Interview with William Ferguson

Tenor William Ferguson
Tenor William Ferguson

As Lyric Fest looks forward to celebrating Benjamin Britten’s Centennial, we chat with one of our guest artists, William Ferguson, who will be portraying Benjamin Britten through songs and letters.

Q: You became interested in the vocal arts at a young age. Who nurtured you?

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, I played piano and was always interested in classical music.  I also enjoyed acting and singing. When I was twelve, my grandmother had someone back out of her “Opera Club” and so treated me to the extra ticket for Il Trovatore. I was literally on edge of seat the entire time. She started taking me to more performances and so as chance would have it, my second opera was Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw. Here I was a twelve year old boy watching the central character Miles, also a twelve year old boy, and was completely taken and moved by this theatrical experience. The music and drama came together to tell a complete story—I appreciated plays and I appreciated music, but hearing them come together was an awesome experience. It was an excitement I hadn’t gotten from any other kind of performance.

Q: So, now you are doing Britten’s biography through music for Lyric Fest. Is that coming full circle?

Ever since that Turn of the Screw, I’ve been huge fan of Benjamin Britten. I love his music—especially the songs and operas—and have sung as much of it as I can. So far, I’ve been fortunate to sing four of the operas, The War Requiem, as well as a number of the song cycles and chamber pieces. What Britten creates when combining music, text and poetry is like a beautiful marriage.  It is unique and extremely moving. When I look at his music, I feel as though I know exactly where he’s coming from.  It just makes sense to me and I feel I have to sing it!

Q: You are on the record saying The Messiah and The Marriage of Figaro may be the most perfect pieces. How does Britten fit in?

Well, it may seem incongruous, but its not. With Figaro and Messiah, there is this sense of order and proportion that is perfect and beautiful. I find the same is absolutely true with Britten.  Although he uses a different harmonic language, Britten uses humor the way Mozart does and drama similar in the style of Handel. Composers who are really connected to what they mean to express and know what they are doing, that’s what speaks to me. The intention and the music come off the page as simply and perfectly as it connects with the listener. That makes me want to sing it.

Q: Explain what you mean by harmonic language.

Britain was writing after two World Wars. After WW II composition changed a lot because composers were affected by the changes in the world around them. Many composers found new ways of expression through different uses of harmony and rhythm. Some composers found new vocal effects as they did with instrumental music, too—such as playing inside the piano on the strings. Britten in some cases would ask the singer to use his voice differently. It opens up different colors. I wouldn’t say Britten was avant garde, but he definitely uses these different sorts of elements as tools to make his music as expressive as possible.

Q: Continuing to look at his time frame, how were Britten’s works an expression of his time?

Britten was born in 1913, and came of age during two World Wars. His prime compositional output was in the 60’s, a time of social change. As a matter of fact, JFK was assassinated on the day of Britten’s 50th birthday. He was an English composer and that—coupled with his close ties to Europe and America—he lived through some truly incredible changes in the world. He was gay in a time that didn’t really allow for that, although he and Peter Pears referred to each other as companion so there was a little “Oscar Wilde” tinge about it. That is the struggle and the angst I see in his music. He was most able to express himself personally in his music. He was personally awkward and a very quiet person.  Incredibly intelligent, but quiet. In contrast, his music is extremely vulnerable and open.

Q: So, how will you approach taking on his persona for this role?

I’ve worked with people who knew him well and have shared lots of stories. The thing that always strikes me is how committed he was to his music. For example, he was so particular that he would mark his scores in ways that at the time, couldn’t be done in performance—he wanted to do what was necessary to pull the performance together—but he took care to indicate in the score they way he really wanted it done. He knew some day it could be and would be done the way he envisioned it. He was very persnickety and particular. It’s funny because his music can be bawdy and irreverent, but personally he was not like that at all, but [was] very buttoned up. Britten never played or lived life in extremes, but he absolutely embraced extremes in his music. I guess I might try and find where those two elements meet. (Long pause) That’s the key, trying to find the creative artist and the man and where they meet.

Q: Lyric Fest’s Biography in Music is a unique blend of personal letters, texts and music. What is your take on it?

Well, the New York Festival does something somewhat similar but, frankly, Lyric Fest is unique and this is one-of -a-kind. One of the things I am excited about is that Lyric Fest creates song programs and performance projects as opposed to traditional recitals. Anything that gives music to an audience in different ways while staying true to the integrity of the composition is exciting. Whether you are someone who has always loved Britten or someone who has only marginal knowledge of him and his music, this will be a great program and will appeal to a wide breadth of audience.

Q: Is this your first time performing in Philadelphia?

I have performed Turandot with the Opera Company in Philadelphia.

Q: Does a more intimate venue change your performance?

Being in smaller venue opens up the range of expressivity and color in the voice, I think. It is so different singing an opera or program with a full orchestra, sets, costumes and portraying a character over the course of a drama. With just a piano you create a lot of drama in singing the song and that is really beautiful. I love both, its a little like comparing apples to oranges.

Q: There’s a lovely New York Times Style video online portraying your relationship with your husband, Kim Smith, also a singer. Does Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears personal and artistic relationship resonate for you?

One of the things often said about Britten—and not just for the vocal music—is that a lot of the composition was a collaboration between him and Pears. Beyond their love for each other, they had the utmost professional respect for each other in creating music and performing. Some of their performances are historic and phenomenal. I’m thinking about a recording of Winterreise that they did that is one of the greatest. Pears had a way working with Britten to help him understand the voice better and be a better composer. I definitely can see and understand that, and even wonder sometimes where would Benjamin Britten would have been without Peter Pears. Likewise, I don’t know where I would be without Kim. He has absolutely informed my own art and has absolutely inspired me in new, exciting, and creative ways. I find different angles, spirit, and passion in communicating with an audience that I just would not have seen as clearly without Kim. It’s as though he completes me as an artist. So yes, I definitely understand that connection.

Q: That collaboration can also have its conflicts…..

Kim is a cabaret artist and singer. What he does is very different than what I do. We are in opposite worlds, though they are similar enough. We both use our voices as a means to express. That’s where it our worlds meet. Our conflict is about different things. (Laughter) But, thinking about that, Britten was also close with W.H. Auden and that was sometimes not a happy collaboration. Since they were both gay, I sometimes wonder what was bottled up inside of them and what would have happened had Pears not been in the picture.

Q: Have you and Kim performed together?

Not really. Never done a show or sung together–not yet at least. It would be fun though, so hopefully someday!