Warm Up: Iestyn Davies Applies Practical Magic to His Falsetto

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"A friend of mine was watching the HD of Rodelinda from London and he texted me to say 'The first act is great, can you scratch your left ear when your bow?'" recalls Iestyn Davies. "So I scratched my left ear and he wrote back and said, 'It’s amazing! It’s like interactive opera!'"

Davies has the unique distinction of being the first British countertenor to perform at the Met, making his debut with the company this fall as Unulfo in Rodelinda opposite Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe and Andreas Scholl under the baton of Harry Bicket (he also gave his Carnegie Hall recital debut on Thursday with pianist Kevin Murphy).

Yet Davies isn't really all that concerned with titles or divodom: He's more content to scratch his ear for a friend during an HD broadcast than to scratch a colleague for throwing off his routine before a show. In the latter example, it helps that Davies eschews routines. Read on for how a countertenor prepares his voice, why Davies doesn't maintain superstitions, and why he does enjoy occasionally annoying his colleagues.

Head Start
I prefer rehearsing as far away from the concert as possible so it gives me time to, in a way, warm down your voice so when you come to the concert it’s kind of settled into this nice place where it just works, rather than putting yourself through the stress of singing and finding that an hour before you haven’t recovered from the rehearsal. All those things play into the field. Without fail I get up at a decent hour, do some warming up in the morning and then leave it and then maybe do some singing at rehearsal. I’m not one of those people who comes in half an hour before the show, sings some scales and am all ready.

Magic Time
As a countertenor, I'm using this falsetto range. When I’m speaking, I’m not using it. Whereas the tenor and the bass baritone can warm up by talking, and the soprano likewise, they’re using the voice they probably sing with, we as countertenors have to be more careful. It’s a more delicate beast than if you just sort of go into it and sing through your stuff. You can tire out much quicker. You have to stretch it and treat it with utter respect; it’s sort of a magical version of your own voice. I try to stay out of trouble.

Taming the Beast
By the time you come to the performance of an opera, the first couple of shows are very nerve-wracking because that’s the first time you go out in front of an audience… By the time you get to the third or fourth performance, there’s a freedom to actually make it different every time, which is what you prepare for. Compared to a concert, you don’t sit there thinking, “God, what are the words to this? I’ve got to remember everything.” You know you know it. It’s like a familiar friend or pair of shoes that you slip back on.

Recitals vs. Opera
I suppose with concerts you’re preparing in a completely different way. You usually have about three to six hours’ rehearsal for a concert. It’s much more about a kind of one-off performance. It’s a different delivery, especially for a concert on your own. The audience is witnessing something they’ll never see again. Even if you repeat the program, it’ll be a different audience, different hall, a different sort of moment. You have a much more spontaneity. It’s a very intense preparation on the day of, whereas with an opera it’s about making sure you’re relaxed and focused, it’s much more about this two-hour moment. It’s like the day of an Olympic event.

No Superstitions…
I’m not too fussy about what I eat. Some people are obsessed with food and singing, and I kind of think they’re actually two different tubes. Your windpipe does not include food. [Laughs] This idea that certain foods affect your singing is slightly banal, and I don’t think that people really think about what they mean when they say that, you know, avoid cheese or avoid dairy products. It’s slightly disarming because you have really quite a long life which to live and really quite a short time of it is spent singing. And if you spend your life focusing on all that stuff, you don’t really have a life outside of singing. You should think of yourself as a human being first and then a singer. Of course, there are things like orange juice and coffee which, in their own way, have a small effect on the production of mucus. Certainly alcohol and smoke have their effect. But as the Greeks said, “Everything in moderation.”

…But a Little Sweat
In England, people who do extra exercise are kind of seen as vain where here it’s just normal to go home from work and go mad and run 10 kilometers. I’ve found jogging and swimming are great for the respiratory system and they release the adrenaline and the endorphins to make you feel good. I try to get up and jog before rehearsals just so you’re in this alert state. Rehearsing in the Met, you’re underground in these rehearsal rooms with no windows for six hours, and that can get quite depressing.

Kindling Time
I recently bought a Kindle so I don’t have to transport a billion books in a suitcase. I think I’ll probably end up reading more on it, but I haven’t quite worked out whether I’m reading slower. There’s something physical about when you turn the page, you see how much you have left to go and you kind of set yourself a target. On a Kindle, it just says the percentage. And I think, Well, I’m 30% through this book, but then I try to imagine what 30% of a book looks like. Hopefully I’m reading more, but I think I’m reading slower.

Time to Work
It’s a surprisingly banal and normal life. I know singers where there are notes slapped on their door that read, “Do not enter on the pain of death; Knock on this door and I will cancel.” And that’s fine if they like the attention. I’m pretty normal. In the end it’s just singing, it’s not brain surgery. I’m just about controlling the nerves. That’s when you resort to little habits and routines like meditating or hanging upside down or telling people not to come in. It’s better just to be a normal human being and get on with the people who do the makeup and do the wigs, because they see it all.

Intermission Feature
I’ve taken recently to eating something like one of those boil-in-the bag porridge things; you know porridge is knowledge [Laughs]. Just one of those things that fills you up and keep you awake. It’s good to pace yourself and keep your energy levels up, especially in a show like Rodelinda where the second intermission was at 10:30. Sometimes I’ll send my dresser down to get me a double espresso. That’s the most demanding, diva-ish thing I do. It’s fun when you’ve done your hard bits earlier on and then the interval is a nice time to go and annoy the other singers and chat with them. “Oh, you’ve got a hard scene coming up? Do you mind if I come in and chat to you?” [Laughs]