Interview: Barry Ryan

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Published: 30th May, 2017

This month at Arts Centre Melbourne’s playhouse, Victorian Opera continues its innovative programming presenting five performances of Janacek’s early twentieth century masterpiece Cunning Little Vixen.

Directed by Stuart Maunder, conducted by Jack Symonds, Director of the Sydney Chamber Orchestra, and featuring the Victoria Youth Opera Chorus, the performances will be set in an idyllic forest. Much more than an opera for children however, Maunder describes Cunning Little Vixen as “a musical biography of a fox based on a comic strip filled with furry familiars. It contains some of the most moving music ever written,  vivifying life’s most profound and eternal truths.”

Celebrating of the beauty of nature, this joyous, life-affirming presentation sung in English features some of Australia’s best loved operatic names as well as stars of the future.

 Australian baritone Barry Ryan takes on the role of the Forester. A graduate with honours from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Barry’s many awards include the Shell Aria, the New York Metropolitan Auditions, the Marten Bequest for Singing, the Vienna State Opera Award and the Green Room Award. In 2013, Barry Ryan received an Order of Australia for his services to classical music. No stranger to the contemporary operatic repertoire, I interviewed Barry about his forthcoming role debut.

DH: Is this the first time you have sung this role? Can you tell us about the role of the Forrester?

BR: It is the first time that I’ve performed the role of the Forester, but not the first time I’ve performed in the Opera. The last time that Opera Australia performed Cunning Little Vixen, I played the role of the School Master. It was actually my last role as a tenor. The Forester is the character that catches the Vixen and brings her home to his family. The Vixen is young and finally escapes. Her journey to adulthood and subsequent death can be compared with the Forester’s own journey through life. The final scene of the Opera sees the Forester reflecting on his own life and the beauty of nature. Janacek had this scene played at his funeral.

DH: What do you find its particular vocal and acting challenges to be?

BR: It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the Forester as a one-dimensional character. In fact, he is a man of great humanity and depth. Vocally the role sits nicely in my voice. I’m in the process of working through the moments when we see his frailties. Although he projects a tough and brusque persona, he has a lot of love and compassion in his heart.

DH: Australian singers don’t often get the chance to sing works by composers such as Janacek. How do you approach such an unfamiliar score? What is your learning process?

BR: I’ve actually sung a lot of Janacek. In Cologne, I performed in The House of the Dead in German. I’ve performed in Jenufa, Katya Kabanova and Cunning Little Vixen with Opera Australia in both English and Czech. Obviously, the advantage of performing the Opera in English allows the audience an immediate understanding of the text without the use of surtitles. The only disadvantage is that Janacek’s music fits the spoken Czech perfectly so that every nuance of the language pattern is emphasised. The English translations are very close to the Czech, but obviously, there are moments when the rhythm of the language doesn’t quite match the music. I’ve been lucky to have performed a lot of twentieth-century music, which means I have experience learning this sort of repertoire. I make sure from the outset that I get a work tape from a Repetiteur who is familiar with the Score. In this case, it was the wonderful Phoebe Briggs. Then it is a matter of repetition. 

DH: Victorian Opera are bringing some very interesting and rarely done repertoire to the Melbourne and wider public. Why is a company such as this one so important in the Australian cultural landscape?

BR: VO should be congratulated for taking on works like Cunning Little Vixen. They have certainly secured an important place in Australia’s cultural landscape by giving audiences the opportunity to experience these twentieth-century masterpieces which are so rarely performed. In the last three years with VO I’ve performed Nixon in Nixon in China by John Adams, Scully in The Riders by Iain Grandage, and now the Forester in Cunning Little Vixen. There is such huge interest in these marvellous pieces.

 DH: As a hugely experienced opera singer what advice would you give young Australian singers who wish to follow in your footsteps?

BR: Giving advice to young singers is always extremely difficult. Of course, developing a solid vocal technique is mandatory when embarking on an operatic career. To allow that to happen, we must be patient. I’ve seen so many great voices ruined by being pushed into the wrong repertoire too early. I’m also a great believer in going with your gut instinct. I think we know in our hearts what is right and what is wrong for us. A wonderful old German colleague who was still a leading character tenor into his late sixties said to me once: singing is easy as long as you don’t venture outside your Fach (voice type). Wise words. We also need to have someone that we can trust, whether that is a teacher, vocal coach, or in my case, my wife Anke, to constantly monitor what we are doing vocally. Luck also plays a big role, so we need to be ready when an opportunity arises.

 DH: What other projects have you recently been involved in and what has been your most challenging role to date?

BR: Last year I performed the role of Sam Pickles in George Palmer’s opera Cloudstreet with the State Opera of South Australia. It is a tremendous opera and was a huge success. I’m also preparing to perform Winterreise by Schubert in August. Then in September, I’ll revisit the role of Sharpless in Madama Butterfly with Opera Australia. I’d say of the seventy odd roles that I’ve performed on stage, the role of Richard Nixon in Nixon in China was the most demanding. It is fiendishly difficult to sing, and musically extremely challenging. The most difficult part of the role though was the characterization. I physically don’t resemble Nixon at all, so I needed to work on many aspects of his mannerisms, even down to his slightly hunched posture. I’ve sung the role now in Melbourne, Dublin, and Auckland. It is physically very demanding.

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Victorian Opera’s production of Cunning Little Vixen is at the Arts Centre Playhouse 22 June to 1 July. For more information and bookings, http://www.victorianopera.com.au/season-2017/cunning-little-vixen/