Don Giovanni before?

Aye I did it for the first time in America for Brian Dickie's Chicago Opera Theatre.  That was fun - modern day, set in a nightclub.

Was that in English as well?

No, that was in Italian.  If at all possible, I like to learn a role in the original language even if I am to be singing it in English.  I always like to try and get (say) the Italian in first because I think it gets a good base level of programming into the voice and then if you need to switch things about for the English that becomes almost like a temporary thing in your memory and you can forget that but you still have it as the original role there.

Is it tough learning a role in two languages?

Generally it's much much easier. You learn stuff faster if you learn it in English because it's your own language but you'll remember it for longer if you learn the original because it all just makes much more sense.  It fits because there's no trade-off to get rhyme, no trading of rhythms or anything like that and then... A lot of what we do in translation is not really a strict translation as there is this taste for updating things and to develop a version that works for a modern audience. This means working rather loosely within the framework of what's there. It can get tricky because if you do two or three versions they all start to cross pollinate.  It can be fun when the different versions come together.  On more than a few occasions, I've found myself standing in front of a couple of thousand people singing gibberish, as I think all singers do.  The irony of course - because we have supertitles at ENO - when you forget your words - the only person who really desperately needs to see them is you, and you are the only person in the theatre who can't.

Movement and acting and interpretation can be very different from production to production.  To what extent are you able to bring your own approach?

Very little if you're honest.  You'll always go to a role with certain core truths, beliefs that A works, B doesn't.  But then the director sets out his views.  As proessionals we are paid to make a director's vision work.  We do take on critics' views.  We accept criticism if it is fair but we can't change the production just because someone doesn't like it.

How do you find meetings with sponsors?

The moment you are introduced as an opera singer, people - very often wealthy people - defer to you because it is so much outside their experience.  But it is a more important part of the job because fewer productions are being put on.  We are increasingly expected to mix with sponsors after the performance.  All performers do this - opera is going through a very difficult time at present.  To be honest, at half past ten at night when you've sng Don Giovanni, the last thing you want to do is to walk into a room of sponsors and pretend you are as fresh as a daisy.  But it's part of the job, it's expected of you.

Thinking back to your time at college, what surprises have you founnd in your career?

You are never prepared for what you have to give up.  Friends work from nine to five, you work evenings so you lose your friends after a couple of years.  Friends therefore tend to be colleagues you have been working with and of course that gives rise to another problem, they are working elsewhere.  Also you find keeping in touch wih family difficult.  Now I'm trying to work contracts out so I can see my girlfriend regularly.  She flies out or I fly home.  The longest we went without seeing each other last year was three weeks.  You give up all your social life. You are committed to a weekly schedule that is usually produced on a Friday.

There's a lot of travel, living in places you wouldn't normally go. But there's not really a lot of money in it (the job).   Beyond a certain fee threshold, you don't get rehearsal fees.  I've put months of work into this.  If you cancel an appearance you don't get paid.  Youve got all this pressure all the time.  You do think, do I cancel or do I pay the mortgage.

Take international work- the company pays for your flights but you have to pay your own accommodation.  For instance, when I sang at the Met last time, I was out there for a month rehearsing and a couple of weeks before.  I had three performance fees to cover six weeks' of living costs- you try getting an apartment in New York for a reasonable sum of money.

Of course, it's not all bad! You don't have to work nine to five.  Most of the people I have to work with are fun to work with.  There's a lot of mystique but it's not the most complicated thing. You have to put on a silly costume and sing.  There are many worse jobs and I do enjoy it.

Who are your heros/role models?

For me, John Tomlinson is great! He's just a force of nature.  Every time I've shared the stage with him it felt like a special occasion. I've done Parsifal with him as well as the Ring.  Also I was in Rosenkavalier alongside John Tomlinson's Ochs at the Coliseum when as Police Commissar I had to keep poking him with a stick - the great Tomlinson!  I coudn't help myself saying, sorry.  Bryn Terfel too, I've worked a lot with him lately.  George London I would love to have heard live.  And also, flying the flag, I must mention the great Davie Ward of course - who nobody remembers now - the greatest bass baritone to come out of Scotland and who sang at bayreauth.  He appears on some pretty famous recordings too.

What role would you like to sing in future?

Since I was young I've wanted to sing Wotan.  Whether or not I'd be able to, I want to try one day.   As for others, I haven't enjoyed singing a role as much as I have done learning Hans Sachs. 

Iain, Opera Scotland wishes you all the best as your career develops. Thank you!

Check out Iain's appearances in Scotland here.

The video is a link credit to Metropolitan Opera, New York, whom we thank.

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