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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Interview: Dramatic purpose comes first for Peter Grimes tenor Roger Honeywell

By John Terauds on October 3, 2013

Tenor Roger Honeywell returns to the Canadian Opera Company in Peter Grimes on Saturday (Trevor Brady photo).
Tenor Roger Honeywell returns to the Canadian Opera Company as Bob Boles in Peter Grimes on Saturday (Trevor Brady photo).

Unlike just about everyone else in opera, Stratford-based tenor Roger Honeywell was an actor before he became a singer. He returns to Toronto to sing the role of Bob Boles in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, starting Saturday.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Chat with just about any opera singer, and you’ll discover someone who fell in love with music and singing as a teenager, went to a music school, and then figured out how to convey the stories of opera on stage. But Honeywell was 32 when he decided to become a singer in 1999.

By that point, he’d spent five seasons acting at the Stratford Festival, interspersed with five seasons at the Shaw Festival — and that was after the early years of appearing in small, independent theatre productions in Toronto.

“I always thought that the worst thing that would happen is that I would become a better singing actor,” says Honeywell of his abrupt change of plans — plans that were made possible by the Canadian Opera Company.

Honeywell auditioned for then-general director Richard Bradshaw in the summer of 1999, which landed him a spot in the Ensemble Studio at the start of the 2000-01 season. “I was 10 years older than most of the other singers,” he recalls.

Back in those days, he worried a lot about his vocal abilities, but never about actually treading the boards.

“What really excited the people here initially was that I had an acting background and had spent 13 years on stage,” he tells. “I’m always comfortable on stage; that’s my office. For me the challenge was to catch up with the technical proficiencies of singing some repertoire – well, any repertoire, really.”

Then he learned a few lessons. The first one was that getting the character and his intentions right would help him sing properly.

“I will never be Pavarotti. That’s not the kind of singer I am and that’s not the way I approach it,” Honeywell explains. “They are all about the beauty and the consistency of the sound, and I admire that hugely. I wish I had that facility, but I don’t.”

He continues: “I’ve gotten to the point where as long as I’m committed to the actors intention and the singer’s intention, if it’s honest then hopefully vocally it will be right.”

Honeywell finds he connects best with verismo opera — Verdi and Puccini — and more contemporary works. He has worked in new operas in the United States by John Adams, Tan Dun and Ricky Ian Gordon. In Canada, he has been cast in the premieres of Lillian Alling and The Inventor.

His favourite 20th century composers are Richard Strauss, Leos Janácek and Benjamin Britten. He loves how their operas are, “gems of plays that just happen to have music attached to them. They really feed you as an actor as well as a singer.”

The tenor has been singing a lot of Britten this year, thanks to the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The COC’s Peter Grimes is his third Britten opera of 2013. The fourth comes in November, when he goes to sing the role of Captain Vere in Billy Budd in Rio de Janeiro.

He admits that sometimes the weight of previous interpretations hangs heavy. He was singing in Strauss’s Elektra in Chicago earlier this year with American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, whose interpretations of Peter Grimes are held in high regard. Honeywell asked Griffey for some pointers, which led the Canadian back to his dramatic roots.

Honeywell recalls Griffey’s words: “You know, the only advice I can give you is stop listening to anybody and just do what you want to do.”

The singer smiles as he points out that this advice can also come in handy with stage directors. The ones who know about singers and how singing works are a pleasure, he explains. The ones who don’t know about singing can be a pain sometimes, which calls for a bit of psychology.

“A lot of the time you can tell a director exactly what they want to hear – ‘Yes, that is a great point’ – and then you do exactly what you just did before and they say, ‘That’s it!’” Honeywell laughs. “It’s called director-proofing yourself.

“Anybody who is a performer knows this. There is direction that is great, and it’s helpful and you really want to do it. There is other direction – from directors, from conductors, from anybody, really – where it’s a matter of giving them the feeling that they gave you the note. Most of the time it works.”

It’s something only an experienced actor would know.

+++

The Canadian Opera Company last presented Peter Grimes exactly 10 years ago, directed by Tim Albery. This season’s show is a different production, co-produced with Opera Australia and Houston Grand Opera, directed by Neil Armfield.

The opera, premiered at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London right after the end of World War II, is a 20th century classic. It tells a deeply troubling tale of how a reclusive fisherman becomes the object of righteous anger and retribution in a small English fishing village.

The cast, which features a lot of fine younger Canadian singers, is excellent. The conductor is Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus. There are seven scheduled performances between Oct. 5 and 26.

Grimes is supposed to be sung by Ben Heppner, with Honeywell understudying. But at the dress rehearsal on Oct. 2, Anthony Dean Griffey sang the role. When asked, a company spokesperson said that, “Ben Heppner wasn’t feeling his best and wanted to save himself for opening. Meantime we presume Ben will be singing on Saturday night.”

One can assume, though, that a singer of Griffey’s calibre would not be present in Toronto for just a dress rehearsal, especially when Honeywell was hired to cover the title role, as well.

You can find all the details about this production here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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