Interview with Christopher Gillett playing Valzacchi in Der Rosenkavalier

Chris Gillett

You have recently performed a string of international premières, most notably Iain Bell's A Harlot's Progress in Vienna.  What elements of these recent roles have helped shape your performance of Valzacchi in Der Rosenkavalier? 

I'm getting cast in a lot of sleazy roles these days. Lovelace, my character in A Harlot's Progress was a filthy beast, doing unspeakable things to Diana Damrau's harlot. Valzacchi is sleazy in a different way.  At the moment I'm channelling a viscous cocktail of James Mason and maple syrup, if that helps develop a picture for you.

The engine that drives most characters is power. What power do I have over the person I'm engaging with and what power do they hold over me? Lovelace's power was money.  Valzacchi's power is knowledge. He knows everybody's dirty secrets. 

Living in Vienna for two months while I did Harlot was also very useful for Der Rosenkavalier. Everything about the designs makes sense to me, as they did when I was in Richard Jones's Billy Budd in Amsterdam which happened to be set in my old school, Pangbourne. 

You have received great praise for your performances over the years, what was it about coming back to Glyndebourne to perform that appealed?

To be honest I was absolutely elated when I was offered this. And a bit surprised. I haven't worked for Glyndebourne for over 20 years. It felt like a massive and unexpected mark of approbation. I'd felt on the outside for a long time, even though I've always thought Glyndebourne was a house that would suit me. It may sound like a cliché but I feel a sense of returning home. And it's a good role I've never done, with a top-class team. What's not to find appealing? 

Glyndebourne celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2014, do you have any favourite memories of your time here early on in your career? 

I'll confess I wasn't wildly happy as a chorister in 1983, mostly due to an inflated sense of my own importance, which I'll put down to blind ambition and the impatience of youth. I made a lot of friends though, many of whom I still see regularly on the opera circuit. For some reason I particularly remember a chorus scene in Idomeneo where we were being terrified by the sea monster; lots of flashing lights and horror acting. There was also a lot of bottom pinching going on too and childish attempts to corpse each other. Terribly unprofessional of course and I'm sure that sort of thing doesn't happen anymore. 

What exciting new roles are on the horizon?

Exciting. Interesting word. It doesn't sound much, but I'm doing Snout next year in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This will be in Robert Carsen's production at Aix-en-Provence; the same production in which I sang Flute at its premiere in 1991 and in which I've sung many, many times, most recently at La Scala in 2009. At 55 I'm finally too old to play an adolescent so Robert asked me to do Snout. It will be huge fun, though a bore to have to re-learn the score. I've done a few Lysanders too, so all that's left is Puck. Now that would be a laugh. (This is the perfect place for me to plug my book Who's My Bottom? which is chock-full of Flute stories. Thank you.)

How do you relax? 

By answering questionnaires. Not really. I find relaxing rather easy. Being lazy helps. I like cooking, not ridiculous dishes with lemon grass and quinoa but classics like ox cheeks and pork pies. Sourdough bread is my current obsession.

People often say that working at Glyndebourne is a completely different experience  to a city opera, would you agree?

Yes. I'm staying in Firle, typing this in the Ram Inn in the early evening. If I were working in a city I'd still be travelling home from work. I arrive at work relaxed because it has only taken me ten minutes to get there. I walked to work yesterday past herds of sheep and cottages selling eggs. It still took less time than a normal commute.

It's also unusual when working for a city opera to rehearse at the theatre; you're often sent off to a warehouse in the inner suburbs. I like being around the theatre, seeing everyone who makes the festival happen, every day, from day one. 

What is it about the combination of Robin Ticciati and Richard Jones that makes this new production of Der Rosenkavalier so exciting?

"Exciting" again... I worked with them both two years ago at La Scala, in Peter Grimes. The theatre and everything to do with it was chaotic and infuriating, but Robin and Richard remained calm and reassuring. Without them it would have been intolerable. I trust them both, totally. There's no bullying or self-aggrandisement. They want to serve the piece unencumbered by tradition or a need to shock. That's exciting to me. 

Tell us a secret about your operatic life?

I very rarely listen to any opera at home, I find Pelleas et Melisande incredibly dull and I'd rather eat my own arm than be in another opera by Philip Glass. Oh, that's three secrets. 

Who are your opera heroes? 

Stage managers. I've never met one who isn't lovely.

Books and blogging seem to have a firm place in your life now, did you see that coming or was writing an undiscovered talent until recently?

In the days before the internet I started a sort-of Fax Club, where friends would keep in touch by writing funny letters to a group, then fax them to everyone, no matter where in the world we were. It was expensive and it didn't last long. Nudged by my wife I sent some of my stuff to Ian Hislop which started a stint as Private Eye's Lunchtime O'Boulez, but I'm not going to say when. 

My first book really grew out of a frustration that no-one was saying what the life of an itinerant opera singer is really like. Everything was puff and fluff. I couldn't understand why the people I knew and the lives they actually led had to be kept secret, why it had to be dressed up to be much more glamorous than it really is. Blogging started soon after that and it has really snowballed in the last eighteen months. I love it. It's how I relax. That and the laziness and the cooking. 

Read more about Christopher Gillett on his blog 'Our Man on the inside' and to buy his books visit the shop.

Christopher will also be speaking at The Gate, Notting Hill prior to this year's Glyndebourne screening of Don Giovanni on Sunday 6 July. Book Tickets

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