Iestyn Davies: An audience with the fairy king

Posted: Tue May 17 2011

As Oberon in ENO's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', countertenor Iestyn Davies talks to Time Out about hitting the high notes

'Come to the show. I'll be the one on stage corrupting young boys,' shouts Iestyn Davies - a parting shot as he heads back into rehearsals at ENO.

The 31-year-old countertenor is only joking of course, and the context is his starring role as Oberon,
mischievous king of the fairies, in Benjamin Britten's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Director Christopher Alden has set the production in a 1960s school, where Oberon and his fairy wife Tytania are teachers, while the mechanicals (including bass Willard White as Bottom) are caretakers and other staff.

Despite his name (pronounced 'Yes-tin' - Welsh for Justin), he does not consider himself Welsh. That is the provenance of his cellist father, Ioan Davies, founder of the Fitzwilliam Quartet; his mother is English and taught history at his school in York - Davies's home city, to which he returned three years ago, and where he now lives with Frenchteacher girlfriend Gemma.

A candid and entertaining speaker, Davies is far from the delicate image one might have of a member of the curious falsetto world of countertenors. The highest male voice, it was once the preserve of the
English church tradition, emerging on to the opera stage in the 1950s to take up the rediscovered baroque roles written for castrati. It was something of a British oddity, as Davies explains, but now 'there are so many differing types of countertenor - from the Oxbridge choral scene… and now you see them coming from conservatoires in America, which teach the Marilyn Horne school of big opera house singing; their sights are set on the Met and they want to sing everything including “Carmen”.'

Davies is a product of the former tradition. At seven years old he went to St John's College,
Cambridge, and spent six years in the choir there. When his voice broke at 14 he found himself among the basses until one day, during a Bach chorale, he tried out his falsetto. He's never looked back, last year winning the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artist Award, having starred in Handel's 'Partenope' with Rosemary Joshua at ENO and in Monteverdi's 'The Coronation of Poppea' with Danielle de Niese at Glyndebourne. In November he makes his debut at the Met in Handel's 'Rodelinda' with his countertenor hero, Andreas Scholl.

Despite his dedication to choral singing, as a teenager Davies was almost signed by a record company
as part of a pop group. 'I was in a band at school called Cage. We imitated Blur; I think I wanted to be
Damon Albarn - I met him at Glastonbury when I was 17 and had all my albums signed. But my mum
put a stop to it all because it was getting in the way of my A levels.'

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is core repertoire for a countertenor - the aria 'I Know a Bank…' is
invariably produced at auditions. Davies believes the opera encapsulates Britten's association with being a child, his love of children and making music with children. Consequently, the composer and
his partner, tenor Peter Pears, edited the text down and made it a fairy story - there is no Act One
from Shakespeare's play. 'In this production we are interested in the relationship between the characters in one big dream and in investigating power relationships. With Oberon as a schoolmaster, the power balance is obvious.'

Britten wrote the opera for the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival, setting the role of Oberon for countertenor Alfred Dellar. For its revival, he offered the part to the more versatile rising young star James Bowman. Now turning 70, Bowman has been a mentor to a generation of young countertenors with Davies among
them. 'James has been incredibly encouraging to me,' he enthuses. 'He came to a concert the other day, and he is a bit of an imp, really. He sat there in the audience and when I looked out and saw him, he did that double-take thing - he tries to catch you and make you laugh.'

Aside from Britten's fairy opera, the countertenor repertoire is almost exclusively from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Is it enough for this ambitious young singer? 'Yes,' he declares, 'but I don't just do opera; I try and do as many concerts and recitals as I can as well.'
His next London recital is at Wigmore Hall in July, when he will sing songs by Fauré, Mahler, Vaughan Williams and others. 'I am not about to tackle “Liederkreis” or “Winterreise”,' he explains. 'The
stamina required to sing them is just too great and transposing them to fit the voice is a nightmare. You don't have to put yourself through that sort of thing and you are not expected to either. As long as a song is right and you are not straining to get through it, you should sing what you want… though probably not “Carmen”.'

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' runs at ENO Thur May 19-Jun 30, 2011