Born and raised in the Great Britain, Alastair Miles is an owner of one of the most apprechiated bass voices. The singer was praised being “the finest British bass of his generation”, “one of the UK’s most renowned singers” and simply “an eloquent presence”. He is working across the globe with such opera companies as the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, The Netherlands Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, etc. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė conducts an interview with this opera giant about his every day rituals and his view of the profession of an opera singer.
You have British origins. Maybe you could describe the opera world in Great Britain today?
I think the opera scene in GB is fairly buoyant but of course funding cuts over the years have had a detrimental effect. Of the companies I have recently worked with, Opera North seems in very good shape with a loyal audience and efficient management. I have high hopes for their new MD Garry Walker, with whom I worked on Billy Budd in 2016. I’m more pessimistic about ENO despite them having an excellent MD in Martyn Brabbins. They haven’t had decent management for a long time! The recent increase in summer ‘country-house opera’ has meant more work opportunities, which is to be welcomed.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘British’ singing. Certainly there is a type of ‘English’ tenor sound, but I think the main attributes of British singers are professionalism, high standards of musicianship and an absence of histrionic behavior!
How do you nourish your voice? Do you have any daily rituals that you use?
I try to keep myself fit and healthy by exercise and diet, but not excessively so. I’m lucky in that I have always been slim and don’t put on weight easily. I no longer have any set routines during performance periods, and I’m not a singer who feels the need to ‘warm up’ to excess.
How could you define your profession?
It’s a pretty crazy profession because it’s so uncertain and varied, but the artistic rewards can be immense.
I began my singing career in 1986 when I decided to concentrate on the voice full time and relinquish my flute playing activities. At that time my expectations were simply to respond to a much greater demand for me as a singer than as a flautist.
I have to admit to a growing cynicism regarding ‘this profession’ over the years. There have been disappointments, illnesses and negative experiences which I have endured that cannot fail to color my viewpoint. There seems to be an obsession with ‘youth’ at the moment (Young Artists Programs etc.) which I don’t think is entirely healthy. Often it is an excuse to pay artists less and dispense with their services quicker! Opera singing is a craft which takes years to develop and perfect, and I don’t think focusing on young talent, often at the expense of more mature and capable artists, is necessarily a good thing.
I’m proud of my relationships with various conductors (Sir Colin Davis, John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt) and the work I did with them. I’m also proud of my time with the Vienna State Opera and Bavarian State Opera, and the challenging and satisfying roles I performed over many years for them.
How do you form a new character that you have to embody in opera?
A lot of the character is formed by the music you have to sing, and the relations you have with other characters on stage. To have a good director is hugely important: one who has good ideas, a sympathetic understanding of you as a performer, and someone who can give you the freedom to ‘bring things to the party’. I recently directed a semi staged production of Le Nozze di Figaro as well as sing the two bass roles of Bartolo and Antonio. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done! Having to be objective and subjective at one and the same time was exhausting, but it gave me an understanding of the directorial process which I hadn’t been so aware of before.
You had performed many big roles, such as Leporello (Don Giovanni) or Philip II (Don Carlo) during your career. Do you have one that is closest to heart?
Leporello was great fun and I very much enjoy the comedic aspect of performance. Philip II is a fantastic role and I hope to sing him many more times! I also enjoyed the various ‘devils’ in opera, which give you huge scope to sing and act in many different ways…
How do you see the impact that you have on the people who listen to your music? Do you consider their ‘needs’ or are you making creative decisions despite them?
No, one should make creative decisions that are relevant and respectful of the music, rather than take into account any prejudices the listener might have…
In your youth you were raised as a flutist. How the career transformation came about?
I’ve alluded to this in a previous answer, but basically I found that people were taking a lot more interest in me as a bass singer than they had been in me as just another flautist, so I decided to concentrate on singing. There aren’t many similarities between flute playing and bass singing apart from breath control and the ability to phrase and nuance a melodic line. However, my instrumental training was hugely important for my development as a singer because it gave me the ability to sight-read, recognize melodic and harmonic patterns, and sing fast coloratura.
What is your opinion the traditional repertoire of bass singers? Maybe there are some typical roles or pieces that are usually performed by them?
I love the bass voice, particularly when exemplified by Cesare Siepi, Pinza, Tancredi Pasero. However, it can be bogged down by a certain dull rigidity which I am at pains to avoid in my own singing. Partly this is because of the characters that basses portray: old men, priests, kings. They are rarely the most exciting or dynamic figures on stage. It’s a challenge for a young singer to portray old characters – this obviously gets easier as you age yourself!
You are recognized for the stylistically wide repertoire. Which type of music is closer to your heart?
I don’t recognise differences in musical styles whilst performing – I’m too wrapped up in the performing process. I have a close affinity with Verdi, but in truth whatever I am currently singing is closest to my heart! I don’t pick repertoire so much as it picks me… I never have a choice of repertoire for CDs, unless it’s a lieder project which I fund and initiate myself.
How do you accept the praise or criticism that comes from your colleagues or the press?
I used to care a lot about what people said in reviews about me. Of course it’s nice to read complimentary things, but nowadays I don’t care so much whatever is written. There are so many news outlets and websites these days all giving their opinions, and much of it is ill-informed and ill-considered.
I assume you had performed in the Salzburger Festspiele. What was your impression?
I’ve never done opera at the Salzburg Festival before, only concerts. So far my experience/impression has been extremely positive!
Thank you for the conversation!