Friday, July 22, 2016

Tenor Barry Banks Counts Himself Lucky

By Erica Miner

From his early youth in Staffordshire, UK, Barry Banks had a burning desire to sing. Since then he has fulfilled that aspiration on the stages of major opera houses and concert halls in the US and Europe. Now based in New York, and a frequent performer at the Met Opera, Banks takes to the Seattle Opera stage on Aug. 7 in the title role of Gioachino Rossini’s delectable farce Count Ory.

EM: It’s a pleasure speak with you. How long have you been in rehearsal?

BB: A week and a half now.

EM: And it’s going well?

BB: It’s a genius concept, magnificent. Very exciting. It’s very British in its concept. Monty Python meets Black Adder, a sitcom based on the Elizabethan era, with Terry Gilliam-type sets. Great fun. 

EM: Sounds terrific. It must be exciting to make your Seattle Opera debut starring in a new production.

BB: Yes, I’ve never been here before. Of course I know of Seattle Opera because of its fantastic reputation. One of my good friends at Conservatory, Jane Eaglen, who’s worked here, speaks very fondly of it. What I didn’t realize was what an incredible, beautiful city this is. You hear of a city, hear the name, and you say, “Oh, yes, over there on the west coast.” I’m not shocked but so pleasantly surprised at how beautiful it is.

EM: Yes, this place can be very enchanting. I never got to perform Count Ory in my 21 years as a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera. And I just missed your debut, sadly.

BB: I’m great friends with a lot of the orchestra. It’s obvious that Levine has an amazing rapport with them. It is the greatest opera orchestra in the world, always a joy to be there, to work with those people. They love what they do.

EM: I read that you’re not to be confused with the rugby-playing Barry Banks. Do people mention that now and then?

BB: [Laughs] Yes. I don’t know which I’d rather be, actually. [Laughs.]

EM: Pavarotti played soccer. It could be a tenor thing.

BB: He was a goalkeeper, wasn’t he?

EM: He had a great deal of promise. Luckily for us he chose to be a tenor instead. But you were always musical, from your days as a boy soprano soloist. Do you feel becoming a musician was preordained for you?

BB: I don’t’ know if it was preordained, but from a very early age it’s all I ever wanted to do. In those days the only place to ply your wares was as a boy soprano in church choir, although I could just feel that these adults didn’t like that I was taking the solos all the time [Laughs]. I fell out of love with the church very early on in my life, because I was very sensitive. I just didn’t feel that it’s somewhere I wanted to be. My mum and dad stayed in the church choir, so they were still active. But I didn’t enjoy singing there. I was this musical kid, although I didn’t play anything, I was just musical.

EM: Singing is playing your voice, yes?

BB: Absolutely. But as a six, seven, eight-year-old kid you don’t know that. One of my overriding memories as a child, when I was around eight, was when I said to myself that when I went to the big school I was going to play trumpet. I was so excited the first music lesson when they brought in the peripatetic brass teacher and he asked, “Is anyone interested in playing?” So I got my wish. I started to play the trumpet straightaway. It’s what I always wanted to do, and everything I hoped it would be.

EM: The right instrument for a singer, especially for a tenor?

BB: They breathe in slightly different ways, but yes. I actually didn’t have any formal singing lessons till much later, at eighteen, nineteen, though I did sing in youth choirs from the age of thirteen to nineteen. In Staffordshire I was in the County Youth Choir and brass band. My formative growing up was once a week going to the big city and singing with my mates. It was fun, a wonderful time. I just loved and still do love magnificent wealth of English choral music. I formed lifetime friendships. A bunch of about 12 to 15 of us from those days are still very much in touch with each other. We’ve all gone to different places, walks of life, but get together often.

EM: Music is a very uniting force.

BB: I grew up in a very poor family, a wonderful, loving family home, but other kids might not have been so lucky. Looking back years later I can see how it gave a lot of other poor kids an escape from some not very nice times for three hours once or twice a week. For me I didn’t have to escape, I loved it. It was where I was happiest. Friends of mine have asked me to teach their kids or say they desperately want their kids to go into music. If I meet the kids and they don’t have that same fire in the belly I had but are just doing it for the parents, I have a quiet word with the parents and say they just don’t want it. I just had that fire as a kid.

EM: When did you first become aware of, and transition into, singing opera?

BB: Actually I studied trumpet. In Britain you have to have a second instrument. I didn’t play the piano - that’s my one big musical regret, that somebody didn’t take me in hand early on and say, “You need to play the piano.” I auditioned as a trumpet player with second study in singing. I got into two conservatories on trumpet. My teacher said I should audition at his alma mater, the Royal Northern College of Music. I turned up with my trumpet and they said, “No, the school of wind and percussion closed two weeks ago. You’re here for a singing audition.” What I didn’t know that I was auditioned by the head of vocal studies there. I only knew three songs: Delius to Daffodils, very tough song for a kid. “Comfort Ye…Every Valley, from the Messiah. And La Donna è mobile. Those three songs were my entire repertoire. At the end of the audition the head of vocal studies, Alexander Young, said, “Come for a full audition and could you sing La Donna è mobile in the correct key.” Apparently I was singing it a fourth down, from one of those anthologies. They put them in strange keys. I went back, had a full audition and got offered a place. My trumpet teacher gave me the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given me though I really didn’t want to hear it. He said, “You’re a good trumpet player but I don’t think you’ve got that one percent that you need to be a pro. Go to the Northern, it’s the best conservatory in the country, and see how it goes.” For the first two years of my training I just played brass and sang for a bit. Then I got very serious about singing. I changed teachers and things started to happen. I totally dropped trumpet. The breathing is slightly different for a trumpet player than for a singer, the pressure that builds up in your throat when you’ve blowing through a mouthpiece. I do still play for fun sometimes but I had to make the break completely. It appears I made great strides very quickly at college. It became obvious that it was the way to go.

EM: You’ve specialized in bel canto and Mozart. Have you branched out further?

BB: I have now. I was in the Glyndebourne Chorus when I was 23, when I was still at college. It was grounding, a great education. By the time I left the National Opera Studio when I was 25, I was still incredibly young. I was very lucky. I got work that didn’t ruin my voice, a lighter voice that lent itself to lighter stuff. I did my debut at Covent Garden, Beppe in Pagliacci. I was lucky enough to be able to make my career from singing, from the get go. I’ve never been out of work. There were some smaller Rossini roles like Signor Bruschino and things that all younger singers do, like Wozzeck and Alberich. But because I’m a small chap I had to guard against doing character roles. I knew my voice didn’t lend itself to those. I had to be very careful in what I chose. A lot of it is luck. I was just in the right place at the right time on some occasions. I was studying Magic Flute at Glyndebourne and the tenor went sick. It was my first day there. I’d driven for 8 or 9 hours from Glasgow. I was having breakfast and got called to the stage. I had to sing the orchestral dress at the side. That afternoon the conductor took me for a walk in the gardens and offered me Tamino in Leipzig, just straight off the bat. It was in 6 weeks, so I didn’t have time to get nervous or say no. From that I got Tamino in Brussels and Salzburg. That’s what really shot me forward. Before that I’d been covering Barbiere at English National Opera and went on the second, third and fourth night. That also shot me forward. Both those roles were the two I did when I was at Conservatory, so they were the perfect roles to step into when I came into the profession. They were two instances of right place, right time.

EM: Count Ory is quite a demanding role, one high note after another. Do you find that very challenging?

BB: Yes, of course. Any tenor who says they don’t, they’re lying [Laughs]. You said had I branched out. Yes. Three or four years ago I added Mitridate to my repertoire. I did it in Munich and recorded it. I’m glad I didn’t do it before I was 50 because I wouldn’t have had the technique or stamina. I’ve also added Hoffmann and Rigoletto, the Duke of Mantua. Concert repertoire, my first Mahler 8. Repertoire is changing now. I did Guillaume Tell a couple of years ago. That’s not really Rossini, that’s Puccini and Verdi.

EM: And Wagner.

BB: [Laughs] Yes. It’s everything other than Rossini. Ory is interesting indeed, because I think even more than Barbiere, Italiana or Cenerentola, Ory requires bel canto elegance. It’s such incredibly elegant music. Coupled with it being in French it has an even greater level of elegance. I was talking to the conductor (Giacomo Sagripanti) yesterday about these things and how the French makes it more elegant. Fille du Regiment is a much more elegant piece than Figlia del Regimento. La Favorite is much more elegant than La Favorita. The language lends itself to elegance. It’s got to be very “easy.” So there’s the difficulty. Doing the difficult music but making it appear easy. It’s not the easiest thing to do [Laughs].

EM: What about the dramatic-comedic aspect, the farcical nature of the story? Do you enjoy playing such a bad boy?

BB: Absolutely! Doesn’t everybody? [Laughs.]

EM: So I’ve heard. I’ve never had the opportunity.

BB: [Laughs] I’m known as a bit of a joker in real life, so comedic aspect is just natural. I’ve spent my career doing comedies. I’ve been doing Rossini comedies 30 years now - goodness gracious, I’ve stopped counting the years, because they start getting too big. Of course techniques of acting changed over the years. It has to be much more subtle. There’s a section where the boys are dressed as nuns and we get drunk. That’s just bawdy. But some of the other comedy is subtler than it used to be. It really is a joy to do. Barbiere, maybe because I’ve done it hundreds of times, I find much more enjoyable, maybe because I’ve not done it very often. Ory is not done that much because it’s not really known that well. But I think it should be.

EM: Maybe it will, now that the Met and Seattle have done it.

BB: It’s a genius score, very elegant. The two casts they’ve got together are fantastic. I think the public are going to love it.

EM: This opera depends a great deal on the relationship between Ory and Adele.

BB: Rather more important than my relationship with Adele as Ory, is the relationship with Isolier. Much more of the opera is done with her/him and me together. There’s only really act two with Adele, but really the crunch relationship is with Isolier because Ory’s always a caricature with Adele, the hermit or the nun. It’s only when they get to the trio that he’s sort of himself. In any case the four girls doing the parts are fantastic. Bravo to Seattle Opera for getting two casts like this. It’s quite an achievement.

EM: What is it like to work with your director, Lindy Hume?

BB: She’s amazing. She has so many ideas. She gets me in that she’s asking for very British humor, borne out of the 60s and 70s. She’s doesn’t have to do too much to get me to know the ideas she wants. She’s also very detailed, knows exactly what she wants. If you don’t get it, she won’t let you off. She just keeps hammering away, which is fantastic. I like her vision very much. She knows how to move a crowd, which not every director does, how to work with a chorus and more than two or three people on stage. She’s obviously got this great vision in her head. Although she says she doesn’t do stagecraft, she knows exactly what she wants in that regard.

EM: Two of the most important characteristics of a good director are knowing what they want, and being able to move a crowd.

BB: And not all directors can do it, by a long shot.

EM: You’ve been doing orchestral performances such as Carmina Burana and Mahler’s 8th. You also have a background in oratorio.

BB: My oratorio experience is vast. Going back to what you were saying earlier, I was one of the lucky ones, in that I got on the oratorio circuit just at the right time. But then opera gets in the way. Since I got my green card, the orchestral world has opened up in America now, much more than it was. I’m getting a lot of offers of orchestral work.

EM: Do you feel a greater love of one over the other?

BB: Orchestral work is my great love. I like being on stage, but I really love doing orchestral music. It’s a different discipline. You’ve got to enjoy doing it, otherwise it will destroy you. You fall or survive purely on what you can do vocally. You can’t hide. I get a massive kick out of working with orchestras. Mahler 8 is just mind blowing [Laughs]. Coming up I have a Beethoven Missa Solemnis with Cincinnati. I do thrive on that stuff. I’ve also got quite a lot of Donizetti and Rossini coming up the next 2 or 3 years in Vienna and Paris. I’m very lucky.

EM: You’re doing what you love, and so much of it. And it’s so exciting that you’re here in Seattle. 

BB: I’m so happy to be here. My apartment is 4 miles away from the Opera and I walk home every night. It’s such a joy. Gorgeous weather at the moment.

EM: I think if you were here in November you wouldn’t be walking home.

BB: [Laughs.]

EM: Barry, I’m delighted to speak with you. Thank you so much for your time. 

BB: Thank you.

Count Ory premieres on Aug. 6. and runs through Aug. 20 at McCaw Hall (

Photos used by permission of: Christian Steiner, Philip Newton; set designs by Dan Potra
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]