August 2005

Affinities between baroque and rock voices


How lucky are we music lovers.

Michael Chance might have been a stockbroker, despite the potential he showed as a singer in school, then in the nurturing early music environment of King's College, Cambridge, where he was a choral scholar and did an English degree.

Until he was 25, stockbroking was shaping his future. ("Somebody's got to do it!" he quips.) But John Eliot Gardiner kept encouraging him to keep up his singing. Finally he took the plunge and it became his career, making him one of the most sought after counter-tenors at a time when opera companies were rediscovering works that featured this voice and wanted to see it coming from a male body. Indeed, the first time he appeared in Handel's Rinaldo, which he is singing in the title role now for Opera Australia, Teresa Berganza was in the title role while he sang the role that Graham Pushee plays this time around. "I can still hear her voice in my head as I sing some notes," says Chance.

He agrees he was lucky that his career took off in the last 20 years. "It has grown with the popularity of pre-classical music so that the more Handel opera, Monteverdi opera and Bach become accepted as the mainstream, along with that goes this voice."

Discussing the way that men singing in a high voice has been more common in some parts of the world than others, he has an interesting comparison to make between rock and baroque. "You can draw some significance between rock voices of the last 20 to 30 years and castrati stars of the baroque era. Michael Jackson has this voice that's in the nether world. There's Boy George, the Bee Gees. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys had an absolutely wonderful, completely natural counter-tenor voice. Exactly the same voice as we sing in - and he was a very good musician. In that respect, I think there are analogies to be drawn between baroque opera of the 17th and 18th centuries and rock opera of the 20th and 21st centuries."

If Gardiner gave Chance his first "wonderful opportunities" that lured him into becoming a professional singer, his encouragement was soon followed by that of Trevor Pinnock, who is conducting this season of Rinaldo in Sydney. He has recorded with both these conductors, Franz Bruggen, Ton Koopman and Nicholas McGegan.

He has performed the title role of Gluck's Orfeo, Ottone in L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Athamas in Semele, Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (including the last time he was in Sydney, the debut of Baz Luhrmann's production), Apollo in Death in Venice, and Bertarido in Rodelinda, amongst many others.

He has sung in the Teatro Colôn in Buenos Aires, La Scala Milan, in Florence, New York, Lisbon, Oviedo, Leipzig, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Amsterdam and with Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and English National Opera. Oratorio and recitals have taken him to Carnegie Hall, Concertgebouw, Musikverein, Neue Gewandhaus, the Wigmore Hall and Berlin's Philharmonie.

And he hasn't been content to stay with the established repertoire. His enthusiasm for new repertoire has prompted compositions for him by composers including Richard Rodney Bennett, Alexander Goehr, Tan Dun, John Tavener and Elvis Costello. He had roles written for him by Harrison Birtwistle in The Second Mrs Kong and by Judith Weir in A Night at the Chinese Opera, which he describes as "one of the happiest working periods I have ever had - being involved in really creating something is quite special."

He also sings new music work. "It's about developing the possibilities of the voice and associated material - getting the voice put in different combinations with instruments or other voices, unexpected combinations. Voice and viols, voice and percussion, voice and strings and ondes martenot.

"I think classical music has got to find different connections and create material which will be not just the mainstream concerthall tradition but takes one to different venues and different cultures. I think that is very necessary, particularly in such an interconnected world." To this end, he is involved in a project that combines Persian and western musical styles.

"I am doing less opera now. It takes one away from home so much. I am starting to explore and do very small scale performances of Schubert's Winterreise. I think it is one of the most extraordinary musical sequences and it is not unsuited to my voice. I did a performance of it in Harvard just a few weeks ago.

"I think English song is a wonderful art tradition and it is so often not done. I can see myself doing recitals of English songs from Elizabethan times to Tippet and Britten and others."

Chance is also teaching. The home that he doesn't want to leave so much is in Norwich, in the northeast of England. His wife is a clinical psychologist who likes translating ancient Greek texts and they have children aged 12 and nine who study singing, recorder, horn and cello between them. And a short trip across the Channel takes him to the Hague, where "the biggest early music course in the world" at times that fit in with his performing schedule.

He also teaches in Italy, at Fiesole, near Florence in a project that grew out of a tour he did years ago with John Eliot Gardiner singing the Monteverdi Vespers.

"Even in Italy, until relatively recently, Monteverdi has not been taken seriously - only really in the last five or 10 years. I remember touring with the Monteverdi Vespers, with Gardiner, in the late 1980s, and the audiences were half-full and there was polite applause at the end. They thought, this is not proper music, you know.

"One of the things I have been involved in over the last five years has been teaching in a conservatory at Fiesole. They started a choral course to try to establish a choral tradition in Italy, which had been completely lost. Choruses only exist for opera houses, really.

"I worked on that course and have since been involved since to try to get Italians together, professional singers, to sing some of the more complicated a cappella music from that early period. It's a long process. But to get a tradition going - the Italian school hardly exists."
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