24 October 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone

Andrew Foster-Williams [Photo by Marco Borggreve]

When at last the clouds of war that obscured the European continent for much of the first half of the twentieth century cleared, it quickly became evident that artistic environments were changed almost as significantly as physical and political landscapes. In the entre-guerres generation, Wagner singing was the crowning glory of the world’s opera houses, with singers such as Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, and Friedrich Schorr setting standards of heroic vocalism that seemed insurmountable – and, to a large degree, remain unmatched even now. After World War II, during which these operatic titans and their contemporaries persevered despite extraordinary hardships and the disturbing Nazi annexation of Wagner’s music, it was undeniable that the musical world bore genuine scars of strife. The age of benchmark Wagnerians, of truly revelatory Brünnhildes and Isoldes – Martha Mödl, Birgit Nilsson, and Astrid Varnay excepted – was in its twilight. In opera as in nature, though, evening paves the way to dawn, and the mid-century sun rose on an era of great male singers, of tenors, baritones, and basses whose extraordinary artistry, versatility, and vocal quality spanned the standard repertory from Monteverdi to Menotti. It was perhaps easy for contemporary observers to underestimate the value of this lode of male vocal talent. These remarkable singers – Bergonzi, Corelli, del Monaco, Tagliavini, and Tucker; Bastianini, Gobbi, Merrill, Taddei, and Warren; Bruscantini, Christoff, Hotter, London, and Siepi – en masse formed an uncommonly reliable base in the pyramidal structure of opera, the foundation being so uniformly impressive that those few high-voiced singers who achieved the dizzy heights of the genre’s zenith shone with new brilliance. A wonder of the operatic world during the decades at the middle of the twentieth century was the way in which companies throughout the world could offer their audiences credible alternating casts of tenors, baritones, and basses in standard-repertory works. Metropolitan Opera audiences for the 1954 – 55 season’s revival of Verdi’s Un Ballo in maschera were not badly served for having to choose between Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker as Riccardo or Josef Metternich and Leonard Warren as Renato. Though Herva Nelli sang Amelia in a Philadelphia performance by the MET forces, the main-stage Ballo in New York in the spring of 1955 had only one soprano heroine: Zinka Milanov. [It is worth noting that it was in this revival that, on 7 January 1955, Marian Anderson made her MET début as Ulrica. Slightly more than three weeks later, Renata Tebaldi made her house début as Verdi’s Desdemona, opposite Mario del Monaco and Leonard Warren and with the young James McCracken in the secondary role of Roderigo.] This production was typical of the era in which a rich field of male vocal talent could be harvested to provide suitably glamorous settings for the rarer stars among female singers.

Also as in nature, however, opera as a living art is cyclical. There are throughout opera’s history discernible vocal and dramatic patterns. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the pendulum swung again in the direction of high-voiced domination of opera, though with the added (and, from the perspective of the great tenors, baritones, and basses of the Mid-Century, surely unanticipated) participation of countertenors. Whereas the MET in 1955 could boast alternating casts of superb male artists to support a single star soprano (two, in fact: Roberta Peters sang Oscar), in 2009 the sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and – it still seems unlikely, frankly – countertenors find themselves in something nearer to a wasteland among low-voiced singers. [Questions stemming from the obvious fact that, among the MET’s 2009 – 10 roster of celebrated and box-office-star female singers, there are no true successors to Milanov and Tebaldi, nor even the overused but underrated Herva Nelli, will be ignored in the context of this article.] The rosters of the world’s best opera companies include a plethora of sopranos experienced with Donizetti’s Lucia but display an unfortunate paucity of qualified Edgardos, Enricos, and Raimondos. This shift has also enacted an equivalent change in the focus of conventional operatic ‘stardom.’ It is now an atypically talented tenor, baritone, or bass who is a meteor darting through a darkened sky.

In this environment, perhaps it should not have been surprising that the most impressively memorable performance in Washington National Opera’s 2008 production of Händel’s Tamerlano – a production that featured an exceptional mezzo-soprano, a fine young soprano, perhaps the most famous of countertenors, and a tenor who holds the distinction after a long, triumphant career of being perhaps the only living opera singer whose name is almost universally known – came from a young British bass-baritone. In the secondary role of Leone, this remarkable singer rose to the challenge of his only aria, a transplant from another of Händel’s scores, with singing of the sort that regrettably is an endangered species among male singers of his generation. Fuelled by the success of his performances in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera are involved in negotiations aimed at bringing this exciting young artist back to their stage, and Washington-area audiences have reason to give thanks to the National Symphony Orchestra for the opportunity to again hear (as Alaouddin in concert performances of Albert Roussel’s Padmâvatî) the wonderful voice of Andrew Foster-Williams.

Andrew-Foster Williams as Leone at Washington National Opera [Photo by Karin Cooper]

Born in Wigan in Greater Manchester, where he states that he ‘didn’t grow up with Classical music,’ Mr. Foster-Williams pursued musical studies that led him to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music, from which he graduated with top honors. In addition to being named an Associate of the Royal Academy, Mr. Foster-Williams won several important prizes during his studies, including the Royal College of Music’s Opera Award, the Flora Nielsen Recital Prize, and the Elena Gerhardt Lieder Prize. Mr. Foster-Williams also took second prize in the 1998 Kathleen Ferrier Awards. These studies and awards built the foundation on which Mr. Foster-Williams continues to build an impressive and stimulating career in both operatic and concert repertory. ‘I spent a lot of time [at the Royal Academy] learning how to sing and discovering the roots of what kind of performer I would like to be,’ he says. ‘I think it’s fair to say that I was a rather green young man when I left college.’

A vital aspect of Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry is the way in which his performances combine vocal beauty with complete emotional engagement. An insightful attention to the nurturing of this blend was characteristic of Mr. Foster-Williams’ formative operatic experiences. ‘I was extremely influenced by my first singing teacher [Roy Dillon]. He had a profound impact on my life in many ways, and he was solely responsible for my initiation into the world of music. The lasting memory I have of him is his commitment and great love of the art of singing. He made all the hard work, learning, and preparation seem such a pleasure,’ he recollects. Recalling performances that he attended while he was a student at the Royal Academy, Mr. Foster-Williams notes, ‘Whilst I was studiously preoccupied in trying to analyze the vocal skills of the artists I was watching perform, it’s actually performances from the likes of Philip Langridge, Thomas Allen, and John Tomlinson that linger in my mind. These artists are more than great singers: they are masters of communication. They manage to make singing and acting a symbiotic whole. Even as a ‘vocal-obsessed’ student they managed to seduce me into forgetting about my conscious studies and just made me watch them and be immersed in their performance and, therefore, the piece as a whole. These are my kind of singers, and the kind of singer I strive to be myself.’ This goal of being a singer for whom both vocal poise and dramatic verisimilitude are paramount is central to Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry. His progress in achieving this goal is immediately evident when hearing his singing, even on recordings.

An element of Mr. Foster-Williams’ success as a communicative artist of the first order undoubtedly stems from a quality conspicuously lacking in many young singers: a pervasive self-awareness, or an individual performing philosophy. Mr. Foster-Williams observes, ‘Singing is a deeply personal thing to do, and [singers] are required to ‘lay ourselves on the line’ and be vulnerable every time we do it. As a consequence, we probably spend more time analyzing ourselves, and our equilibrium with the world, than the average person does. When we have found peace with the practical headaches of the profession, and can embrace the magic of the situation we find ourselves in, then the perceptions we have of other things (like art and humanity) are equally positive and have an air of wonder about them. Each day in my work I am immersed in dialectic about love and grief, about faith and power, violence and pity, torment and ecstasy. I feel like my mind and eyes are open to all aspects and interpretations of art – because they have to be. Watching my colleagues create and achieve something exquisite as a daily occurrence is very humbling. This is privilege! Whilst I know I live in a world with much conflict, I feel that, in a small way, I am directly involved in reaching out to those who find some solace in the world of music and theatre.’ His dedications to self-reflection and thoughtful observation of the work of his colleagues are apparent in Mr. Foster-Williams’ singing. His interpretation of Golaud in Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells’ Pelléas et Mélisande revealed not only a very attractive timbre but honesty, vitality, and emotional directness that made this brutish character unusually moving, even at his most abusive, an accomplishment acclaimed by audiences and critics alike.

Ingrid Perruche as Mélisande and Andrew-Foster Williams as Golaud [Photo by Belinda Lawley]

‘I am very focused when I perform,’ Mr. Foster-Williams says. ‘I don’t allow myself to step out of the moment. I know that if I were to step out of the moment then it all becomes about ‘me’ rather than the music, drama, and audience. It is only when one is focused that one can truly call upon all the resources one has built up and learnt.’ The nature of the roles in Mr. Foster-Williams’ repertory – ranging from Rameau and Händel, through Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, and bel canto repertory, to Britten and Stravinsky – inspires him to refine his approach to vocal acting in order to meaningfully portray such an array of characters to whom, in their turns, virtually no emotions are foreign. ‘It’s about precision,’ Mr. Foster-Williams suggests. ‘It is necessary, sometimes, to portray an emotion in a ‘larger than life’ way in order for it to read on the back row. This should be fine as long as the action and intension [are] very specific, focused and precise. Any flailing around in an uncontrolled way will lose the concentration of the audience. When one is doing something intimate on stage - and the required objective is to ‘draw the audience in’ - then the actions, however minimal, still have to be very focused and with clear intent so that the audience can still read it properly. Precision and clarity must come first before they can give way to spontaneity and naturalness. One has to develop an innate feel for how the audience is reading your gestures and intensions and alter accordingly and constantly. A performer has to understand that the only acceptable performance is one that the audience indulges in.’

Considerations of ‘appropriate’ repertory might seem largely irrelevant in the case of a singer with Mr. Foster-Williams’ versatility. There are in the recent annals of operatic history many instances of very gifted young singers squandering their talents by taking on too many roles – or the wrong roles – too quickly, however. Artistic curiosity is a thoroughly admirable trait, but its mingling with ambition, whether self-imposed or resulting from external pressures, can be fatal for a young voice. To his credit, Mr. Foster-Williams displays an uncanny comprehension of the necessary balance between exploration and setting boundaries within the parameters of one’s own voice. ‘We have entered a potentially dangerous stage in the profession; one in which young singers with great talent are encouraged to do too much too soon,’ he says. ‘The more high-profile work young singers do, the more work they are offered: the eventual result can be disastrous. Lower voices take more time to settle and mature. In this hectic world, it can be frustrating to ‘take time’ (particularly if one is bright and wants to get one’s hands dirty), but strategic building is the name of the game. I have been lucky to have the support of several orchestras and opera companies who have understood the more measured path my voice needed to take.’ It is critical, Mr. Foster-Williams feels, that a young singer ‘is intelligent, trusts one’s own instincts, and aligns oneself with great managers, teachers, and coaches.’

To date, Mr. Foster-Williams’ operatic and concert performances have taken him to the principal musical centers of Europe and North America. On the horizon are débuts with the Detroit Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, as well as his first performance in New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Mr. Foster-Williams’ discography is expanded this month with the release of a new recording of Messiah with Stephen Layton and the Britten Sinfonia on Hyperion. His superb performance in Opera Rara’s studio recording of Mercadante’s Virginia will be followed by his work in the same label’s forthcoming recording of Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira. For Chandos, Mr. Foster-Williams has recorded the role of Lotario in Händel’s Flavio with Christian Curnyn, with whom he also recorded Ormonte in Partenope. [Click here to explore and purchase items from Mr. Foster-Williams’ extensive discography.]

The impact of Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry was summarized with near-ideal focus by Nick Kimberley, writing in London’s Evening Standard of Mr. Foster-Williams’ performance in Messiah at St. John’s Smith Square in December 2008. ‘His bass light and flexible,’ Mr. Kimberley wrote, ‘he sang as if telling a story that he really wanted us to understand. That story may be ancient but here it had the urgency of tomorrow’s headlines.’ This eagerness to communicate with audiences through singing is indicative of the integrity with which Mr. Foster-Williams practices his craft. That his work successfully conveys to audiences the stories that he wants them to understand is indicative of the presence of a great artist.

‘The most gratifying element of singing for me has something to do with connection,’ Mr. Foster-Williams says. ‘When I know I have served a piece of music well, and truly connected to an audience, it is the most magical feeling!’ Experiencing Mr. Foster-Williams’ singing, it is apparent that this association between connection and magic is self-perpetuating: audiences connect with his performances because there is in his work that elusive and wondrous element of magic. The shimmering beauty of the voice commands the ears’ full attention, the emotional and intellectual involvement inspire the heart’s complete surrender, and ultimately one leaves the theatre with memories of both performance and performer. In the context of any performance in which he participates, the renown of his colleagues notwithstanding, Andrew Foster-Williams never goes unnoticed.

Andrew Foster-Williams singing Schubert's WINTERREISE

The author’s sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Foster-Williams for his extraordinary grace, wit, and kindness in responding to questions for this article and for his assistance in providing the photographs used.

Click here to visit Mr. Foster-Williams’ official website.

Mr. Foster-Williams is represented in Europe by Maxine Robertson of Maxine Robertson Management and in North America by Carrie Sykes of Schwalbe and Partners.