Features

Dream Weaver

Bass Matthew Rose, who sings Bottom in this month's Met performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, discusses his passion for the music of Benjamin Britten with RICHARD FAIRMAN.

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Rose as Bottom at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre in 2008
© Johan Persson/ArenaPAL 2013
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© Johan Persson/ArenaPAL 2013
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© Johan Persson/ArenaPAL 2013

"The first time I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream was while I was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia," says Matthew Rose, who this month sings the role of Bottom the Weaver in the Met's revival of the acclaimed Tim Albery–Antony McDonald production of the Britten opera. "I used to travel to New York every week, and the opera was playing at the Met with a great cast, including Susan Chilcott, Paul Groves, Nathan Gunn, and Peter Rose as Bottom. It was also during that period that I had the first chance to take part in the opera myself,when I sang the role of Theseus in a student production in Philadelphia. A Colombian bass was singing Bottom — and I was very jealous."

Matthew Rose, thirty-five, with his superbly resonant voice, has become one of Great Britain's most highly regarded basses. He believes that A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of "the greats" among the Britten operas. "Perhaps it doesn't get around as much as it should," he says, "but they love it in Italy, as I discovered when we were performing it at La Scala. The Rake's Progress was in the repertory at the same time, but the Italian audiences didn't seem to get that in any way, and the difference in reactions between the Stravinsky and the Britten was enormous. If A Midsummer Night's Dream is really funny, then it is marvelous entertainment. I remember not wanting any act to finish the first time I saw it, not least because the role of Bottom is so good. It has been a hugely rewarding experience for me to sing it so often. This was my first major role as a professional, in the 2006 revival at Glyndebourne, and that was followed by a production at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House in London, and then Milan, Lyon and Houston. There are so many facets to the role. First, Bottom is the pretentious 'Mechanical,' then a donkey, and finally he is Pyramus in the play of the last act. It is really three roles in one. You don't get an opportunity like that very often."

Rose was spotted in Italy early on by Mikael Eliasen, artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theatre at the Curtis Institute, who lured the bass to Philadelphia. Rose says he did not think twice about the invitation and has never regretted the five years he spent there. With only twenty-five singers taking the vocal studies course in Philadelphia, there were opportunities for all. During his time at Curtis, Rose took a role in fifteen student productions, and he says this was valuable, as it meant he did not feel out of his depth when he returned to London to take up a place in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. 

Since then, Rose has been back regularly to the U.S. Among the engagements he remembers most happily are the Mostly Mozart Festival, Don Giovanni at Santa Fe, where he sang the role of Leporello, and his appearances at the Metropolitan Opera as Colline in La Bohème (his debut) and as Talbot in Maria Stuarda. It goes without saying that singing at the Met had been a prime ambition since those weekly visits as a student from Philadelphia. "I was having singing lessons at Juilliard, and my teacher, Marlena Malas, would look across at the Met and say, 'If you don't behave, you will never sing there!'" 

What counted as "not behaving"? "Not concentrating," he says. "Not doing things properly. She was a stickler for singing well and still is, as she is still my singing teacher now. The size of the Met is intimidating. You have to remember that people must be able to hear you and understand you, or you might as well not be there. Even if you have a largish voice, you worry at the Met that you aren't going to be heard. Also, the conductor is much farther away, but the orchestra is wonderful, and there are five or six guys down there in the pit who were at Curtis with me. That makes me very proud."

Among the other places that have loomed large in Rose's artistic life is Aldeburgh, the small town on the East coast of England where Britten made his home. Set among the fens, the low-lying land of East Anglia, Aldeburgh is known for its centuries-old fishing trade and biting coastal winds — an atmosphere familiar to music-lovers from the opera PeterGrimes,where the orchestral interludes conjure the sounds of the North Sea storms and the waves washing up and down the shingle beach. 

Rose studied for more than three years in courses at the Britten–Pears Young Artist Programme in nearby Snape, where a concert hall was fashioned for the Aldeburgh Festival out of a disused malthouse in the 1960s. His teachers there included baritone John Shirley-Quirk, one of Britten's favored singers in his later years (Shirley-Quirk appears as Theseus on the composer's own recording of A Midsummer Night's Dream), as well as other English artists linked to the Britten tradition, such as mezzo-soprano Ann Murray and baritone Thomas Allen.

Even after the composer had died, there was still what Rose describes as a "Britten community," with close associates such as Britten's niece and Rosamund Strode, the composer's musical assistant, very much in evidence. Rose counts appearing in Curlew River, the first of Britten's three Church Parables, at Orford Church (where the work's premiere was given) as "one of my greatest musical experiences." He chose the Britten Studio at Snape as the venue for his recording of Schubert's song cycle Die Winterreise last year. And this summer, as a seventieth-birthday gift to an Aldeburgh resident, he took part in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in her back garden — a gesture typical of the small-town closeness of the local people.

"Just being in Aldeburgh and experiencing the remarkable artistic hub that Britten and Peter Pears created, with the festival, the school and the concert halls, is inspiring," says Rose. "I go back a lot and have some good friends there now. And the golf course is one of my favorites! On the thirteenth hole you go past Britten's house, and a friend of mine said that in the 1960s, when he was playing golf there, he would see Britten and Pears walking the dog in the afternoons." Such memories clearly still cast a powerful spell. "I hope this is somewhere I will always return to," Rose says, and he is keen to share his own delight in the place with others. "Please tell anybody who is thinking of visiting England from the United States that Aldeburgh is only a two-hour train journey from London."

When that East Coast climate seeps into the soul, it cannot help but open ears to the music it inspired. Apart from the works Britten composed during his three-year stay in the U.S. from 1939 to 1942, the sounds of the East Anglia coast permeate almost everything he wrote. This includes his orchestral and vocal music — Rose recommends the Piano Concerto, "like Prokofiev or Ravel," and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings — as well as the operas.

Mention of the Serenade can hardly pass without discussion of Peter Pears, the singer for whom it was written. As Britten's partner, Pears was the inspiration for so much of the composer's music, and many of the leading Britten opera roles, from the title character in Peter Grimes to Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, were tailored for his idiosyncratic tenor voice. Does Rose ever wish that Pears had been a bass? "Not in this case," he says, thinking of AMidsummerNight'sDream and his own role of Bottom, in comparison to the much smaller comic cameo of Flute/Thisbe that Pears sang in the opera onstage. "Of course, it is fortunate for tenors that Britten gave them so much wonderful music to sing, but as a bass I also enjoy singing Collatinus [in The Rape of Lucretia] and last year sang Claggart in Billy Budd for English National Opera. That was the third role I have sung in that opera, as I have worked my way up to the top. In fact, Britten is the composer, together with Mozart, who has turned up the most in my career."

As his return to the Met gets closer, Rose is looking forward to working again with some valued colleagues. The cast includes various singers he knows from other productions of the opera — Iestyn Davies (also Oberon at Houston), Erin Wall as Helena (a role she sang at La Scala, when she was "very pregnant") and Elizabeth DeShong, a former college friend, as Hermia — so the revival promises to be a pleasant reunion.

"This is Britten's happiest work," Rose declares. "There is no other opera of his that has three pairs of lovers — Lysander and Helena, Demetrius and Hermia and, no less than the other two, Bottom and Tytania. Their scene together is just as much a love scene as the others have, even if it is between a donkey and a fairy queen. Perhaps Britten didn't understand how to write a love duet for a pair of humans, but their music is some of the most beautiful and sensuous that he wrote." After that, of course, there is still the comic play of Pyramus and Thisbe to come, in which Bottom gets to play his starring role. "The third act of A Midsummer Night's Dream is great fun for me personally and one of the most entertaining acts in all opera," says Rose. So Britten saves up the best for last? "Exactly. Please don't leave at the interval, everybody." spacer

RICHARD FAIRMAN has been a music critic for the Financial Times since 1988. He is also Audio Manager at the British Library, where he oversees the audio CD label of spoken-word recordings.

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6