“What’s missing from our performance is physicality,” says Giles Underwood. Although the “nuts and bolts” of a performance must be there, it is the communicative aspect which is the most important.
After all, Giles certainly has the experience to make such a statement. Not only has he sung with a range of ensembles (from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), but he has sung a range of operatic roles and performs regularly in recital. Alongside his international career as a bass-baritone, Giles is in great demand as a vocal teacher (with students at both Oxford and Cambridge).
Giles’ introduction to singing was a chance one. “I think I was being troublesome at school, and my Mum saw an advert in the parish magazine for chorister positions in Westminster Abbey, and it all started from there.” Although his experience as a chorister provided a useful grounding for his later career, Giles moved away from singing after his voice broke. “I felt like I’d had enough,” he admits. “It wasn’t until I was about 17 that I wanted to know what voice I had.” It was his experience of an Eton Choral Course which really cemented his passion for singing, prompting him to apply for a choral scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford.
I ask Giles about his experience of Oxford’s music scene. “The Magdalen choral scholarship was pretty full-time. I did a few gala operas and things – we did a production of The Beggar’s Opera, which was one of my first experiences. I did quite a lot of extra-curricular stuff. I ran two groups – one of them was secular part-songs, and the other I roped friends in to sing some outrageous stuff!” It was only halfway through his time at Oxford that Giles decided to push his singing even further. “I’d been having lessons during my time at Magdalen and it went from there. I started doing stuff for New Chamber Opera as well.” The link with New Chamber Opera is one which has prevailed to this day: “The last few years I’ve been doing a couple of their summer shows – last year they did Salieri’s Falstaff.” Although he admits that it’s not on the same level as Mozart, “there are some genuinely funny moments and some genuinely beautiful moments in there. But there are too many arias, and some rather overstay their welcome!”
Another important experience was a performance of Puccini’s La bohème while at school. “They got professionals in to sing the big roles, and I sang Colline – the bass role. I thought, “This is amazing! Why haven’t I come across this before?” I think that’s what made me do more with my singing. I’m sure I sang it terribly, but I have very fond memories of it.”
Alongside Puccini, Giles names Mozart and Britten as the opera composers who he feels the most connection with. After leaving Magdalen, he took postgraduate and opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying with Susan McCulloch and winning prizes for English and Contemporary Song. While at Guildhall, he was given the opportunity to sing the roles of Count Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. “They were both operas that I knew really well, and the opportunity to sing major roles was fantastic. Quite often you find that music colleges avoid mainstream operas because they don’t want to be unfavourably compared with singers at the top of their game.”
Giles has been an enthusiastic exponent of contemporary music for some time, although part of the course while at Guildhall was of particular interest. “I did a course called Creative Voices, which was run by Sarah Walker. It paired few singers from the postgraduate course with a few postgraduate composers. It was a really good collaborative thing, and a few of the composers I worked with on that course are now doing rather well. It was nice to get a different view of how the music was put together.”
I ask him how audiences have reacted to contemporary music which he has performed. “It really does depend on the music.” He quotes James MacMillan’s one-act opera Parthenogenesis as an example. Although he thinks that it is brilliant, he admits that it is not the easiest piece to listen to. “I think that’s the problem with contemporary music– if it’s really cutting edge, the first time audiences listen might well be the only time. If you don’t grab them, it’s hard for them to understand.” Giles suggests that many contemporary works need repeated listening in order to be understood. “Some operas you listen to and think “It looks great, it sounds amazing, but I don’t get it.” And then halfway through the second half it clicks and you wish you could listen to Act 1 again!”
A particularly moving experience was when Giles performed Adam Gorb’s cantata Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank wall (which incorporates words by John McCarthy about his kidnapping). “I found it difficult to make music out of it. It wasn’t until the first performance when John McCarthy was three rows in front of me and I was singing it to him that I really understood.” Giles suggests that many performers are too concerned with perfecting the notes that they neglect the expressive aspect of music. “To worry about the nuts and bolts you need to be making music – imparting information and communicating with your audience. If you never get past the nuts and bolts stage, you’ve failed at your mission.”
Many rehearsals are rushed due to the economic system which underpins music. “Partly that’s a logistical thing – you can’t pay singers to be in a room if you haven’t got that money, and there’s just about time to get the notes right. There are some groups who barely do that.” He doesn’t view this as a satisfying system. “I don’t think you can realistically put together something on a three-hour rehearsal, and I’m speaking as someone who’s done that for my whole career.”
This is especially the case in the recording process. Giles argues that the best recordings are live ones. “All you have to do is look at the live opera recordings. They might not have all the right notes, but there’s a sense of direction to the music. The recording industry is just concerned with getting things right. The attention to details and perfectionism has taken a lot out of the music. I like accuracy, but I prefer a sense of communication over note perfection.”
This changes the subject to that of opera. Over the course of his career, Giles has performed in a wide range of operas (from Berlioz to Purcell). “One of the most interesting productions I’ve been in was a contemporary opera where there was a stage-on-a-stage, so we could dissemble it and rearrange it however we wanted it to go. Just before the first show, the designer decided to polish this mirror-like surface. It was like an ice rink! How we didn’t fall off, I have no idea!”
When I met Giles (through a choral masterclass), he named African music as a crucial influence upon his singing. He tells me about the collaboration between I Fagiolini and the SDASA Chorale (from Soweto), enthusing “the way of singing in Africa is so visceral. My idea of what music is for changed because of that.” It is this physical aspect of singing which Giles sees as absent from much performance. “Most of the music we’re involved in is too cerebral. It’s a rush to get the notes right, and that is your function. But it should be about more than that, making the right sound. It’s rare that you get time in rehearsal to explore the physical side to the sound.”
Another project with I Fagiolini which allowed Giles to explore the physical side to the sound was their staged version of Monteverdi’s Madrigals (perhaps most famous in the form of the 2007 film The Full Monteverdi). “It was life-changing for all of us involved – we did 88 performances over a couple of years. It made you plumb the depths of your own emotional experiences. That was a real eye-opener about the amount of emotional involvement you need to put in to singing.”
It is the communicative power of music which Giles sees as its most important asset. It is a value which has clearly worked for him. He leaves me with the idea of each singer taking responsibility for this communication: “then you stand a chance of having something which lifts the music slightly further off the page”.