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North helped Richard Rowe find opera

By SPP Reporter

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Richard Rowe with Sarah Power in Rodelinda. Picture: KK Dundas
Richard Rowe with Sarah Power in Rodelinda. Picture: KK Dundas

TENOR Richard Rowe studied geology, worked in five star London hotels and managed a wine shop before returning to the idea of singing for a living.

He has since trained in music, won prestigious awards, shown well in international competitions and tackled a wide variety of operatic roles in German, Italian and more experimental British operas – as well as having a busy concert diary with performances in Mozart’s Requiem, Haydn’s Creation and the title role in Handel’s Samson.

As Richard returns to tour with Scottish Opera’s production of Handel’s Rodelinda, he talks about his extensive family history in the North of Scotland, the area’s influence on his career – and reveals what he shares with Tom Jones and the annoying Go Compare opera singer Gio Campario!

Q1 When and why did you change your career to study music. Was there "a moment"?

A I got involved in singing not through church choirs, but local amateur opera groups in the north east of England. Initially resistant to the idea, I was convinced by the offer of chocolate biscuits and coffee – I was easily bribed – and my singing carried on like this, with musicals as well as operas.

But by the time I was in sixth form in Scotland, it was all getting serious, travelling to Aberdeen for singing lessons with the unlikely named – but quite prestigious – Raimond Herincx.

Due to a sequence of chance meetings, I was offered a place at the Royal Academy of Music in London at the age of 18.

But I decided it was a foolhardy thing to rely on music for a living, and also felt I was too young for it – on the last point I reckon I was right too.

So I went to college to study geology in London and stopped singing altogether apart from a year with the University of London Chamber Choir.

I was an assistant concierge at two five-star London hotels – the stories I could tell you from there…

Then I worked for Oddbins, becoming a manager.

The "moment" was actually two moments! The first was being offered a job by a wonderful wine-maker I very much admired. I realised if I took that job, that would be my life. So I didn’t go to Chimbarongo (!) in Chile to become a wine-maker and resigned from Oddbins the following week so I could do singing again.

But once again I got stuck in the mire of business and spent nearly a decade with M&S at their head office, though doing more and more singing.

I took a summer away from singing as I was exhausted and realised I missed singing more than I could say.

So, I took the happily-coincidental chance of voluntary redundancy to run away and join the circus – ie I actually ended up at the Royal Academy of Music where I had nearly been over a decade before!

Q2 You have family connections up here in many of the places the Rodelinda tour is going. During your geology degree you were mapping Glencoe?

A My first degree was geology and you had to make a geological map of an area. I have some great memories of that summer, climbing some of the highest mountains, but some sad ones too. I lost a friend who fell off the ridge. I had breakfast with him that morning, by the time I got back, he was gone. He was very experienced, but lost concentration for a moment. It taught me a lot about the fragility of life and to treat those mountains with deep respect and the greatest of care.

Q3 You went to Gordonstoun near Elgin for your sixth form after moving to Scotland. Did music make an impact on you even then? Were you involved in school productions, choirs etc

A I was there for the sixth form at ‘Stoun, Cumming House. Having come from doing chorus in operas in my local area in the North East of England, when I got to Gordonstoun I had my first singing lessons and they put on two operas partly as they had a tenor who could get around the roles. So Magic Flute was done in the lower sixth with full orchestra, and then Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring in my upper sixth. Both were taken to Haddo House, as it happens. What was odd was how many great musicians and singers were there at the time. To be honest, many of them are still musicians and singers over 20 years on.

Q4 You saw Scottish Opera productions in Inverness that were "firsts" for you?

A We commuted up to Inverness to see the Scottish Opera productions. I still have all the programmes upstairs in my old school trunk! Particular memories include a production of La Traviata with orchestral playing under John Mauceri, that was just stunning. Madame Butterfly was another, although there was one truly awful Cosi Fan Tutte!

Pulsating volcanos and glove puppet rabbits played a part in that for no reason that I could fathom.

Q5 What are you looking forward to revisiting in Ullapool and Stornoway?

AWhen I was young my grandmother moved to Stornoway to be the housing officer for the local council and we would got the ferry from Ullapool.

As such, we would often go up there for holidays; the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway was something that was to be dreaded back in the days of the old ferry, Suilven. Quite often we would stay overnight in Ullapool on the way as well.

But I very much fell in love with the place.

The beaches are just unutterably magnificent, the standing stones of Callanish, Dun Carloway. Lighthouses – great for kids!

I managed the unlikely feat of getting sunburnt on the Isle of Lewis too…

My grandfather was editor of the Stornoway Gazette for a while (he had been a Fleet Street man.) Both are buried in the graveyard just outside Stornoway and one thing I’ll be doing is to visit and leave some flowers.

Richard Rowe (second right) in Scottish Opera's Rodelinda.
Richard Rowe (second right) in Scottish Opera's Rodelinda.

Q6 Has the Go Compare ads’ twirly-moustachioed hero been a positive influence on the public’s view of opera?

AWhen my daughter was young she used to think that "Gio Campario" was me. I was not overly well-disposed to him at that stage!

I think as a character he fulfills a stereotype that no longer exists in our world. The one thing that remains true of opera is that it’s surrounded by endless misconceptions which will not change much, I reckon. But the tour we are doing – taking opera to the more remote corners – will help people to see that it’s just stories about people like you and me with normal emotions.

Together with the education work that Scottish Opera does, getting ‘em young, hopefully those who want to investigate further will do so without being put off by daft images.

NB The most recent of those adverts with the singer Wynne Evans using his real Welsh accent does crack me up.

Q7 Do you have any special remedies or routines you swear by to protect your voice?

A I will confess to taking the occasional Vocalzone pastille but so does Tom Jones. I reckon that is good company!

I am not overly superstitious on this front. Some colleagues are very very fussy, and I do not blame them for that in the least. The worst enemy of a voice is tiredness in my experience, so I try to get a decent night’s sleep. Drinking dulls reactions and delivers poor sleep too, so I tend to be fairly abstemious when I am singing.

Q8 Where is your voice headed? The list of roles and different kinds of opera you have tackled, classics and modern, more experimental plus your concert diary suggest it might be anywhere you wanted it to go?!

A I wish I knew where it was all going vocally! I have brilliant teachers and coaches behind me who keep my instrument in good shape and I rather enjoy whatever is thrown at me. I am slightly more comfortable in the German and British repertoire than in the Italian repertoire perhaps. That’s just the nature of the way my voice sounds. I would hate to be pigeonholed and not be able to do lots of different things.

Q9 What are the main highs of life as a professional singer – I imagine there is a lot of graft, long hours, late nights, early starts, insecurities and frustrations to counterbalance them!?

From the perspective of someone who has had a business career, it is partly learning new things all the time; having to use your brain and imagination, keeping you on your toes.

Also there is something quite emotionally satisfying about creating characters on stage, struggling to find them and who they are, and trying to convey that to an audience.

Q10 Which roles have you found the most personally challenging and are there any that you consider a particular achievement in "nailing" or achieving a performance you were happy with?

A Stock answer: they are all challenging in their own way.

True answer: there are some absolutely fiendish characters to get to grips with, whether because they are unsympathetic, or even totally alien to you as a performer. However it is one of the great challenges – and therefore great joys when you get to grips with them.

For me, I think Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera The Lighthouse – based on the true Scottish incident of the disappearance of three lighthouse keeper from the Flannan Isles lighthouse in 1900 – was the greatest challenge. Musically it is incredibly difficult; dramatically it is incredibly difficult. And as performers, it is hard to see how this sometimes discordant music will ever work in front of an audience. But the effect on an audience is like none I have ever seen. I’ve done it three times now in the UK and across Europe.

I cannot wait for the fourth time (c’mon Scottish Opera, you know you want to…)

Q11 Five: 15 the short operas that Scottish Opera commission saw you playing the late Dr David Kelly in Death Of A Scientist and from the reviews I saw, different critics reacted to the piece in a very wide range of ways. How are you with reviews? Do you read them, ignore them and – if you do read them – are there any (for good or bad reasons) that stick with you?

A I read reviews, although not necessarily at the time, especially if I know it was a questionable production or performance! Obviously if they say something negative then it upsets you. But you could just not read them of course.

However one person’s gold is another person’s rubbish. That was most certainly the case with Death Of A Scientist. It was a melodramatic piece, which people in the modern world find hard to deal with. In the piece, at the point of my character’s death, I was right at the front of the stage, and I can say that I saw people in tears, genuinely moved by what was happening. Equally there were critical reactions which were not so good! But they were to do with the piece, rather than us as performers.

Scottish Opera’s Rodelinda is at An Lanntair, Stornoway, on Saturday; Wick High School on Tuesday; Eden Court, Inverness, next Thursday (Oct 10); Nairn Community Centre on Saturday, October 26. For the full version of this interview, check our website and go to whats-on/music

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