(Photo credit: Frances Marshall)
“At Home With… ” is a series collaboration between OperaWire and photographer Frances Marshall of Marshall Light Studio, combining original photography with insightful interviews.
Between New York City and the stunning scenery of England’s Surrey Hills, a rumble like a temblor traveled across the Atlantic. On the Surrey side was the renowned bass, Brindley Sherratt. After the Zoom call with the singer, my wife entered my office and asked astonished: “Who were you talking to? I could listen to him all day.”
So could I.
Sherratt’s voice’s smooth and deep richness sucks you in with its sheer sonority. If ever there was a singer whose Sarastro I would steal to see in person, it’s his. Pepper in several Wagner roles like Fasolt or Gurnemanz, along with Strauss’ Baron Ochs, and you’ll understand the immensity of his voice, along with his penchant for the German repertoire. Sherratt is the type of artist who prefers being on stage and singing for hours, rather than hanging around waiting for his turn at an aria. During our discussion, he related a conversation he had with his friend and fellow bass, John Tomlinson, in which Tomlinson said a Wagner singer is a happy singer. Sherratt found Tomlinson’s words spot-on as he has developed a love for the composer’s storytelling prowess and the long evenings that are part and parcel of singing the roles.
As with most of the opera world, mid-March 2020 was disastrous for Sherratt. Suddenly, the world’s opera houses were shut down, seasons were canceled, and singers were left as stunned casualties of Covid, their livelihoods collateral damage as the pandemic darkened the world and its stages. After a period of shock and grief, Sherratt shifted into coaching, and by making himself accessible to students, the interaction with the young singers helped him greatly.
In this, OperaWire’s latest installment of the “At Home” series, Sherratt talks about the early days of the pandemic when he watched his diary of engagements dwindle until there were no more dates left, little to work toward, and not much to do until he got his ‘mojo’ back and could pass his knowledge along to worried students who wondered fearfully about what the future held for them. Young, low-voiced singers were particularly unsettled, with some dropping out of the profession altogether.
Sherratt explains their particular predicament which, in some ways, has less to do with the pandemic than with the long journey a bass takes to arrive at the place where they can successfully take on the big roles. Even without a global disaster, the bass’ path to success is protracted. But patience, talent, and a touch of luck can make it all worthwhile.
Now, as you read Sherratt’s responses, imagine having a pleasant, often lighthearted conversation with a down-to-earth Sarastro. Think of that F2 in “O Isis und Osiris,” and you’ll gain a sense of what it’s like to speak with one of the great bass singers of our time.
OperaWire: What was going on in your world when the pandemic hit?
Brindley Sherratt: In March of last year, I traveled to Munich, to the Staatsoper, to start rehearsals for “Boris Godunov,” which was to be my house debut. I got into my apartment, and then the very next morning, they called me from the theater to say it was closed, and I should go home as soon as I could. We’d all heard little things on the grapevine and were worried about where it was going.
Then, within a matter of weeks, I lost the next six months. I thought; well maybe the autumn will go ahead, but then, of course, that went as well and within the first two weeks of December, I had lost the whole of this year. It was a pretty depressing period because it was to be a great year with my first Hagen, my first Gurnemanz, and I was doing “Tristan” in Valencia and “Rosenkavalier” here in London. But in the end, it all went.
It was like a post-code lottery as to who was working, which countries were working, which theaters were working, and which artists were working. It seemed to have nothing to do with your agent, or whether they liked you; it was completely arbitrary.
OW: Zürich got in its run of “Boris Godunov” this past September. What was that like?
BS: Zürich said we were going ahead with “Boris Godunov.” For the sitzprobe, the orchestra’s home was a large church, about a kilometer away. And they said we will socially distance the orchestra in the church during the performance. They sent the sound via a dedicated fiber optic cable to the theater and had about a dozen speakers in the pit, with everything in its right place—trumpets over here, etc.
The conductor was with the orchestra, and at the beginning of the performance, they rolled down this big screen to show the audience. The orchestra stood up in their tuxes, took a bow, and then the screen went away. Forget normal theater PA systems. The sound quality was so good it was quite uncanny to look down in the pit and see nobody there.
I have to say, during the first few weeks of rehearsals, it was just so strange to be working when we knew that most people were not. There was a bit of survivor’s guilt. And it was a shock to the system to be rehearsing for six hours every day after shuffling around in our sneakers for months. Suddenly, you had to sing and sing big. In the end, it was a very successful production thanks to Barry Kosky’s imagination.
OW: With engagements canceled, how are you keeping yourself occupied?
BS: I like to ride my bike. We live in the Surrey hills, which are excellent for cycling. I made sure I cycled at least three times a week just to get out. I kept my voice going by practicing at least three times a week, doing some vocal exercises, and then singing something for fun to keep some kind of low-maintenance level going.
I also do quite a lot of coaching online, helping young singers because I thought, you know, it’s okay for us who have a pretty full diary and have already developed a portfolio of work, but for the students it was just devastating. If I could help them, it would help keep me occupied.
In the end, everything is a compromise. We either try or do nothing and wait until we can hear a voice properly. There’s only a certain amount you can do online. But there’s more time for singers to just ask questions. It’s amazing how many artists with international careers are now much more accessible. They’re able to mentor a bit more, and I think that’s been great for young singers.
OW: As you teach during this time, what is it you tell your students?
BS: There are two things I’ve said to them. One is that they should try to sing twenty minutes a day. That’s low-level basic maintenance. You don’t need to practice for hours upon hours—we’re on lockdown.
But a big problem for these students is that they’re not hearing other voices singing to them. As a young singer, you’re very influenced and encouraged by hearing other singers sing. It raises the level of your game. When they walk down the corridors of the conservatoire, they hear lots of music going on in all the different rooms, and then they talk a bit with the singers in the canteen about what happened that day or the evening before, but now they’re missing that interaction.
I went into the classroom a few weeks ago, and when I sang to them, they were watching my mouth, my body, and saying, “Oh, we didn’t notice that!” or “We don’t know the immediacy of the sound.” It’s because it’s all coming through this little microphone when coaching online.
Unfortunately, quite a few, the lower voices in particular, have kind of lost their mojo. I mean, we all did; it’s part of the grief. It was bad for us, but for them they’re thinking: what’s my future going to look like? How am I going to get on in this profession?
The tenacity and the perseverance of many of them have incredibly impressed me. It’s hard to sing when you don’t know where it’s going to lead and you don’t know what opportunities there maybe, but what else are you going to do?
OW: What has been one of the most satisfying things about teaching?
BS: Let’s say I see a young bass struggling. I can say, “You know, there’s a way around this because we all have this problem with this role, or with this aria, or this phrase; we all hate it. And so, this is what we do to get around it.” Then they try it and go, “Oh, that’s great! You’ve really helped me out.”
When it immediately gets in and the lightbulb goes on, it’s incredibly satisfying.
OW: What do believe is causing the younger low-voiced singers to drop out?
BS: I’ve always maintained this about the bass repertoire; it’s a completely different career trajectory. In terms of the roles—the great bass roles—you want to be hitting them around 40-ish when your voice is strong enough and your technique sure enough to get through the roles. And there’s only a handful of roles compared to a soprano or tenor where there are hundreds of title roles.
For a soprano, there’s such a broad panoply of stuff they can put out there and it’s immediately interesting, it gets a lot of interest, but for the 25-year-old bass, Sarastro is a bit low, Figaro is a bit too high, and he’s probably not going to sing any Verdi, though it can be done. So it’s a difficult period for a bass because it takes so much longer to get that thing going. I think maybe these young guys wonder if they’re ever going to get there. So maybe that’s got something to do with it.
OW: Your success took time. In fact, you didn’t start out as a singer.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be where I am. I’ve had incredible luck. I was a trumpet player for 12 years. I was a professional choral singer for 15. I didn’t start doing opera solo work until I was 36 years old, which is very, very late. If I were any other voice type, it would’ve been too late. Someone said to me that I had an operatic voice and to have a go at it. I thought that I had to get out of the choral world, or I never would.
I started out on this terrifying journey. It felt like I was launching myself into the abyss. I just got lucky—with some talent, of course.
OW: Speaking of success and moving into different bass roles over the years, you’ve moved into Wagner and the German repertoire.
I never thought I would do any Wagner. When I started out, people thought I was much more suited to the bel canto repertoire, and maybe Verdi—the Italianate style rather than the Germanic. I immediately came into my career singing more lyric roles, and I think people thought my voice was a bit too smooth and a bit too precious to chuck it into some Wagner.
But I dipped my toe in the water probably in the last 10 or 12 years, occasionally with a King Marke or Fasolt, but it only comes up every two or three years, so I worked a bit more on Verdi roles but did a few more King Markes. When I started doing slightly heavier repertoire like Claggart in “Billy Budd,” it was a big life-changer for me. People came around saying, “You should do Hagen now. And Gurnemanz! Definitely Gurnemanz.” So, I sniffed around, and it’s coming into my rep now. When I sing it, my voice goes right into the right place.
I seem to like less and less the life-changing, career-altering aria. With the Verdi Italian rep, the singers are always waiting. We’re all waiting for this; we’re all waiting for that. I quite like doing Baron Ochs where I am on stage for the better part of four hours, singing a lot and telling a story. I like German text and the narrative style of it. Maybe you don’t get every note right, but you’re part of this big thing. I love the immensity of it. I find it fascinating, and I’d like to do more of it for the next 10 years or whenever.