My parents had quite catholic taste musically, so I grew up listening to a very wide range of things, including a lot of classical music and opera. I never really took much notice of it, however, until I was trying to impress a girl who came to school in the sixth form. Her family was quite well off, so I took her to the Grand Theatre in Leeds for a performance by Opera North. As it turned out I enjoyed the performance far more than I enjoyed her company, which was completely unexpected.
Highly trained operatic voices are no longer simply voices to me – they are more like instruments. VVhen someone with an unamplified voice captivates an auditorium of perhaps 3000 people, it's a triumph of pure human endeavour, which I still find more moving than anything else I ever hear.
I started off by listening to what people might regard as being the more accessible, 'easier' operas, such as The Barber of Seville and The Magic Flute. Now I find I've come full circle and back to them, after working my way through Handel and Massenet and dipping into Wagner.
Opera can be for everyone, so long as people are introduced to it in the right way. The principal question is how to get someone to a live performance for the first time. Sometimes it requires a leap of faith. I took one rugby player friend to see The Magic Flute and he was very sceptical. After he heard the Queen of the Night's aria live for the first time, he told me the hairs on the back of his neck had been standing up, because he wasn't sure if she'd be able to reach the notes. He now goes regularly.
It can sometimes go wrong. On the British Lions tour of Australia in 1989, the squad were invited to the Sydney Opera House. About half of us went along and unfortunately it turned out to be a performance of Werther. Half the lads left during the interval and, when Werther finally expired, John Jeffrey turned to me and whispered 'thank fuck for that, he took enough time!' Even I had to admit this wasn't a particularly accessible first opera!
A lot of so-called 'serious' opera people seem to insist that you have to suffer as part of the art and I just don't understand that. I have sat through the Ring cycle and, quite frankly, it's like going to India – I'm glad I've been but, frankly, I'm not that bothered really and I don't feel any need to go again.
There is a clear parallel in modem novel-writing. I sometimes find myself thinking what hard work I am finding something and it's not because I'm thick or I'm not trying. It's just that great writers such as Flaubert, Zola and Dickens managed to write in a way that was easily comprehensible without compromising their genius.
It's not de rigueur to like Gilbert and Sullivan and other light opera, but I've spoken to a lot of performers about this and they say the real problem is that it's so bloody difficult to do, because of the intricacy and complexity of the words and the discipline of the music. I like opera in English. I don't see why people should be made to struggle merely because the piece is in its 'purest' form in the original language. A lot of this was written for audiences in their own language, after all - it was meant to be understood. Opera wasn't written in Italian or German just to make it difficult for people.
I am far more interested in performers than in recordings. I have never met Bryn Terfel, but I would like to. I have seen him on stage several times, and I think of him as a real modem genius. What a natural performer he is and he comes across as a tremendously gifted, hard-working and down-to-earth person.
At the ENO a while ago I recognised the name of one of the singers – Graeme Broadbent. He was in the same year as me at school, where he beat me in a singing competition. I was very annoyed at the time, but I don't feel so bad about it 25 years later, now he's turned out to be one of the country's leading baritones. I once did a programme about the ENO for Radio 4. I was surprised by how cramped the conditions were, and learned that, just like soccer players or rugby players, singers have their pre-match rituals and warm-up routines. They don't turn up and sing!
Any live performance must involve an element of risk and uncertainty. People can and do make mistakes – and true performers emerge under pressure. I don't like listening to the Three Tenors in Hyde Park, because I don't like to see them when they aren't under pressure, when they're not having to act as well as sing. To me that's the equivalent of a charity soccer game. People are just there to see the players. In live broadcasts for the BBC I always raise my game and I prefer it that way.
Mozart Così fan tutte
Soloists; ROH / Davis
'Hector Christie is a good friend, so listening to recordings of this wonderful opera reminds me of Glyndebourne in '98, when I was fortunate enough to spend the intervals not on one of the lawns, but relaxing in the Christie family home'
This article originally appeared in the April 2006 edition of Gramophone.