Q & A: Baritone Ben McAteer On His Current Role As Malatesta For INO’s Production Of ‘Don Pasquale’ & His Approach To Performing OperaBy Alan Neilson
(Photo:Robert Piwko )
Only a matter of weeks ago, OperaWire reviewed Wexford Festival Opera’s production of Félicien David’s neglected opera “Lalla-Roukh,” in which the Northern Irish baritone Ben McAteer caught the attention with a beautifully sung and brilliantly acted performance in the role of Baskir. The review noted that he had “a real flairfor the comic, with his timing invariably spot on. Likewise, the vocal depth and subtlety that he brought to the role also captured its comic nature, as he accented and exaggerated his singing to good effect.”
A quick look at his biography, and it immediately becomes clear that McAteer performs a wide variety of roles. Certainly, he does not restrict himself to comedy. He appears to be equally at home in serious roles and moves easily between contemporary and traditional opera, but whatever he performs, he receives glowing reviews.
McAteer is currently performing the role of Malatesta in Donizetti’s opera buffa “Don Pasquale,” for Irish National Opera’s tour of Ireland. By a fortuitous coincidence of circumstances, OperaWire had penciled in a performance in Dundalk for review, which provided the perfect opportunity to meet up with the Irish baritone for an interview.
OperaWire: What is your musical background?
Ben McAteer: My family was not particularly musical. There were no professional singers or musicians. However, like many children, I did learn to play the piano. It was at school that I started to have an inkling that I had a good voice, as I used to be picked to sing solo parts in the choir. It was probably during my teens when I really realized I had a voice. I knew I was better than my peers, and so when I was about 16 or 17, I began singing lessons.
Every Monday evening for a few years, I used to travel to Dundalk for lessons with Geraldine McGee. She also taught Tara Erraught, and we used to pass each other in between lessons. As I was going out, she would be coming in, or vice versa.
When I was coming to the end of secondary school, I toyed with the idea of becoming an actor rather than opera singer but after talking to my parents I thought it would be more sensible to go to university and get a degree. So I went to Saint Andrews and did a degree in chemistry.
OW: What made you decide to move from chemistry into a musical career?
BM: While at university, I continued to sing. We set up an opera group and did a production of “The Rape of Lucretia.” I also sang in the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. It was all the usual amateur student stuff. I also did singing lessons once a week with George Gordon, and it was George who suggested I consider a career as an opera singer. As I wasn’t very good at chemistry, I was happy to give it a go. I thought I’ll do an audition, and if I don’t get in, that’s fine; if I do, then I will give it a go. Fortunately, the Guildhall School of Music and Dance offered me a scholarship and everything developed from there.
After the Guildhall, I got a place on Scottish Opera’s emerging artists’ program. It was a great year. I did a “Le Nozze di Figaro” and a new opera called “The Devil Inside” by Stuart McRae, in which I performed a really dramatic and vocally challenging role.
I was fairly fortunate in my early years because I got a foothold with most of the British companies: ENO, Welsh National Opera and, of course, Scottish Opera.
OW: Did you make much use of competitions in establishing your career?
BM: Actually, I got my first professional role through a competition. During my second year at the Guildhall, I did a competition for Northern Ireland Opera and as a result, I was cast as Papageno in “Die Zauberflöte.”
I used to do competitions while I was in music college, but I don’t like them. They are well suited to certain types of people. For example, if you’re a 26-year-old baritone who can knock out an aria from Falstaff, you will probably win your fair share of competitions, but it’s not for me. They’re similar to auditions, and I’m not good at auditions. Standing next to a piano and singing an aria is not for me. I think competitions require a different skill from singing in an actual opera production. You have to compartmentalize yourself. I much prefer working through the role with a director. Obviously, competitions are useful tools, but no, they are not my thing.
OW: You perform a wide range of roles, including comedy and serious, traditional and contemporary. Is there a type of role you prefer?
BM: I love comedy. If I am working on a role for two or three months, I would rather be having a laugh. I love being on stage, and there is nothing worse than rehearsing a contemporary work for six weeks and then only performing it three times to half-empty halls.
On the other hand, when performing a contemporary work, you don’t have to worry so much about having a nice mezzo piano or trying to sound beautiful or produce a nice coloratura. Instead, you can just throw yourself dramatically into the piece. The payoff of performing a contemporary opera after weeks of hard work is that you feel pride and satisfaction for what you’ve achieved.
I know that comedies are not the most fulfilling roles to sing from a musical perspective, but I enjoy them, and companies rely on comedies to sell tickets, so it means there are plenty of opportunities for this type of work, which is also financially good for me too.
OW: Does comedy come naturally to you?
BM: Yes, I think it does. At least that’s what my colleagues and directors tell me. They say I have great comic timing. I don’t really think about things that much, so it must come naturally.
Many people say to me that I’m a very serious person, but really I’m just a very focused person. I think about what I’m doing in rehearsals, but on stage everything falls into place naturally. Comedy is quite a difficult skill, and although the physicality of it comes naturally, I still have to work it out in my head before hand.
OW: You recently appeared in Irish National Opera’s production of Maxwell Davis’s “The Lighthouse.” Did you enjoy it?
BM: Yes, I did! I remember Fergus Sheil called me and said that he wanted to do “The Lighthouse.” and asked me if I could learn it in three weeks. I hadn’t worked for 12 months because of COVID and so I said yes and that I’d learn it in a week, if necessary.
It’s a fantastic piece, and it’s dramatically fulfilling. It’s an hour and 15 minutes of relentless performing. You had to concentrate all the time. You never stopped counting, and you were always concentrating, trying to pitch things correctly.
It’s about three men going mad. It is a journey into despair and darkness. It’s a good piece to show people that opera singers can actually act, which is true for a lot of contemporary opera, which tends to be very dramatic, and I think this is why it’s becoming more popular.
We toured it around Ireland. We were playing to very small houses, and this was partly due to the fact that we were just coming out of COVID. We did 13 or 14 performances in total.
We also filmed it and showed it at locations with lighthouses around the country. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it. There was no venue near where I live, but I hear it was very, very good. The audience had earphones, and it was projected on a screen with the real lighthouse in the background.
OW: You are currently playing the role of Malatesta in Irish National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale.” What are its challenges?
BM: Actually, this is my first Donizetti role, and I was a bit nervous going into it. I was quite surprised, however, at how well it suited my voice. It’s also been a few years since I have performed a role with such a high tessitura. There’s nothing difficult in the notes themselves, but I thought I’d need to warm up for this. However, vocally, it has not been difficult.
More than anything, it is how tiring it has been touring the piece. We perform it three times a week, and by the end of the week, all four of us are exhausted. All the soloists have big parts, and all require stamina. OK, it’s not the full orchestra, but we still sing it as we would normally sing it. It is also a very busy production with lots of movement. It requires plenty of energy.
OW: Orpha Phelan is directing the production. Do you like her interpretation?
BM: I do! It’s a very busy production. There’s lots of movement and lots of props. Orpha has situated it in the surgery of a plastic surgeon. The production doesn’t look too deeply into the characters. It is fairly two-dimensional. It is more about having fun with the situations. I think if I were in the audience, I would love it. It never lets up; it keeps you interested from start to finish. She got the right balance, and that can be quite tricky to achieve.
She encourages you to throw yourself into the situation, trust what’s going on around you and step away from your own ideas and worries and the fear of being upstaged. In one sense, you have to work against focusing on your singing. It takes a little getting used to, but it works. She has a great sense of the overall picture, and I’m happy to accept it and go with it. It was the same when I worked with her on “Lalla Roukh” at the Wexford Festival Opera.
She is a great at directing comedies. I have no idea how she handles serious types of opera but I guess they would also be interesting.
OW: What was your impression of “Lalla Roukh?”
BM: I really enjoyed it. I think I might have been one of the few people who really liked the music. It was one of those operas that fell off the face of the earth after its initial success, but I loved it. Saying that, I wouldn’t like to see it with all the French dialogue. That would make it quite boring. The dialogue is interminable, but at Wexford, we cut it and replaced it with a narrator, and it worked very well. The love duets between the tenor and the soprano are really well written. I would love to perform it again, to be honest.
OW: Do you just go along with what directors say or do you like to have an input?
BM: I think it is my job to speak up for my character. I will argue my corner but I will never say no. If it’s a directorial decision I disagree with, I will make my opinions known, but ultimately I won’t say no. My job is to make it work, not to refuse to do it, and I think that attitude makes rehearsals easier. It’s no bad thing for the director to challenge the piece and the libretto.
OW: Describe your Voice?
BM: It is fairly hefty. It’s flexible and adaptable. I can be stentorian and imposing, or if I need to move the voice, I can manage that too; I love patter. In Act three of “Don Pasquale,” there is the famous patter duet, and I love all that. It’s made me think I should start looking at characters such as Rossini’s Dandini. I think it would suit me because I’m drawn to characters rather than the notes on the page.
Ultimately, I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. I have a voice that’s quite adaptable, and I want to use it in different sorts of roles.
OW: What are your ambitions for the future?
BM: At the moment, I am very flexible and willing to give anything a go. I am happy to move from Gilbert and Sullivan to Maxwell Davis, but I’m aware that I have untapped potential in my voice. Up to now I’ve avoided the heavier repertoire, and it’s something I should be considering, but whether that will take me in the direction of Wagner or Verdi, I don’t know.
I don’t have any specific ambitions, such as to sing at a particular opera house. I’m too much of a realist for that. It is more important that I have a varied career. I don’t want to be stuck with one particular repertoire. I just like being in front of an audience. I like being in the rehearsal room. I like working, whether that’s in the title role or for a character with two lines. It doesn’t bother me whether I’m singing in Covent Garden or in a local town hall.