Tenor Jacques le Roux on living his dream

Tenor Jacques le Roux on living his dream

Jacques le Roux was born in Colenzo-Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal in South-Africa.  He majored in Vocal Art under the guidance of Werner Nel.  During his studies he won many competitions, bursaries and prizes. With the generous help of a relative he had the opportunity to try his luck on Europe, which has lead to a blossoming career.

You studied voice under Werner Nel at the Conservatoire of the North West University in Potchefstroom. Which path did your career take after your studies and what lead to you to Europe?

JLR: I had the good fortune to annually participate in student opera productions at the university in Potchefstroom (North West University), also at the University of Pretoria as a guest artist. There I had the chance to learn the very basics in stage acting and singing major roles with an orchestra. As a student I was also very fortunate to have won some competitions and bursaries, however it could not carry the financial burden that would enabled me to go to Europe and make an auditioning tour, yet alone start a career.

At the end of my studies in 2005 my mother ‘s sister Samantha van der Wouden Diedericks, a painter, sculptor, printmaker and influential artist in the Netherlands came to visit me in South Africa. She has always been very interested in my vocal development and supported me greatly.  She and her husband then offered me their home in the Netherlands as a basis to start my career in Europe, if I would wish to do so. In the beginning I was a little skeptical living in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is not associated with being a great opera nation like Germany, Austria or Italy. Then on second thought at least I could master Dutch easily, it being so close to Afrikaans, and it was a better option to what I had at that stage. I spoke to Prof. Werner Nel about the possibility of going to Europe and building my career abroad. He enthusiastically consented and persuaded me to stay another year longer as a private conservatory student, so we could make the necessary preparations regarding repertoire and establish a guide for how my career should develop once in Europe. A year later, in November 2006, he bought me a ticket to the Netherlands as a farewell gift. This wonderful gesture still deeply motivates me today.  I was very fortunate to have had him as a mentor and today still as a friend. So through his help and the great financial support of my loving parents, I left for the Netherlands.

Unsure of what would await me and how I would start living my dream, I arrived at my aunt’s house in the small village Berkenwoude, population 1510, located between Rotterdam and Gouda - the nearest train station being 15 km away and a bicycle being my only means of transport. I had an old blue Dutch bicycle which I named “Sputnik“, which had an unavoidable rattling squeaky sound when you rode. In the winter it seemed to shiver of the cold by the sound of it. I sometimes rode through snow, blaze and thunder to get to the nearest train and bus junctions. Not the ideal location for a young singer with limited finances and no connections to the opera world, but nevertheless it was Europe and I was convinced of making an opportunity for myself.

How did you experience those first years in Europe?

JLR: I experienced it as a wake-up call. I went to The Netherlands in the winter.  It took me almost two months to adjust and get used to the immense cold and sunless grey sky. As close as Dutch is to Afrikaans, it was still not Afrikaans and I needed to see it as a foreign language in order to learn it. Living in a small little village on the outskirts of nowhere had its challenges. I was very frustrated that I could not get in contact with the right people who could really give me advice or guidance in the music scene. I had to undergo a mind shift. Until that point I was a student who came from an academic structure, who followed a curriculum and schedule planned by teachers and conservatories. Now I had to guide myself in a foreign country and language, build a career and find a way of staying in Europe long enough for the right chance to come. These were at moments some really heavy challenges. Now that I look back at that period, I must have been intoxicated with ambition. I grabbed every opportunity that came my way.  However, the stress was short lived and became very exciting and I felt that I belonged. I was also blessed that I had family near to me that encouraged and supported me when I needed it.

One late Monday afternoon in December my break came - not big - but the beginning of my career and in a remarkable way. I was a little familiar with the Netherlands from a previous tour years earlier, when I was still a student and member of the university choir, PUK-Choir with Awie van Wyk. We made an extensive tour through Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark in 2003.  Also a CD recording was made of one of the concerts in the Netherlands by a Mr. Eugene Ceulemans. I sang a solo in a Moses Hogan African American spiritual called “I want Jesus to walk with me“, which was also on the recording. I was 21 years old at that stage.  Mr. Ceulemans heard of me coming to the Netherlands and without my knowing took that recording of 2003 and sent it to an opera agent in Amsterdam.

I received a telephone call from Tineke ten Have, an opera agent. She complimented me on the recording and was wondering if I could go to Enschede on the border of Germany to audition for the character role of Pedrillo in Mozart ‘s “Entführung aus dem Serail“ at the National Touring Opera (Nationale Reisopera) young artists’ programme. I almost fell off my chair, shocked that an informal recording of 4 years earlier and myself being far younger, less prepared, and without my current knowledge, could lead to my first opera engagement.

There in Enschede, a week later, I got my first job and little did I know then that after that engagement I would not see South Africa again for 5 years. The one production lead to another and I soon found myself traveling all over Europe. I am today great friends with Eugene Ceulemans, who himself is a conductor and arranger of choral music living in the Netherlands. Thanks to him the ball got rolling.

Was there ever a specific event or time in your career where you can say: “That was a decisive moment“?

JLR: Yes absolutely! At the Jeunesses Musicales Weikersheim Sommerfestspiele 2007 in Germany, you may say that I had my big break. The Weikersheim Festspiele is also known as the Jeunesses Musicales World Youth Opera. The Jeunesses Musicales invites many agents and artistic directors from all over Europe to attend the premiere of their productions, making it a hotspot in finding new and upcoming talent.

During the “Entführung aus dem Serail“ production in Enschede I became close friends with the fantastic soprano Lisette Bolle, who sang Constanze. She is a singing student of the renowned Dutch singing teacher Prof. Mya Besselink in Maastricht who is a coordinator of the Weikersheim Festspiele and does most of the casting for their operas. In 2007 the Jeunesses Musicales decided to produce Rossini‘s La Cenerentola and was still looking for freelance singers to be cast in the male choir. Remembering that I once told her about my wishes to sing in Germany, she told Besselink about me and my situation. Shortly after, I received a phone call from Mya Besselink herself, offering me a position in the choir. At first I was not ecstatic at the thought of being in a choir, but beggars can‘t be choosers and I agreed. The rehearsals were to start in three weeks time.

The very next day Besselink phoned me again. She told me that the rehearsals for the soloists had already started and that they were having a problem finding another tenor for the challenging role of Don Ramiro. All the roles were triple casted, to give more young singers the opportunity to participate in the production. Although she had never heard me sing, she had a strange positive feeling about me and asked if I would like to come to Weikersheim immediately and rather audition for the role of Don Ramiro…and so I did!

Not only did I get the part, but I learned the whole opera in a week and got cast as the primary tenor to sing Don Ramiro on opening night. I had a huge success, being reviewed by magazines like Opernglas and Opernwelt and all the most renowned opera critics of Germany. After Weikersheim my career took off and it all went unbelievably fast. I found myself being a full-time passenger. Sometimes waking up in towns and cities of which the names were unknown to me. I got to work with some of the world’s best conductors such as Alessandro de Marchi, Mariss Janson, Dennis Russell Davies and Hans Urbanek, and with some of the best orchestras in the world. Three months later I moved to München in order to be more central in Europe. A year later I was a permanent ensemble member of the Staatsoper Meiningen in Germany.

You have a big and varied repertoire, but there must be favourite roles?

JLR: I am always very caught up and in love with the roles I am studying and singing at the moment. I like doing research on the performance practice and the history of a given role and finding my own path on portraying and interpreting that role. However, there are some roles that I adore just a little more, because of their extreme technical demands such as Gerald in Leo Delibés‘ Lakme and Roberto Earl of Leicester in Donizetti‘s Maria Stuarda. These roles really challenge a singer to show off the voice and all its abilities as well as portraying the immense emotional developments of the characters. I don’t think that I can really say there is only one certain role that can be “crowned” as my favourite. I have loved too many of the characters I have played. I will admit though that I do have a soft spot for the gentlemen in the Bel Canto and the French post Grand Opera. There are so many roles that I still want to sing that I can‘t possibly imagine picking a favourite yet! 
What is the most challenging part of your job?

JLR: I find it very challenging to accept the views and ideas in modern and experimental stage productions, where the directors try to change the synopsis of an opera in order to suit their perspectives. Especially in the German speaking countries the modern concept of experimental stage directing is very popular. They call it “Regietheater“. For example, I have played a Nemorino in Donizetti‘s “L‘elisir d‘amore“ in a renown German opera house, which I will not name, where I had to participate in a food-fight during Adina‘s end aria and then sexually molest her on a bar counter. Anyone who knows this comic opera knows that it has a charming and happy end. The stage director and I had extreme difficulties finding a common path where we both were happy with the result.

Since a lot of research goes into the characters and operas that I sing, it is natural that you as a singer get your own vision of the type of person that you will be portraying. That vision is also very necessary to understand the character’s development - for example: no one expects Don José to murder Carmen at the beginning of the opera. What emotional and characteristic developments influence him in becoming a murderer? These are developments made clear by the librettist and the composer, and we have no right to change these developments just to suit our own visions and ideas. I find it a crime what some stage directors do with opera. It is in these type of productions that it is very difficult for me to stay submissive and obedient.

What about your job makes you passionate?

JLR: Being an opera singer is such a noble profession and it gives you so much to be thankful for. It is a privilege to work in an art medium that touches people so intensely. There are many things that makes me passionate about my job - the first orchestra rehearsals of a new production, the roaring ovations after an aria and at the curtain call, the crying sighs of the audience after Rodolfo‘s last notes in every La Boheme performance, the discovery of an unknown piece of music that leaves you breathless, fan mail and letters of people telling you what your singing means to them, people traveling thousands of kilometers to come and watch you in an opera or hear you in a specific role, standing on stage and being so touched by your colleagues’ interpretation that you almost forget where you are or totally forget to sing alltogether!

Do you find it more difficult to learn and sing contemporary repertoire, e.g. Glass?

JLR: I would say that it takes longer to memorize a contemporary composition, but it is not necessarily more difficult to sing. The minimalistic music of Phillip Glass can be tricky when it comes to keeping count of how many bars you should rest before singing again, or keeping track of how many bars you should repeat. The actual vocal technique expectancy in Phillip Glass’ music is not that challenging at all. It’s minimalistic music, so for example you have a phrase that you will sing in a basic rhythmical structure of 1, 1 2, 1 2 3 , 1 2 3 4 in quantities of 4, 8 or 12 before a singular musical element will change. Just keep an eye on the conductor so that you know when to start and when to stop and you will be fine. Given he or she can count like crazy!

I have a great affiliation and affection towards contemporary compositions. It allows me the chance to place my own interpretational stamp on it, without being critically compared. Also, it is wonderful to be the first to share new music with an audience. Therefore I am also very picky on which repertoire I choose to perform. I always look for new compositions that leads to unique aesthetic beauty. I have a patriotic tendency of always including a South African composition in my recitals.  The great South African composer Martin Watt honored me by dedicating two remarkable song cycles to me. In 2004 he composed the song cycle “Four Mtsali Songs for Orchestra and Tenor“, which I sang with the South African Chamber Orchestra at the Aardklop National Arts Festival shortly before I left for Europe, and “Vyf liedere op gedigte van Eugène Marias“, which I performed in the Netherlands in 2007 at a recital in Nijmegen. I also performed Peter Klatzow‘s “Songs of an Exile in Prague” in 2010, to a highly enthusiastic audience at the Jan Deyl Conservatory in Prague. Also Pieter de Villiers’ “Môrester en Plankiemusiek“ has made its return to many of my recitals throughout Europe.

There seem to be so many South African singers enjoying highly successful careers abroad. What do you think makes them so sought-after?

FirstIy I think it‘s because many of our compatriots and countrymen before us made such an inevitable impression of excellence on the opera and classical music world.

I would like to believe it’s because they are such honest musicians. They make music with their whole being and do not hide anything. They unconsciously allow the audience to experience the person behind the performer. This allows the audience to associate with them much easier and trusting a performer in their abilities.

Also, I think it has to do with our wonderful music schooling in South Africa. Singing education in South Africa is still very intimate and students enjoy far more individual attention than in comparison to the students coming from anywhere else in the world. The music schools and conservatories in Europe, Asia and America are mass production industries where you are merely a number.

South African musicians sometimes think it is easier to build a career in Europe. Do you think this is true?

JLR: On the contrary. Definitely the quantity of orchestras and opera houses are far greater than in South Africa, but therefore the amount of musicians are also astronomically high. In a sense the European music scene can be compared to the 1871 Kimberley diamond rush - thousands of people rushing in the hope of finding fortune. However, this was not the case then and most definitely not at present.

The theater scene throughout Europe is large, but it is overcrowded. Marita Knobel wrote about it very clearly and unexaggerated in her book “Singing Opera in Germany“. In the year before I came to Europe (Opera season 2004 / 2005) in Germany alone, 2976 opera singer were in permanent or guest positions as soloists. Considering the fact that 4000 to 6000 singers from all over the world come to Germany annually in order to audition for these positions, and considering the fact that in every given year there are probably only at the most 50 new vacancies in all voice categories, the chances of finding a job are very small. In Berlin alone there are over 4000 unemployed qualified opera singers.

If you are not very talented and extremely well prepared, there’s very little chance of finding a singing job in Europe. I am not saying that South African musicians should not come. I believe South African singers and musicians enjoy a reputation of excellence across the globe. I believe one should always shoot for the moon. You will never succeed if you don‘t try.

In 2010 you were honoured by the Deutsche Bühne Theaterverein with the Ulrich-Burchardt Förderpreis as Young Artist of the Year 2010. What did this award mean for your career?

JLR: So many things changed after winning that award.  Not only moving to Austria, because of fantastic new career possibilities and working with some of the most influential agents and managers in the world, but also getting engaged primarily for leading and title roles. I was totally blown away by being nominated. I remember being phoned by the president of the Theaterverein, telling me that I have been nominated together with 9 other young artists throughout the stage world. The nominees included actors, musical performers, ballet and contemporary dancers, stage directors, conductors and classical singers who stood out in their respective fields and who showed great promise. It was unbelievable!

I made a recording for the Deutsche Bühnenverein of all the Bellini and Verdi Canzone (songs), distributed by Recordi, together with the Italian pianist Ettore Prandi. We gave a series of concerts of this repertoire and were reviewed as “A world ranking musical event“ by the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Also by winning this award you automatically become an honorary member of the Deutsche Bühne und Theaterverein for life, which is a great privilege and honor.

Do you have any recordings planned for the feature?

JLR: Not in the near future. I am completely booked up with new productions for the next 2 years. Although I am negotiating with diverse recording companies on whether a series of recordings of South African art songs are in interest of our human inheritance. South Africa has such a wonderful and rich art song treasury which has either never been recorded, or recordings that has been made in the middle of the previous century and are rather outdated. I am sure that there is an interest, not only among South Africans, but also the rest of the world to experience the wonderful compositions we have come to known and cherish in South Africa.

Also with South Africa increasingly becoming a global player in politics, economy and hosting major sporting events such as the Fifa World Cup in 2010, the world has a growing interest in the culture of South Africa.  For example, I sang a series of recitals in the Netherlands and Germany with only Afrikaans art songs and the reaction was astounding. There is a live recording of these concerts and some of the songs was made public on Youtube. It would of course be wonderful if a South African recording company would show interests in producing such recordings. Proudly South African?!

Please tell us about your engagements for 2012/3. It looks like a busy time ahead.

JLR: The coming year and opera season will be very busy indeed, filled with a kaleidoscope of roles, concerts and repertoire.

Five new roles and four previously sung roles will make nine in total for 2012. It will be the year of my first Verdi – a big moment for me. I will sing my first Duke in Rigoletto (Open in September) in Linz Austria in a Rainer Mennicken production. I will also make my Bruckner Festival Debut this year, with an Opera Highlight Concert in the Brucknerhaus, together with the Bruckner Orchestra.

Then there are still the remaining performances of Rodolfo in La Boheme and Don Ramiro in Rossini’s La Cenerentola till June. Three Donizetti’s: Roberto Earl of Leicester in the magnificent Olivier Tambosi production of Maria Stuarda; in the summer Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore at the Eutiner Festspiele, which is also the oldest Festspiele in Germany and in November “Ernesto” in Don Pasquale.

The two French operas: my next role to premiere in March will be Le Chevalier in Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmelites” and opening in October, Raoul de Gardefeu in Offenbach’s “La Vie Parisienne”. I loved working with Adriana Altaras in La Cenerentola last year and am looking forward to working with her again this year in Offenbach‘s La Vie Parissiene. Also, I have a small but taxing role in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier as the Italian Singer in a co-production with the Stadttheater Lübeck. The role literally consists out of one singular demanding aria.

In 2013 the year will start with the tenor role (not named yet) in the world premiere of Phillip Glass’ brand new Opera “Spuren der Verirrten“. The opera has been commissioned by the Austrian State for the opening of the new opera house in Linz.  Linz was in the fortunate position of being the cultural capital of Europe in 2009. Ever since the city has enjoyed a major cultural boost their new opera house will be opened in April 2013.  I am extremely honoured to be part of this new opera and in the opening of the new opera house, as well as working with renowned conductor Dennis Russell Davis again. The season 2012/13 will end with a French opera and another historical moment - first performance in German speaking Europe of Jules Massanet‘s “Esclarmonde“, on Germany‘s biggest stage at the Anhaltisches Staat Theater in Dessau, in the leading role of Roland.

Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler
Published 5.03.2012

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