February 2007

A nice guy who likes to play the villain


Christopher Field insists he's really a nice guy. But, for some reason, he's often cast in operas as the countertenor baddie. Most recently, he performed the role of the malevolent Tolomeo in Opera Australia's Giulio Cesare.

Turning himself into Tolomeo was a challenge. "I think actually having a costume helps. It transformed my appearance so much by being bald and being white as white can be.

The Opera Australia production of Giulio Cesare. Emma Matthews as Cleopatra, Christopher Field as Tolomeo. [Photo: Jeff Busby]

"Tolomeo is only about fifteen, so he's a child with a temper who doesn't think about consequences. He's also weak, although I think he gets stronger as the show goes along. It's always hard to convey a character who's weak and yet powerful."

It was important to Christopher to develop the comic element of the character. "I wanted to laugh at him because he's pathetic. And it was good to bring out other things in him since it's a long opera." The show was not quite so long in Melbourne where it ran sixteen minutes shorter due to a slight re-staging after the Sydney season, and perhaps the change of conductor from Richard Hickox to Richard Gill.

Remarkably, Gill allowed the singers to improvise in their da capo arias during performances. A practice of Handel's times, it is rarely done today. "It's an art that's been lost. You've got a whole orchestra in front of you so it's a risk. But Richard was wonderful, saying do what you want to do, you're in charge. So we were all trying different things each night, as they would have done back in the times it was written. We were somewhat akin to jazz musicians."

Christopher Field as Tolomeo in Opera Australia's production of Giulio Cesare. [Photo: Branco Gianca]

While running and jumping around the stage, Christopher had to concentrate on the vocal requirements of the role. "The tempi are very fast. Before my preference was for slow, lyrical pieces, but it was wonderful to practice coloratura and all those sorts of demands of the opera. It's set quite low and you don't get a show-stopping aria. It's always quite angry and angular, and it's hard to maintain that. I think Handel's written it so it's jumpy and on edge like Tolomeo in his paranoia. So although musically I want to make a beautiful sound, that's sometimes at odds with the character you're playing."

With Cesare finishing its Melbourne season in mid-December, he was able to spend a rare Christmas at home. Due to his schedule here and in England, he had gone four years without a summer. The strength of the sun in Melbourne caught him by surprise and he was grateful the heavy white make-up for Tolomeo covered his sunburn.

Christopher was raised in Northern Central Victoria on the largest cactus farm in the southern hemisphere. He sang as a treble with the Bendigo Youth Choir but had no thoughts of growing up to be a countertenor. "For me it was almost by accident. I went to university as a pianist."

In a story common amongst countertenors, he was a mediocre singer after his voice broke, until he started singing falsetto. He sang in school musicals as "a very, very, very bad tenor". It was later, at university, that his potential was noticed. During a piano exam, he was asked to sing a high melody that was played to him. His examiners were impressed with his falsetto voice and urged him to take up singing.

So at the age of 21, he enrolled in voice studies at university, combined with a minor in harpsichord. "I think the harpsichord training has really helped me with the baroque repertoire: understanding harmony, and in recitative, requesting what you might want from a continuo section."

After only eight lessons with Hartley Newnham, he was hired by Stopera for the "evil guy" role of Polinesso in Handel's Ariodante and covered Eustazio in 1999's Rinaldo for Opera Australia.

Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor was another teacher who imparted more than the technical aspects of singing. "For me, he's got another dimension, feeling emotion and colours and communicating that way. It's music that speaks the language that doesn't have words; that could move someone to tears. I think it's clear when you listen to him sing.

"We've come a long way in the last twenty years in terms of people knowing what the voice is about. When Graham Pushee brought the voice to the public in Alcina in 1992, it must have been such a revelation. For many people it would have been the first time they heard a countertenor live."

Christopher is possibly best known in Australia for the Messiah CD and DVD, which he recorded under conductor Antony Walker. But in 2005, he made news bulletins around the world singing the De Torrente from Vivaldi's Dixit Dominus, which was discovered in a Dresden library by his friend Janice Stockigt of Melbourne University.

At this stage of his career, he has done more concert work than opera. "I like sitting down with the lute or theorbo player and you feel like you're as one, it's a very private conversation. But I feel that my main calling, not through any particular religious affiliation or belief, is the sacred repertoire. It's the thing I find moves me most."

Nonetheless, he is an advocate of the avant-garde. "There's a huge gap in the countertenor repertoire. You've got early music, baroque and early classical. So why not show the voice is much more versatile than that and do the cutting edge stuff."

As well as his commitments with Polyphony, English Voices and The King's Consort, he sings with English ensemble EXAUDI, which specialises in "weird, wacky stuff". In June, the group performed Brian Ferneyhough's Missa Brevis at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk and then reprised the Kyrie from the mass in Madrid last month.

"It was the most difficult thing I've ever done, yet one of the most rewarding. It took months to go through, the score was just a sea of black. And I've got perfect pitch so I can usually sight-read anything, but it didn't help with Ferneyhough. It was all quarter tones and written in ratio."

"I really get a kick put of contemporary music, not necessarily listening to it the first time, but the process of learning it. It feels like it's a mathematical kind of thing, and I really like rhythmic intensity and exploring some extended techniques in vocalisation. But, of course, soul comes into it too." In the last couple of years, he has played a "maniacal dictator" in Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera at the Royal Opera Academy and was a member of the countertenor chorus for John Adams's El Nino at Sydney Opera House.

One of his anticipated highlights of this year is the release of The Noble Noyse of Musicke, a CD he recorded with Dutch ensemble The Royal Winds. It features early English choral music arranged for solo countertenor and a recorder consort playing the other vocal parts.

Christopher is surprised at how his career has evolved. "I wanted music to be a part of my life, but as an instrumentalist, I didn't think I was going to be a singer. Now in seven years of singing a lot has happened, and I'm loving what I'm doing."

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