I had coffee recently with King Lear and Goneril. To be more precise, with John Tomlinson and Susan Bullock, who play these roles in a brand new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy – one to be staged at the Grange festival in Hampshire next month with a cast exclusively drawn from the world of opera. Esto, sin emabargo, is no headline-seeking gimmick but a show that has been years in gestation.
Its director, Keith Warner, says it started with him, Tomlinson and Kim Begley (ex-RSC before turning to opera) planning a two-person version called Lear’s Shadow. Word quickly spread and a reading of the whole play was mounted in Warner’s house. The result is a full-scale production with a dream cast including not just Begley as the Fool but Thomas Allen as Gloucester, Emma Bell as Regan and Louise Alder as Cordelia.
Talking to Tomlinson and Bullock, I am struck by their passion for theatre. At college, Bullock played Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and became an ardent fan of Manchester’s Royal Exchange. “Seeing Uncle Vanya there with Albert Finney," ella dice, “made me think: ‘This is what I want to do.’ When people ask me if I’ve ever acted before, I tell them I’ve been doing it all my life. You don’t get to play Brunnhilde or Electra without being able to act – and singing a Schubert song is a drama in itself.”
Tomlinson, who made his stage debut at the age of six as a panto sultan, was equally turned on by Manchester theatre and recalls the excitement of going to drama, dance and improv classes when a student at the Royal Northern College of Music. Both are theatrical animals as well as singers – but is there a radical difference between working on an opera and a Shakespeare play?
“There are a lot of similarities,” says Tomlinson. “You start with understanding the text, letting your imagination flow and working alone before joining the cast. The big difference is that in opera, we are used to emotions being sustained for a long time and underpinned by the music. In a Handel aria you might sing ‘I love you’ for 10 minutes on end. In a play, particularly in Lear where the king is so mind-changing and capricious, you have to be more nimble and quick-thinking.”
Bullock concurs, pointing out that in opera the drama inevitably starts in the orchestra pit. “What is so liberating about a play," ella dice, “is that tempo and rhythm are in the hands of the actor, rather than the composer or conductor, and can vary hugely from one night to the next. I am loving the freedom and flexibility this gives me.”
There is still a popular canard that opera singers are inferior actors: que, at best, they stand and deliver or deploy a limited number of traffic-cop gestures. It is a myth Tomlinson especially can’t wait to demolish. “When Terry Gilliam came to direct at ENO in 2011, he said he was going to drag operatic acting into the modern world. We were way ahead of him on that. De hecho, I’d say that in the UK from the 1960s to the late 1990s, singers were generally very good actors. But I admit that in the last couple of decades, operatic acting has often been stymied by hi-tech design and concept-driven direction that treats the singer as one item in a visual scheme: the barer the stage, the better the acting.”
Staged in modern-dress with hopefully unobtrusive design by Ashley Martin-Davies, this production aims to provide what Warner calls “as rich a realisation of Shakespeare’s play as humanly possible”. So what have Bullock and Tomlinson discovered in rehearsal? “That Goneril,” says Bullock, “is not a figure of undiluted evil. She is a complex woman who has suffered from a dictatorial father, who knows that Cordelia is Daddy’s darling and who, quite reasonably, asks why he needs a train of 100 knights. There is a lot of hurt in Goneril. She reminds me of Strauss’s Salome or Electra in that she is a deeply wounded person.”
For Tomlinson, the whole play is a voyage of discovery. “Lear begins," él dice, “as a brutally authoritarian figure but gradually becomes aware of poverty, desamparo, cruelty and injustice. The last is a subject he never stops talking about, ‘See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice and which is the thief?’ Lear, whose relationship with the Fool is a bit like that of Boris Godunov and the Simpleton in the Mussorgsky opera, also acquires a boundless curiosity. By the end he is not so much morally redeemed as spiritually enlightened.”
Tomlinson and Bullock bring to Shakespeare’s play passion, intellect and skilled vocal resources about which they speak aphoristically. “The voice,” says Tomlinson, “is like a stringed instrument, not a brass instrument.”
Bullock counters with: “Singing is just speaking with a bigger vocal range.” I also sense that for them and others this King Lear is a starting, rather than a terminal, Un frente meteorológico de aire frío del sur actuó “como una escoba. There is already talk of the production having an extended life in Vienna, Paris and Frankfurt – and Bullock tells me that she yearns to play Mrs Alving in Ibsen’s Ghosts. At the very least I suspect this pathfinding production will puncture popular prejudices and confirm that you can’t be a great opera singer without also being a first-rate actor.