Brindley Sherratt – Sarastro at the Royal Opera House

“Inside, I’m quietly screaming with excitement” says Sherratt. ” It’s a dream come true. Thirty years ago, when I was a student, I used to sit up in the gods, where the seats were £5 and I needed binoculars. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to sing Sarastro here but at that point I had no idea it would ever happen. Now, I’ve done the part more than any other. This is the seventh production I’ve sung it in”. He is soon to make his Vienna State Opera debut in this role. “I love singing Sarastro”, he smiles. Singing at the Royal Opera House is special, too. “I don’t think there’s a singer who doesn’t like working here, because they support you so well. I feel so honoured and privileged”.
“In December, I was in Amsterdam in the Nederlandse Oper Die Zauberflˆte directed by Simon McBurney. It was pretty big and we had lots of actors and dancers on stage, but this Royal Opera House production is bigger and grander in every way. This set is colossal, and the scale and costumes are amazing. My costume must weigh 25 kilos. I’ve done Magic Flutes that have had a much more chamber feel to them, but this one feels right for a theatre this size, and I like it. David McVicar’s productions are very easy for a singer to fit into. He knows how voices work , and where it’s good for you to be singing from. It’s all ironed out and paced, it’s great”.
“I think Sarastro is an ambiguous person, and I like productions that show that side of him. I’ve been in productions where they cast him as very severe and very remote. In Hamburg, I was a giant. I climbed up a ten metre ladder and stepped into a torso, with my head above, and had a metre high hat. There were these little arms which were controlled by a man inside. So all the time I was singing, he would make the gestures.” Sherratt demonstrates, singing I had to do “Ihr, in dem Weisheitstempel eingeweihten Diener der groflen Gˆttin Osiris und Isis! “ with exaggerated deliberation. “I had to speak the dialogue in that way, too”, he adds. “It wasn’t a touchy-feely Sarastro”.
“In Amsterdam I sang a more rounded, tender Sarastro, but keeping a middle ground so you keeping thinking who he is. Is he the villain or the Queen of the Night? I like to keep that ambiguity, because when Sarastro does lose his temper, it’s more dramatic. We come from a society where we forgive those who have strayed and restore them but Sarastro blows up instead and wants Monostatos to be given 77 lashes on the soles of his feet. It also gives you a chance to roar !”. Sherratt’s voice drops to a stage whisper. “It doesn’t help the voice trying to sound meek and mild”,
“The arias are glorious”, says Sherratt, “But you need more. In theory, Sarastro looks easy enough on the page. When you run through with piano, it seems like chord, chord, and a lovely line, but on stage, it’s completely different. You could be stuck up on top of a tower or right at the back of the stage in a large theatre, wearing a huge robe, competing with two bassoons, three trombones and a mass of low strings, and you have to sing above all that. The tessitura in “O Isis und Osiris” is so low that you have to cut through every mini-break in that part of the voice and smooth it out to make a beautiful line, it takes a lot of control”.
Bass roles resound with character. Another role Sherratt sings particularly well is Pimen, in Mussorgsky Boris Gudonov. “Pimen needs depth of character. You have to be prepared to slow everything down and think like a very old man The colour of the voice requires a sense of age-old tragedy. Pimen is a man who has been seen the best and the worst in people. When I sing him I still get choked up at the end when the off stage priests start singing the Orthodox chants. It’s incredibly moving. It’s the darkness of the sound and the richness of low male voices and the music. My agent asked me if I wanted to sing Boris, and I thought, yes, he gets dressing room number one and the title role, but I’d be thinking “Gosh, I miss Pimen!” laughs Sherratt.
Sherratt sang Pimen with an all-Russian cast at the OpÈra de Nice, with Gennady Rozhdestvensky. “I was the only non-Russian speaker and it took a huge amount of work, but it was a wonderful experience. Rozhdestvensky knew exactly how the role should be done. He was so helpful, and also very funny and warm. Sherratt first sang the role at the English National Opera with great success. “Singing it in Russian is totally different”, his eyes lighting up with relish. “I’m singing it again soon at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich”.
“I followed a very unusual path to where I am now” says Sherratt. “I was raised, as were my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, in the Salvation Army. I was brought up entirely in that environment, steeped in its music and traditions. We lived on a council estate ten miles outside Manchester, Raised in a strict Salvation Army family, my sisters and I weren’t naughty. I used to spend my time playing my cornet and singing, several times on Sunday and rehearsing during the week. It was great to be part of that extended family, and it was the best free music education you could get”.
“The trumpet was my first love”, he adds, “I wanted to become a professional player, so I worked hard and applied to the Royal Academy. The man who was preparing me for the audition said that I had to study a second subject, Since I was terrible playing piano – only grade two or three – he suggested that since I’d been singing all my life, I should study it properly. He handed me “O Isis und Osiris”, and I learned it then, before the audition. But I got into the Royal Academy and spent three years majoring as a trumpeter. Then my singing teacher put me up for an opera competition, But I won i! It was a complete shock to me. Suddenly everyone was saying, “who is this guy?”. I was surprised too but I won it and singing jobs starting coming my way. Someone from Glyndebourne heard me and offered me a place, but I was only 20, and another job came up : singing at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, for the Queen. I’d met the love of my life, and the job came with a house in the grounds of the castle, so I got married. I could still study during the day because I sang Evensong and on Sundays. It was a doddle !”
“But singing in that very restrained, slow style affected my voice and I realized that I had to move on. At that time I was very unsure technically, but I had a good natural voiuce and was keen to sing other things. Then I won the Countess of Munster scholarship at the Royal Academy and could afford to move on. Then another good job came up with the BBC Singers”.
The BBC Singers are one of the most important all-round choirs in Britain, with extremely high standards and a formidably varied repertoire. “At the time I was there, there were some really good voices among the basses. Jeremy White joined at the same time, and Peter Harvey”. As did Sarah Connolly, with whom Sherratt recently sang Charpentier’s MÈdÈe at the English National Opera. “The variety of repertoire at the BBC Singers was like a breath of fresh air. Jeremy took me to his teacher, Betty Fleming, who taught me Italian bel canto technique which she’d learned from Joseph Hislop and those masters of the past”
“I stayed with the BBC Singers for 13 years. Jeremy and Sarah left before I did and started doing well, but I had a young family by that stage. Then when I was in my mid thirties, my father died. I nursed him through the last six months of his life, and it started me thinking what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My wife said I needed to do something new. People had always been saying I should sing opera, and I’d kept my voice in trim singing Messiahs, Verdi Requiems, and Haydn Creations. I hadn’t compromised my voice by singing what wasn’t right for it, and I was continuing to develop my technique. Eventually the BBC gave me a chance to launch my career. They gave me six months unpaid leave and held the job open, knowing that with a young family I couldn’t just jump into the unknown. I knew David Syrus (now Head of Music for the Royal Opera House) and we worked together developing my repertoire. I got a job at the Welsh National Opera, understudying parts like Leporello”.
“In 1999, things started to take off. John Eliot Gardiner gave me something in his Bach projects, and Trevor Pinnock took me round the world, singing more than 20 performances of St Matthew’s Passion. Then I auditioned for the Royal Opera House. My first role there was a small part in Haydn l’anima del filosofo, and later Publio in La clemenza di Tito. Anna Netrebko was making her ROH debut, and Barbara Frittoli and Bruce Ford were singing, and Colin Davis was conducting. They were all standing around the piano. I suddenly froze. I had all their CDs and here I was, two years out of the BBC Singers. The director came up to me and said, “Can I give you some advice ?” Sherratt whispers as he recalls the moment. “Shove off and forget it!” “He was right. It shook me up but it was what I needed. Then I started singing Sarastro and Gremion, at the WNO which was a big success. That was amazing, I’d never heard applause like that. All this time I was still building up muscle in my voice. Although I had no technical issues, I needed to build up the power to sing in a big house. John Tomlinson was a great help, and Robert Lloyd and Gwynne Howell, and David Syrus. People I’d worshipped for years!”
“The hard thing for basses is that if you’re in a big house and the orchestra is really going for it, we can’t fall back on big top B flats that we can just sail out. We have to produce two octaves of penetrating power and that doesn’t come easily or quickly. I’m 50 now and I’d say that my voice has changed in the last two years in terms of developing the power and range in the top that would carry in big houses”.
“Fortunately, basses last longer, thank goodness. There’s John Tomlinson still doing big roles and Gwynne Howell, whom I heard in the ENO Martinu Julietta last year, he’s 74. Robert Lloyd was singing Sarastro at 72. Sometimes I wonder if I should have switched earlier, but I had a very stable home life with my family when they were young. Now I’m travelling all the time, singing all over the world, and am hardly ever in Britain for long, though I’m singing Claggart at Glyndebourne this season”.
Bass roles convey depth of character, so singing them may only come from life experience. “You have to have lived to be a bass”, says Sherratt. “Sarastro, Pimen, Phillip, Fiesco, Sparafucile – they all have had something broken in them to make them what they are. I’ve lost my parents and one of my daughters has been ill. If you have spent many scary nights in hospital, that gives you a place to go to inside when you are singing something very sad or frightening”.
“When I started singing, I liked doing concerts. My biggest fear was not having the score in front of me and being alone. But what terrified me then is actually liberating. Now, I find that being in character frees you to sing better on stage. I feel now that I need to act to sing well. It’s exhilarating to get into a role. I love working things out with directors and conductors and finding new ways into the parts I sing”.
Anne Ozorio
For more information on Brindley Sherratt, including his appearances at Santa Fe, the Met and major European houses, please see here.
For more information on the Royal Opera House Mozart Die Zauberflˆte, please see here.