In Conversation: Peter Coleman-Wright

In Conversation: Peter Coleman-Wright

In Conversation: Peter Coleman-Wright

Your newest record, Ballads of the Pleasant Life, focusses in on the music of exile, with particular reference to the Weimar Republic period. What attracted you to this period of writing and encouraged you to record some of these lesser-known pieces?

Nexas Quartet asked me to perform with them last year, and I wasn’t sure what repertoire would work with a saxophone quartet, but immediately thought of the cabaret style of the 30’s and 40’s. The more I looked into the music, the more I was surprised to see how much diversity there was, how many composers had been neglected because of the war and how rich and fabulous the writing was. 

Can you tell me about curating the program that we hear on the recording? There is a wide selection of composers and aesthetics, and I'm interested in hearing about the research process that went into choosing and shaping the final product! 

The more I delved into the Weimar period, which was so rich artistically despite the war, the more composers I found. Franz Schreker, Hans Eisler, Eric Korngold and Alexander Zemlinsky - among many others - had to flee the Anschluß and all were prodigious and brilliant talents. Each had a distinctive musical voice. In selecting the individual pieces, I played through countless songs until I found repertoire that would work well with the soundscape of the saxophone. The music of Kurt Weill and Eisler before they went to America was full of strong sentiment against the bourgeois and the plight of the worker. These worked brilliantly with the sax quartet. I added an early song by Schönberg because he was such a towering figure in music and ended up in America as well.

What does the recording process look like for a record like this? How long does it take in the studio, and is there an extensive rehearsal period prior to heading in to put the tracks down?

Each song was transcribed for the quartet by the players themselves! We worked through each song, and I helped the group understand the text. Many of the songs were in German with important messages. Once in the studio, we sang through each song many times. Our wonderful producer Andre Schrimski listened from the sound booth. After each take, we listened for intention, understanding, musicality, diction, clarity etc. We were fortunate enough to have around 5 days to do this recording, which meant that we could fine-tune and really capture the flavour and style of the music. After singing each song many times, a singer has to be careful to pace oneself so that the voice doesn’t become too tired or lose its bloom.

You've sung leading roles in opera houses all over the world, but you're just as comfortable performing contemporary art music and concert repertoire. Has your experience in preparing dramatic roles influenced your approach to lied and new music in any way? 

I always wanted to be an artist without ever having to be put into a box. I wanted to be open to whatever came my way, as long as I felt I could do the work justice. I loved acting, loved text and character, which always made the vocal demands far easier. My roles have been diverse: I sang Don Giovanni over 100 times but was equally thrilled to sing roles like Detlev Glanert’s Caligula or Brett Dean’s Bliss. Great challenges in every way. Lieder and song, I believe, are vitally important for singers to perform. Recitals are all about the singer and pianist being able to take the listener on a journey and being able to convey many emotions and styles in one evening. This requires great attention to text and making sure all the technical demands are met well before performing.

For young opera singers hoping to pursue a career on stage do you have any recommendations for how they can be best equipping themselves for a performance career while studying?

It is paramount that aspiring singers learn very quickly to find their own voice. Too many singers go through the motions, having endless people telling them how to sing everything. I believe that the singers who have the most exciting and interesting careers are the ones that know who they are and what they want to say as an artist. Of course, this gets easier as one grows into roles, but it’s a skill to learn very early on. I would also add that it is crucial to really know one's own voice and abilities and choose repertoire that suits them in every way. I was lucky in that I grew up doing amateur shows and the stage felt home to me. The more one gets to perform the better and easier it will become.

Outside of musical and dramatic expertise, what are the necessary business or management skills that have provided invaluable to you during your career as an opera singer? 

Time management. Make sure that there is time to work, rest, study and promote oneself. Being careful to know one's contract and what is required of you. And being financial savvy is also very important. Not wasting money on lessons that are not needed, and being able to save as much as possible for when one has a lucrative moment.