Classical Music
Oct 30 2014

We talk to the American tenor ahead of his appearance in Opera Rara's
production of Donizetti's little-known opera Les martyrs

Donizetti's Les martyrs isn't performed very often. Could you summarise
the plot for those of us who aren't familiar with it?

The opera is set between Armenia and Rome in 300 AD. I play the main
character, Polyeucte, who converts to Christianity when his wife,
Pauline, is on her deathbed. He prays to the Roman gods and, when they
do not answer, turns to the Christian God who saves Pauline's life.

She is the daughter of a high priest of the Roman gods and remains
devout to them so the two have to struggle with loving each other while
believing different things. Polyeucte eventually becomes a martyr who
is willing to die for his religion and his wife finally converts to
Christianity as well. The opera has a dramatic ending where she and
Polyeucte are put to death by a lion in a public spectacle.

Is Polyeucte a believable character, do you think?

Yes, definitely. Throughout the opera you see the internal conflicts
of two people who believe very much in different things but also want
to stay married because they love each other so much: it makes the
whole opera very relatable. In the conversations between Polyeucte
and his wife they basically say: 'I wish you saw it my way, but I
still love you.' It's a very human drama.

Can you relate personally to some of the themes in the opera?

Absolutely. I come from a town of about 1,400 people in the Midwest
of America and we have, I believe, 13 churches. Everyone has their
own set of beliefs, but we all get along and there is a real feeling
of community between people from all these different churches.

Why do you think Les martyrs is performed less often than other operas
by Donizetti?

There are two reasons. Like a lot of French grand opera, the work
is having a renaissance because there are people who can actually
sing it now. It is some of the hardest music ever written because of
the length of the piece and because of the extremely high notes it
requires from singers. The other reason is that it's difficult to
stage an opera that is set in both Armenia and Rome. And one that
ends with death by lion. It can all be done nowadays.

What has it been like to work with conductor Sir Mark Elder?

He's like a human encyclopedia - he knows every single second of
each opera performs. His history with ENO and his contribution to
the music world is just so vast. It can be intimidating if you don't
know your music because he will know it better than you. Having him
as a conductor is inspiring.

This is the first time you have performed with Opera Rara. How has
the experience been so far?

Most people, unfortunately, have only heard of about ten operas -
Carmen, La bohème and so forth. The scholarly work that Opera Rara is
doing, and the company's belief in lesser-known pieces is amazing. I
love that Opera Rara makes opera feel revolutionary by performing
so many pieces that were controversial when they were written. Les
martyrs wasn't even allowed to be shown when it was first written. The
great thing is that we live in a time where people are able to hear
and see these wonderfully well produced and well researched operas
that they may not have heard of before. Opera Rara is a label that
I have always wanted to sing for so I'm living my dream.

Opera Rara's Les martyrs takes place at 7pm on Tuesday 4 November
at the Royal Festival Hall. Visit: www.southbankcentre.co.uk to find
out more