Bel canto tenor Colin Lee’s road to success

Bel canto tenor Colin Lee’s road to success

Bel canto tenor Colin Lee is currently in Cape Town for a concert version of Lucia di Lammermoor under the baton of the distinguished conductor Sir Richard Bonynge. He will share the stage with fellow South Africans soprano Pretty Yende and baritone George Stevens. Since his international début just over a decade ago, Colin has sung in major opera houses around the world. spoke to him about his road to success.

When was the first time you heard an opera and what impression did it make?

I think the first opera I heard was Die Zauberflöte in about 1990 in Cape Town, with the late Deon van der Walt as Tamino. However, it was not opera that first attracted me to classical singing. In 1989 I managed to get a student loan for my 3rd year of B.Comm at UCT. My father’s relief at not having to fund my studies that year was, however, short-lived when instead of using the loan to pay for the studies, I spent it all on a top of range sound system from Tafelberg Furnishers! 

Given the amount I had spent, the salesman threw in two CDs of my choice – CDs were relatively novel in those days!  The first CD I chose was Phil Collins’ But Seriously and the second one was called Tenorissimo – a compilation CD of arias featuring some of the greatest tenors of the 20th century. This CD opened my ears to a way of singing that captivated my spirit and my imagination. I wanted to find out “how they did that” and why it seemed to move me so much. This was how I first became drawn into opera and the primary attraction was not being on stage, but it was the art of the singing.

Tell us about your formative years as a singer in South Africa and how did you end up abroad?

People often refer to the big leap I took from being a chartered accountant to becoming a singer, but I usually reply by saying that I was a singer before I was an accountant. From the earliest I can recall, I used to sing. There is a recording of me singing “London’s burning! London’s burning!” aged 2!

Then in 1978, aged 8, I became a member of the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir where I spent 4 years before returning to Cape Town for my high school years. I attended Rondebosch Boys’ High School which had a great music tradition thanks to Dr Patrick Wise, and later his daughter Vetta Wise, and I carried on singing in the school choir and later the school chamber choir.

After I matriculated in 1986, I carried on my involvement with the Rondebosch Chamber Choir and started having private lessons with Vetta Wise. In 1990, a school friend and I got together and decided to form a close harmony “a capella” (unaccompanied) group, which we called “The Accidentals”. Initially it comprised of 6 ex-Rondebosch Boys’ High School boys, but later of 5 “old boys” and my younger sister. We performed to great acclaim at the Grahamstown Festival from 1990 to 1993 and at various other venues in Cape Town.

However, during this time I was becoming keener to pursue my training as a classical tenor. Finally in 1993, after I qualified as a chartered accountant, I got the opportunity, through my employer Ernst & Young, to transfer to one of their UK offices.  And so I arrived in the UK at the beginning of 1994 and set about finding a singing teacher. I was not able to afford the fees to join any of the colleges of music in London, but my job allowed me to finance my private singing lessons. So started the long and hard process of realizing my dream…. It would take 7 years of private studying before I finally was in a position to give up my job, in 2000, (by that time as a senior finance manager at an international life assurance company) and step into the unknown world of opera!

You are considered a bel canto specialist. For those who are not that operatically minded, could you elaborate. What makes this style of singing different from any other style of singing?

“Bel canto” is an Italian expression literally meaning “beautiful singing”. Its meaning has evolved from its early use in the 17th century to the present. It is now used to describe the Italian vocal technique and style prevalent in the 18th and early 19th century, during which time composers such as Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini were composing their operas.

A bel canto specialist is therefore a singer who specializing in this style of singing and in the operas written during this time. The bel canto style has certain characteristics which distinguish it from other styles, and particularly from the more dramatic styles that developed later to cope with the greater size and sound of the orchestra and greater dramatic requirements of more modern composers. These bel canto characteristics include:  impeccable legato, excellent diction, vocal agility and the means to perform embellishments, and a mastery of breath control. 

I do not mean to say that other styles of singing do not also include these characteristics, but in bel canto singing, mastering these characteristics is paramount and all other requirements, such as volume, are subservient to these characteristics and to the resultant beauty of the sound. As Richard Bonynge (the husband of the late Joan Sutherland and bel canto specialist) said to me recently: “Never sing more loudly than is beautiful!”

As an opera singer, you have sung with some big names in the opera industry. Would you share some of the highlights and special experiences?

I have been very lucky to perform with some of the great names in opera today and of yester-year. Those of yester-year have always proved to be the most inspiring and interesting, as they bring a lifetime’s dedication to the art. Almost without exception they are people of great intelligence, humility and understanding, and have always been hugely supportive of young artists – I think they appreciate the preciousness and fragility of our particular art form. These include people such as conductors Richard Bonynge and Bruno Campanella, singers such as Sir Thomas Allen, Alessandro Corbelli, Samuel Ramey, Ann Murray, John Tomlinson, Chris Merritt, Neil Shicoff, Ferruccio Furlanetto.

The singers of the day are often inspiring and frustrating in equal measure. The modern day pressures of being in the public eye constantly can often bring out the best and worst in people and more so in those still trying to prove themselves. Having said that, working with the likes of conductor Anthony Pappano, and singers Joyce Di Donato, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, has been a wonderful experience and I have learned much from them.

The memory of Joyce Di Donato careering round the Royal Opera House stage in a wheelchair in Il barbiere di Siviglia, having broken her foot on opening night, but still insisting she would sing the entire run, still brings a smile to my face, although the terror that the rest of us felt having to improvise around her, also makes me shudder. Sitting with two famous tenors of yester-year in the canteen at the Paris Opera, Bastille and hearing them discussing the merits and side effects of “the diamond shaped blue pill” still amuses.

Watching Thomas Allen writing his words on a notepad which he managed to swap with the notepad “prop” every night before the performance, was topped only by the fact that on opening night he found he could not read them on stage without his reading glasses!  By the second performance he had managed to convince the designer that a pair of glasses suited his character and he would happily offer up his personal pair!  So doing enabled him to read the words he had so carefully written out, but couldn’t memorise!

In Paris in particular, receiving a call on the day of the performance informing one that the entire backstage staff had gone on strike and we would have to sing a “concert performance” in costume, with no props, no lighting (only a basic light) and in front of the curtain/flat, often resulted in wonderful singing performances, and some rather interesting improvisation as far as the staging was concerned. It also usually involved the director storming off in a huff, furious that his staging would be non-existent for the performance.

Other experiences of singers being boo-ed on stage and audience members coming to blows with each other as a result, were far less pleasant and equally as harrowing……

You have already got an extensive discography. How does being a recording artist differ from performing live on stage?

Recording does differ from performing live on stage. However, I try not to adapt my singing style much during recordings, and rather rely on the recording engineers to adjust their settings appropriately.

The major difference is that recordings involve numerous “takes” whereas performing live is only one take!  The advantage of numerous takes is that mistakes, ensemble issues, balance, etc. can be ironed out/edited out. 

The disadvantage is that you tend to lose the spontaneity that a live performance brings. Ultimately, music is only “music” once received by the listener (if you do not receive the sound, it does not exist for you!) – in a live performance the receiving of, and response to the music by the listener provides the singer with feedback which in turn affects the singer’s performance – this “live” action and reaction in the atmosphere between the mouth of the singer and the ears of the listener creates a unique experience which is never repeated in the exact same way.

However in the case of a recording, there is no such interaction between audience and performer. Numerous “takes” and the final editing can sometimes produce a final product which lacks that sense of continuity and spontaneity. Recording can also be a lot more tiring for the singers (vocally and mentally), who have to repeat sections up to half a dozen times, without the advantage of an audience and the adrenalin rush one gets from a live performance with no margin for error. However, both forms of performing – live and recording – are hugely satisfying in their own ways.

What is your favourite role, venue and performance to date?

My favourite opera house is Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (ROH).  It is a wonderful auditorium with a great acoustic and, despite seating over 2,000 people, with a special intimacy.  It is also the house where I have done more productions than any other house. Currently, I suppose my favourite role is Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du regiment, a role that launched my international career and, the music of which is very close to my natural temperament.

In your mind, what makes opera the timeless art form it still is today?

Good opera is indeed a timeless art form. I suppose the reason is that it seeks to dramatise human emotions, which are themselves timeless.  Opera takes the dominant human emotions of love and hate, joy and grief, hope and desperation, and places them in heightened situations of life and death.  In doing so, it taps into basic human emotions which are the same today as they were when the opera was composed.

Originally published 12 September 2011, republished 15 April 2013
Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler

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