Interview from Europe with Russell Harcourt

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Published: 13th June, 2019

Classic Melbourne loves to report on success of Australian artists overseas, and so we welcome this interview of Russell Harcourt by our regular reporter Vanessa Taylor.

In 2016, countertenor Russell Harcourt performed the role of Nero in Agrippina at the Brisbane Baroque Festival, earning a Helpmann Award nomination.

That production of Agrippina originally hailed from the Göttingen Handel Festival in Germany. Now, in a nice bit of symmetry, Russell has recently made his debut in Göttingen, as Evanco in Handel’s early opera Rodrigo.

Vanessa Taylor: Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Göttingen festival, which started the revival of Handel’s operas in the 1920s. What has it meant to you to perform here?

Russell Harcourt: A great privilege to be asked.

I’ve known [Artistic Director] Laurence Cummings since I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music, but this is the first time since I finished studying that I’ve worked with him. It’s been a huge thrill for me because he’s such a wonderful musician and so knowledgeable about this repertoire.

I auditioned for Laurence two years ago. As my voice has moved up in tessitura, the role of Evanco was offered and it’s probably the most challenging role I’ve ever done because the character is so extreme. I mean, I thought Nero in Agrippina was an extreme character. Evanco encompasses a little bit of Nero, he has a little bit of Sesto from Giulio Cesare, and maybe a little bit of Rinaldo in terms of Rinaldo’s relationship with Almirena.

So it’s been like a roller coaster for me to do the role and the music is extreme as well. He’s got a love aria to Florinda, he’s got a fast coloratura aria when he’s talking about killing everyone, but like all baroque opera it ends happily.

I guess I also feel the responsibility of performing a Handel role here in Göttingen because they record it and film it. It’s been a very busy schedule; the build up before the performance, the extra events outside that we perform at and attend.

VT: The festival takes over the town, doesn’t it?

RH: It really does. The local community is so strongly affiliated with the festival that they also have high expectations of what’s presented. So you want to do the best for them as well.

You’ve seen that they have the costumes from previous productions in the shop windows. They’re very proud of it. Maybe as Australians we’re not used to that.

VT: Maybe for football.

RH: Yes, or the tennis.

VT: You mentioned that your voice is sitting a little higher these days. When did you realise?

RH: It was actually when I did Bajazet with Pinchgut in Sydney [in 2015]. When Erin Helyard offered me the Andronico role, I looked at it and thought this is higher than I’ve normally done in the past. But he’d worked with me before and said he thought it would be great for my voice, and it was. So since then, the roles I’ve been getting have been maybe a tone or a third higher than I would normally have done when I was a student.

Some people call me a soprano. I don’t like to use that term for countertenors but I do sit more in that male soprano bracket than male alto. Which is great, because there aren’t many of us and I’m really comfortable singing up there.

VT: What’s your top note?

RH: As Evanco, it’s only up to an A, so around 415 Hz, but comfortably in performance I can go up to a top C.

VT: When you performed in Agrippina at the Brisbane Baroque Festival, most of the cast had done the original production in Göttingen. How was it fitting into an established production with so many original cast members?

RH: Having now worked in Göttingen, I know their longer rehearsal schedule. To go into that revival situation in Brisbane where there were only three newbies out of eight singers, with three and a half weeks to opening, was challenging. It’s not a long time to find character and to refine everything musically. For the others it was just a refresher; none of us three had ever done the roles before. But it’s amazing what you can do when you have to, and it honestly is the highlight of my career, doing that role. And also because of the Helpmann nomination and also despite the Festival’s financial crisis.

VT: Graham Pushee was an early teacher for you.

RH: Yes, I started with Graham the year after high school and before I went to the Conservatorium in Sydney. He then took me through to the end of my studies at the Con.

VT: How did you know you were a countertenor?

RH: I was a clarinet player at the Con high school and Richard Gill came to conduct the school musical. I was still singing as a soprano. My voice had obviously broken but I’d retained the falsetto.

VT: It felt more natural?

RH: Yes, and I didn’t know any different then. And Richard said, Oh, I think you’re a male alto. I had no idea what that was. It sounds so naïve now, but I was a clarinettist. I’d sung in choirs but had not really experienced baroque repertoire and with clarinet it had been mostly classical, romantic, through to contemporary, as you’d expect.

It was an eye-opening experience when I first met Graham Pushee [Laughs]…and heard another man who sounds like me. But who’d also had such a tremendous career and was so widely respected. So every lesson was like a master class.

And he’s taken me on as a client, which I was very delighted about. He’s a wonderful agent and still a great mentor.

VT: It must be helpful to have an agent who knows your repertoire so well.

RH: Yes, it really is.

VT: Your operatic debut was Oberon in The Dream and so was Graham’s (back in 1973).

RH: Yes, mine was a student production but I had finished studying. It was at WAAPA [in 2007].

VT: As well studying with Graham Pushee, you’ve done master classes with countertenors Michael Chance and Andreas Scholl. What did you take from each?

RH: The master class with Andreas was for stylistic vocal suggestions and interpretation. It was a bit like meeting Graham Pushee for the first time, because they’re both very well known countertenors.

Michael was still singing a little bit at the time and with him it was more technical and developing the lower part of the voice. As countertenors, even though the top is strong, it’s important the top matches the bottom.

When you’ve listened to recordings of these singers whilst you’re a student and listened to the repertoire they’ve sung, and then you’re in the same room as them and you sing something that they’ve done [Laughs]…I was always terrified.

VT: When did you move to London?

RH: That was 2008.

VT: And now you’re studying there with Yvonne Kenny?

RH: Yes, another great Australian. When I sing for her, if I’ve been away working and come back and have a lesson, I always say to her afterwards, I was so nervous today. [Laughs]

I’ve been studying with her for eight or nine years now and she’s also a great mentor and friend. And like Graham and Michael and Andreas, she knows the repertoire.

VT: So what are you concentrating on with Yvonne, role preparation or technical?

RH: She’s very helpful with both. When I first started it was mostly technical, just ironing out issues, mainly with the top, into this transition into higher repertoire. Now it’s mainly role preparation. I can’t speak highly enough of her. She’s very kind in the way she teaches.

VT: You’ve had a relationship with Pinchgut Opera for several years.

RH: Yes, I’ve known Erin since I was an undergrad at the Con in Sydney. He’s a very unassuming, knowledgeable, talented musician. When I first met him he was my harmony keyboard tutor, then he moved to Canada and I moved to London. We popped up together again when he was first conducting Griselda. He, and Pinchgut as a body, have been so supportive of my voice, my career. It’s a very special company and because Erin knows my voice so well, he’s very selective with what he offers me. It was he who asked me to do Nero in Brisbane.

I think also as an Australian and a countertenor, it’s great to have a company like that in Australia, at such a high level. I’m just absolutely thrilled about their International Opera Award for Hasse’s Artaserse. It was a joy to be in that production. Erin is very gracious about thanking the other artists involved, but he was the brains behind it.

VT: Will you continue appearing with Pinchgut?

RH: I really hope so.

VT: Tell us about your work with director Peter Sellars in Adams’s The Gospel according to the Other Mary.

RH: What a personality! He had directed the original production at English National Opera and then they asked me to do the revival in Bonn. It was a delight to work with him though we only had him for the last four of the eight weeks of rehearsal.

He’s so passionate about that piece as he has such a good relationship with John Adams. The chorus and all the principals were just in awe when he was in the room. You could hear a pin drop because every single word he has to say is important.

VT: How long was the contract?

RH: It was very long. It was the eight weeks rehearsal in the middle of winter [Laughs]. Then it was the German system of being in repertoire. So we opened at the end of March and closed in the middle of May. I was commuting back and forth to London once the show had opened. That’s tough, particularly with such a difficult piece as that. To have a break of two or three weeks between performances, you have to be alert all the time.

VT: What was the audience reception like?

RH: Generally, I think they loved it. I don’t think they would ever have seen anything like it. It’s one of those pieces that will just continue touring and pop up occasionally.

VT: What’s the attraction with newer works such as The Gospel according to the Other Mary and Dove’s The Adventures of Pinocchio?

RH: I really like doing this contemporary repertoire. It’s a different way of writing for the voice because the baroque repertoire was written with specific singers in mind. Coming out of castrati into the modern countertenor, the voice has developed, even in the last 10-15 years. The parameters of the countertenor voice type are much wider.

VT: And the quality, there’s been such a steady progression for decades, hasn’t there?

RH: Yes, definitely. I think contemporary composers are writing with the knowledge of the voice type in mind and what its capabilities are. It wasn’t uncommon to transpose a Handel aria, a Vivaldi aria, depending when it was revived, from singer to singer. But with modern opera, I think you can just look at the role and it’s perfect. I don’t need to change a thing.

VT: What about baroque roles you’d like to do?

RH: Having sung Hasse twice now – because the second contract I did with Pinchgut was a Vivaldi pastiche but most of my character’s repertoire was Hasse – it seems to sit very comfortably in my voice and I enjoy singing it.

VT: But Hasse is not often on main stages.

RH: [Laughs] No, it’s not. I need to have a phone call with Erin.

Vivaldi is another composer whose repertoire sits well with my voice. Nero in Agrippina was always on my list. Rinaldo is something I’d love to do. Sesto I’ve done last year in the UK and would happily do again. I have an affinity with playing young boys. I’ve been told I’m quite good at it.

VT: How often are you going home to Australia to perform?

RH: Last year was the exception. That was twice. Then there are years when there’s nothing, like this year at the moment. I do like to go back at least once a year.

It doesn’t matter how long you live in Europe, when you come from the Southern Hemisphere, you just never get used to the cold. During our rehearsals in Göttingen it was snowing, and that was mid-April.