Banks sings his first Hoffmann at ENO this month
Barry Banks assumes the title role of Les Contes d’Hoffmann this month at English National Opera. It is a departure for the tenor, who is best known as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of florid and high-flying bel canto repertoire along with the sweet lyricism of Mozart’s heroes. Hoffmann has been a long time coming, and not without several false starts.
After Banks’s success in David Alden’s ENO production of Lucia di Lammermoor, the company approached him about singing Hoffmann in a new production by Richard Jones, originally scheduled for 2010. ‘Richard is a fabulous director. He has an immense integrity, and although I’d never worked with him, he’s one of the directors, if given a chance, I would be excited to work with. And if he says he wants someone, then that someone should at least give it a serious think.’ And when Banks did, he ‘flatly refused’, having decided it was too soon to meet the troubled, lovelorn poet. ‘I turned it down a couple of times, I believe. And then the period changed. They said, “What about it now—it’s in 2012?” Two years is a long time when you’re at the cusp of maybe thinking about doing something different. So I decided to take the leap and do it.’
He is looking forward not only to the vocal demands, but also to those presented by Hoffmann’s character. ‘Of course, the challenge of Hoffmann or my other absolute favourite, Tom Rakewell, doesn’t lie in the vocal difficulty, but in the depth of character and the challenge of reaching the depths of his psyche. It’s a role to show one’s acting chops on: a complicated, troubled persona that facilitates one to go deeper than the average bel canto character. It’s a scary prospect, but definitely one that has to fascinate any singing actor.’
Banks considers ENO to be one of his two home companies and one with which he has a self-professed love affair. He made his debut with the company as Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia early in his career, in the 1987-8 season, going on as a cover to sing the second performance of the run. He recalls rushing from Leeds to London with nowhere to stay that night, being hastily sewn into the costume, and then thrown onstage: ‘a huge baptism by fire’ at 26 years old, but also ‘more or less the making of me’. The breakout Barbiere was his gateway to a future of many evenings at the Coliseum. The upcoming Hoffmann marks his 15th production and 22nd engagement with the company, a list that includes many of his trademark roles: Tamino, Nemorino, Don Ottavio, Fenton, Tom Rakewell and Edgardo.
Opera, February 2012 However, the catalogue of romantic and heroic leads upon which his career is built has not always come without obstacle. And it started early. ‘It’s no secret that I’m not the tallest person in the world,’ he says, laughing. At London’s National Opera Studio, there were those who tried to push him towards character work early on. ‘But those who knew about singing said, “You don’t have a character tenor’s voice,” and I chose to believe them.’ In those incipient stages of his career, he made a risky but calculated decision. ‘I’d managed to squirrel away enough money to live very frugally for about a year. And I decided to turn down every character role that was offered to me … apart from relenting for Pedrillo once. And it worked. Eventually people stopped asking and I got enough other stuff to be able to live.
‘My height has still been the big bugbear of my career. Whether or not companies around the world want to say otherwise, they have had a prejudice against me because of my size. Or they have not cast me in the roles that I can do because of my size. On the whole, people don’t mention it specifically, but say that I am “difficult to cast”. What else am I to think? Most don’t have the guts to come out and just say it, but one actually has. And my manager just knows not to bother with that company.’ But Banks doesn’t play the victim too easily. In the same breath in which he asserts, ‘For every role I got because I can sing it, I’ve lost ten because of my size,’ he claims, ‘I have a fine career. Many people would give their eye teeth to have my career. Since that year I stashed away money, I’m very proud to say that in 25—or 26—years, I’ve never been out of work, save two three-month periods.’ And some of those companies that expressed early hesitance did come around as well, initially casting him in Don Pasquale, The Golden Cockerel and Capriccio.
He has just finished his first performances of Idreno in Semiramide at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. While he might not turn them down, he is not actively seeking many other new Rossini roles. ‘The pieces [of his] that are magnificent, I’ve done. Though I am doing my first Guillaume Tell in 2014. There’s a lot of Donizetti and Bellini that I’d really like to
■ Three tenors at the Met: Barry Banks (centre, as Carlo), Kobie van Rensburg (Ubaldo), and Lawrence Brownlee (Rinaldo) in Rossini’s ‘Armida’ last year
Opera, February 2012