Top Tenor for City

Powerful presence on stage and off

Steven Neil Harrison, an exciting New–York-born tenor, who rides a horse and has the biceps of a boxer, has been lassoed to take over the title role of the love-sick poet Werther in the first professional production in Cape Town of Massenet’s opera Werther. It opens at Artscape Opera House on June 7.

He replaces local tenor Sidwill Hartman who was scheduled to appear in CTO’s season which features the return to SA of the Austrian-based mezzo soprano Michelle Breedt. Breedt turned down clashing dates to appear at the Met and in Covent Garden to keep her promise to play Charlotte, the woman without whom Werther cannot live.

Harrison is regarded as one of the leading interpreters of Werther and as a musician and singing actor of the highest calibre. His vocal timbre as a lyrical spinto has been likened to that of a young Plàcido Domingo and he has revealed his interpretive qualities in a wide variety of leading roles. His two favourites are Enée (Aeneas)in Les Troyens by Berlioz and Werther.

“Werther is my most favorite opera,” he said in an email conversation starting in Dusseldorf, Germany and ending in Rome where he was due to sing in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Maestro Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra.

“When Werther is done well it not only brings the audience to tears, but me, as well. It is an opera and an experience beyond words – a perfect match of music, text, poetry, feelings and emotions that ride so high you almost feel you are flying. “Reve, extase…”

“As you can see I am quite in love with this opera…”

The opera is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther which started a wave of “Werther Fever” in Europe when it was published in 1774. Young men aped the way the poet was dressed in the novel and there followed a wave of copycat suicides.

Harrison truly believes the poet is in love with Charlotte and is not, as some directors think, a self-obsessed character who is only in love with the concept of love.

“We have all felt these feelings of worthlessness and emptiness when our love is not returned.

“In order for me to portray Werther and make it believable I have to surrender to his actions. He says countless times and in many different ways that he loves Charlotte. If I ever even wink at the audience and believe anything but that I have lost them for sure.”
Harrison became a singer by chance.

“It all came to me and I suppose I just got out of its way and let the universe take control of the situation. I started playing the piano at five and the oboe from nine, quickly adapting to both instruments. When I was seven my teacher gave me the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

“After he left I sight-read it as my father watched. I think he was impressed. When I had finished he said: ‘Now close the book and do it.’ His challenge filled me with so many emotions: rage, determination, humor, disbelief – but I shut the book and suddenly all the notes were there.  I remember seeing it in my mind’s eye and hearing it in my mind. It wasn’t absolutely perfect but close.”

Though he studied piano, oboe and voice at college, singing won out and since his first Rodolfo in La Bohème at the Met in 1995 the tenor is in constant demand, specially in the French repertoire. He recently appeared in his third season with Deutsche-Oper-am-Rhein as Enée (Aeneas)in Les Troyens – a five-act marathon spanning two theatre, two orchestras, using 22 soloists, 120 choristers, 400 costumes and lasting eight hours and 15 minutes!

Critics described Harrison’s performance as one of “virtuoso singing and acting” and a test of stamina and endurance.

And where does he fit in time for riding?

“That picture was taken in Sante Fe on the cattle ranch of two cowboy friends of mine. I was preparing to sing Samson so I was working out with a trainer to get into good physical shape.

“Ironically I kept my clothes on in Samson but had to take them off (or rather the soprano ripped them off) in Faust the following spring. That’s on the video of Faust on my website.

“Maybe you can picture me riding off into the sunset on horseback with a big smile on my face and my iPod hooked up to my favourite recording of my favourite opera – Nicolai Gedda singing Werther. And you will know that I am one happy guy.”