This summer, when The Pirates of Penzance sails into Holland Park, Richard Burkhard will be taking the role of the sentimental Major-General. He’s used to performing comedic characters on the Opera Holland Park stage. His last appearance here was as Count Gil in our acclaimed 2019 production of Il segreto di Susanna. But as an actor, he always tries to balance the humanity and humour of his characters.

Getting under the skin

‘I worked with a well-known opera director, who said opera can never be funny! I prefer to work along the lines that even in the most tragic moments in opera, we are only a whisker away from a laugh.’

As a performer, one of his strengths is his ability to inhabit a huge range of different characters. He believes nuance can only come with rehearsal time and the chance to experiment. ‘It is vital for good work… I try to explore every element of a character, to really get under their skin. Ultimately as actors, there are countless choices we can make when it comes to interpretation — but as I tell my students, you have to make a decision where you want to take a character and commit whole-heartedly to it. Clarity is everything on stage.’

Father roles

The Major-General will be his second ‘father’ role in a row, the first being Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier. Two very different operas, and very different characters, but Burkhard does see similarities. ‘Father roles are often rich and complex… Faninal and the Major-General both want the best for their daughters, but realise in order to do so, they have to let go. As a father myself, I recognise this journey all too well.’

Over the last year, Burkhard is one of the few artists who has performed multiple times in person and hasn’t done much online.

‘Videoing myself singing arias in my front room was never going to happen! In truth, I stopped singing for several months… Then I was lucky to be asked to sing in a socially-distanced Fidelio at Garsington back in September. Walking out on that stage was a hugely emotional experience. The audience’s response was remarkable.’

A fresh approach

And now he’s back at Opera Holland Park, performing in our first Gilbert & Sullivan production in many years. But unlike many singers, Burkhard didn’t have a relationship with G&S while growing up. ‘You could say I haven’t been burdened with some of the strange baggage that seems to be associated with Gilbert & Sullivan, which, in my opinion, does it a disservice.’ He enjoys taking a fresher approach.

‘When you take time to explore the roles, really pick apart the text, and importantly play the piece as it was intended, free of 21st-century cynicism, it’s just great stuff. And Gilbert makes me laugh – a lot!’ 

Interview by Philippa Peall