The actor Simon Russell Beale on listening to opera and finding common ground between Puccini and Chekhov.
For a short but heady period in my twenties, I trained as an opera singer; or, at least, since I was a lyric tenor with a passionate interest in theatre, singing opera was what I was aiming for. I imagined that I would spend as much of my career on the stage as in the concert hall. Either way, though, I was pretty sure that I would pursue a life in music. This delusion did not last long. I was quite simply not good enough and, anyway, Shakespeare had long since cast his spell. I knew in my heart that he couldn’t be resisted and my career, if I was lucky, would be as an actor.
The irony of this short flirtation with music was that my knowledge of opera was very patchy. It’s better now, but even so, I would never think of myself as an expert. Like many singers in this country, I know a good deal about the choral tradition. Indeed, I’ve been singing church music since I was a child. Furthermore, I loved (and still love) the great symphonies and the chamber masterpieces of the last 200 years and always chose to listen to them rather than opera. The latter was always a rather exotic treat, a great evening out, rather than my staple diet.
It was for this reason that, over this lockdown period, I decided to educate (and indulge) myself. Over the last few months, I’ve listened to hours and hours of the best operas in the repertoire. It’s been intensely enjoyable, of course, but I’m rather proud that the project has been carefully structured. I’ve given myself particular tasks. Perhaps I could finally resolve the problem I have with Wagner, for instance. Maybe I could get to know the bel canto operas of Bellini and Donizetti, of which I am shamefully ignorant. And, of course, there was the whole daunting stretch of the twentieth century to explore.
I think I know now that I, like so many others, will never find Wagner easy. The nagging thought that, despite the glowing beauties of the music, there is something fraudulent or suspect hidden behind all the noise will not disappear. Bellini and Donizetti are fun, but a little goes a long way. It was predictably satisfying to rediscover Strauss’ unflagging infatuation with the female voice, even if some of the sexual politics is puzzling.
A sense of theatre
Britten is hard-edged and brilliant and, when he dives into the darker corners of human experience, genuinely scary. There have been others. Verdi’s Falstaff is still, to my mind, the best opera ever written. It’s both funny and beautiful and, unlike most work based on Shakespeare, manages to outshine its source material. But the biggest surprise was, to my astonishment, Puccini.
I was brought up to believe that Puccini is vulgar and sentimental. But what some see as vulgarity, I see simply as a genuine and acute sense of theatre. Scarpia’s first entrance in Tosca, for instance, is about as thrilling as it gets. Cio-Cio-San’s nightlong vigil in Madama Butterfly or Rodolfo’s turning away just at the point when his beloved Mimì dies are moments that Chekhov would have been proud of. Finally, the best moments in the Puccini operas make me cry. I may not be able to judge him as a musician, and he may not have contributed to the forward march of 20th century music, but the emotional impact Puccini provides over and over again is quite enough for me.
Simon Russell Beale started his theatrical career at The Royal Court, and went on to the Royal Shakespeare Company for 8 years. Since then, he has spent 20 years at The National Theatre. Not only has Russell Beale performed all over the world, he has also appeared in award winning TV and film, and has presented many BBC programmes about classical music. In 2003 he was appointed a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to the Arts. In 2019 Simon was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, at Buckingham Palace.