20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Countertenor Iestyn Davies

Classic Arts Features   20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Countertenor Iestyn Davies
This is shaping up to a breakthrough season for the charming and abundantly talented British countertenor Iestyn Davies. On Nov. 14 he made his house and role debut at the Metropolitan Opera singing Unulfo in Handel’s Rodelinda.


This is an important milestone, not only for the singer but also for the company: the occasion marks the first time in the Met’s 131-year history that a British countertenor will have graced its stage (amazing but true, given that Britain was quite literally the birthplace of this beautiful but still somewhat exotic-sounding voice type). Rodelina will be transmitted to movie theaters worldwide in the Met’s popular Live in HD series on December 3.

New York audiences will also have the chance this fall to hear what the Independent has called “one of the most glorious countertenor voices in the world” when Davies makes his Carnegie Hall recital debut on December 15 with a program that includes folksong arrangements by Nico Muhly. Later in the season, Davies gives his first Lyric Opera of Chicago appearance with another Handel role debut, this time portraying Eustanzio in Rinaldo, which opens on February 29. Music-lovers everywhere can also hear Davies on a new Hyperion album featuring cantatas by Handel’s contemporary, Nicola Porpora.

Davies filled out his responses to our questionnaire on his own, and gets our highest marks – and sincerest thanks – for his thoroughness, openness, humor and – last but not least – good grammar. In honor of his achievement, we’ve left in some of his home-style spellings. Hard to pick a favourite/favorite from all his terrific responses!

1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

Handel’s Concerti Grossi Op.6. I listen to them constantly around the house, whether I’m cooking or doing the arduous tax return. They are life affirming, especially the last Allegro of number 5 in D Major. I also adore the choral music of Herbert Howells. His harmonic language speaks in nostalgic tones and draws me back to where I first started singing at St John’s College in Cambridge, incidentally where Howells himself was one time organist.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

My Dad was the cellist on the Fitzwilliam String Quartet’s complete Shostakovich String Quartet cycle from the 1970’s and Decca reissued it as a box set on CD. I’m now older than he was when he recorded them and there’s something timeless about having such a great recording that preserves a moment in your own family’s history. The 8th Quartet is my favourite. I also love a 1960’s recording of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols by the choristers of St John’s College Cambridge under Dr George Guest. Trebles rarely sing like that anymore – true guts and determination stuff!

3. Favorite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

Marvin Gaye’s album, What’s Going On, Led Zeppelin II and Michael Jackson’s "Billy Jean"

4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:

Henry Purcell’s string ritornelli such as that that tails the end of the aria Here the Deities Approve are studies in melancholy and then you remember how short a life he lived. I experience a heady mix of elation and devastation every time I listen to Purcell. The hymn “Be still, my soul” set to Sibelius’ Finlandia, and without doubt the final few pages of Britten’s opera, Death in Venice.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

I recently recorded a disc of cantatas by Nicola Porpora. Like so much of the little-known repertoire from the 18th century, Porpora’s arias rival Handel’s for delightful melody. There is something of a Porpora revival of late. Long may it continue.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

I tend to believe that anything composed in the last few decades, whether it be classical or pop, is always overrated by critics and the public alike. Certainly there is a plague spreading of the use of term “genius” in all art forms. I’m not sure we all agree on what we mean by genius. Time gloriously peels back the layers and the true masterpieces eventually stand out.

7. Live music performance (s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:

I once worked as a runner at the Glastonbury Pop Festival in 1998 and had a stage pass which allowed me to sit at the side of the stage and watch the pop idols of my teenage years performing just feet away from me all in one weekend. Blur, Pulp, Bob Dylan, Ian Brown the Chemical Brothers. On the final night of the weekend when Pulp finished their performance I pranced into the centre of the stage and waved at the 20,000 people watching and then sped off back stage before I was caught. I’ve yet to perform to that large a crowd again.

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

I always try and catch new French films and in particular I loved Hors de Prix (or Priceless) which is probably a couple of years old now starring Audrey Tatou and Gad Elmaleh – it’s very charming and exudes that typical French esprit that film can be most successful when delicately simple. Currently I’m looking forward to watching The Rum Diary – I’m a big fan of the book, Hunter S. Thompson’s more sensible novel.

9. A few films you consider classics:

Without doubt my favourite films are comedies: Life of Brian sticks out as a classic. I never leave home on tour without a copy of Will Ferrell’s Anchorman. I played a part in an opera a couple of years ago that involved falling down stairs; that introduced me to the magic of Buster Keaton. A film I keep returning to is Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). For classic teary moments I head to the end of Empire of the Sun, particularly when Christian Bale’s young boy character ‘Jamie’ is not recognized by his parents as the children await to be reunited with their families.

10. A few books that are important to you (and why):

I’m an avid reader of diaries. Samuel Pepys’ diary is unbelievably transporting. Political diaries such as the Conservative MP Alan Clark’s collection engross me. The sense of the present historic grabs me. When I was a child the books that had the greatest impact on me were those of Roald Dahl. I recently bought a Kindle, which will no doubt dramatically improve my reading habits. And two books I can recommend for a ripping read of late are both by the British historian and writer Ben Macintyre; Agent ZigZag and Operation Mincemeat; some of the finest World War Two stories ever told.

11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:

I’m proud of not caving in and becoming a nutcase in this very strange lifestyle that singers lead. All the traveling and performing in front of large audiences and time away from home can play havoc with your behaviour and I hope I appear as level headed to other people as I think I’ve remained.

12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:

I don’t like eating fish…I’m fussy, put it that way and I can rarely go to dinner without having to surreptitiously shunt pieces of halibut round the plate enough times to convince any onlooker that I’ve eaten something!

13. Three things you can’t live without:

I won’t count people in this, as they aren’t “things,” so forgive me Family and Girlfriend. Clearly I’m addicted to coffee…I brought my Nespresso machine with me to New York and it doesn’t work here! Secondly I can’t imagine a life without dogs. I don’t have the time or space to own one but one day I will be able to answer this question better with the response “my black Labrador.” Thirdly I couldn’t live without sausages.

14. “When I want to get away from it all I…”

....without fail I head down to Cambridge once a year in the summer and hire a punt (which is the closest thing the English have to a gondola) and punt myself down the River Cam under the shadows of the great and famous colleges and on to the higher river and out into the meadows at Granchester. An exceptional joy that life has to offer.

15. “People are surprised to find out that I…”

….studied Archaeology and Anthropology at University. Even though I sang as a choral scholar at St John’s College in Cambridge my trips involved digging up the past and having a good poke around in the odd tribe or two. The highlight was a 3-week survey of the first-ever British sugar plantation from the early 17th century on the island of St Kitt’s in the Caribbean. It was a tough July and there was definitely no rum involved…

16. “My favorite cities are…”

In no particular order: York, Cambridge, London, Venice and Bordeaux. I saw Venice for the first time this spring and it was more than I could have ever imagined. There is nowhere like it on earth.

17. “I have a secret crush on…”

When I first met my girlfriend I had a secret crush on her for about a month….I was far too shy to say anything.

18. “My most obvious guilty pleasure is…”

I have recently started a nice collection of decent wine. It is purposely for future drinking as I don’t have enough time to enjoy it currently and it doesn’t go so well with the healthy voice life-style.

19.“I’d really love to meet…”

Rowan Atkinson – no one has made me laugh more.

20. “I never understood why…”

...people rush to line up when boarding an airplane. I have yet to be booked in a seat that arrived before the others!


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q: With a name like that are you Welsh?

A: I’m half Welsh on my Dad’s side– though the Welsh are very patriotic and with me not speaking the language, nor having ever lived there and having been born in York, England I try not to wave the Red Dragon around….I’d feel a bit of a charlatan. Something tells me Bryn Terfel has set the bar rather high on this one.

Past installments of 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS:

Opera Legend Marilyn Horne

Tenor Stephen Costello

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann

Soprano Christine Brewer

Soprano Kate Royal

Baritone Paulo Szot

Baritone Nathan Gunn

Bass-Baritone John Relyea

Pianist Yuja Wang

Pianist Kirill Gerstein

Organist Cameron Carpenter

Choreographer Peter Martins

Soprano Diana Damrau

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein

Pianist David Fray

Violinist Sarah Chang

Pianist Ingrid Fliter

Mezzo-Soprano Joyce DiDonato

Pianist Yefim “Fima” Bronfman

Soprano Sandrine Piau

Soprano Natalie Dessay

Harpsichordist and Conductor Christophe Rousset

Guitarist Xuefei Yang

Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti

Soprano Nicole Cabell

Pianist Jonathan Biss

Tenor Ian Bostridge

Soprano Danielle de Niese

New-Music Sextet eighth blackbird

Composer and Violinist Mark O'Connor

Composer Jake Heggie

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon

Pianist David Greilsammer


Albert Imperato, a music promoter who co-founded 21C Media Group in January 2000, writes frequently about the arts for various publications and blogs. 

His new series, 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS, is his take on (and nod to) Vanity Fair's "Proust Questionnaire." Email him at aimperato@21cmediagroup.com.

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