South African baritone William Berger appears with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra tonight at the Strathpeffer Pavilion for a programme including Mozart, Haydn and operatic favourites. Here, he answers some questions about his career and why tenors have more fun...
Q Are you looking forward to returning to Scotland?
WILLIAM: Scotland has become like a musical home-away-from-home for me. It all started when I was first invited to perform with Ludus Baroque in Edinburgh for their annual Bach performances. I was delighted to be invited back by their conductor Richard Neville-Towle several times since.
I have also had the privilege of performing at the Edinburgh International Festival a few years ago in a beautiful production of Handel’s "Admeto", which was staged in the style of Japanese Kabuki theatre. While everyone on stage had enormous silk kimonos to wear, I interpreted the role of Hercules as a sumo-wrestler! I luckily didn’t have to gain the weight myself, but instead had to wear a huge, padded body suit which weighed a ton and felt like wearing a portable sauna. It’s been recorded and released on DVD for all to see.
As well as touring with the SCO, you will be recording with them as well. Is the recording process something that you enjoy?
I’ll be honest with you, the recording process is very hard work and can be a challenge as we are always striving for absolute perfection. There is nowhere to hide when the red light goes on and the microphone is pointing straight at you. I really love the thrill and spontaneity of a live performance when there is an audience with whom to interact. I will be trying to bring as much of the live musical experience into the studio with me after having completed the tour of the Highlands.
Your own forthcoming debut recital disc, "Insomnia" has the theme of a sleepless night. What led you to tackle it?
I was invited to perform at the Lucerne Festival as a result of winning a prize in the Ernst Haefliger Singing Competition in Switzerland. The theme of the festival that year was "Nacht" and I wanted to present something more innovative than simply performing the usual group of songs about stars and moons. So I created a story about a lover and his obsession for an unnamed paramour and used the music of various composers to take us on a nocturnal voyage from dusk to dawn. As the story unfolds, it becomes unclear if it is simply a case of unrequited love or whether the lover is haunted by the death of his beloved. This question remains unanswered even at the end of the programme.
You are a graduate of the English National Opera young singer programme. How much of a boost has this been to your early career?
My time at the ENO has been an enormous part of my development as a young singer. I was only 23 when I joined the company and it gave me the security and guidance I needed at that stage of my career. Had I been left to my own devices, I would probably have taken on too much too soon and been burnt out by now.
During my time there, I was surrounded by a lot of wise and experienced people that said, "No. Wait." when I got too ambitious.
I was also very fortunate to witness the inner workings of a large opera house up close, which has been invaluable.
As a baritone are there any bass or tenor parts you feel jealous you can’t do?
The tenors almost always get the girl! While I enjoy the fact that there is more dramatic variety in baritone roles, it would be nice to play the hero more often, especially in Puccini’s operas. Strauss is another composer that didn’t seem to be too inspired by the high lyric baritone voice, and while I sing a lot of his songs, the orchestrations only exist in the soprano versions. I hope that one day I can convince a contemporary composer/orchestrator to re-orchestrate some of the songs for baritone.
What else is on the horizon for the coming months?
After the Highlands tour with the SCO and the recording of the next disc of Mozart, Haydn and Cimarosa arias I’ll be back in Edinburgh just before the opening of the festival to perform Bach’s B Minor Mass and Handel’s fantastic secular oratorio "The Triumph of Time and Truth". I am particularly excited about the Handel as this English version of the oratorio is rarely performed in comparison with the Italian version of the same piece. It also includes four impressive baritone arias for the role of Time that don’t exist in the earlier version. This will be a very special new addition to my repertoire and we will not only be revising this performance with Ludus Baroque in St Andrew’s on 21st October but we are also hoping to record it in 2013. In between all of that, I have to prepare for a tour in September to launch the "Insomnia" disc in South Africa and also learn Handel’s Judas Maccabeus for two performances in Cape Town. I can’t wait for it all!
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra with guest baritone WIlliam Berger is at Strathpeffer Pavilion this evening at 8pm. Tickets are available from Strathpeffer Pavilion, The Square, Strathpeffer 01997 420124 and June’s Card Shop, High Street, Dingwall (in person only).