PerformerUpClose: James Harrison

PerformerUpClose interview, 17 March 2016

James Harrison Baritone
OperaUpClose performer credits: Escamillo in Carmen,Germont in La Traviata, Scarpia in Tosca

How did your career in opera start?
I was at university doing the first year of a law degree when a friend asked if I wanted to audition for the chorus of New Zealand Opera. I'd always sung in choirs, including the New Zealand Youth Choir, and the audition went well. The first opera I experienced from start to finish was Turandot and I was singing in the chorus. The minute the curtain came down I knew it was what I wanted to do. 

Did you always know you wanted to become an opera singer?
I always knew I wanted to be a performer. I went missing in the supermarket at the age of three and when my mother (and several members of staff!) eventually found me I was out at the front of the shop singing with a busker, who asked if I could stay as he was making a fortune. I've always loved sharing music with an audience but my love of opera came later. 

As a singer, what would be your all-time favourite role to perform? Have you been lucky enough to perform this role already?
One of my dream roles was Scarpia in Tosca, which was first role with OperaUpClose. I still have people approach me after other shows and say they remember being scared of me which is a huge compliment. As for other roles, I'd really like to sing Don Giovanni and Sharpless in Madam Butterfly

If you could swap voice type, what would you be and why?
I think all baritones have secretly longed to be a tenor for a day or two. Not permanently, just for long enough to be the hero a bit more often rather than the best friend, the father or the third tree on the left. 

What are you up to this season?
I'm about to rejoin Opera Holland Park, where I'm singing Alcindoro in their production of La Bohème. After that I'm off to Norway for the first time to sing Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro. 

If you weren't a singer, what would you be doing instead?
I already do quite a lot of teaching so I would guess I'd be doing more of that. I currently work with a lot of teenage singers. I help them to find their voices and then be brave enough to use them. It is something I really love doing and find hugely rewarding.  

What's the most embarrassing thing to have happened to you on stage?
I was playing Jesus in a staged Passion while at college and during the scourging scene the act of removing my robe proved a little troublesome! In most of the performances the robe caught on the carefully constructed loincloth showing a little more of the Son of Man than either the director or myself intended....

Bellini or Britten?
Britten. I love music but I also love text and few composers combine the two as effectively or as beautifully as Britten. There are wonderful tunes in Bellini but after a while even the most exquisite tune can be a bit empty if it's not saying anything. 

What's the most obscure thing a director has asked you to do in your career?
I had to learn the choreography for Michael Jackson's Thriller to perform during the party scene of Die Fledermaus. It was so much fun but well and truly outside of my comfort zone. The improvised contemporary dance while dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl and singing 'Three Little Maids from School' was fairly out-there too!

OperaUpClose answer Graham Vick's call

At OperaUpClose we were delighted to hear Graham Vick's recent challenge to opera companies to reach new audiences with the productions on the stage, rather than relying on outreach departments to do so. He made this challenge in his keynote speech in May at the 2016 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, a full transcript of which can be read here.

Our experience producing new versions of classic ‘big beast’ operas in venues, which haven’t been able to programme opera in the past, backs up what Graham says – audiences do not need to be ‘educated’ in opera in order to be moved by it. However, to give a new audience the chance to enjoy opera, venues need to be able to risk programming it, and opera companies need to be able to offer tickets at genuinely affordable prices.

We would also highlight the importance of giving a platform to new operas, including new works for young people. We were delighted that the winner of our biannual opera writing competition, Flourish, last year was an opera for young people called Ulla's Odyssey. It's currently touring and reaching new audiences of children and their parents, but our concern is that without public funding for new productions, opera companies will cater to one (small, wealthy and homogenous) audience with their work on stage, and only reach another more diverse audience through outreach projects. 

However effective and inspiring the work of outreach departments, unless opera companies can make their ‘main stage’ work accessible to everyone we will be hard-pushed to justify our public subsidy.

Signed by the OperaUpClose board of trustees