16 August 2010

ARTIST PROFILE: Simon Lobelson, baritone

Simon Lobelson, baritone

The extraordinary American baritone Leonard Warren once wrote that ‘tenors are noble, pure and heroic and get the soprano, if she has not tragically expired before the final curtain. But baritones are born villains in opera. Always the heavy and never the hero—that’s me.’ This was Warren’s sarcastic assessment of his operatic career, but his own performance diary, his remarkable range (which reportedly extended to a full-throated top C that would have been the envy of many dramatic tenors), and his participation in what was undoubtedly a Golden Age of singing, especially at the MET, surely enabled him to appreciate the baritone voice for its special capacities for theatre-filling angst, soulful anguish, powerful calls to arms, and dulcet paeans to love. Yet Warren’s tongue-in-cheek remarks reflect what is, among many music lovers, a common perception, that baritones in opera are relegated to portraying villains and figures of depravity; and occasionally also brothers and fathers, though in these cases usually meddling and ill-willed rather than loving and supportive. Warren would have recognized immediately that these stereotypes are derived largely from the Verdi canon, in which baritones—even when ‘heroes’ per se—are rarely wholly sympathetic. Yet, in so many performances of operas with tenor and soprano heroes and heroines, it is the singing of a baritone that wins the collective hearts of audiences. Pamina and Tamino survive their trials and are united, the wicked Königin der Nacht disappears on a cloud of F’s in alt, and Sarastro recesses into his beloved ‘heil’gen Hallen,’ but many audiences leave a performance of Die Zauberflöte with Papageno’s plight in their hearts and his tunes in their heads. The same is true of Mercutio in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Rodrigo in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and of course Rossini’s Figaro. It is only rarely that the same artist sings all of these roles, but they are related by more than the fact that they were composed for the baritone voice. There is among these and so many other baritone roles in opera a thread of emotional sincerity that often eludes characters created for higher or lower voices. It would be a misleading generalization to suggest that baritones are the emotional and philosophical epicenters of opera, but it cannot be denied that in many operas when there is deeper thinking it is a baritone who has done it. In many cases carrying the weight of the opera and its ultimate effectiveness with the audience on his shoulders, whether he is singing Cavalli, Mozart, Rossini, or Puccini, what a baritone must be above all—as Leonard Warren displayed in a MET career ranging from the Herald in Lohengrin, via Rangoni in Boris Godunov and Valentin in Faust, to the great Verdi roles—is versatility of voice and sentiment.

That versatility is one of the most immediately apparent aspects of the career of young baritone Simon Lobelson. Born in Sydney and raised in Brussels, Mr. Lobelson first pursued a career in music through his studies at the University of Sydney, where his focus was principally on musicology and led to first-class honors in his Bachelor of Music degree. Thereafter studying with celebrated Australian baritone John Pringle, a particular highlight of whose illustrious career was his creation of the role of Palfreyman in Richard Meale’s Voss (the first opera by an Australian composer on an authentically Australian subject), Mr. Lobelson took the Tinkler Award in the 2003 Australian Singing Competition. This honor was followed by Mr. Lobelson’s receipt of a scholarship enabling him to pursue postgraduate studies with acclaimed British baritone Roderick Earle under the auspices of London’s Royal College of Music. Having taken part in masterclasses with renowned singers such as Sir Thomas Allen, Gerald Finley, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Philip Langridge, Mr. Lobelson further honed his craft in the Royal College of Music’s prestigious Benjamin Britten International Opera School, from which he was matriculated with distinction. Mr. Lobelson presently studies with Sir Donald McIntyre, the New Zealand-born bass-baritone whose Wotan in the famed Patrice Chéreau production of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth is one of the lasting cultural icons of the Twentieth Century.

‘I have learnt a huge amount from Donald in a relatively short time,’ Mr. Lobelson reflects. ‘Anybody who has done a masterclass with him will know what a difficult task master he can be. There have been some singers who have gone to see him for a lesson and been too scared to ever return. I arrived for my first lesson with him armed with my artillery of arias from Verdi to Handel. Before we even touched these, he asked me if I knew any nursery rhymes. We then proceeded to sing ‘Humpty Dumpty’ for an hour and then spent three hours on the Count’s aria from Le Nozze di Figaro.’ Mr. Lobelson pauses. ‘Did I say the Count’s aria? I meant the recitative to the count’s aria. This was all less to do with vocal production than with bending your brain around a new way of phrasing your singing. All the time, he was constantly referring back to Wagner’s didactic phrases on music-making, like “Fertig in dem mund” (Ready in the mouth) and “Die kleine noten sind die Hauptsache” (The small notes are the main thing), meaning that paying due attention to the small notes in a phrase causes the longer notes to take care of themselves. And the music for which Donald has become so famous is sung with the same kind of approach as one would sing bel canto opera. Never park ‘n bark. That is,’ Mr. Lobelson explains, ‘perfectly-formed vowels, with preceding consonants before the beat, and those that are voiced, perfectly pitched on the note, with the sound always released. [McIntyre] would demonstrate ways of achieving these goals, for example, by throwing a pair of spectacles as each note is sung, sometimes by skipping around the room to take away the temptation to accent every downbeat, and sometimes running at full speed down a hill, to show that one must lean back slightly as not to fall flat on [one’s] face. Our lessons usually last a whole day and involve a few hours of singing, lunch, a brief walk around his farm, then more work; and of course many amazing stories from his career.’ Mr. Lobelson’s work with Sir Donald McIntyre is focused not only on the development of the voice in the short term but also on potential for future expansion of both the voice and the younger singer’s repertory. ‘He has his eye on me one day singing Alberich, possibly sooner than I’d like to, but one day nevertheless,’ Mr. Lobelson says. ‘The concept that young voices can’t learn how to sing by singing Wagner (if sung properly) is a myth. [McIntyre] is currently working on his own word-by-word translation of Hans Sachs, one of his greatest roles.’ Mr. Lobelson adds, ‘And yes, he is one of he greatest Wagnerians of the past century, of which I am reminded every time I watch him singing Wotan’s farewell [in Die Walküre].’

Simon Lobelson as L'Horloge comtoise in Maurice Ravel's L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILÈGES at the Royal College of Music

The belief that singing music that is often considered too ‘large’ to be safe for young singers sorting out their voices can, when done properly, be not only beneficial but revelatory, is central to Mr. Lobelson’s development of his own voice, as well as his formal tuition. ‘Cutting my teeth on bigger repertoire in lessons was a means to learning how to sing, as I already had a fairly solid technique,’ Mr. Lobelson reflects. ‘Things like the Prologue from Pagliacci, arias from Ernani, Don Carlo, even Verdi’s Iago taught me utensils and how to apply these things to all repertoire.’ He is nonetheless cautious in his choices of repertory, especially at this juncture in his career, recognizing the dangers of taking on overtly dramatic roles and the challenges of particular venues. ‘There are even older, more established singers who don’t know better, and seem to have become too famous for the Fach system and sing whatever they like—to their great detriment,’ Mr. Lobelson states. He feels, however, that ‘there really is no set vocal escalator of baritone roles. We are all on our own paths. Some singers started singing very successfully in their late thirties—Matteo Manugerra, for one [whose formal operatic début was in 1962, when he was nearing forty: his début as Rigoletto at the Opéra de Paris came in 1966, when he was forty-one]—and launched straight into the heavier repertoire. A baritone’s career path does not always consist of, for example, Masetto then Morales then Malatesta then Marullo then Marcello then Mandrycka then Musiklehrer then Macbeth, in that order, and then the entire bass repertoire when the tops of their voices have gone haywire.’ Mr. Lobelson adds, ‘This is a classic framework, but it’s not always like this, as singers return to old roles, and then it all depends on what roles one is offered and chooses to accept.’

Mr. Lobelson is also aware of the physical dimension that has become increasingly important in opera during the past generation and its ambiguous relationship with vocal prowess. ‘I have never been offered particularly heavy roles,’ he says. ‘Renato in Ballo in Maschera once. But, then, I don’t possess a large voice, and I am only 5’7”, so often people look at me and decide what I should be singing before they’ve even heard me. The number of times I’ve been turned down for the Count because of my height!’ Mr. Lobelson muses, adding, ‘Luckily, almost all the roles I have done have suited me quite well. I think the heaviest roles I’ve sung to date were Nottingham [in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, for Spain’s Opera Valladolid] and Mittenhofer [in Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers], which I recently covered for English National Opera. Yes, they challenged me, but I worked it out.’ Mr. Lobelson approaches each role with careful attention to both musical and dramatic values. ‘I guess I’m always apprehensive about doing a new role, for whatever reason,’ he says. ‘I went through this with my first Figaro [in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro], Alfonso [in Mozart’s Così fan tutte], Rossini’s Figaro, and Marcello [in Puccini’s La Bohème]. I remember being apprehensive about singing [Purcell’s] Aeneas at nineteen, but I really didn’t have a clue how to sing then. I sang the role very differently ten years later. But they all came at just the right time for me. Had they come a year earlier, I don’t know if I would have done them well.’ Mr. Lobelson muses, ‘But when is the right time to sing a role? Maybe like having kids, there is never a perfect time, but you just make it work. And, indeed, roles like Marcello [in Puccini’s La Bohème] actually teach you how to sing. When all’s said and done, we’re all different, so some singer’s Papageno is another’s Wotan. But you must always sing them your way, not like anyone else (even if you think that particular “somebody else” sings it much better).’

Describing his vocal technique as ‘rich and flexible,’ Mr. Lobelson is likewise aware of the precarious nature of the voice as a product of the body. ‘Being built into our own body, the voice can be affected by many things: health, environment, and particularly state of mind,’ he says. Reflecting on the familiar statements by singers such as Luciano Pavarotti and Sherrill Milnes, who observed that their voices were both dependent and independent entities within their bodies, Mr. Lobelson states, ‘The more I get to know my own body, patterns, and voice, the more reliable my instrument becomes. But quieting those negative demons of self-belief and staying focused whilst going through day-to-day life and its requirements, ups and sometimes downs, can be challenging.’ This achievement of equilibrium between the physical and mental demands of singing is, in Mr. Lobelson’s view, a central requirement to pursuing a successful career as a singer. ‘At times the greatest challenge [to being a singer], onstage and offstage, is maintaining strong self-belief. When the applause has ended, life is art and art is life. Which reflects which, I don’t know. The works I sing, and listen to, have led me to appreciate different layers in life, people, and situations. Some of these operatic characters have taught me a bit about life and have really had a didactic influence upon me. Music, singing, and my job have opened my soul to the wonders of life. Sometimes we need to forget about “the job” and simply listen and look with new, refreshed ears and eyes.’

Simon Lobelson as the Drunken Poet in Henry Purcell's THE FAIRY QUEEN with Pinchgut Opera

In approaching any role or production, whether for the first or the fiftieth time, one characteristic is vital to Mr. Lobelson’s art: truth, musical and dramatic. ‘Know what you’re singing about, and feel the emotions in the drama at any one time. This is what will drive the music, for are you not the one creating the entire sound-world with your inner thoughts and emotions? Music is what feelings sound like,’ he suggests. Pursuing this thought, he cautions, ‘Don’t “act.” Be. Whatever you feel, if fuelled by what is being said to you (and really listen now to what the others are saying!), will ensure that you will never go wrong. Drama isn’t about standing in the right place at the right time and moving your left pectoral muscle on the fourth bar of the bassoon melisma. All that stage “business” is meaningless if not felt. The musical aspect of this will be taken care of if the dramatic and character foundation is stable.’ Mr. Lobelson admits that there are roles and specific situations in which this necessary application of one’s own emotional engagement with the music is not so easily made. ‘Some of the greatest battles are not to be won by constantly trying to get it right,’ he concedes. ‘Sometimes you win these battles when you’re simply walking down the street, or doing the washing-up. Take the focus off the singing and tone production, and don’t think of “acting.” Think of reacting and simply “being.” Emotions of opera are intimate, and many theatres are very large, but audiences can see, whether trained in drama or not, when acting is false or overdone. The tools taught to an opera singer through vocalism, movement, and acting are simply to serve at the disposal of dramatic truth.’

In addition to opera, Mr. Lobelson’s work to date has encompassed an array of concert performances, in which he has amassed a repertory of some of the most important works in choral music, including Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium and Johannes-Passion, Händel’s Messiah, and Mozart’s C-minor Große-Messe and Requiem. His approach to concert singing, especially in oratorios, mirrors his personal philosophy on singing opera. ‘Affecting people, moving them and communicating with them, is incredibly gratifying. Isn’t that at the end of the day what it’s all about?’ Mr. Lobelson says. Considering his concert repertory, he reflects, ‘I’ve stood too many times next to singers in oratorios who sing beautifully but could well be reciting a shopping list rather than singing about the crucifixion and Jesus’ trials.’ Citing a technique mentioned in Richard Miller’s book Securing Baritone, Bass-Baritone, and Bass Voices, Mr. Lobelson states that a ‘a very useful tool in order to get you out of your head and cease constantly fretting over technical matters during performance is very simply to communicate. I mean really communicate. And you know what, it works. You sing better.’ As evidence of the effectiveness of this focus on communicating through the text, Mr. Lobelson recounts his recent experience with singing Haydn’s Die Schöpfung for the first time, music which he describes as ‘a technically tricky and very extended sing, covering both ends of the vocal spectrum for the bass. From start to finish,’ he recalls, ‘I simply thought of the words, depicting the narration of God’s creation of the earth. It was incredibly gratifying to tell such a wonderful story.’

Mr. Lobelson contends that this element of communicating through the music and text of a musical score in order to present an audience with a coherent, hopefully moving story begins with attention to communicating openly and candidly with oneself. ‘Were [I to offer other singers] a single most important piece of advice, it would have nothing to do with technique or roles or vocal production or musicality,’ he says. ‘It’s not even to do with how to get employed and behave on the job. It’s more to do with that which never gets taught at colleges—state of mind, which is what gets in the way of people achieving their best. We are all on our own path. As soon as you stop enjoying the job, or become obsessive about it for the wrong reasons (the peripheral), then stop. Don’t compare yourself to other people, for you’ll always be disappointed. Why are you doing this for a living? What is it that makes you wake up every morning and do this? Is it the money? The accolade? The attractive women simply throwing themselves at you (or not)? The fame? I have come to realize very recently that if I stopped singing, that’d be OK. And this is a very challenging thought for a full-time singer to conceptualize, and indeed with which to come to terms. Were this to happen, though, I would still have music in my life, and that to me is the most important thing. It’s the reason I began singing.’ Likewise, for Mr. Lobelson neither one’s attention to one’s individual craft in singing nor the blend of respect and genuine affection for the music one sings ends when a run of performances draws to its close. ‘I get very disturbed when colleagues of mine haven’t the slightest interest in exploring music outside the rehearsal room and shoot off comments to me like, “I don’t like to listen to opera in my free time, I leave work at work,”’ he says. Thoughtfully, he adds, ‘Yes, leave the petty politics and annoyances at work, but can’t you have a passion for the job, and more importantly the music, outside work? How are you supposed to get inside a character or drama or role if you never think about this when you’re on your own? First: I love music. Second: I love opera. Third: And I love singing. In that order. And I have no shame in saying that. Great pride, actually.’

This pride, especially refreshing in a young singer, is apparent in all that Mr. Lobelson sings, in staged performances, concerts, and on recordings of repertory as varied as Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas and Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (recordings on ABC Classics of productions by Australia’s enterprising Pinchgut Opera) and Dame Elizabeth Maconchy’s The Sofa (on Chandos, conducted by Dominic Wheeler). Flexing his muscles in the tricky arena of opera in concert, Mr. Lobelson also took part in a widely-acclaimed concert performance by Chelsea Opera Group of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur with Nelly Miricioiu and Rosalind Plowright. To ‘Early Music’ roles such as Joabel in David et Jonathas and the Drunken Poet in Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, Mr. Lobelson brings natural vocal flexibility and an uncanny ability to translate this pliancy of technique into a complementary dramatic adaptability. Building upon this foundation, he comes to later repertory with the versatility that is the hallmark of a successful singer. Pensive and modest about his artistry, Mr. Lobelson downplays the fact that he possesses a voice of beauty, its timbre dark but capable of taking on a myriad of colors depending upon the role and the dramatic temperature of the music he sings. ‘I can honestly say that I have never thought of my voice as beautiful. Regardless of this, I must agree that if you don’t make a good quality sound that people will want to hear, then don’t bother,’ he says. He also emphasizes that vocal beauty is inherently subjective, as exemplified by the singing of Maria Callas. ‘Callas said that “it isn’t enough that you have a beautiful voice; you must take this voice and break it up into a thousand pieces, so she will serve you,”’ he reflects. It can be argued unto the twilight of eternity whether Callas was completely successful in reassembling her voice, as it were, but there can be little debate about the shimmering, secure tone of Mr. Lobelson’s voice and the skill with which he uses it to shape performances that, no matter what fates befall his tenor and soprano colleagues, remain in the memory.

Simon Lobelson as Junius in Benjamin Britten's THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA

Looking to the future, it is significant that Mr. Lobelson cites as artists whom he particularly admires and whose work has influenced his own understanding of singing as an art and a profession are those whose careers spanned wide repertories: foremost his teacher, Sir Donald McIntyre (whose discography includes, in addition to his famous Wagner performances, a towering account of the name-part in Händel’s Saul), as well as Dame Margaret Price (a Mozartian second to none who also proved her importance as a Verdian at Covent Garden and elsewhere—Desdemona was the role of her Metropolitan Opera début—and recorded a thrilling Isolde for Carlos Kleiber), George London (as effective as Debussy’s Golaud and Mussorgsky’s Boris as in Mozart and Wagner roles), and Philip Langridge (an incalculably important singer whose active repertory included music from four centuries in roles both large and small, in all of which his artistry shone brilliantly). This versatility, founded upon secure technique and careful attention to texts, is at the heart of Mr. Lobelson’s aspirations, which are also tempered by keen self-awareness. ‘We all have roles and repertoire we want to sing in the future,’ he says. ‘I’d love to sing the Dutchman [in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer]. And King Philip in Don Carlo. But I know I won’t. Ever. Regardless of what I will be singing when I’m fifty, there are things I do not ever want to abandon in favor of “bigger” repertoire. I hope to sing Mozart’s da Ponte operas until I die. Now, [if] that means “graduating” (or slipping?) in Le Nozze di Figaro from Figaro (which I have sung) to Count Almaviva, to Antonio, to second bridesmaid, that’s fine. Nor would I wish to lose touch with the Baroque repertoire, either. I love the music’s directness, clarity, and sound world, especially when produced by some of the top Baroque specialists in Germany, France, and Italy, for example.’ Of course, Verdi and Wagner, whose music he views as both natural and healthy when approached with the appropriate vocal acumen, are central to the work of many baritones, and Mr. Lobelson is likely to be no exception to this as his career progresses. ‘I must say that I don’t think Verdi and Wagner cause a singer to lose flexibility—if sung correctly,’ he says.

It is this notion of singing ‘correctly’ that is the conundrum—and the undoing—for many younger singers. Speaking of the power of music to wash away ‘the dust of everyday life,’ Mr. Lobelson recognizes that, as directors and managements are eager to convince audiences, a trait crucial to the survival of opera is its relevance. Yet he also acknowledges, with rare insight, that this relevance is determined internally by the artists and the audiences who witness their work. ‘Opera will always be relevant,’ Mr. Lobelson offers, ‘whether set in Jacobean England or Twenty-First Century Hong Kong. But one must never forget what it is that defines relevance.’ This, he feels, is the culmination of an artist’s work, to convey to an audience thoughtfully-rendered parts which, when properly assembled, reveal a meaningful story. That singing is a profoundly personal experience for Mr. Lobelson is evident in all aspects of his artistry, behind the curtain as much as before the footlights. Baritones are plentiful but, in one of the few things upon which opera-goers in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century will agree, good ones are not. Displaying the versatility necessary to effectively and touchingly portray a deceptive, ambitious Israelite soldier in an underappreciated Baroque opera, Mozart’s wily Don Alfonso, the treacherous, wronged Duke of Nottingham in a Donizetti rarity, and Bizet’s swaggeringly virile but too-often-hackneyed toréador, Simon Lobelson is among the best young baritones singing today, and unlike most artists of his generation he understands how he got to the point in his career that he presently enjoys. Considering his early experiences at the Royal College of Music, he says, ‘There were bigger voices, better voices, more beautiful voices, more flexible voices, and voices that could do the various things on which I’d prided myself better.’ Rather than proving a field of competition, this was for Mr. Lobelson an environment in which he gained an appreciation for the complexities of making a career as a singer that guides him as he looks to his future as an artist. Pondering, iPod in hand, as he enjoyed a vista of a serene lakeside garden in Scotland, where he was preparing to sing Escamillo in Carmen, Mr. Lobelson reflects on his journey to date as a singer. ‘[I have been] listening to the Act Two quartet finale of Die Entführung auf dem Serail. The applause has just ended. What am I thinking about now, having just heard one of the most sublime, life- and love-affirming pieces of music? Naturally, [about] love—for my family and for all the world and nature. I know that probably very soon I will forget this feeling again. But I also know with the firmest assurance that I will recall it all again when music again moves my soul.’ It is such love for music that gives life to the works of long-dead composers and, combined with the gift of a good voice and the acquisition of a durable technique, makes the work of a singer memorable. Simon Lobelson is a singer in whose work this combination is consistently audible, and for years to come his enthusiasm for his craft will be a vital element in the effort to validate the relevance of opera and concert music to audiences in the Twenty-First Century.

Simon Lobelson, baritone

The author’s deepest gratitude is extended to Mr. Lobelson for his kindness, insightfulness, and uncommon candor in responding to questions for this article.

All photographs are used with Mr. Lobelson’s permission.

Click here to visit Mr. Lobelson's Official Website.