You need more than a good voice to sing the countertenor role of the sun-worshipping Egyptian leader. But it’s changed my life
Picture the audience naked.” The popular wisdom for overcoming stage fright was turned on its head the first time I was unveiled – body waxed, head shaved, and completely nude – in front of thousands of fully clothed opera-goers at the London Coliseum, in 2016. It was the premiere of a monumental new production of Philip Glass’s Akhnatenby Phelim McDermott, for English National Opera. When Phelim asked if I would enter naked, in a slow-motion sequence that lasts over four minutes, I asked him why.
“You’ll feel different,” he told me. And he was right. With the cold air of the theatre on my scalp, with my hairless arms feeling almost wet, and with the inner strength I had to find in the vulnerability of being completely naked in public, I did feel I could get somewhere deeper with my portrayal of the Egyptian pharaoh. Over the course of three hours, with a score that is largely non-narrative, I have found I must fully inhabit the role to connect with the people on stage and in the auditorium, and to make the music speak. But Akhnaten is a mysterious and complex figure, and one I’m still working to fully grasp, even now, in my third time singing the role in this production.
Many posit that the Egyptian pharaoh changed the course of history as the first monotheist: he replaced Egypt’s many gods with one supreme god – the sun. This was 200 years before Moses and, accordingly, some believe that Akhnaten is the origin of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Glass made him the subject of the third in his trilogy of operas about great thinkers who changed the world, along with Einstein (Einstein on the Beach) and Gandhi (Satyagraha).
We created this production before Brexit and Trump, and the questions we began asking then have taken on a new potency. Was Akhnaten a brilliant visionary who transformed the world, or a glorified cult leader drunk on power? Did he unite his country with a singular focus, or divide it with extreme rhetoric? While I’ve come to believe that he was a transformative figure who tried to shape the world for the better – but on stage I like to keep the question open.
Trying to describe our rehearsal process makes us sound a bit like a cult ourselves. We sit in a circle every day and talk about what’s on our minds. We start with movements derived from the elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Phelim yells out different descriptors as we move: “Now with an atmosphere of vulnerability.” “Now the space between you is getting thicker.” This is all before we even sing a note.
These structured improvisations eventually become staging, albeit a fluid kind of staging. Our moves might be roughly set, but how and even when we do them changes from night to night. It may sound like mumbo jumbo, but the show feels to me as if we’re unlocking ancient spirits and watching them mingle with contemporary psychologies.
And then there’s juggling. When Phelim first announced that there would be juggling in his production, I thought to myself, “Oh well, so much for any hopes of success”. Boy, was I wrong. Sean Gandini and his vituouso troupe throw balls in threes and fours, sometimes mirroring our conductor Karen Kamensek’s precise gestures, and sometimes serving as a satisfying counterpoint. The juggling somehow makes Glass’s music visible. What’s more, the jugglers added such a joyous spirit to the process that we sometimes had to contain the elation. Early on, Karen and the rest of us were forbidden from making any more ball jokes, and not just because there was a countertenor in the show.
I’ve always been disciplined in my craft, but the quantity and frequency of the singing makes this an Olympics for me. I sing a Handel aria every morning before I tackle Akhnaten. There’s a striking parity between the two composers, centuries and continents apart. Both use repetition to illuminate an internal narrative. I’ve even started referring to Handel as a proto-minimalist. And with the two composers echoing in my mind this last year, I was able to make an album that put them side by side.
Once you learn to sing Glass’s music, you also have to learn how to remember it! I thought the opera’s ancient Egyptian text would be hard to master, but with enough careful translation and study, it proved surmountable. What took longer however were the extended passages only on “ah”, like the first scene in Act II, ten minutes of vocalising with phrases that repeat once or twice, have a small change in the rhythm or melody, and then that new phrase repeats, and on and on. I started by trying to chart out repeats numerically, but there were so many variations that my chart wound up looking like trigonometry. So the only way to make it stick was to sing the whole thing every day for about four months. I still go through that scene in my head while on the treadmill the morning of each and every show.
The rigours aren’t only vocal. I have to be in prime shape for two reasons. The incredibly slow movement on stage requires control of every muscle in my body; and if youwere going to be naked in front of thousands of people every night, wouldn’t you go to the gym? Say goodbye to carbs, and hello to a new six-day-a-week gym regimen. In fact I have the show to thank for discovering electrical muscle stimulation, which uses electric current to amplify your workout and actually builds muscles much faster than I could on my own. I liked it so much that I gathered investors and started one of the first EMS companies in America (seriously). If you can’t tell, this opera has had a real impact on my life.
All of the discipline – mental, vocal, physical – becomes a kind of ritual. It has changed the way I perform, not only in this show, but in almost everything I do. It’s one of those rare cases where life begins to imitate art. In today’s unfathomable world, instead of cutting back on art, we should be making more of it. In the best of hands, in the worst of times, art can model the possibility of how we relate to each other, and to ourselves.