The following interview was conducted between Los Angeles and London.
Photo: Ian Cole
You graduated in physics from Cambridge University, but it appears that at an early stage you switched the focus of your interests to music.
Yes, I had always sung and been involved in choral music, at school and university, where there was a wonderful choral tradition. I studied physics and then trained as a teacher and embarked on a career as a school science and maths teacher. It was then that I started missing the high quality choral singing that I had been used to, so I started singing more for myself and chose to go to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as an external student for private singing lessons. In the end I decided to indulge myself for a year and go to study singing for my own pleasure at the Guildhall as a post-graduate student – but soon realised that my heart would have me stay longer and stayed for three years.
You also had a love of the French language. Where did you learn the language and how did you develop your command of French?
I had been exposed to French early on, as my mother was Belgian, but I really developed my fluency in the language when I spent a year in the Swiss Alps before going to university, working as a supervisor in a small boarding school and enjoying plenty of skiing. Consequently my understanding of the language is very much an aural rather than a studied grammatical one.
My first singing teacher, whilst I was at Cambridge, had also studied with Pierre Bernac, so I was soon introduced to the rich diversity of French mélodie. As a lyric baritone my voice lent itself to much of the French repertoire too.
Once at the Guildhall I continued to work at the repertoire, but I was becoming aware that my background as a scientist had not actually prepared me for working with language and poetry and I was looking for a way to engage more deeply with the texts of the songs I was singing. For my first serious recital I prepared a programme for the audience, and I translated the texts myself. I engaged with the texts as I hadn't done before. I started translating texts as a way of exploring the poetry, but also as a way of engaging with songs that I might never actually sing, such as songs for female singers.
My first significant professional work came in France and I spent a year working for Opéra de Lyon. I took the translations with me and spent many a happy hour in the city library. Eventually I developed a body of work that I thought might be the beginnings of something worth publishing. I started approaching a few publishers, but it was the early days of the internet and already it was looking as though quite a lot of this would be freely available and I gave up on that idea. Eventually I decided to join the trend and use the internet as a platform for my own website.
In truth much of this work is a student project. I have occasionally come across a glaring error from the days that my understanding of the language was less than it is now. Ideally all the translations would be re-edited, but with my current professional commitments that is unrealistic. I am now checking any translations that I am asked about as and when they are needed.
What was your first contact with the musical scene in France?
With my interest in French music I felt I should explore the possibility of settling in France as a base and I started looking for opportunities to perform there. In my last year at the Guildhall I saw that the chorus master from Lyon was holding auditions for extra chorus members and I signed up for an audition. He was rather surprised that I should be interested in what was relatively lowly work and I explained my situation. It happened that he had the brief of locating a singer to take over in a student production of Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges. He suggested that I come to Lyon and study at the Opera Studio there, whilst supporting myself financially by working for him and doing small parts for the main company. It was a wonderful way to get started in France.
You now concentrate on education. How did you turn to education rather than performance as your main professional activity?
I did have a very successful start to my professional career. I won several major international singing competitions and worked for all the major opera companies in Britain. French was always an important part of my repertoire, but I was equally comfortable singing in other languages of course. Unfortunately I started having a few small health issues which interfered with my singing and availability for work. Initially I took some private pupils as a way of keeping me afloat and supporting my family (I have a wife, who is also a singer and teacher, and a daughter).
As part of your private work, you have created and directed choirs, and unusually, you have made the teaching of French song one of your major occupations. You have given classes in French song at the Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. This is an unusual specialization. Is there a demand for language coaches? Is French a popular language in the world of song?
I love working with young singers. As it became harder to support a professional career I took the conscious decision to change my professional focus to teaching. I had trained as a teacher and education is still in my blood. I started a youth choir as a way of bringing my experience to a wider circle of young singers locally to me. I now enjoy performing with the choirs as much as I ever did as a soloist. I deputise for local conductors and offer technical expertise to any choir that asks me for support.
I would ideally like to have a post at one of the London conservatoires, but that hasn't yet been forthcoming, though many of my private pupils have gone on to study there very successfully. I am, however, still recognized for my work in French repertoire and, as you say, am often asked to deputise as a tutor for French song classes at all the conservatoires. They all set up classes in the major singing languages as part of the learning process for students.
Is singing in English available to French students, or does English by and large not lend itself to choral singing or operas.
English is very much a singing language. Many French singers find it quite difficult to approach English, and indeed other languages, so coaches are needed. It is not something I have been called upon to do much… yet…
Your website contains "A Guide to Singing in French", containing quite technical guidance on matters such as diphthongs, semi-vowel glides, nasal vowels, etc. But could you explain to our readers in general terms the advantage to English-speaking students of having a Brit teach them French pronunciation as opposed to a Frenchman doing that.
When I was at Lyon I spent a lot of time gaining the acceptance of native French singers as an interpreter of French repertoire. I worked with local coaches to ensure that what I was doing with the language and pronunciation was above reproach, at least in song. Some of the highlights of my career were certainly the major international competitions that I won in France, singing French repertoire. I learned a lot about how language worked with music and above all the details of French phonetics. I have spent a lot more time analyzing the phonetics than any native speaker would do and, though after twenty-five years back in England I might not speak as fluently as I once did, I am very aware of the specific issues that many non-native singers have with the language. Interestingly, when I coach at the conservatoires, I frequently come across French singers who are really surprised when I start picking them up on the details of their own language. The language is evolving and there are aspects of the phonetics that are appropriate for songs and poetry that are now largely glossed over.
Your website contains translations into English of the works of Auric, Bachelet, Berlioz, Bizet, de Breville, Casterède and many other French composers and lyricists. I would like to ask you about these translations, but first let me define the terms literal translations, non-singable and singable commonly used in this field:
1) Literal translations, sometimes also including pronunciation guides, to aid those singing or hearing the lyrics in the original language. They do not fit the music, so they cannot be sung. Usually they are not poetic in diction and are not in verse. They are often found in program notes.
2) Non-singable verse translations, for those wishing to understand the original lyrics, but willing to sacrifice some literality in order to experience something of the poetry of the original. These translations also do not fit the music and thus also cannot be sung.
3) Singable translations, that is, translations which can be sung to the original music, having the proper meaning, number of syllables, accents, and diction level, and (usually) versification reminiscent of the original and compatible with the music. They are performed, sometimes in the United States, often in England.
So my question relating to your own translations is which category they fall into and what considerations have determined your choice.
They are literal translations. I am trying to make the language of this vast and diverse repertoire accessible to non-native speakers - singers and audience alike. I try to stick closely to the meaning of the text and word order, but occasionally I might change word order to clarify meaning.
There was a time when I would have laughed at the concept of creating a translation of a Debussy mélodie to be sung – but interestingly I did understudy a performance of Pelléas in Pelléas et Mélisande for English National Opera. It was such a success in bringing the work to the wider British audience that I have softened my view. Creating a worthwhile singing translation is the work of a poet, however, and one with a gift for music at that. I have written singing translations of some things for my choir – notably for Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes – but it is not something I find easy, and there are many who would to the job better.
Finally it might be worth saying a little about how I chose which songs to translate… I would often browse scores and recordings and come across songs that appealed to me. I have tried to cover all the standard repertoire, but add a selection of the broader repertoire too. The Casterède songs, for instance, are a wonderful but challenging cycle. The composer had been on the jury of a competition that I won. Afterwards he composed this cycle and sent me the score. The texts are by a poet called Alain Suied, whom I had known for several years through his association with a musical organization called Le Triptyque.
Because creating singable translations is difficult, the best known English lyrics of popular songs that were originally not in English are sometimes not translations at all. Though they (usually) bear the same title as the original, they are entirely new English lyrics having only a tenuous relation to the meaning of the original. Some examples that come to mind are Edith Piaf's song "La vie en rose" and "Les Miserables". Would you agree with that?
Certainly the best singing translations must be faithful to the spirit of the original, but be very natural in translation. This will often mean that the translation will differ markedly from the original. The nature of the French language compared to English, which has a much stronger rhythm, makes French vocal music much more fluid. However, even in translations this can make a significant effect. When I was at Lyon I was involved in the company's performance of Richard Strauss's Salomé, in the composer's own re-working of Oscar Wilde's original French text to his score.  Strauss spoke about the difficulty he had adapting the French language to his music, and the final opera feels quite different in French.
 Blog note:
Salomé is a tragedy by Oscar Wilde. The original 1891 version of the play was in French. The play tells in one act the Biblical story of Salome, stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who, to her stepfather's dismay but to the delight of her mother Herodias, requests the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils.