When he reprises the role of Grigory (The False Dmitry) in Boris Godunov at The Royal Opera, tenor David Butt Philip is, in many ways, coming back home. He spent two years as a Jette Parker Young Artist, fine-honing his craft and gaining valuable experience on an international stage, which have stood him in good stead for the career which has blossomed since he “graduated” in 2014. During rehearsals, we met up to chart his career to date, the move into non-Italian repertoire and the dangers of the Heldentenor tag.

David Butt Philip
© Andrew Staples

Butt Philip was a relatively experienced singer when he joined the JPYA aged 32, having already sung in the Glyndebourne Chorus for two years, but his career had just taken a twist with the change from baritone to tenor – a “no brainer” he tells me. “I was lucky,” he explains, “because Glyndebourne took all the risk out of the decision by having me back in the chorus for a year as a tenor. I can’t even comprehend what it would have been like to come straight from college into a programme like this. I wouldn’t have been in any way prepared in terms of stagecraft or confidence to perform and rehearse at this level. It was scary enough for me at 32, but that pressure can be the making of you.

“I had no idea what I was doing!” he declares. “I was terribly nervous that people would think I’m a fraud.” But he lost any inhibitions quickly because of the pace of life in the house. “It’s sink or swim. ‘Just get on stage and be perfect. Be at our level and quickly, please.’”

With horror, he recalls rehearsing one of the Grail Knights in Parsifal, his first production with music director Antonio Pappano. “You’re sitting there on Day 1 of a music call with Gerald Finley, Angela Denoke, Simon O’Neill, Rene Pape… and there’s me. Your turn now. What have you brought for us today? I sing my two lines. Tony stops the rehearsal and comes right up to me. ‘Good, but do it again and do it like this. Don’t breathe there. Join these two consonants up a bit more. Now sing through to the end of the phrase a bit more.’ So the entire rehearsal room stops while you sing your one line three times for Tony Pappano the way he wants to do it and, when he’s satisfied, we’ll move on and no more will be said about it. But at that moment, your heart is going like crazy. But once that’s happened to you a few times, you’re never scared again.”

David Butt Philip (Grigory) in Boris Godunov
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore (2016)

Two years and some dozen productions later, Butt Philip felt ready to tackle roles on other big stages, such as Pinkerton at English National Opera, but he’s still a regular face around the Royal Opera House, not least because of the “after care” the JPYA programme offers. “You don’t realise how valuable it will be, and I mean that in a literal financial sense too,” he explains. “The current deal is all former young artists are entitled to up to fifty hours of coaching per season completely free – music coaching, language coaching, movement – it is the most amazing gift and privilege.” At the moment, for example, whilst rehearsing Grigory, he is also learning the role of Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta for Opera Holland Park. “I’m having free coaching with some of the best coaches in the world on Iolanta, thereby managing to do essentially two jobs at the same time.”

“Next season I have three large brand new roles to learn, so I need to plan now when I’m going to learn them. Once we get up and running with Iolanta, I’ll be starting to learn Florestan (Fidelio at Glyndebourne) and the Prince (Rusalka at ENO) which are the next two new things.”

The current Boris Godunov is the first time Butt Philip has repeated a production. “It’s very liberating because we rehearsed in such meticulous detail, as you always do with Richard Jones, and it was all documented. Gerard Jones is reviving it and he knows it backwards, so it’s amazingly easy. Because I created the role of Grigory in this production, it all clicked back into place. Richard choreographs every movement in a way that it feels natural. Every gesture has a specific reason and a specific motivation and a specific timing and a specific quality.”

David Butt Philip
© Andrew Staples

There has been a definite swerve towards German, Russian and Slavic repertoire recently which, for a British tenor with the most Italianate sound for years, seems an unusual move. “It wasn’t my decision, although I love the repertoire,” he laughs. “I spent the first two years out of the programme singing mostly Italian and French rep and when that went well, I started auditioning in bigger international houses. But I started getting feedback from casting directors and conductors that they liked my singing but that they would never consider me for Italian repertoire, because they consider my voice is too dark – not heavy, but dark.

“I covered Francesco Demuro here as Alfredo and I stood in the wings watching and thought, ‘If this is the world’s ideal Alfredo, then I need to stop singing Alfredo because this is so far removed from me in terms of vocal colour. If that’s what people are looking for, then I’m in the wrong repertoire. The light, bright, florid Italianate lyric tenor sound is just not me. I have a darker tone, partly down to that reformed baritone thing, and a slightly lower passaggio. So I took advice from several people who said go away and come back with German and Slavic repertoire, so I did that and was very rapidly getting booked by big international houses to sing lead roles. It was almost overnight, sometimes without even having to audition. It is a funny business,” he muses. “A simple change in audition arias can suddenly change your career.”

But with the move into Wagner – Butt Philip has sung Erik, Froh and his first Lohengrin takes place next season – comes a big danger. “As you start saying that you sing that stuff, suddenly people are throwing Siegmunds at you – obviously tempting – but Siegmund is a completely different prospect, a totally different register. It’s basically a baritone. Once you say you’re a “Heldentenor” that doesn’t mean you sing all of these roles now. Or maybe ever.” He cites Stuart Skelton as a great example. “He is possibly the perfect Siegmund – absolutely the ideal voice for that role and he is very smart about which other ones he takes on.”

For now, Butt Philip has made it clear that Erik, Lohengrin and Walther (Meistersinger) are the only Wagner roles he’d consider. “They are the ones which require the most lyricism, and that have the slightly higher tessitura. They need less muscle, but require beauty of tone and legato and a good top register. It seems daft to even look at things like Siegmund, which doesn’t at any point make use of the best 20% of my voice.”

“The key is to find the niche within the niche and I seem to have found that. Iolanta is a lovely sing, taxing in the right way but without extreme height and it’s not that long. The only really crazy one that I’ve done is Der Zwerg. That is nuts.”

Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip (Der Zwerg) at Deutsche Oper
© Monika Rittershaus

Butt Philip took the title role in Zemlinksy’s opera at Deutsche Oper this season to great reviews. It was his first experience working with Tobias Kratzer, who directs the new Royal Opera Fidelio next year. He calls Kratzer “the real deal, the best new director I’ve worked with for years.

Der Zwerg is asking for the extreme Regietheater treatment … but this staging was absolutely not that. There were obviously one or two big decisions that Kratzer made in terms of the concept, principally the idea of using a small actor as well as a singer to portray the dwarf. That is a bold decision but one that makes perfect sense of the piece. It navigates the difficulty of it not being acceptable these days to ask a singer to pretend to be a dwarf, but at the same time the opera is about the whole concept of how we perceive ourselves versus how others perceive us. To have two different bodies on stage playing the two different sides to the character is the perfect solution.

“I don’t suppose I’ll sing anything more challenging than that in terms of stamina and tessitura. It’s only 90 minutes long, but once you’re on stage, you’re singing non-stop for an hour. There are 25 top B flats and two top B naturals. For anyone that doesn’t know the piece, I’d compare it to singing Bacchus in Ariadne twice back to back! Most people won’t touch it. But you can make it work as long as you know where to save energy.

He explains “saving energy” with reference to his experience in Salome at The Royal Opera last season. “I remember watching Malin Byström sing Salome when I was singing Narraboth. It was one of the cleverest performances I’ve ever seen in terms of knowing when to give and when not to give. She, being a lighter, higher voice than some people who sing Salome, would spend the first half of the show never quite giving 100% because then she knew that when it came to the end she had another gear. And she still had all the high notes and it was still secure. And it was all properly beautifully sung.”

David Butt Philip (Narraboth) and Malin Bystrom (Salome)
© ROH | Clive Barda (2018)

Butt Philip recounts how, after the Zwerg Sitzprobe, he was faced with a piano stage rehearsal that same evening. “Immediately after the Siztprobe, Donald Runnicles told me ‘You’re not to sing another note today!’ Every time he felt I was starting to put some voice into the note, he’d give me the hand. Nothing. He knew – as I now know – that this is not a role you can sing twice in one day. It’s not possible. You’ll kill yourself. None of us are made of steel. These types of roles can be exhilarating.”

Last autumn he sang in Daniel Kramer’s staging of Britten’s War Requiem at ENO. “One of the best things I’ve done,” he unequivocally declares. “Everyone knows the War Requiem and it’s a risk to stage it, but the key for me was chatting with Daniel about what the work meant to us. It became clear to me very quickly that he understood the reverence that a lot of us have for that piece. I’m a massive Britten addict.” The tenor had performed it with Roderick Williams before in Lisbon and they talked to Kramer about the emotional difficulties encountered in Strange Meeting. “It’s very hard, even on a concert platform facing the audience, so when you have to look each other in the eye, it’s nigh on impossible. It took us quite a long time to stage that scene because we struggled to get through it. When you’re rehearsing something like that which has an impact on you, you never quite know if that’s necessarily going to translate to the audience. We could tell on opening night that it was working for the audience and that was very gratifying, but I do know plenty of people that it didn’t work for.”

Roderick Williams and David Butt Philip in War Requiem at ENO
© Richard Hubert Smith (2018)

What other Britten roles would he like to sing? “I’m in a weird place right now. I’m probably too old for Albert Herring. I don’t know if anyone would give me Lucretia now. I’m probably past Lysander. In my head, I probably have to wait five or ten years before I do Captain Vere or Peter Grimes which are the roles I’d kill to do. If I get to sing Grimes once, I will die a happy man. And Vere. I grew up listening to those roles and they're shows I have dreamt of being involved with. I was incredibly fortunate that the first opera I did with a “grown-up” company was Billy Budd – I was in the chorus when the Glyndebourne production was new in 2010 – it’s my favourite opera and with a huge number of my friends. It was a life-changing experience.

And if he could switch back to being a baritone for the day? He replies without hesitation. “Budd. The whole time I was at college, that was all I ever wanted. That was my dream. I grew up listening to Simon Keenlyside and Tom Allen and being obsessed with them. So yes, Budd’s the one that got away, but I’ve made my peace with that and the trade off I’ve made with God is that I get to do Grimes at some point!”