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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Imogen Tilden

Allan Clayton: ‘I’m your tortured tenor for hire’

‘If you want to commit to a role then it’s going to take a piece of you.’ Clayton as Jephtha in the Royal Opera House’s new staging.
‘If you want to commit to a role then it’s going to take a piece of you.’ Clayton as Jephtha in the Royal Opera House’s new staging. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Allan Clayton rarely makes it to the curtain call. The roles the tenor has made his own in recent years – Britten’s tormented fisherman Peter Grimes; Jim Mahoney, sentenced to execution in Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny; Berlioz’s overreaching and damned scholar Faust, and of course the very template of the tragic hero, Hamlet himself, in Brett Dean’s acclaimed 2017 opera, all come to untimely ends.

Critics hail the raw intensity of his committed performances. “Clayton makes a heartbreaking Grimes, singing with remarkable sensitivity,” wrote Tim Ashley in the Guardian. “[He] whips his head around with widened, piercing eyes, never at peace … his tone conveys bitterness and pain as his face betrays fits of rage and shock. His mad scene is a thing of terror and wonder,” said the New York Times.

“Clayton takes his tenor to its limits in expressing his desperation, and his slow-burning intensity carries the tragedy to the bitter, grisly end,” wrote Erica Jeal of Hamlet.

These last two years he’s done nothing but Grimes and Hamlet. “Tortured tenor for hire,” he jokes. Joking apart, it must be gruelling to spend two years in these skins. Yes, he says. “Of course when we stop rehearsal I can switch off, but if you want to commit [to a role] then it’s going to take a piece of you. If I want to do it justice and make the audience believe me then it’s got to feel horrible.”

Clayton as Peter Grimes in Deborah Warner’s staging at the Royal Opera House March 2022.
A thing of terror and wonder… Clayton as Peter Grimes in Deborah Warner’s staging at the Royal Opera House in March 2022. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“A singer mate of mine said, ‘why don’t you just do something more chilled out? Or just not commit so much?’ But the music requires it. I wouldn’t be able to do it any other way.”

Will his next role, Jephtha, the Old Testament leader whose story is told in Handel’s oratorio at the Royal Opera House from 8 November, be any more “chilled out”? Jephtha might still be standing when the curtain falls in Oliver Mears’s production, but this is a man as tragically flawed and troubled as any of the above.

Meanwhile the story of the Israelites battling their neighbouring Ammonites has gained terrible contemporary resonance. The day I meet Clayton, Cambridge University Opera Society announce the cancellation of a production of Saul, another of Handel’s biblical oratorios, “due to the current sensitive political situation”.

It’s a decision director Oliver Mears finds “baffling”. “If we can’t make work that reflects the world as it is, however tragic, violent it may be, then the arts are lost,” he says.

For Handel, says Mears, Jephtha was a story about the dangers of fanaticism and authoritarianism. The plot is driven by Jephtha’s vow that, should he prove victorious in liberating the Israelites, he will sacrifice to his God the first living thing he sees upon his return from the battle. It will come as no surprise to learn that this isn’t a stray goat scampering across his path, but his beloved daughter.

“It’s about religious zeal, but it’s not set in a specific time or place. There are no religious symbols or artefacts in our staging,” says Clayton. With the Ammonites in wildly colourful costumes and extravagant of gesture contrasted with the sombre and brutish Jephtha the dichotomy can be seen as one of hedonism versus puritanism.

The last time Jephtha was on the Covent Garden stage was its premiere in 1752 with Handel himself conducting. Why has Mears chosen to stage it?

“It’s a masterpiece. The level of music is the top of Handel’s oeuvre. In some ways, Jephtha is a character of Greek tragedy. He has incredible charisma and yet it is that very charisma which is a danger to the community: the belief in his own authority is so extreme. In going through with his extraordinary vow to the bitter end he violates everything we value as human beings.”

Existential crisis… Clayton as Hamlet with John Tomlinson (Ghost) at Glyndebourne 2017.
Existential crisis… Clayton as Hamlet with John Tomlinson (Ghost) at Glyndebourne 2017. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

As Clayton prepared for his role as another leading man in the grips of an existential crisis, did he have any sense of how he would breathe life into the role?

“Singers usually turn up on the first day of rehearsals six weeks ahead of opening with no idea of what’s going on,” he says. “When you’re learning a part you might think, ‘This is the moment of complete stasis, and I’m on my own on stage’ and in fact you find in the production there’s fire-breathing jugglers all around you at that moment. Not that there are fire-breathing jugglers in this,” he adds, laughing. Mears in fact talked him through his concept and idea of the character several months before the first rehearsal. “He gave me some pointers in terms of documentaries and texts to think about. I wish more directors did that. It’s so much more collaborative and fulfilling.”

For him, it’s one of the biggest frustrations of the job. “We are told when to sing. We’re told what bar to fall in love and when to kiss someone, and when to move away. And then there is a conductor controlling the tempi. Some productions are more collaborative than others, but ultimately an opera singer is a passive recipient of the creative team’s vision.”

His life as an international star, jetting from New York to Berlin via Madrid and Paris, might sound glamorous but the reality is far from it. Five-star hotels and limos? If only. Instead it’s trawling Airbnb looking for places that are vaguely affordable and near the theatre. Brexit has increased the costs for artists now forced to buy visas, and the three-month limit (UK citizens can now only be in the EU for three of any six months) has added headaches of epic proportions.

Even so, these last few years he’s barely been at home for two months in any given year, he says. “Some singers thrive on it, but I can never get used to it. I’m always full of terror the night before leaving. Sometimes I think there has to be a better way.”

A rare comic role … Allan Clayton in HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!, a ROH online production directed by Richard Jones and streamed in October 2020.
A rare comic role … Clayton in HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!, a ROH online production directed by Richard Jones and streamed in October 2020. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This better way could be directing, which will also give him the creativity and control he craves. There’s a project planned with Aurora Orchestra next spring, co-directing (with Jane Mitchell) Hans Zender’s Winterreise. Also on the cards is a collaboration with the violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Like Mitchell, Kuusisto is an artist shaping an exciting future for classical music with boundaries collapsed and imaginations fired. Clayton has picked fascinating collaborators.

His own musical interests extend far beyond classical. A lot of BBC 6 Music and Gilles Peterson, he says. He shows me what he’s currently listening to on his Apple Music account – Aphex Twin, Kae Tempest, David Bowie, alongside Irish singer songwriter Lisa O’Neill, Belgian rapper Roméo Elvis, and the phenomenal young banjo player Nora Brown.

“A few months ago I took some mates to see Louis Cole play in east London. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, like a sort of west coast Jacob Collier, but he’s rude and dirty and sweary. It was an absolutely incredible gig.”

He’s rarely to be found in an opera house audience in fact. “It’s not relaxing. I just get fidgety and I see everything that’s wrong. I’m like, you can see them doing the change. And why are they not together?”

And what about future roles? “My look,” he says, “makes me not an easy sell. I don’t fit a certain pigeonhole – and opera loves pigeonholes. Physically I’m not going to be a handsome prince. But maybe I’m lucky to look the way I do. I turn up on the first day of rehearsal and the director looks at me and says, ‘Well, I don’t want you topless on stage’ – which suits me. Whereas friends of mine will be on crazy diets and fitness regimes months before and during shows because the costume design has them in their underwear.”

Clayton in rehearsals at the Royal Opera House in October 2023 for Jephtha
Clayton in rehearsals at the Royal Opera House in October 2023 for Jephtha Photograph: Marc Brenner/ROH

Would he shave his head – or his beard – for a performance? Yes, he says, and in fact a role he’s agreed to a few years hence – Britten’s Captain Vere in Billy Budd, will need him to be clean-shaven. “I’m already upset about it. I hate the way I look. I feel much, much more comfortable with the beard.”

What other roles might the future hold, with or without beard? He’d love to do some comedy, he says, but laments there aren’t that many to choose from, and also more contemporary opera – he’d jump at the chance to work again with George Benjamin (he was in his Written on Skin) and Dean. “Brett was looking for something to write after Hamlet and I was begging him to do a comedy. I think audiences would like that as well!”

He will be part of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera based on Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen currently scheduled for 2025. “I rewatched Robert Eggers’s film The Lighthouse last night – I’m convinced that would be a fantastic opera,” he says, he just needs to persuade someone to write it.

He’s pretty sure Wagner is not beckoning though.

“A couple of conductor mates keep trying to get me to do Wagner, but I’m not sure. You need incredible stamina as well as a honking voice. For some singers, it’s their dream. I just don’t know if it’s for me or not.”

What are his dreams then? “I always wanted to do Grimes at the Opera House and I’ve done that, he says. “And I’m too old to play for Liverpool now, so there’s no more dreams!”

Football’s loss is the opera world’s gain.

• Jephtha is at the Royal Opera House, London, from 8-24 November and on BBC Radio 3 on 16 December.

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