MusicFest Vancouver: Tim Mead tunes to Orlando's madness
George Frederick Handel’sOrlando made its debut in London in 1733 and then wasn’t performed again until 1922. Today, it’s one of the composer’s most celebrated scores, proving that time can be the kindest as well as the cruellest of critics.
Of course, it’s possible that the 18th-century world just wasn’t ready for an epic study of a brave and noble warrior’s psychological disintegration. It took the horrors of the First World War to bring Handel’s masterpiece fully into focus—and, sadly, war and madness do not seem to be going out of style.
Since its 1920s revival, Orlando has been staged approximately 50 times, with British countertenor Tim Mead having had the honour of playing the title character in two of those productions. And he’s soon to rack up a third, when the Vancouver Early Music Festival and MusicFest Vancouver combine to present Orlando at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
It’s an occasion, he says, for both anticipation and dread.
“It’s an incredibly long role, Orlando,” Mead stresses, checking in with the Straight from London. “I mean, he’s central to the opera in every sense. The whole world of the opera revolves around his state of mind. And because it is an opera about a man who goes pretty much clinically insane, the vocal writing sort of matches that. It’s full of huge contrasts, and it really pushes you to each extreme of your voice.”
Even more demanding is the fact that Orlando isn’t the kind of vocal work for which success is judged by how well the singers hit the notes. Mead compares the opera to a “modern-day film”, in that much of the action takes place inside the title character’s brain. Bringing Orlando’s fears and fantasies to the stage requires Mead to act as well as sing—a stretch, he says, given that his vocal studies incorporated “one token acting class”.
“I really learned all my acting on the job, as they say,” he explains. “And especially with my last production [of Orlando] in Scotland, we spent a huge amount of time researching—mostly just watching a lot of videos of people who suffer from various forms of mental illness and really trying to get the nuances of how one reacts. The way the text is written in Orlando, everything gets very subtle and very quick. You have to react very quickly to what Handel puts on the page, because he really carefully shows you how Orlando’s brain flits from one extreme to the other.
“One of the main things I discovered is that when you’re acting a role like that, it’s too easy to become a caricature of what you think something is,” he continues. “When someone is seeing something that’s not there, or talking to someone who’s not there, these things have to be played in a heightened sense, and yet that has to be incredibly realistic. You have to think that what you’re doing is absolutely truthful and honest.”
That’s a challenge Mead seems to relish—and compared to looking satisfactorily mad, nailing the work’s vocal demands should be a snap.
Orlando is at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Wednesday (August 15) as part of both MusicFest Vancouver and the Early Music Festival.