in conversation with James Newby:"I feel free in singing song and reacting directly to the audience."

18. Juni 2023

Rubrik Interviews

©Gerald Colett

James Newby is a bright young rising star of the opera world with a solid down-to-earth approach that makes him not only appealing but a very sympathetic guy from next door.


Discovered during a solo performance at one of the Glouchester Cathedral services, James career soon followed a direct path on an intense vocal journey that finally led him into winning the "ECHO Rising Star Programme", with which the young baritone successfully has been touring around Europe lately.


But this developement was not to be foreseen in the first place, as James focus as a teenager was all on sports, rather than attending the school choir on a regular basis. 


Luckily all that changed with destinies will that granted him a scholarship with the Glouchester Cathedral choir after his stunning solo performance there.


Only one year later James Newby moved on to study classical singing at Trinity Larne, the most reknown music college in London and soon after landed his first ensemble membership at the Hanover State Opera in Lower Saxony / Germany.


Meanwhile heading on to more exciting new shores, particularly in the field of "Liedgesang" the young baritone has been demonstrating his outstanding vocal artistry in a very unique manner, just recently at a recital at Elbphilharmonie Hamburg where he personified "Die schöne Müllerin" with all his heartfelt emotions, vocal intimicy and soulful depth.


Operaversum: Dear James, when did you discover that you wanted to become an opera singer? 


James Newby: I actually discovered it really late. When I was a kid, my brothers and sisters including myself would play a bit of music, which was mainly driven by my mums autodidactive enthusiasm for practising the piano and the accordeon herself. So through her encouragement we soon all learned how to play an instrument as well.


Then at primary school I started singing lessons and moreover practised the trumpet and the piano on a regular basis. But as soon as I changed for secondary school I neglected to make music perseverantly as my interest rather focussed on sports at that point.


But since I had a practical music background I still kept it going as an academic class, which came easy to me as I could read scores. And then when I turned sixteen I chose to take music as a GCSE, which meant it was obligatory for me to sing in a choir, which I really tried to fight hard against by skipping choir for ages. But then my choirmaster who was friends with my Mum told her that I was not attending the choir sessions, which really got me into trouble at home.


Still more interested in sports, I eventually gave in to avoid any more issues with my Mum and continued singing. At the age of seventeen I then made a school trip with our choir to Gloucester Cathedral to temporarily replace the professional choir there which had left for holidays at that time. During our stay we sang two services, consisting of two even songs where in one of them I sang a little solo. After having finished the performance one of the canons came up to me and frankly asked me whether I was not interested in going to Cambridge or Oxford to do a chorus scholarship. But my answer was: "Absolutely not. Not in a million years!"


Operaversum: So you did not want to take advantage of that tempting offer? 


James Newby: Well, I sure wanted to sing, but I did not cross my mind at all to study at Cambridge or Oxford. For me that seemed like a completely different world. And it was something that I considered totally unavailable to me. Nevertheless the canon talked me into seeing the director of music at Gloucester Cathedral, where I obtained a chorus scholarship after finishing school at the age of 18. There I sang for a year before I moved on to music college. But it was not until I went there that I actually realised I wanted to become an opera singer or soloist. So in comparision to fellow students I was really late in discovering my true vocal passion.


Operaversum: But was it an easy path in the end to become an opera singer?


James Newby: Actually yes, it was. Obviously I had to work really hard and I felt I had to work faster than anybody else, since I still lacked the singing technique. But I was fortunate to go to one of the most reknown music colleges in London, which is Trinity Larne. There I got a lot of opportunities and support. So I started to grow really quick within my four years of study. Then in my final year, I also did really well in a couple of competitions, so I could move on to the Guildhall in London and over the course of time also applied for other schemes that lined up along the way. So going from one scheme to the next, I finally ended up here in Hannover (Lower Saxony / Germany).


©Gerald Colett

Operaversum: And now you are a Rising Star as part of the Rising Star Programme. How did you manage to get into that programme and what is the programme all about? 


James Newby: First of all you have to get nominated by one of the big concert halls, which are part of the ECHO (European concert halls organisation). So we are talking about 25 concert halls which are spread across Europe. So one of the things they do apart from sharing plans, is the ECHO Rising Star programme, where the representatives of each of the concert halls come together once a year to start selecting young promising artists. So eventually one gets nomiated by one of the halls and then the initial selection process goes somewhat down to 12 artists and in the final round six artists make it for Rising star.


As for me I was nomiated by the Barbicican Centre in London twice. The first time I did not make it to the finals, but the second time around I was fortunate to be part of the Rising star programme.


And what exactly happens once you have been accepted as one of the six finalists, is that you then have to put forward three programmes that get presented to all the halls. And if any of them want to give you a recital, then they do. 


Operaversum: And with which three programmes you were touring around Europe as part of the Rising Star Programme?


James Newby: My three programmes were: "I wonder as I wander" which is a selection of songs from my first CD release. Then the "Flora and Fauna" programme, I had done in Lisbon, which was a programme all about animals, plants and stuff like that, which was also a lot of fun, as you would get an overarching theme with every single piece sung in a different language. The audience really seemed to enjoy it for all its variety. And the last programme I performed at Elbphilarmonie in Hamburg was Schubert´s "Die schöne Müllerin".


Operaversum: Well, I have to admit, I was extremely impressed by your performance at the Elbphilharmonie. So do tell me James, which skills do you need to have as a Liedsinger? Is there a difference between singing opera arias and Lied? 


James Newby: Yes, I suppose there is. When I am doing opera, I am basically taking on another character and am trying to put myself in the other person´s shoes to work out what makes them tick, whereas with Lieder I always try to be the person in the song. I become the "Schöne Müllerin" and bring her alive through my experience. So I am sort of telling my story through her story.


From a technical singing point of view there is not too much of a difference between singing opera arias and Lied, but of course you have to consider the orchestra and the space on an opera stage which obviously will make you sing louder. So you have to be loud enough to be heard over the orchestra, which can exclude some of the vocal colours. I can definitely not use all of my vocal colours in an opera role, whereas in song I certainly can.


In my opinion when you sing opera, you have to be technically correct, which puts the singer a bit more under pressure. I kind of despise that thought, but in a way I feel much freer in singing song and just reacting directly to the audience.


©Gerald Colett

Operaversum: So could you specify what you mean when you say you feel freer performing Lied?


James Newby: Well, I think I feel freer performing Lied because I am out there on stage with only an accompanist at my side in a much smaller room, whereas with opera there is a conductor and a big orchestra that you have to get over with your voice. Nevertheless if it comes to rehearsing song it can be quite boring at times, particularly when the accompanist and myself are just going through the score to work out the best musical approach.


But once it comes to the live performance, both of us try to find and create something elevated, which I think you cannot find in practise. Suddenly there is this emotional intensitiy from the audience washing over you making you react in the excact same emotional intensity, which can really feel overwhelming. It is this resonance which you do not have whilst rehearsing. And I also do not think that you can replicate a live concert experience. I have certainly tried in rehearsals to replicate this emotional state, but it always ends up being a bit fake and thus pointless. 


Operaversum: I understand. So transporting emotions is the icing on the cake of vocal artistry. But what is the challenge to work with an accompanist in terms of dynamics and interpretation? 


James Newby: To be honest, I think that being flexible is what I definitely like when it comes to Lied interpretation. And since I work a lot with accompanists such as Joseph Middleton, Simon Lepper and also Jan-Philip Schulze from the Musikhochschule Hannover with whom I just started off projects recently, I get to trust them that their goal is to to tell the story to the audience. So my accompanists and myself know what we are trying to say through the music, understanding the meaning of the song and most importantly the meaning of the words, so that we can both sing and play in time and in tune.


Once it gets to the live performances and for example Joseph intends to make a musical move in a different direction, I then follow him and vice versa. That is absolutely helpful to be right in the moment and to be spontanious at all times. Being alert to each other and responsive is vital in Lied, as it not only makes a performance playful, but also extremely lively. 


Operaversum: James, is there any song or any composer that you really love best, where you feel that repertoire really comes close to your heart? 


James Newby: Not really. I love it all. I love Schubert. I really enjoy the “Schöne Müllerin”. But there is a song which I had been singing mostly during music college called “Is my team ploughing". It is from a Shropshire lad, a piece that I sort of picked up for the first time and immediately understood how to bring to life.


Operaversum: So tell me James, what is the song all about? 


James Newby: It is a song based on a Houseman poem written for two voices. Two friends are talking to each other, but one of them is already dead. So the story goes that the dead friend starts asking questions about whether his lads are still playing football and having a good time. It evolves up to the point when the dead friend finally asks about the well-being of his girlfriend and his true friend reveals in the last line of the song that he is now with the dead mates girlfriend. So the wording is the following: I share a dead man´s sweetheart, never ask me who´s! It is an amazing song.


Operaversum: It sure sounds like it! 


©Gerald Colett

James Newby: Well, I mean it does not resonate with me, as I have never been in that situation. But the song is truly georgeous. And I did sing that quite a lot of times. 


Operaversum: So is this song also part of your first CD release? 


James Newby: No, it is actually not. But I performed it in most of the competitions, I participated at.


Operaversum: So talking about your first CD "I wonder as I wander", which consists of a musical bouquet of Beethoven, Mahler, Britten and  Schubert songs, which is quite a compilation of different composers and epoches.


How did you choose this compilation of songs? 


James Newby: Well, Beethoven´s "An die ferne Geliebte" I have performed quite a lot. So it was rather obvious to have him on the CD. But with your first CD you never know which musical direction to take. In a way the repertoire has to give a clue about who you are as an artist.


Operaversum: But did you come up with a theme at all? 


James Newby: Well, we eventually ended up with a theme, but started with Beethoven´s "An die ferne Geliebte". That was the first Lied cycle we wanted to do, followed by a couple of other Beethoven songs. And then we just freshened up the repertoire by adding songs of Britten, which turned out to be a nice bouquet.


We loved recording "I wonder as I wander" as the songs speak directly to the audience.  And we have also tried to do that on the new CD "Fallen to dust". There is this song "All you who sleep tonight" by the composer Jonathan Dove, where it talks about everybody going to bed with worries and tears, feeling lonesome, but at the same time is comforted by the fact that in the end the whole world shares the same kind of pain. 


Operaversum: So is there only English songs on the new album?


James Newby: Yes, the new CD holds only English songs by a lot of contemporary composers such as Errolyn Wallen, Jonathan Dove and Rebecca Clarke. And it is dedicated to my sister who passed away in 2015. At her funeral I was singing Gerald Finzi´s "Fear no more the heat o’ the sun" and it just felt fitting to include the whole Finzi cycle "Let us Garland Bring" from which the song is, as a centerpiece of the album compilation. So obviously I chose a theme that has to do with death and loss which runs through all the songs of the album.


Operaversum: So that makes it a very personal album which comes straight from the heart. But moving away now from Lied and concentrating more on opera, I got to know that you have been singing in "Cosi fan tutte" at Komische Oper Berlin, which was staged by Kirill Sebrenikov.


How did you like his production at all?


James Newby: Kirill Serebrennikov´s  “Cosi fan tutte” was great. It was really great. Orinally staged in Zürick back in 2019, when Kirill was actually in house arrest and had to do the whole directing via Zoom, the "Berlin Fassung" could take place with him being present.


In fact Kirill Serebrennikov seemed to me like an amazing dude. Very passionate about social, political and cultural issues. And he was just a great and empathetic guy and of course an amazing director.


So in my opinion the production was really fantastic and a great new approach, as the story was created in a way that it just reflects back on humans, on the complexitiy of relationsships and faithfullness and that life and inparticular love are best learnt by experiencing them by oneselves, no matter if in the end there is no happy ending, as is the case in this opera. At the end it even says: Love is not for beginners.


©Gerald Colett

Operaversum: Talking about social media, which is also a topic I am very interested in, I have been recognizing for quite a while that more and more opera singers present themselves on the social media platforms which I personally perceive as a good thing, because in the past you always had the feeling that everybody in the professional field was eletist and not approachable at all.


So how do you perceive this development? 


James Newby: I think this development is great. Recently I was talking to my girlfriend about "Drive and Survive", which is a Netflix documentary about Formula 1 and what huge impact it has had on people watching it, as the drivers were basically confronted with a similiar issue as operasingers nowadays. As a matter of fact they were considered celebrities, which nobody could really reach out to. But “Drive to Survive” produced those narratives, that finally created this kind of connection with the people.


And all of a sudden Formula 1 went through the roof, since growing popularity was breaking down the barrier between Formula 1 drivers and their fans.


And I personally think that social media can have exactly the same impact, so that you feel you know somebody from watching their Reels and Stories on Instagram and you realize that they are down-to-earth and normal people as well.


Operaversum: And that opera is a normal and a regular venue to attend! 


James Newby: Exactly, which also always makes me think of my Mum. Whenever she comes to see me at the opera, she really gets stressed out and buys herself a new outfit as going to the opera feels like an alien thing to her. But I think it does not really matter what you wear. I would rather that the opera house was full of opera goers in their daywear then having a half empty house with an "overdressed" audience.



Operaversum: And do you think you could overstep the line a little with social media in terms of privacy, having to be cautious about what you are communicating and giving away to your followers?


James Newby: Well, I am not sure, as opera singing is about my job. But I personally do not define myself by my profession, but by who I am as a person. That is why my social media page is about myself, sports and whatever I am interested in.


I am just a normal human being. And I like using Instagram for that reason. But of course it all depends. Getting famous might make it rather difficult to give away too much of your private life. Like with anything you could potentially use it in a right or in a wrong way. The other thing you also have to be careful about is not to show everything in that rosy view.


Operaversum: Interesting point you are getting on to, as I have noticed with some singers that they have also been starting off with a regular account giving little sneaks and peaks away from their daily life, up to the point when they turned their account  into a professional brand. And this may certainly come along with increasing fame?


James Newby: Well, in the end as a singer you are your own brand and of course you start creating that brand around yourself.


But the risk of that brand building could be that it may all become very tiring for the viewers and yourself when your posts are not honest any more and you have to rethink every content before you eventually post it.


As for me I am convinced that it is better to be honest. I always keep telling myself that I am not defined by what I am doing professionally. I would rather want people to say: "James is such a nice guy and I would like to have a beer with him". before they say: "James is such a great singer."


And that would be way more important to my Mum as well, as she used to tell me as a kid whenever she had to attend the school parents evenings  "If I get to know that you are aweful at Maths and that you cannot read and write, but you are a really lovely person, I do not mind. But should I experience that you are a genious at Maths and your English is phenomenal, but you are not very nice to the other kids, then I would really mind.


Operaversum: What your mum said is truly wonderful and I guess it keeps you grounded in everything you do. But as you are a Rising Star now, what are your future aspirations in your career for the next couple of years?


James Newby: Well, there is nothing particular on my mind that makes me think I should have done this or that by a certain time. The only thing that really drives me on is that I want to fulfill my pontential as a singer. And I feel that my potential is really big. So what I really want is to have achieved it in the end.


Operaversum: That sounds absolutely great, James. Thank you so much for all the inspiring insights you have been sharing with me today and wishing you all the best for your future career steps.


©Gerald Colett

James Newby is a former BBC New Generation Artist and Rising Star for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He was nominated by the Barbican Hall for the European Concert Hall Organisation Rising Star scheme and will be presented by them in recitals throughout Europe in the 2022-23 season.


A recipient of the Richard Tauber Prize for best interpretation of a Schubert Lied at the 2015 Wigmore Hall/Kohn International Song Competition, James has since enjoyed a close relationship with the Hall, a recent highlight being a performance of Die schöne Müllerin with Simon Lepper.


Most recently, he has been awarded a prestigious Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, in recognition and support of his emerging status as one of the most outstanding young musicians of his generation, and this summer he will take part in their twentieth anniversary celebrations at Wigmore Hall singing Mahler with Mitsuko Uchida.

The release of his debut solo CD I Wonder as I Wander on BIS Records in 2020 with pianist Joseph Middleton was the winner of the Diapason d’Or Découverte and described in Gramophone Magazine as “a performance that sets the tone, announcing Newby as an impressive artist”.


In September 2019 James joined the Ensemble of the Staatsoper Hannover where in 2021 he garnered particular praise for his debut as Eddy in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek. Other important role debuts in Hannover include Guglielmo Così fan tutte and the title role in Eugene Onegin.


In the forthcoming season he will make his French opera debut as Der Junker in Schreker Der Schatzgräber at Opéra National du Rhin; his debut at the Komische Oper Berlin as Guglielmo; will sing Aeneas in Purcell Dido and Aeneas at The Grange Festival and further ahead will make his debuts at Garsington Opera, Theater an der Wien and Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona.


Concert performances this season include Haydn The Creation with the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bart Van Reyn and Handel’s Messiah with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. Past concert appearances include Berlioz with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Mozart with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Handel with the Britten Sinfonia.  He has also appeared in other baroque repertoire with conductors David Bates, Jonathan Cohen and John Butt, toured in Europe with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century singing Bach and made his US debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Juanjo Mena. James studies with Robert Dean.

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