For more than fifty years, the Kathleen Ferrier Awards have championed the careers of emerging young singers. The competition was launched in 1956 to commemorate the life of the much-loved contralto, who died in 1953 aged just 41. Best remembered for her vibrant and characterful performances, Kathleen had no formal musical training, and began her working life as a telephone operator, while pursuing music on the side. However, a series of encounters with key people in the music industry saw her rise to global stardom. Over the course of her twelve-year career, she performed at venues including Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, and inspired composer Benjamin Britten to write the title role of his opera The Rape of Lucretia with her in mind.
Since their inception, the Kathleen Ferrier Awards have helped to kickstart the careers of singers from around the world. The Awards are open to singers aged 28 and under, who have completed at least one year of study in the UK or Republic of Ireland.
The 2021 competition saw Hugh Cutting receive first prize. Second prize was awarded to soprano, Laura Peresivana, and mezzo, Helen Charlston, was awarded the Ferrier Loveday Song Prize. The Accompanist’s Prize was awarded to Ilan Kurtser. Here, we talk to Hugh Cutting about winning the Awards, his singing technique as a countertenor, and his future career plans.
Why did you decide to enter the Awards, and how does it feel to be the first countertenor to win this competition?
There’s always a big buzz around the Kathleen Ferrier competition each year! My pianist George Ireland and I love working together – he’s an absolutely brilliant colleague, namely because we can happily spend hours babbling away about what rep we want to do, what might work, how we might construct a programme etc. I do particularly love doing song, and it isn’t that common for countertenors to be heard doing it, so we thought we’d give the Ferrier a shot – it gave us an opportunity to work towards various programmes that we could then use when putting on our own stuff. To be honest, I don’t necessarily think that all lieder and song is for this voice type – there’s a sweet spot for what actually works in this kind of timbre, and I think it has to do with how well the text can be understood. It’s very easy for the text to sound ‘chewy’ and particularly far away from the spoken voice because men don’t usually speak in their falsetto. But when it’s put into the right key where the bulk of the song seems to work in terms of text intelligibility, then I think you’re cooking with gas.
We were clearly thrilled with what happened in the end! It’s a really strange moment when your name is announced, because there’s been so much hype around the competition and you’ve worked towards it for such a long time; some of the rep we did I’ve been singing for the last 5 years! Talk about a broken record for anyone who’s lived with me in that time and had to hear my practice…(sorry in retrospect to those people). It’s brilliant to have won of course, especially when competitions are usually impossible to predict, really. And it’s an honour to be the first countertenor – to be honest, it’s been a bit tricky to talk about when I’ve been asked in person because, ultimately, we all try to be ‘singers’ rather than the voice type we use i.e. the expression and artistry is the thing we want people to concentrate on, rather than any biases or favouritism due to the pitch you sing in. And I’m not saying that to try and make any kind of political statement necessarily, but instead to highlight how I think whatever voice you have should act as a portal to yourself, rather than as a mask of technique. So in a way, yes, of course I’m proud to be the first countertenor but it’s really only a side effect of a broader want to communicate through singing – for me at least, it was the path of least resistance to be a countertenor in the first place, the path that most easily allowed me to express myself freely. Gosh, WHAT a load of waffle! Well done for reading to the end of this.
Tell us about the pieces you performed in the final and why you chose them? What were your favourite passages to sing?
We opened with one of Ottone’s arias from Handel’s Agrippina ‘Lusinghiera mia speranza’, in which Ottone, promised the throne and a chance at being with his beloved Poppea, is telling fate not to change its face because it’s looking good for him! It’s a punchy opener, and not too vocally complicated in a nice comfy part of the voice for me; we wanted to start off with a piece we knew we could knock out without too much vocal effort so we could really concentrate on the expression from the get-go. We then performed Vincent D’Indy’s Madrigal, a beautiful pastiche piece which looks back to antiquated affect, both in the text and in a few musical things like the theme and variation structure and even a baroque-y cadential trill in the penultimate phrase. Then came two of Dvorak’s Biblical Songs which are psalm settings of ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and ‘Sing unto the Lord a new song’. These are beautifully simple and quite transparent, I think; we wanted some stasis in the middle of the programme. The final scene from George Benjamin’s opera, Written on Skin, came next. George (my pianist, not Benjamin) and I love this one; it’s very, very dark, disturbing (check the synopsis on Wikipedia for full details) and FULL of colour. It gave us a chance to show some vocal and pianistic dexterity too; George is a keyboard wizard and managed to bring what is a very fraught, busy orchestral score to the piano, and the controlled chaos he opens with is so well resolved in the final held top C at the end of the piece. We finished with a brilliant arrangement of a Thomas Campion lute song, ‘Faire if you expect admiring’, by the wonderful Piers Kennedy, a friend of mine from university. I knew I wanted to finish with this as it was with Piers that I first started doing recital and song, really, and his music is very honest and direct. I’d urge anyone reading this to check out his stuff if you get a chance – we’ll be performing lots of his music in upcoming recitals.
(You can see Hugh perform in the final in the video below. His performance starts at 26’50”)
How did you discover your voice type as a countertenor, and how do you have to adapt your singing technique?
I was a chorister when I was little in Oxford, so I came across loads of countertenors in the choir then and knew it was a thing. My voice broke quite early but I carried on singing treble (boy soprano) in a sort of weird boyish falsetto until I left the choir aged 13. When I then started secondary school, I started singing tenor (my brother was, and is one), in choirs and school musicals. But my falsetto had developed and settled quite quickly in comparison to my twangy chest voice, and it just felt so much easier to sing freely and be myself in that voice. In terms of technique, there are various limitations to a falsetto because it uses only the very tips of the vocal cords, but ultimately it should be trained as any other voice is. Countertenors can sometimes get away with lots of weird technical things (me included, obviously) because teachers and other singers think it just sounds a ‘bit different’, but I honestly think that, whilst being sensitive to a few idiosyncratic differences which occur in any singer, this voice part should be taught as a voice, rather than a trick. What a lot of people don’t realise is that, as in any voice type, there are lots of subsections of countertenor – different fachs, if people want to use that word – and that really does need to be known / worked out. But again, that’s the case with all voice types! Maybe one day someone helpful will note them all down…
“there are various limitations to a falsetto because it uses only the very tips of the vocal cords, but ultimately it should be trained as any other voice is.”
When did you realise you wanted to pursue singing? How did you start your career and how has it evolved?
It’s funny because it was actually acting that was always the thing I wanted to do since I was little. Our home video catalogue is peppered with bizarre performances from my brother and I (I think most notably a 10 minute Gilderoy Lockhart impression, part of my repertoire today…worryingly). My brother and I were really into impressions and manipulating our voices to be characters, so I think that’s the root of all of this, really. Singing always seemed like an extension of that. I have a very specific moment in my mind when I decided I wanted to be a singer specifically; I was 8 and singing Messiah as part of a tour with New College Choir (this was just after Edward Higginbottom and the Choir there recorded that Messiah disc with the Academy of Ancient Music – it’s very cool!). Iestyn Davies and James Gilchrist were doing solos. Seeing those two perform I thought, ‘yep I’ll do that’. I’ve been obsessed since. Being a chorister is a very specific way of growing up, there’s no denying, but I loved it and it definitely formed the basis for much of my life.
The start of my career is now, really; I’m still at the Royal College’s Opera Studio for the rest of this year, so I’m leading a sort of double life as a student while doing a few gigs here and there. Last summer, I started with Les Arts Florissants’ ‘Jardin des Voix’, playing Arsace in Handel’s Partenope. I’d say that was the real beginning, along with a few bits of recording with Iestyn. Before that I was just doing my Masters course at music college (the RCM in London), and I’m still there now. It’s extremely early days still, so I can’t know how it will evolve! But I love working in both opera and concert settings, and especially in recital – I’m a bit of a programming nerd and like to come up with themes and links for recital rep, so one of my main aims for the coming year involves putting on those programmes under my own steam. I’m looking forward to various projects in the pipeline with my brother, Guy Cutting, tenor, and girlfriend, Rebecca Leggett, mezzo, which we’ve been crafting together. If I got anything from the Ferrier, it was always the plan that some of the prize money would be used to help fund a few bespoke projects – seems apt to put money back into making more music, and it would be amazing to have that artistic freedom and agency to work on exactly what we wanted with specific performers in mind.
On the day of a performance, how do you warm up your voice?
To be totally frank, it’s quite a boring and methodical process with things in it that don’t necessarily seem like they would help warm the voice at all! But they seem to work, for some reason – I’m sure much of it is placebo.
If it’s an evening show, I tend to try and sleep for as long as possible the night before. If it’s a really big sing, I’ll try and keep the previous day free, not always possible on tour obviously.
When I wake up I try and warm the voice really slowly, starting just with breathing exercises. It’s useful to take regular breaks to do something different – go for a walk, do some cooking – anything that doesn’t involve using the voice, and giving it time to adjust to the work you’ve just done on it. As the day goes on I expand the range I warm up with; a hard scenario is when a gig requires the lowest part of the range, something like Purcell for example, and making sure the voice isn’t too high-set by the end of the day. About an hour before the gig I warm up properly, do a bit of yoga and stretching. I’ll sing a bit before the show but not too much, and always something very familiar (I have a playlist of hymns that I know well from when I was little) so that I can feel my way through the warming up process. The idea of warming up with well-known music is that you probably know how it feels when it’s a particularly good day, or a tricky day, so it acts as a kind of touchstone marker for how warmed up you are, and how easy or hard different vowels are feeling that day etc – you get the picture.
I’m quite an obsessive person, so need things to take my mind off the actual singing in the run up to a performance – I usually plug in to a podcast or audiobook until the last possible moment! And plenty of water is needed, obviously. After that the vocal warming up is much easier as your body is more efficiently and effectively connected to your breathing, and allows you to go into whatever bespoke vocal warmups you have made with your teacher, and different stuff works for everyone.
What are your future plans? Are there any particular roles or pieces you would love to perform?
My dream role is The Boy in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. It’s great as a countertenor because you can, realistically, tackle a really broad range of the repertoire on offer – and I’d love to do as many different things as possible. I’ve always dreamed of doing a Handel (or indeed, an Oberon), at Glyndebourne; I’m not a city person really, and I love the vibe that Glyndebourne’s countryside location has in comparison. One of my biggest dreams would be to do Britten’s Abraham and Isaac with my brother, Guy, I think that would be a particularly special moment for us and our parents, once we stopped laughing about working together.
For the time being I’m very keen to not rush things, try my best to keep working on the voice and making it as easy as possible. I’d like to build a long career, even if it ends with me happily singing in the bath in my 70s! Being a countertenor is a blessing for so many reasons, though it can be dangerous because of the rarity of the voice. Because the vocal pedagogy is so much younger for countertenors (or rather, teaching countertenors as a stage voice is a much younger pursuit than, say, teaching Italian tenors) I think we can get away with a lot more flaws in vocal technique because people still don’t quite know what to listen for in a ‘free’ falsetto i.e. they don’t always realise when it isn’t resounding freely and efficiently. And that leads to countertenors launching careers early on without necessarily being totally ready vocally. I’m keen to avoid that as much as possible, I suppose, which mainly involves being selective about what I take on. But I enjoy the idea of that progression, and it’s always important to know what your weaknesses and strengths are, there’s always plenty of work to be done on yourself and your singing. Don’t run before you can walk…!
Find out more about Hugh Cutting at http://www.hughcutting.com/
The 2022 Kathleen Ferrier Awards are accepting applications until 1 February 2022. For more information please visit ferrierawards.org.uk
For a list of upcoming UK classical music competitions click here.
Main featured image: ©Emma Brown Photography