Mark Padmore’s latest role was written for Benjamin Britten’s lifelong partner Peter Pears. The tenor tells George Hall how at 58 he finally feels emotionally and intellectually ready for the demanding but ‘beautiful’ opera
Mark Padmore has been one of the UK’s foremost opera singers for the past 30 years and it’s only now, with all that experience, that he feels ready to take on one of Benjamin Britten’s major roles for the first time.
Next week, Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s novella, is revived at Covent Garden for the first time since 1992, with Padmore playing the central part of Gustav von Aschenbach. He has played many of Britten’s major characters, but this one is new to him. “I’m pleased I left it until I’m 58 and can feel emotionally and intellectually ready to approach it,” he says.
The part of Aschenbach was conceived for Britten’s lifelong partner Peter Pears, who was 63 when he first sang it. It is demanding on every level, and certainly gives Padmore – a highly experienced interpreter of the composer’s music – something to get his teeth into.
“Britten is a wonderfully subversive composer. He’s so closely allied to Aschenbach and Thomas Mann. He was buttoned up, he did become a member of the establishment – an order of merit, and Lord Britten at the very end – but underneath is this extraordinary passion, and it’s a passion that is very brave.”
Padmore stars in the revival alongside baritone Gerald Finley, who is playing multiple roles, and Tim Mead as the Voice of Apollo. The show is conducted by Richard Farnes, directed by David McVicar and designed by Vicki Mortimer – Padmore’s wife. In fact, they got together when she was designing productions Padmore was in for director Katie Mitchell.
The tenor’s love of music began at the age of four “when I was given a recorder by Father Christmas and that got me going”. He started playing the clarinet – supported by Kent County Council’s music service – which brought him to London for lessons with a professor at the Royal Academy. “Essentially I was an instrumentalist who sang a little bit; but I decided that I didn’t want to become a professional clarinet player, or to go to music college. I wanted to go to university.”
He won a choral scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, where he also studied music – but even then he wasn’t thinking of singing as a career. Gradually, though, he began to take part in performances and recordings in the burgeoning early-music field, with conductors including Trevor Pinnock, Roger Norrington, Andrew Parrott and Harry Christophers.
In 1990, his sister – who was working for a music agency – spotted that Baroque specialist William Christie wanted a singer for the high tenor role of Hippolyte in Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie. Padmore auditioned and got the job. “I had a fantastic time,” he says, “and within three years I was singing on stage at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in Charpentier’s Medée with Lorraine Hunt.”
Regular appearances with specialist groups such as William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants and Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale Gent followed, and on the back of these, he was invited to take part in Deborah Warner’s production of Bach’s St John Passion at English National Opera in 2000.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Apple picking in Kent orchards.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The Magic Flute, with Richard Jones directing, at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, in 1986.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Study languages and live abroad.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Books: The Gift by Lewis Hyde and To the Wedding by John Berger among many others; plus my four siblings and my wife, Vicki Mortimer.
If you hadn’t been a tenor, what would you have been?
I would have been happy as a roof thatcher.
Padmore has regularly worked with the best directors in opera. “I’ve been very lucky. Working with Deborah on the John Passion was a big thing for me: I absolutely loved the whole process. The production is remembered by many people because of the lamb that was presented to me at the end, which some people found funny, but I thought it was genius, because it’s biblically very significant and theologically it had a lot of point.”
That led, three years later, to the title role in Katie Mitchell’s staging of Handel’s Jephtha at Welsh National Opera. He worked again with Mitchell on St Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne in 2007. “Some people struggled with the very concept of it. I thought that dramatically and emotionally it was one of the best things I’ve done.” In both Passions, Padmore sings the linchpin role of the Evangelist.
One director he credits as being particularly influential is the American Peter Sellars, with whom he worked in high-profile stagings of both the Bach passions under conductor Simon Rattle.
“They were intense experiences. Peter knows the material incredibly well, not just the text but the theology, and he understands its implications in a modern context. It was the same with Katie, whose first question is always: ‘Why are we bothering to tell this story? What are its implications for us now?’”
A leading interpreter of the role of the Evangelist in both these works, Padmore has performed them many times and in all kinds of ways.
At the other end of the spectrum he has taken part in many new works, including Tansy Davies’ eco-opera Cave, premiered by the London Sinfonietta in partnership with the Royal Opera at Printworks last year, and two one-act pieces by Harrison Birtwistle: The Corridor in 2009 and The Cure four years ago, both initially unveiled at the Aldeburgh Festival.
“I really loved working with Harry and having him write music for me. I found the scores pretty terrifying to start off with: then as I worked on them they made more sense. You’re participating in something that is very well thought-out, very well constructed.”
On playing Aschenbach now, he says: “What I find fascinating in Death in Venice is that part of the story is about fear of mortality, but it’s also about beauty – about being struck by somebody who is in an extraordinary way beautiful. It just knocks you over, and that’s what happens to Aschenbach. He suddenly realises his whole respectable bourgeois existence has been a sort of façade. It’s a very rich part to explore.”
He adds: “It is a love letter from Britten to Pears, but Britten also knew he was dying. It was a physically draining piece for him to write, and he put off having a heart operation to be able to complete it. I’m in awe of quite how wonderful it actually is.”
Born: Wanstead, East London, 1961
Training: Kent Junior Music School (Saturday mornings) and King’s College, Cambridge
• St John Passion, ENO, London Coliseum (2000)
• Jephtha, WNO, New Theatre, Cardiff (2003)
• The Turn of the Screw, BBC Television (2004)
• St Matthew Passion, Glyndebourne (2007)
• The Corridor, Aldeburgh (2009)
• St Matthew Passion, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms (2014)
• The Cure, Aldeburgh (2015)
• St John Passion, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall (2019)
• CBE (2019)
Agent: Maxine Robertson Management Ltd
Death in Venice is at the Royal Opera House from November 21 to December 6