In May, a new staging of Handel’s “Semele” premiered at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Allan Clayton, in coattails, a three-piece suit, and pink socks, played a sprightly Jove, who has just fallen in love with a mortal woman. When he sang the lines “Where’er you tread the blushing flow’rs shall rise / And all things flourish where’er you turn your eyes,” from the famous aria “Where’er you walk,” I could feel something almost literally flourishing in the opera house—not flowers, maybe, but attention and emotion. His voice was soft, delicate, and clean; not qualities usually associated with tenors. Several weeks later, I met Clayton at a Viennese café near the Komische Oper. He wore Adidas sportswear, and spoke to me over the loud clinking of silverware.

VAN: I’m curious about your interpretation of Jove in Handel’s “Semele” at the Komische Oper. It was funny, almost goofy. What was the intention between that?

Allan Clayton: Well, I worry about bullshitting so early in the interview, but Jove—jovial? I’m not sure if that works. [It does.—Ed.] But no, it was about utilizing who I am. You know, I’m not a thin, good-looking guy. I’m sort of overweight and bearded, though I can be quite light on my feet. But Jove has become human, so he’s enjoying this body, loving his long hair. He’s finding human emotions for the first time: love, humor, sadness, loss. In playing with Semele, he begins to experience how it is to be human.

In Act III of the opera, there’s a chorus that basically blames the title character for being too vain. As an actor, do you have to believe in that moral universe while you’re on stage, or can you play it from a distance?

You can absolutely play it from a distance. But as Jove, I love her as a human. I warn her and warn her that if I reveal my true self to her, she’ll die. For me, the vanity doesn’t really have to come into it at all. It’s more about the love.

At times, “Semele” can feel very foreign to our society. It’s nagging, slut-shaming.

But it’s not that foreign, is it? On any of these reality TV shows, “Love Island” or whatever, the people get booed, because they’ve been shagging on air, they’ve cheated, or they took their top off. The rationale, which I don’t agree with, is often that people who put themselves in the public eye deserve to have these insults thrown at them. Actually, that isn’t how it should work.

Allan Clayton and Nicole Chevalier in “Semele” Photo © Monika Ritterhaus
Allan Clayton and Nicole Chevalier in “Semele” Photo © Monika Ritterhaus

You mentioned your body type. Right now, there’s more pressure than ever for women singers to be thin and conventionally attractive. Have you ever felt that pressure as a man?

Yeah, sure. First of all, I feel the pressure every day of waking up and going, I’m overweight [laughs]. Then again, I’ve never really been thin. I’m quite a good, natural sportsman, but that never made me lose weight. And now I’m 37 and less active, and I drink too much, so my weight is more than it should be.

There’s certainly been criticism about that in the press. There was this one minor Twitter thing where a critic said I was “vocally in excellent trim but need to spend more time at the gym if he is to be stripped regularly to his boxers.” Someone tagged me in this review on Facebook; I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. And I was drunk, so I wrote that he can fuck off.

A few years later, of course he was right to say that. But the production wasn’t done with me in mind. If it had been, I’d have sat down with the director and the costume designer and said, “This is not a good look,” and we would have done something different. Besides, a good mate of mine told me that he had a point. This is one of my best friends; and I had to agree with him.

For singers, everything that comes out of you is being judged. The basis is, How do your vocal chords come together, and do I like that noise? It’s really easy for that to carry over to your appearance as well.

Handel, “Semele,” Act II, “Where’er you walk” (Jove); Allan Clayton (Tenor), Ian Page (Conductor), The Mozartists

The German alto Wiebke Lehmkuhl told me she once lost a part because she wasn’t the right size for a preexisting costume. Have you ever had to deal with that kind of body-based casting?

There was one job, a Mozart opera: the contract hadn’t been signed, but I’d been told I was going to do it. To the extent that I’d been asked which director I thought should take over from the person who had to withdraw. It was still two or three years out. I made my suggestion, and then I got a message from my agent saying, “Sorry, but they’ve decided you’re not doing it anymore.”

It turned out that it was a physical thing. So I wrote to them and said, “I can lose weight, I can shave my beard. Tell me what it is, we’re two or three years out. I can do whatever needs to be done.” They answered, “No, you look too old.” At this point I was either 29 or 30; and without the beard, I looked like I was six. So it was complete bullshit, basically.

The actual production happened not so long ago. It turns out they’d gone for two really handsome guys in the lead roles. Just photogenic…everything I’m not. And it’s like, OK. But be honest.

The role of John/Angel III in George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” was originally composed with you in mind. Were there any plans for you to be part of “Lessons in Love and Violence”?

In “Written on Skin,” I wasn’t used that much. I had the least of anyone to do. That was frustrating, because it’s such a great show and I love George and his music. When I found out he was writing another opera—I didn’t ask him outright if I was going to be in it, but he told me, “Oh, we’ll have to find something nice for you to do in the next one.” Later on, I got a very sweet text from him, saying, [librettist] “Martin [Crimp] and I have tried really hard to find out how you could fit into this work, and we just don’t see your voice being in it.” It’s like, Dude, you don’t need to worry about me. But that’s how lovely a guy he is.

I saw “Lessons in Love and Violence” at Covent Garden, and liked it a lot. I sent George a message saying I felt like I was trapped in a glacier, being pushed inexorably towards a cliff, and then there’s a sudden shattering.

As someone who’s trained as a singer, how did you prepare for Hamlet, in Brett Dean’s recent opera—arguably theater’s most famous role?

I didn’t prepare the acting at all, really. You can’t until you’re in the room, until you see who you’re reacting against. I knew the people, but I still didn’t want to second-guess what we were going to do. That would ruin the best part of opera, which is being in a rehearsal room for five, six weeks and finding it with your colleagues.

The performances are stressful. You might be ill, and it’s two hours where you’ve got to get it right. There’s a paying audience, and they want—they deserve—to see the best show they can. So that’s often the most stressful, least enjoyable part of it. The best bit, especially in a new work, is interacting with people, hearing the orchestra for the first time.

Clayton as Hamlet Photo © Richard Hubert Smith 
Clayton as Hamlet Photo © Richard Hubert Smith 

Were you satisfied with yourself during the first performances?

After the last show of the run, I came off stage and I was like, Ah. OK. Even Vlad Jurowski came up to me and said, “That’s the first one you’ve done where you don’t sound absolutely knackered by the end.” I felt like I was just beginning to click, musically, dramatically: where I could give everything in the first half, where I could step back. With the other characters it clicked early on; but I never felt that it clicked for me. I didn’t get it.

Your voice sounds effortless to me. That’s unusual for a tenor, where so many singers have a more forced quality.

[Laughs] Yeah. I’ve always been lucky that I can sing high quite easily. Recently, I was singing a gig with the LA Phil, and I got ill. So they send me to a throat doctor in Beverly Hills who they use. I was very naive: got an Uber to see him, and it turned out it was the throat doctor for Stevie Wonder, Justin Bieber, I think Tina Turner.

So he prescribed me some drugs. And he said it was interesting, part of my larynx is the same size as it was when I was a kid. It allows you an easy facility at the top. I’d love to say I’ve spent hours making it sound easy, but it’s purely a genetic fluke. Apparently Justin Bieber has the same thing. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.