Q & A: Alexander Chance on Winning the Handel Singing Competition & Looking Ahead at the Future

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Nina Close)

Alexander Chance is a fast-rising singer who became the first countertenor to win the International Handel Singing Competition.

He has performed at Wigmore Hall, Musikfest Bremen, Nargenfestival in Tallinn, and The Grange Festival, among others. This season as he continues his rise with performances in Ravenna, Japan, Munich, Tel Aviv, and Prague, among many others.

OperaWire had a chance to speak about his Handel Competition win and what he is looking forward to as his career grows.

OperaWire: Tell me about winning the Handel competition? What does this competition mean to you?

Alexander Chance: It’s a competition that gets a lot of attention in the early music world, and I’d always viewed it (as with all competitions) as something I’d have absolutely no chance in, but I finally convinced myself this year to go for it. I wanted to get to the final so that I could invite friends who hadn’t heard me sing before, or hadn’t heard any Händel, or both, and share with them a side of me they hadn’t maybe seen before. This was a great competition for me in that sense because the final happens in the heart of London on a Friday evening, in a church with an acoustic perfect for Händel’s music, with an orchestra and a conductor, in Laurence Cummings, who are real Händel specialists. Winning was a bonus.

OW: You are the first countertenor to win the International Handel Singing Competition, also winning the Audience Prize. What does that mean to you? What does it mean to make history?

AC: There have been plenty of wonderful countertenors in the final over the years, and really just to be named among them is an honor. I think this was the first year when countertenors have come 1st and 2nd (Meili Li, whom I know quite well, and who is a fantastic person and singer), so I’m pleased that we could jointly fly the flag.

OW: How do you go about choosing your repertoire for a competition like this one?

AC: Within the normal guidelines of showing enough range and variety, and a mixture of opera and oratorio, I chose pieces I knew very well for the earlier rounds: I find walking in to a room with a panel of judges and only a pianist or harpsichordist to accompany you (with whom you’ve had ten minutes to rehearse) the most nerve-wracking thing you have to do as a singer. You have very little time to create an atmosphere and leave a convincing impression, and so I felt I needed to perform pieces I knew like the back of my hand, and could rely on if I got nervous. The final was different – I just chose the pieces I liked the most and thought the audience would like. As it happens, I hadn’t performed any of them before, which seems a little foolhardy in retrospect, but I knew that I’d have plenty of preparation time, and rehearsal time with the orchestra. Getting to sing “Cara Sposa,” one of Händel’s most beautiful arias, without having to worry about performing the rest of the opera (“Rinaldo”), was a treat!

OW: What are the keys to doing a competition for you?

AC: This was the first competition I’d entered, and in fact it may well be the last! I’ve always been terrified of them, far more so than any concert or opera I’ve ever done. I was focused on showing variety in each round, and planning what I wanted to sing in each round months beforehand, so that I’d have time to learn them from memory well before I needed to perform them. Especially with regard to the final, I wanted to treat it like a concert rather than a competition, and take advantage of the fact that there was a wonderful orchestra and conductor helping me out, and friends and family in the audience who were there to hear me enjoy myself.

OW: This summer you’ll be at the Ravenna Festival. Tell me about the repertoire you’ll perform there? What do you like about performing Britten’s music?

AC: I’m singing Britten’s “Canticles” with Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake. This is exciting not only because they are both masters of this music, but also because Julius was our next-door neighbor when I was young, and we’d often hear singers like Ian come over to rehearse with Julius next door. I’ve known him and his family since I was about 5 years old, so performing with him now will be surreal.
Britten’s music is always enchanting to listen to or perform; he has an uncanny ability to conjure up mysticism. Both of the canticles featuring countertenor (“Abraham and Isaac” and “Journey of the Magi”) are based on religious stories, but both come in secular forms: the text of the latter is a TS Eliot poem, and the former is based on a Chester Miracle Play. They represent an interesting junction between his church music and his operas. I know a little about both, having sung his religious music at school and university, and having sung the role of Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Grange Festival last summer. I always love how prescriptive he is, and how precise with his markings on the page, meaning he always knew exactly what he wanted from each note. This makes memorizing the Journey of the Magi, in particular, a real challenge!

OW: What does it feel like to perform at this important festival?

AC: I’ve performed at the Ravenna Festival once before, with the Tallis Scholars a few years ago. I love the city, and the people who run the festival, or at least those I’ve met, are a delight. I’m particularly looking forward to a nice meal outside on a nice street after the concert with my girlfriend, who is coming for the week!

OW: The countertenor is sometimes limited to performing only baroque. However, today there are many composers composing of the voice type. What excites you about that and what is some repertoire that you are excited to develop?

AC: Baroque music is a real treat to perform. I love the idea that composers writing today, as ever, will write for particular voices, which means getting to sing music perfectly suited to one’s own voice. I’d like the chance to perform some of the newer opera roles for countertenor, such as Jonathan Dove’s “Flight,” or Thomas Adès’s “The Exterminating Angel.” Equally, if a composer like Jonny Greenwood, who blurs the boundaries between conventional classical music and ‘popular’ music, ever felt moved to write for countertenor (and let’s face it, all of Radiohead’s music is written for countertenor), that would be an exciting prospect.

OW: As a young artist, what are you excited about for the upcoming years? Where do you hope to see your career?

AC: In terms of the future of classical music, I’d love to see more young people come to concerts and operas, a wider array of venues, more variation in how long (or short) concerts are. Personally, I want to make as much of the next ten or so years as possible, which (one’s 30s) are probably the best time vocally for a countertenor, perform as much varied repertoire and go to as many places as I can; and then perhaps do something entirely different afterward. Touring is great fun when you are young, but it takes a lot out of you, and I always miss my girlfriend and my friends when I’m away. And, to be perfectly honest, it is often difficult to make enough money from this job to live comfortably. That might sound like a bum note on which to end, but it’s true!


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