Robin Leggate's last performance: after 40 years with the Company
Regulars at The Royal Opera House will be sad to hear that one of its most seasoned and much-loved tenors: Robin Leggate is shortly to retire after some 40 years treading the boards. Robin joined as a Company principal in 1971 and has notched up hundreds of performances. His last, as Goro in Madama Butterfly in July, will be his 909th. Here, he looks back on some of the high points of his career.
My first performance at the Royal Opera House
I was Otello in 1977, I was 31. They put it on at the last minute and needed a Cassio. It was perhaps a rather bigger role than they would have expected to give to someone who’d never been on stage before. But it went well and the role became a bit of a calling card for me. I’ve sung it here, I don’t know how many times, probably 50 odd times, perhaps more.
First opera I ever saw
I didn’t go to an opera until I was 21. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first opera I ever saw wasn’t Madam Butterfly, which, it just occurs to me, is rather poignant as that is the last role I shall sing here. I remember it vividly. I was 21 and it was Madam Butterfly by the Sadlers Wells on tour in Manchester. By the end of the second act my handkerchief was absolutely wet. I had to go and get a paper towel from the Gents to get me through the third act. I cried uncontrollably; it was so moving.
My last performance
My last role is a new one for me: this is the first time I have played Goro [in Madam Butterfly]. Goro is basically a pimp. He’s selling off this innocent 15-year-old girl. He knows, I’m sure, that the American has no intention of sticking to his side of the bargain. He’s just in it for the money. The character comes out dramatically, of course, but also in your voice. You try not to make your voice too ugly, but at the same time you can suggest a certain lasciviousness.
The happiest six weeks of my career
The thing I’ve enjoyed the most over the last ten years is Benjamin Britten. I’ve done a lot of his work in America. The happiest six weeks of my career were singing Aschenbach in Death in Venice in Chicago Opera Theatre, 2003. It was partly the role. Partly because the director, the conductor and myself all agreed exactly what this piece was about.
Singing in English to an English-speaking audience is wonderful because of the communication. They’re not reading surtitles. You’re speaking directly, and in the case of Aschenbach, people told me they could understand everything I said. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that you really are talking directly to an audience.
The art of the middling-size role
There are character roles which don’t necessarily require a very good voice, but do require acting ability. Then there’s what I call the middling roles, which I often do,the Cassios and Naraboths. They require a bit of both. You can’t have a bad voice singing Naraboth; Salome gets off to such a bad start.
I call them ‘narrami’ roles, because it is often their job to say ‘Narrami’( = tell me) to the main singer and then stand back and let him sing. You have to learn how to walk onto the stage and inhabit it. It’s the sort of thing the youngster can’t always do.
I won’t sing professionally. It’s a very physical thing, singing, especially for a high voice. It’s like being a ballet dancer. You have to keep fit. You can’t go to the bar for three days before a performance. I can still sing fine – nice reviews, etc. but it is a very physical job. Hardly anyone goes on past 70. I want to do what I’ve not been able to do for years – enjoy being part of local life in village near Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
Why retire now?
Everyone asks me that, but I thought the time was right. Youngsters don’t understand how you can retire from singing because it’s such a lovely job. All I know is there’s another era to my life. I’m not sure what it’s going to be, but I know I won’t be able to start it until I stop this one.
Whan I started I was a Mozart tenor, pure and simple. I sang mainly Ottavio, Tamino, Ferrando, Belmonte. For Mozart you just have to sound beautiful. But you can’t go on forever singing Mozart. For a start, they’re all invariably young men. So dramatically, you get past it. But also, your voice looses the fresh bloom of youth. At some stage, you have to move into different repertoire.
The Royal Opera House suited me from the word go
I know it pretty well. One of the friendliest, most efficient, opera houses in the world, with, I think the most consistently standard artistically speaking. Acoustics are pretty good too – you do need to be a Big House singer, but you don’t need to have a big voice.
It’s got busier and harder work over the years. We’re all driven by dedication to the house, I think. Everyone – the chorus, the stage hands, are as committed to the show as the singers are. We’re extremely lucky with the musical director, Antonio Pappano. He’s so hands on and has huge powers: musically, dramatically.
Directors? You try and get on their wavelength
You learn to suspend your disbelief and put aside your own ideas – rather like an audience. It’s the same with a conductor; you have to let them guide you along. They’re the boss.
John Copley was one of the first directors I encountered. He took the first production that I was covering in my first year. I went and watched this rehearsal and I was absolutely aghast. I thought this isn’t work; they’re just fooling around, all standing round the piano. At the end of the morning they’d blocked the whole of Act I of Così fan tutte.
John Copley’s Lucrezia Borgia with Joan Sutherland, Alfredo Krauss and Carlo Kleiber was a highlight. To watch Sutherland and Krauss duetting together was heaven, absolute heaven. I think I was a courtier of some sort, I can’t remember.
There is no doubt that Placido is a star.
Being in Placido’s first Otello here with Carlos Kleiber conducting and Margaret Price singing Desdemona was perhaps the most exciting night on stage. All nights with Placido in those days were incredibly exciting, and Carlos Kleiber was a genius, you speak to any conductor.
They use the word star, nowadays. They overuse it. He was simply a joy to be around. He brought everything around him to life. The whole stage, the whole theatre, lit up. I’m incredibly grateful to have spent my life doing this. It’s a fantastic thing.