Ed Lyon interview
Modern opera star Ed Lyon on the changing face of an art form
It's not every opera singer who poses for press photos with their shirt off, but then Ed Lyon isn't like most opera singers. Born in Halifax, and trained in London, the 33-year-old tenor is out, proud and extremely easy on the eye. He looks younger in the flesh than in photos, I tell him. 'Really?' he grins. 'Get in!'
He fell in love with classical music when he was very young, but he didn't set out to be an opera singer. 'It was kind of a fait accompli,' he says. 'I did a lot of acting at school, and I found out that I could sing. I was in choirs. I was an alto until I was 18, then I started singing tenor. Opera was an obvious solution to wanting to be an actor but also having a singing voice.'
His first big break came when Bill Christie cast him in Handel's 'Hercules' at the Barbican. Was it ever an issue for him being so open about his sexuality? 'Not really,' he says. 'I think I've been enormously lucky in that respect. I've always been well supported by the people I've learnt with and by my family. And, let's be honest, opera isn't known as the most homophobic of industries.'
Still, the roles and stories are robustly heterosexual. We're often told that film audiences won't accept gay actors in heterosexual roles, so why should opera be any different? He thinks for a moment. 'Because it's more hyperreal, perhaps? But having said that, it's quite interesting how over the last ten to 15 years opera has changed an awful amount. As singers, we're now required to be more cinematic in our appearance and behaviour on stage than we used to be. We're in an increasingly visual culture. Telly and cinema have made a big impact on the way we view other forms. The idea that opera is just fat people getting up to sing is a complete fallacy. The days of park and bark are over - we don't just waddle up and sing from where we're standing, we also have to act convincingly.'
So does this mean the guy in the Go Compare ad is doing you all a disservice? Lyon laughs. 'He's actually a very good singer. It's not him I have a problem with, it's this old myth images like that are perpetuating. I work in opera and I've never seen a singer who looks like that!'
Lyon has mixed feelings about the ways opera has become more popularised. 'It's a thorny subject,' he says. 'Even within my own family people say that opera should change to accommodate a wider audience. I must say, I'm not convinced by that argument. Opera is an art form, and it's a wonderful art form. It's not always easy, but then cinema isn't always easy. Opera is never going to be for everyone, but if you bastardise the art form, you run the risking of short-changing the audience.'
What about shows like 'Jerry Springer - The Opera' or 'Pop Star to Opera Star'? Are they helpful? 'My argument with those shows is that they usually don't involve enough opera singers. The whole point of “Pop Star to Opera Star” is there are no opera singers competing in the contest. So there's this idea that you can become an opera singer in a matter of weeks. I'd love to see “Opera Star to Premiership Footballer”, where the winner then has to go and play for England. I think that would be an excellent programme!'
Lyon has had an extraordinary career so far. Among the many highlights he cites '“Pygmalion” with The Trisha Brown Dance Company, Freddy in “My Fair Lady” and singing at La Scala'. And looking to the future? 'This is going to sound really poncey, but I do think of myself as an actor almost before I think of myself as a singer. So what's interesting for me is the dramatic challenge of the role. If it's just about singing, if you're going to forget about your character the moment you get an aria, then do it in concert. I don't want to just stand there and sing.'
Ed Lyon performs Bach -Mass in B Minor' at the BBC Proms on Aug 2. His new CD Handel: Song for St Cecilia's Day' is out on Aug 9.