Countertenor Tim Mead (Photo: Andy Staples)
Tim Mead (Photo: Andy Staples)

English countertenor Tim Mead’s voice is clean, serene, and direct, with a chameleon-like ability to remain subtly expressive in music from Handel to George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin,” in which Mead sings a queasily erotic and effective Boy. When I talked to Mead this month, he had just finished singing a project in Malta, after a two-week quarantine in Athens. The next day, he was moving on to Paris to sing Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” Despite the travel inefficiencies, Mead was grateful for a flash of normalcy in an abnormal year.

VAN: How does it feel to be getting back to a relatively normal schedule after a yearlong break?

Tim Mead: I was really looking forward to having two solid weeks of rehearsals and singing. It’s like it’s almost brand new. I was feeling really out of shape. However much you practice at home, it’s not the same as the pressure of performing or rehearsing. So it’s been lovely. To be brutally honest, I didn’t sing at all for the first three to four months of lockdown.

What was that like? I imagine it was probably the longest break from singing you’ve had in a while.

It’s probably the longest time off I’ve had since I was seven years old. I’ve had such a hectic schedule for the last five, six years, so at the beginning I was like, “This is a brilliant opportunity for a break. Don’t worry about singing, don’t even make a noise.” But then I struggled to motivate myself to get back and do the disciplined work that you need to do to keep things from tipping over, when there was nothing on the horizon for months.

When I started to try singing again, it was hard work. I actually decided to employ a new teacher and coach to help me with that process. It wasn’t feeling the same. I don’t think there was anything physically different, it was just a mental block—having shutters on singing for so long.

When you started getting back into singing, how did you deal with the fact that you hadn’t heard your voice in an actual hall?

That was one of the things that, during lockdown, discouraged me from working on my voice at home. I live in a lovely Victorian apartment in the middle of London, which is not the best acoustic for singing. I felt instantly more positive about going back to work the minute I got into a proper space. It makes such a huge difference.

Singing is a confidence activity. When you’ve not done it for so long, it’s remarkable how quickly you then doubt yourself—how much self-doubt creeps in. And that’s not conducive to great performing.

How did you go about reinstating that confidence?

The work with my new teacher definitely helped. Because although we did plenty of technical work, it was also just someone with good ears saying, “It sounds great, you sound great. Keep going.”

In the last year, there have been many concerts that have been scheduled, only to be canceled at the last minute. Conductor Alan Pierson told me about not starting to study the score for a new opera he was leading until he got on the plane.

Preparing work that doesn’t happen is depressing. I’ve been careful to leave preparation until I know something is definitely going to happen. The only time I really got stung by it was a performance of Handel’s “Agrippina” at the Netherlands Opera. They were full steam ahead—I was preparing the work, booking my travel and accommodation. With less than two weeks to go, they pulled it all. At that stage you’ve done all the work to prepare. Luckily it was a role that I’d sung before, but you still need to do your preparation.

We’ve all become very skilled at dealing with cancelations, but when you’ve got months of cancelations, and then you’re given this bit of hope, the fall feels greater.

As a countertenor, your repertoire naturally focuses on early music and the 20th century. Have you ever wished you could sing in a big, gushing Verdi or Puccini opera?

I don’t feel limited by the music that I get to sing. I don’t really like the Puccini-, Verdi-, or Wagner-type music; I don’t think it’s really for me. Anyway, the amount of stuff we keep unearthing in the baroque world—it’s not like I sing the same piece every day.

True, the baroque repertoire is huge, but it doesn’t do the same things as Wagner, say, in terms of big, emotional climaxes.

Especially in things like Puccini, I’m turned off by the more emotionally obvious, gushing music. That doesn’t really do it for me. The emotional rewards of baroque music are more hard-won, which pleases me. In a way it’s more honest and more genuine because it’s not over the top. It’s very subtle. You can have a lot of fun extracting that from the music.

Alto Wiebke Lehmkühl told me about being rejected for a post-premiere singing gig because the costume was already made and didn’t fit her. Has the same thing ever happened to you?

As artists we have to stand up to such nonsense a bit better. Nothing like that has ever happened to me, but costumes are the bane of opera singers’ lives. The amount of times you turn up to a production and the designer hasn’t taken into account what you actually look like, or what you might feel comfortable in… I’ve definitely put my foot down in costume fittings if it’s not something I’m prepared to wear.

For example?

It’s normally to do with removing clothes rather than putting them on. Just ripping your shirt off is a lazy, sensationalist gesture, which normally does more to promote the celebrity of the singer than to enhance the work of art.

Does the pressure to be conventionally good-looking as an opera singer affect men as it does women? With women it seems extremely overt.

I think there’s a similar, if maybe not as intense pressure for men to be going to the gym and having more chiseled physiques. I know certain people benefit from the fact they will constantly be ripping their shirt off. It’s not something I do because I can’t be bothered to go to the gym. As I say, most of the time it feels like a cheap creative opportunity rather than something that is even remotely related to the creation of interesting art.

This is the constant question for opera singers: How to make the relationship with the director work? Do you have particular strategies you rely on?

I generally find directors easy to get on with. That’s not to say I haven’t had one or two instances in my career where I’ve fallen out massively with the director, because you’re bound to meet people who you just don’t see eye to eye with in an artistic or personal way.

As long as the director understands the music that he’s making you perform, I can cope with most ideas. But the problem is you often walk into a rehearsal room with a director who maybe doesn’t even come from an operatic background, and they don’t understand what the art form is. When someone gives you an idea you are dubious about or think is substandard or just wrong, it’s harder to accept and harder to deal with, because the ideas are coming from places that you don’t recognize.

Do opera directors need to be able to read scores? Or just have listened to the opera a bunch and know it well?

They need to understand and have an appreciation for what the music is saying as well as what the text is saying. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve walked into a rehearsal room and the director is directing from a libretto, which is missing half the information. I know directors who aren’t the most musical people, but will endlessly listen to scores to get the feeling the music gives them, rather than just the text.

If the pandemic ever ends: Do you see things like the amount of concerts and traveling you do changing when things go back to normal? Do you want to make permanent reductions, or go back to 100 percent of your previous schedule?

Part of me wants to get back to 100 percent, but actually, before COVID hit, I’d already talked to my agent about maybe not pursuing such a hectic schedule. It’s something you can do for a while, but not forever. To give yourself a bit more time to breathe, and to think, and to be a bit more relaxed about how you’re going about your business… That might be a natural consequence of where we are post-COVID. It’s not such a bad thing.

If you had the chance to sing one aria with a full orchestra tomorrow, what would you want to do?

It’s the piece I’m going to be flying to Paris to rehearse, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” It’s one of my favorite things to do. After having a whole year without having done one—because Easter was obviously canceled last year—that’s what I’m most looking forward to.

So you sing a Bach Passion about once a year?

I don’t like to go a whole year without doing one. I need my Easter Bach fix.

Referring to the “St. John Passion,” tenor Mark Padmore wrote that “we need to approach every performance as though it were our first—and might just possibly be our last.” For him, too-frequent performances and recordings water down the intensity of our experiences with certain works that are only meant to be heard a few times in a lifetime.

With the “Matthew Passion” especially, the minute the opening theme of the first movement starts… That’s something I definitely need to hear more than once or twice in a lifetime. There’s something that feels so fundamental about it. It’s one of those pieces of music that instantly starts in me to churn some feeling, sensation, thought process. I hope to come back to it many times in my life. ¶

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.