CHICAGO SUN TIMES - FRIDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2003 
 
 Treleaven a powerhouse in role
that separates men from the boys




BY WYNNE DELACOMA
Classical Music Critic
 
 John Treleaven's wife, Roxane, offers a hint about why her husband is emerging as a leading Wagnerian heldentenor, especially in his signature role, Siegfried, the teenage hero of Wagner's four-opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelung." A former coloratura soprano and the mother of their two grown children, she knows whereof she speaks. Yes, of course, there is the exciting voice, a rare combination of ringing steel and supple satin that Lyric Opera audiences are heartily applauding in his performances in "Siegfried," the "Ring" cycle's third opera. Nor does it hurt that the tall, robust Treleaven is agile onstage, an engaging actor capable of conveying the young hero's irrepressible drive and self-confidence. But his wife thinks another, more subtle element helps Treleaven project a portrait that leaps across the Civic Opera House's footlights. "You are a boy at heart," Roxane Treleaven insists, her wifely certainty prompting a booming laugh from Treleaven. "You're laughing and joking all the time." Sitting down for lunchtime interview backstage at Lyric Opera, the British-born tenor refuses to divulge his age, good-naturedly invoking the German tradition that allows performers an "artistic" age for public consumption - in his case, 50. With his dark hair, Nathan Lane eyebrows, youthful face and open, ebullient manner, he can pass for considerably younger. Treleaven is using a boyish heart and a mature artist's voice to fine effect as he makes his Lyric debut in one of opera's most demanding roles. Siegfried is a challenge on all levels, from its musical demands to the character's complicated psychology. The opera itself is five hours long. Tenors tackling the title role have to nail a high C a few minutes after bursting on stage in Act I. Several hours and two intermissions later, after forging a magic sword and slaying a dragon, they must still have enough vocal reserves for an extended love scene that requires both delicate lyricism and lung-busting volume. Siegfried is an inexperienced adolescent itching to explore the world, but his music can be sung safely only by a tenor with a huge voice and decades of experience. Teenagers need not apply, and tenors in their 30s take on the role at their own risk. Then there is the matter of asking an audience to believe that the burly, big-voiced, middle-aged man onstage is actually a testosterone-animated youth. Operagoers are more willing than most to suspend disbelief, but they also know that a well-sung, well-acted Siegfried is a rare find. Treleaven, who sings one more "Siegfried" performance on Saturday at Lyric but returns in March 2005 for "Siegfried" and "Gotterdammerung" during the company's complete "Ring" cycles, is among that scarce species. Born in a small fishing village in the county of Cornwall, Treleaven never dreamed of pursuing an opera career. "Being in the southwest of the country, there was no legitimate theatre nearby," he said. "My mum and dad didn't play instruments. I had an auntie who wanted to be a singer and started to train, but it didn't work out for her. Some of my first operatic experiences were from my mum's record collections." The performance bug bit him when he started singing in the church choir. "I remember how charismatic the feeling was," he said, "the feeling of contact with other people, how you could draw them in with your singing. That fascinated me at a very early age." As Treleaven moved into his teens, he joined a local brass band, playing E-flat tenor horn, and sang in a male choir as well as the church choir. By age 19, he had settled into what he then considered to be his "lot in life", a civil service job attached to the Royal Navy in Cornwall. Soon, however, a professional pianist with ties to the small but respected London College of Music retired to his small town and urged him to think beyond amateur music-making and a career behind a desk. "My life has been a whole series of what you could call wonderful coincidences or predestination," said Treleaven. "I certainly never conceived of becoming a professional opera singer, which is, of course, what turned out to be the case." Admitted to the college immediately after his audition, Treleaven studied with its director, William Lloyd Webber, father of Andrew. "There was clearly an inner longing within me to take that opportunity," said Treleaven about his student years in London, "because I truly never looked back from that moment. The world became a wonderfully exciting place. This young Cornish lad went up to London and just loved all the excitement of this enormous city. I ate, drank and breathed music." Treleaven made his Covent Garden debut in 1979, and his career was launched. His repertoire has been wide-ranging, including French and Italian opera as well as Wagner. Roles stretch from Don Jose in "Carmen" to the title character in Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" and Captain Vere in Britten's "Billy Budd," from Dick Johnson in Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West" to Jenik in Smetana's "The Bartered Bride." He has sung extensively in England and Germany, where he and his wife now live, and he made his Vienna State Opera debut in 2000, the same year he sang his first Siegfried. Wagner has played an increasing role in Treleaven's career in the last decade. He was first smitten during a summer he spent as a student at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, the festival Wagner founded in 1876 to present his own operas. "When I heard those first few bars of 'Das Rheingold' at Bayreuth," Treleaven said, "that was a galvanizing factor in my mind. I knew that this was the type of music theater that I wanted to be part of, if I could. The compelling nature of the drama, the size of it - it's larger than life! Wagner deals with gods and demi-gods, and dwarfs and giants and dragons. His imagination just fired my own." After thee years singing Siegfried, Treleaven is beginning to get inside the young hero's skin. "The difficulty of playing Siegfried is to unwrap his naivete," he said. "The last thing a grown man [singing Siegfried] in his late 40s and 50s is, is naive. But that's the key to the character He isn't stupid. What he has achieved through his natural instincts and perceptions is astonishing." Wagner requires astonishing things of the human voice in most of his operas and especially in "Siegfried." Treleaven knows that good vocal health and rock-solid technique are critical to singing Wagner for more than a few years. "in the first few bars of 'Siegfried,' Wagner asks you to sing a top C," Treleaven said. "As we say at home, he certainly sorts the men from the boys. This is why you do this repertoire too soon at your absolute peril. You might achieve it wonderfully, but I tell you, the season will be short."