Although Hector Berlioz wrote quite wonderfully for the mezzo-soprano voice, he does have a reputation for being quite demanding when it comes to his writing for tenors... I can attest to this wholeheartedly! However, I am certain, after reading his personal writings and his biography as well as having performed Berlioz more than almost any other singer in the world, that all of this was done in a very conscious effort to portray the drama that he sought to embody.

Michael Spyres © Marco Borrelli
Michael Spyres
© Marco Borrelli

Years ago, before I really even knew who Berlioz was, I was intrigued by an in-flight documentary about the composer and the festival in his hometown. While venturing into his life and works – of which I knew nothing – I realized very quickly that I had found a kindred spirit. One phrase from the documentary specifically struck me like a bolt of lightning, translated as “Above all, vibrate!” This quote has been a credo for me ever since; everything that I have learned about Berlioz over the subsequent years pertains to it.

Nearly all of the vocal writing that Berlioz chose to pen was incredibly technically difficult, but unwaveringly intentional. This is true for every single voice for which he wrote. La Damnation de Faust is the perfect example, as you need a lower male voice capable of the tessitura of a firm bass all the way up to a baryton-Martin for Méphistophélès. Then, for Faust’s tessitura, you need to have a tenor with incredibly strong low baritonal notes and a chest voice that extends all the way up to the haute-contre realm; and the same is true for Marguerite, where it is essential to have a mellifluous low voice that is also capable of the dramatic soprano range. I find it humorous that people think that Mozart and Berlioz in particular had no clue how to write for the voice when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Both of these composers had very specific reasons for writing the tessitura and vocal demands that they chose for a given subject. If you pay close attention to their written instructions and perform the piece as intended, then it is some of the most revelatory and enriching music ever composed. The only trick is that you have to master your vocal technique and very few people care to put the years of practice and frustration required for this end goal.

Michael Spyres (Cellini) and Paula Murrihy (Ascanio) at ENO © Richard Hubert Smith (2014)
Michael Spyres (Cellini) and Paula Murrihy (Ascanio) at ENO
© Richard Hubert Smith (2014)

The title role in Benvenuto Cellini has been the most difficult sing that I have ever come across. As I wrote before, all of Berlioz’s writing was intentional and nearly the whole of the story of Cellini is a dramatic one. Faust, on the other hand, is something of an old friend who has become a poignant crux in my career in that it embodies everything – vocally and dramatically – I have yet come across. Even after you technically know a Berlioz piece, you will not really understand it until performing and studying it over and over and over again. Years ago, I thought I knew Damnation de Faust but I find new insights and brilliant ideas revealing themselves upon every single hearing.

But who was he writing for? In no small part, Berlioz helped bring about a tenor revolution and his presence can be felt to this day. I would even argue that he single-handedly split the world of tenor vocal writing in two with his few crucial operas. Berlioz was a close friend of the great tenor Adolphe Nourrit and had him and his technique in mind while writing nearly all of his music. But in the timespan of his operatic compositions, a new vocal technique came onto the scene – Gilbert Duprez with his voce di petto very much intrigued him. It is my belief that Berlioz experimented with the two different schools of old style singing and mixed it with the emerging Italian school – this is why his music is so difficult to perform. He essentially created a cocktail of techniques available to him through the golden age of voices he had available to him in Paris. He used the established school of singing, solidified by Manuel Garcia, along with the older school, epitomised by Giacomo David, with this Italian school.

Corinne Winters (Teresa) and Michael Spyres (Cellini) at ENO © Richard Hubert Smith (2014)
Corinne Winters (Teresa) and Michael Spyres (Cellini) at ENO
© Richard Hubert Smith (2014)

I may be unique in understanding this in a very intimate way because, to my knowledge, no one else has ever sung more roles composed for these three schools of vocal production which, at the time of Berlioz, were embodied by Andrea Nozzari, Adolphe Nourrit and Gilbert Duprez. Over the course of 2015 and 2016, I decided to devote three separate concerts to exploring and understanding the vocal writing composed specifically for these three giants of tenor history. Only by understanding the intricacies of these three schools alongside each other can you fully understand Berlioz’ tenor writing. With this in mind, I would say that the role of Enée in Les Troyens is not as difficult as many roles that I have encountered, because once you understand these three schools of vocal production, you will understand the role of Enée.

I find Enée a most intriguing role vocally because through the study and concert performances of Troyens in Strasbourg it became evident to me that Berlioz was seeking to portray the nature of the demigod (man/god) duality of this mythical character. There are multiple times throughout where he is incredibly passionate and human, then others where he is stoic and god-like. Yes, Enée is a challenge, but the reason many people see it as a destroyer of voices is because they are basing it on the dominant technique used in our modern times which is very much attributed to what I would describe as an unnaturally forced lowered larynx. This was never ever Berlioz’s intention.

Michael Spyres © Marco Borrelli
Michael Spyres
© Marco Borrelli

Although, for me, Berlioz’ most gratifying and soul-nourishing tenor role is Faust, I think the most interesting role is Cellini. If you read Cellini's autobiography and see how well Berlioz brought out the essence of the great aspects of this historical figure, then it is impossible not to become completely enamored with the character.

Faust is a role that I have now performed in seven countries, on four continents, and had the amazing honor of being the only person chosen to perform in both of Terry Gilliam's ventures into the operatic world thus far, as Faust and Cellini. The experience was surreal to say the least... Terry is exactly the same vein of artist as Berlioz! Terry was one of my biggest influences throughout my entire childhood – and adulthood – and it's actually hard to describe the surreal experience when my fantasy and reality converged as we became friends in that initial Faust production. Imagine the serendipity when you realize all of this while you are hanging five meters in the air, upside down, stretched out on a giant swastika while a dancing Hitler is summoning his demons to drag you to the depths of hell!

I have not been fortunate enough to perform Troyens in a full production yet, but I cherish the weeks of rehearsals and those concert performance of Troyens. It was truly magical when the audience was there to see our efforts and play a very active part in this all-encompassing masterpiece. I loved seeing the audience members with sparkling eyes whipping their heads around in sheer amazement at the spectacle of having over 300 people on stage and then, in the war scenes, having two separate orchestras and choirs in the hall as per Berlioz’ wishes. There were so many people in the audience bouncing along with the music and having what I would describe as a spiritual experience once they realized what they were witnessing.

In essence, this is why Berlioz is so important and why the message of “Above all, vibrate!” rings so true to me. This is not a mere phrase. Berlioz meant it with every fiber of his being and when he was not receiving the proper spiritual and physical vibration he craved, whether it be lack of the proper acoustic or lack of passion by the performance, he would become enraged. He even would rewrite the requirements of the piece in order to achieve this acoustical vibration as is evident in his grandiose instrumentation of 16 timpani, 8 harps and a chorus of 300 for his Requiem.

Berlioz was the most audacious of composers because he believed that we, as humans, needed to strive to be as gods on earth. This is why he – in not-so-humble fashion – composed his operas on some of the grandest stories of literary history: Romeo and Juliet, Faust, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens. With this legacy, I believe he was setting an example for the very core of what great art should be, which is the human form reaching into the realms of the gods. This is why Berlioz is one of the greatest composers that has ever lived… or ever will.