“You must know the English countertenor, Andrew Watts,” said my German friend, Birgit as we sat in a Bierkeller in Salzburg after David Pountney’s production of Turandot (with the Berio ending.) Actually she said “the English counter” which took me a moment to compute. Of course I should have heard of him, but some twelve years ago I hadn’t. That’s because Andrew Watts is one of the UK’s greatest Invisible Exports, a household name in Vienna, Paris, Salzburg, Graz, Geneva, Venice, Hamburg, Porto, Lucerne, Berlin, Munich and Mannheim, to name but a few, but, unforgiveably, not in London.
The typical British countertenor progresses from boy treble in a cathedral choir to alto choral scholar at an Oxbridge college. But Andrew Watts is not the typical British countertenor. He has cut his own swathe in the operatic world. He may have yet to tread the hallowed boards of The Met, but is shortly to return to the Walt Disney Hall in LA for a second appearance. Name me a major house anywhere in Europe and, like as not, Watts will have sung there. In fact he is so much in demand, he has been known to be in production in two different countries simultaneously on more than one occasion.
So why is his not the first name on every opera fan’s lips when Handel at English National Opera or Vivaldi at Versailles is mooted? Remember, it wasn’t really until 1988 when Derek Lee Ragin became the first countertenor to strut the boards of the Met that a new breed of male altos started to make the transition from singing with a lute to filling a large auditorium with sound. Up to that point most opera theatres with a proscenium arch and a pit by necessity employed sopranos and mezzos to sing castrato roles. But in parallel with a shift towards using male voices for operatic castrato parts, this new breed of countertenors with more focused, better-produced voices have attracted the attention of living composers. The reason why the British opera audiences may not be as familiar with Watts’ singing as they are with that of Iestyn Davies, Andreas Scholl or David Daniels is that Watts has had roles written for him in upwards of thirty contemporary operas. Lawrence Zazzo and Bejun Mehta may be snapping at his heels, but I will stick my neck out and say that Watts is the go-to countertenor for contemporary composers. It’s his bad luck that British intendants have preferred to wheel out old music in new productions rather than take a risk on contemporary commissions.
In 2002 I went to Venice to get my first taste of Italian new complexity in the form of Guarnieri Medea at La Fenice. Mr Watts was singing the role of Jason, had asked La Fenice to find me a discount hotel and even met me from the airport bus. He couldn’t resist taking me for my first sight of the Piazetta, gateway to the Lagoon, at about 11pm. We agreed to meet the following morning for coffee in the Piazza San Marco where we would sit in the sun and watch the acqua alta bubbling up through the grates. Venice mid-morning is a rather different prospect from the Piazetta cloaked in the tabarro of darkness. In the bright Venetian light amidst the press of international tourists I had a momentary panic I wouldn’t be able to find him. Then I heard his voice above the hubbub and saw his singing head, reminding me of The Head of Orpheus in Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong, floating above the hordes of Japanese. The musicians of Caffè Florian were playing a show medley and Watts couldn’t resist singing along (an octave higher of course) as he made his stately progress towards the first caffè of the day, just like an 18th century primo uomo.
Whilst Andrew Watts mainly sings contemporay opera overseas, interspersed with the odd Handel or Monteverdi when he can fit it in to his busy schedule, for one week in every eight he is a much-valued and highly dedicated vocal teacher and coach at the GSMAD, the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the ROH and at the National Opera Studio. Recently he gave masterclasses to great acclaim at Hamburg State Opera. I always think it is a shame less is made of the massive contribution made by celebrated singers past and present to the careers of young artists. I have seen Watts in action and can attest he is an inspirational teacher.
Anyone searching for a commercial justification for funding the arts and in particular arts education should be made aware that Britain is in the business of producing some world class musicians thanks to some excellent conservatoires and very fine postgraduate training programmes attached to the major opera houses. More to the point, in economic terms, a British resident artist who pays his/her taxes in the UK but works more overseas than at home, makes a significant contribution to Britain’s balance of payments. We are no longer a world leader in the manufacturing of ships, cars or steel and our imported goods far exceed our export of manufactured goods. What we do export very successfully are opera singers like Andrew Watts, who technically are Invisible Exports.
Moving swiftly away from economics, you can see the complete Guarnieri Medea on YouTube, should you wish to dive headfirst into some of the more avant-garde music you can hear on an average night at the Venice Music Biennale. Guarnieri clearly had aspirations to create the greatest show on earth. The opera involved live interaction with a video artist who crawled around the stage, an orchestra which appeared to have been blown apart and scattered around the auditorium and, to top it all, was being filmed for national television. Guarnieri’s creation, based loosely (very loosely) on Euripides, involved three sopranos, one of them a pop singer, playing Medea, two small boys who spent most of the opera in a paddling pool, a washing machine (I can’t remember why) and one of Italy’s finest flautists, Roberto Fabbriciani being wheeled slowly across the stage with his accompanist. During a performance, one of the Medeas, who couldn’t learn the complex score and so had their own autocue, fainted and fell into the pool and would have drowned if Andrew Watts hadn’t immediately retrieved her from the water.
It is on YouTube where you can also see clips of Watts doing what he is best known for – performing in numerous guises from a White Rabbit (Unsuk Chin Alice in Wonderland) to a purple silk number (Liza Lim The Navigator.) In Sir Harrison Birtwisle’s The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House he was the Priestess of the Oracle, bending the ear of the late Philip Langridge while towering above him in glittering dress complete with false breasts. In Ligeti’s Le grand macabre at English National Opera he memorably once split his tight gold trousers as Prince Go-Go and in Judith Weir Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera House he danced and cartwheeled on a row of washing machines. (Yes, those washing machines again.) He has appeared on the London stage as the voice of an animatronic dog in Raskatov’s A dog’s heart, in a gymslip and long blonde plaits in Gerald Barry’s The triumph of beauty and deceit and stark naked in Torsten Rasch’s The Duchess of Malfi (The things opera singers are asked to do for their art.)
The recent announcement from English National Opera that Watts will be singing Arsamenes in Handel Xerxes in the revival of Nicholas Hytner’s production this September has set the social media feeds buzzing. How can it be that this scion of the contemporary music world can actually sing Handel? Has anybody in Britain heard Mr Watts sing a tune before? The reality is this is the first time in a while ENO has managed to secure his services to sing the more conventional repertoire. Major composers write specifically for his voice, so he is usually booked as far as three or four years’ in advance of a new opera, which of course takes at least two years to write, never mind to learn. Here I quote a review in the Financial Times of Emmanuel Nunes Das Märchen in 2008: “The cast, too, is impressive. Chelsey Schill’s glittering serpent, Silja Schindler’s regal princess, Matthias Hölle’s stately ferryman and old man, Andrew Watts’ virtuosic tongue-in-cheek Will-o’-the-wisp – all are impressive performances in the face of considerable obstacles. The mere achievement of committing parts of this length and complexity to memory is in itself staggering; to bring expression and class to them is a feat that inspires profound admiration.”
O ye of little faith. At some point next season he will be simultaeously in production in Portugal and Germany as Ottone in Agrippina and Nerone in L’incoronazione di Poppea and on DVD with Musica Poetica Wien you can see him singing at pitch the title role of Artaserse in the eponymous opera by Vinci, (a role most recently undertaken in Paris by the renowned sopranista, Philippe Jaroussky.) Once the run of Xerxes has started, as a special treat for opera seria fans he will be singing the role of Roberto in the latest edition of Vivaldi Griselda on September 18th at the Cadogan Hall with a new authentic instrument group directed by Tom Foster. Don’t miss it.
A profile of Andrew Watts by Miranda Jackson
Photos: Bill Cooper (Royal Opera House, Miss Fortune)
Joerg Landsberg (Hamburg State Opera, Der Meister und Margarita)
Vincent Lepresie (Grand Theatre de Geneve, Alice in Wonderland)
ⓒ Elision (Melbourne International Arts Festival, The Navigator)
Helga Bauer (Stadttheater Klagenfurt, L’incoronazione di Poppea)
Brinkoff/Moegenburg (Hamburg State Opera, Lear)
Technical specifications from the score of Guarnieri Medea
Stephen Cummiskey (English National Opera Duchess of Malfi)