Benedict Hymas: I don’t want to miss out on being wild because of singing

Although professionally Benedict Hymas is presented as a smooth, lithe Haute-Contre tenor vocalist, he is a man of many talents, sharing an interest in music composing, video making and piano playing. His professional success reaches such milestones as studies at King’s College London and the Royal College of Music, as well as performances with conductors Philippe Herreweghe and Jos van Veldhoven. Benedict Hymas is an active recording artist with many credits across a broad range of repertoire performing the evangelist in Bach’s Passion settings. According to the press, his voice is always a delight to listen to. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė talked with the performer about his education, everyday struggles and favorite type of weather.

I wanted to ask you about the tradition of British vocal early music and maybe you could describe a bit your experience with it.

I think there are so many different famous conductors from the UK that I have worked with and seen their styles. The funny thing is, that many of them are not necessarily that talented in terms of actually being able to show everything in the music with their hands. But for some reason, there is a difference between each group in the level of quality and characteristics of production. I think that comes with the personality of the conductor, which is really interesting. There are some conductors that conduct aggressively, and other conductors are very friendly and they will communicate with the choir. Actually, both of those strategies work. I prefer the one where you can talk to the conductor, no one ones someone really aggressive. But it does get certain results.

In terms of general traditions in the UK, choral music has a quite confident, big sound. Singers are confident in reading music as well. It’s different from the European style, where, as I experienced, is a much more gentle type of singing. Everything is kept very small. It can be lovely as well.

There are a lot of ideas on phrasing that comes from conductors like Philippe Herreweghe. He wants a lot of accelerating vibrato that makes people to sing a little bit away from the note. I think the best conductors understand the text, but they also have to understand what is possible for the singer. You know, sometimes composers set things in a way that is really counter-intuitive. You might think that you have to put different stresses in text, according to music. Conductors say that in these situations you should do the text. I kind of agree sometimes, but other times I think that composers made a very conscious decision to put the words in a different place. Sometimes conductors forget the music. They think too much about the text.

How did you decide to choose this career?

It chose me, actually. I was singing in the university and I got to know people in London who wanted me in services. There are a lot of churches where on Sundays singers will do the services. And they pay you for that. You are starting to work when you are in university, the activity expands over time, then you find out about the groups. The first group that I still work with is “Stile Antico”. I remember when I went to their concert and thought that I could see myself doing that. It was this weird feeling that this is going to happen and I will end up in the group. Then suddenly someone from “Stile Antico” decided to leave, I met one of the singers through church services and I was really very happy that I was accepted to the group exactly when I finished my studies. It was just good luck. And then it carried on by itself. I started doing more solo performances and now I’m also doing opera. I like to be diverse, I couldn’t just pick one thing.

How did you make a transition to opera or to solo performance? Was it easy?

It was quite easy because the repertoire is all in the same period and style of music. I’ve done a few romantic operas when I was in college, but not later. I am more into compositions of Purcell, Monteverdi, etc. I think you can sing louder and more dramatic when performing solo or opera. But I don’t find it difficult to switch.

Your type of voice ‘Haute-Contre’ is quite rare. How do you find repertoire for it?

I sing a lot of high tenor lines in different ensembles. There is a lot of french repertoire for that, but some of that it is just too high. I do not enjoy that. I like a certain amount of high notes, but I am never going to be a big tenor, so I don’t expect to sing Verdi. When I went to the London College of music a few years ago, I discovered that I could do way more than the usual repertoire. Rossini was very possible to perform and it’s really healthy because you are doing proper Italian Belcanto singing. I haven’t done much since then, because I am lucky to have a career in early music. I could push myself and do auditions or other things, but it is too easy to not to do it. I’m comfortable.

So what do you think about the future of your career?

I like to do a mixture of things. I like to do CDs, but it’s taking ages. One of CD in the making is my own project, and I just edited three more tracks so I am going to release something. Another project on the way is a jazz CD. That is totally different. I might see where that takes me.

I don’t have a long-time career plan. As I said, I am comfortable, so I don’t need to think about it. There are of course some projects that I would love to participate in. Also, there is my passion for music composing that I always make my last priority. I do a lot of different things. Recently I got into making short promotional films for “Stile Antico”. In filming I fond out that the simple things are the best. Good lighting, good soundtrack, good pictures. That’s a way to do it.

You work in different countries – Belgium, Netherlands, America. Do you see any differences between the musical scenes?

Yeah, definitely. The European style is quite different from English. Here in England groups singing is quite open and dramatic, heart on the sleeve like. That is quite unusual in the elswhere. With “Stile Antico” we don’t think that early music is emotionless. The interpretation of the text makes the sections different in terms of dynamics. And we don’t do it in a crazy way – we don’t put the Brahms dynamic to the Monteverdi. Just try the music to be more expressive.

There is this frustrating tradition in the UK and still in Europe of thinking that you don’t need to add anything from your heart, that you just sing the notes on the page. I don’t agree with that. You have to do way more than that. I learned it through “Stile Antico”, so I am not taking credit for that, but I agree with that. It is a shame if you think that music should be just sung exactly as it says on the page and there is no chance to do anything.

About America… I don’t usually work with many American musicians, I go there touring with other European groups. I remember I was in Boston to perform Matthew passion with the Scottish group and there was one American girl singing. Her voice was really bright and lovely and really rich and bright. That is quite different in the UK.

You mentioned about adding your expressions to the early music. Do you have any other interpretational principles?

The main was always to start with a text. You translate it, usually, because it is in Latin. And then you decide what do you want to do with it, how does it relate to the music that has been written. To make some decisions I read the text before even starting singing. That is one of the principles that I stick by. Other thing is that you have to practice a piece for quite long before you really know the potential for the music. You find out later how it is actually fantastic. So it takes time. It also depends on whether you are working with a conductor or without a conductor.

How do you choose the repertoire for the solo performances or recordings?

I just do what I like. For instance, recently I have fallen in love with Monteverdi. I have done recording of a couple of pieces, but not much. So I would like to do more recordings of him. If I am deciding, then I just do what I like. I really don’t believe in being stuck in one genre. I think that life is too short for that, you have to do what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, I think other people enjoy it as well. That is my theory. Perhaps when I release a CD we will find out if I was right.

Maybe there are some main values that are imprinted to you by your professors?

From the negative side, it was me feeling that I should do what they said is right. I wish I had followed my own desire. They were taking control and I remember when I was fourteen I really wanted to play Chopin and my teacher wanted me to play Beethoven.  I came along prepared – I learned most of the Chopin’s piece and she gave in. Suddenly I was playing with much bigger artistry because that was what I enjoyed. If I was teaching, I would definitely try to find out what music really inspires the student. For me, the focus was on only the technique.

But in terms of good things… absolutely nothing. I’m kidding – I had lots of great teachers that gave me lot’s of good advice. I think it comes down to how much do you practice. But the strongest feelings I have is when exploring the repertoire I like.

Do you have any rituals in your practice?

I am strange because if I have a few days off from singing, my voice just starts to shrink and dries up. So I have to keep exercising it. As long as I sing something, it doesn’t matter what I sing, I am fine.  As a singer, there are always many rituals of keeping yourself healthy, which I find really annoying, actually. I really resent being not able to go to bars when I want to, there are some days when you can’t drink and your friends then are like ‘why? what’s wrong with you?’. I don’t want to look back and say that I missed out on being wild, because of singing.

Also, I have always felt that since I left university, I just never stopped running. I’ve had some holidays, but you can’t stop work, because you start losing other opportunities. I have been really lucky to always have work. But if I went away for even six months and just enjoyed myself, I couldn’t come back. But that’s life and it is a great job and I enjoy it.

Does it give you stress that you are constantly on a go?

Yes, there are ups downs. When you travel and the flight gets canceled and you have 5 hours to sleep again, then you can start to get sick. This is really bad if I got a big concert. For example in Boston the next day we flew, we started singing and the day after was the concert. You feel like it is 4h in the morning, and you are singing a Matthew passion that is three hours long. You have no time to think about it. And then you get ill if you are not careful.

I travel constantly and if we are talking about the negatives here, the major negative is feeling guilty for flying all the time, because of the pollution. But I am relying on the intelligence of mankind to solve this problem.

But, talking about the positives, I enjoy traveling, because then į can escape the winter in the UK and experience more of good weather. U see the weather in the UK is pretty average. I’ve been in the much colder places and in the much hotter places. We complain about it all the time, but we are really lucky in the UK, because it is like safe. There are no earthquakes, no snakes. The weather is pretty breezy– you can handle it. Despite that, If I was really rich, I think I would spend some of the years to move around to whenever the weather was really nice. Because in the UK you have this time now from June until October when the weather is just lovely. But the rest of the year is winter – and you forget how bad it is. It is so depressing. The sun goes down at lunch.

Was you flight canceled on your way here?

Yes, it is a funny story. There are no direct flights from London. So I came to Frankfurt and then we missed our flight from Frankfurt to Salzburg because the first flight was delayed. So we missed the second flight. It was terrible, because in the Frankfurt airport and we sat on the plane for like twenty-thirty minutes. We were already late. And then the bus came and I swear drove like 20 miles around the airport. We sat on the bus for another twenty. I have never seen anything like it. And of course, it happened the only time when I really needed to be there. Suddenly all the things went wrong. We got to the gate three minutes after it closed. So we missed it, but they did give us a hotel and dinner and breakfast. So it ended kind of well. I mean it’s life, it’s not a big deal. At least it’s not as bad as the long flights with the big time difference. Then you have to adjust to the time and it is the worst. In Australia, for example, I felt so ill for days.

This profession is also not very healthy for me, because I don’t sleep well in new environments. Putting myself in a different hotel every night is not the best idea. When I travel, there are too many new impressions in my head at night, it can’t stop running. I need to find a way to switch it off.

How do you spend your spare time?

I like to make and edit videos, film, take pictures. I have a lot of cameras, drones, and other things. I also play the piano. I want to get back into sports too because I haven’t done it in a long time. Now I feel really unfit, so I need to start again. I also compose music sometimes.

How could you describe the music that you compose?

Oh God, I don’t know. It is a kind of a mixture of Richard Rodney Bennett, choral music and modern jazz. I write mostly pieces for choir or piano. It is difficult to explain actually, I have never thought about it.

When you were young and starting your career, did you had any expectations?

No, actually. If you would ask me when I was eighteen, if you want to be a singer for your career, I would say no. I think I should have been a doctor because my dad was a doctor and my brother is a doctor, but I never really quite committed to the idea. I couldn’t do it, because I could see the career path and I didn’t want to know what is going to happen. I prefer to not know. Bizarre. I only want to know that I can carry on, that would be nice.

How did you go from doctoral aspirations to singing?

My parents thought that music was a good thing to do and that I should learn to play a few instruments. I knew that I was good at music to a certain extent, but I didn’t really think I had the confidence for making it into a career.

It’s funny, because nowadays most people I talk to, asks me ‘what do you do for a job when you are not singing?’. And then when I say that singing is my job, they ask ‘so where do you teach?’.  For people is hard to accept that singing in concerts can be a full job and they paid for it when they bought the ticket. I never get offended by it, but it is interesting to notice.

So do you teach?

Actually, I used to teach music theory to a class of kids. I liked it, you learn how to deal with a class of children, which is useful to know. It is very difficult to explain something complicated in a very simple way. You have to know exactly how to talk to children, you can’t just talk to them like to your friends. And that was quite difficult for me.

And talking about the future, I don’t see myself as a teacher – at least not full time. I prefer a mixture of activities. I would love to compose as well as do some singing. Hopefully, that could be a new path in my career.

When you are staging an opera, do you have a process of creating a character?

To be honest, when you are preparing an opera, the main thing is to learn the notes and the words. You need to know all of it by heart. I start this process of memorizing quite late because I can’t motivate myself until three weeks before. The process with the character-building is when the director starts telling you what they want. And then you start observing, thinking and reflecting the vision of the director. You have to come up with your own interpretation of what they are saying. You take their lead.

How do you want to impact your listeners?

The reason for the concert is to inspire someone to enjoy. It is not for you to wonder about how good or bad your performance is. People came here to hear something inspiring. I think performers are too often you can get involved with the technique. So I am always trying to connect to the music emotionally. It sounds very cheesy, but it’s true. The way I can explain it is this – there is you standing and singing a phrase with notes and words. This is functional. But then you can create your own version of it – you might be pulling it around, pushing it, change the dynamics. Adding layers and layers of color. Because the music on the page is only a template and you have to do something with it. The phrase doesn’t really exist if you actually sing it. It’s off the page and it has nothing to do with the note-sheet. That’s what I try to remember.

Do you think that your theory background had an impact on your performance?

Yeah, because I learned a lot. Knowing historical context really helps with the singing. My education on all great early music composers like Palestrina and Monteverdi really helps. It just makes you a little bit more at home with the music. You can imagine the cultural and historical context and apply it to the performance. Also, you need to be able to analyze music when you are singing it. When you are singing in an ensemble group you should really be singing with them, not just looking or listening. It is important to analyze the piece and all the voice parts that it consists of. If you don’t recognize the patterns, you will never really truly appreciate such music. To be given the terminology is also very important because then you can talk about music. You do need music training for such things.

How do you imagine the future of the performance of early music?

The situation seems to be very healthy at the moment. Of course, there are always times when funding is not so good, but I certainly don’t think early music is dying up. I think it’s getting stronger and stronger. That is how I feel about it. I feel like people talk a lot about how things are getting worse in terms of music, and in terms of the standard of living. But actually, statistics often show that everything is getting better. It is very easy to be negative, but I think with music it is growing and not shrinking.

This is your first time in Salzburg and Salzburger Festspiele. What is your impression?

People kept telling me that the concerts here are very expensive. So I expected Salzburger Festspiele to be a big festival with lots of money. That often means that it is very well organized, very well funded, kind of well-done festival. They look after you well. I also knew that Salzburg is a beautiful place so I had high expectations about everything. And they were met.

Thank you for the conversation!

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