Ashley Riches interview: Meet the quick-change bass-baritone
Singer Ashley Riches on making music with old friends, working out and trying his hand at writing
Music at home came from ‘everywhere and nowhere’, but particularly from the musical legacy of his grandfather, the jazz musician Charles Riches, who led the resident band at the Olympia ballroom in Scarborough for 20 years. ‘He was a really important figure in my life.’
Even so, it was almost on a whim Ashley Riches applied to and was accepted for the opera post-graduate course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where fellow students included the outstanding soprano Natalya Romaniw. And one of the works they performed together then was Tchaikovsky’s ravishingly beautiful and tender one-act opera, Iolanta.
In rehearsal at Opera Holland Park, soprano Natalya Romaniw as Iolanta and David Butt Philip as Vaudémont. Photo: Ali Wright
Nine years on, life has turned full circle: they are appearing in the same roles, this time at Opera Holland Park, as professional singers well into their stride and in demand. With Romaniw in the title role, Riches sings the mystical physician Ibn-Hakia, who is called upon to tend to her.
Iolanta has been blind from birth, a fact hidden from her in her protected royal upbringing, by a household sworn to avoid all references to the sighted world. With adulthood she begins to sense that there is more to life than the senses she possesses.
When a stranger comes to the palace and discovers she cannot tell a red rose from a white one, her innocence is gone gone. Ibn-Hakia asserts that self-belief and love will overcome her disability, in a powerfully intoned, prayer-like aria.
‘It’s a fairy story. Ibn-Hakia is a Moorish mystic, and he says something very new age: you can only see if you believe you can see, and you want it.’
The reunion with Romaniw is a very happy and rare event. ‘She and I don’t do the same repertoire generally, so it’s really lovely.’ And there is a third old friend, the tenor David Butt Philip singing Count Vaudémont, the stranger who falls in love with Iolanta. All three are special voices in their generation, in a Golden Age for British singing. When their names appear in cast lists, opera-lovers reach for their diaries.
Opera Holland Park is a musical home-from-home for Riches, who gave a memorable performance in the title role of Don Giovanni in 2017, the year he became a BBC New Generation artist. He is a huge fan of the company that continually breaks new ground with fresh productions of classics and the airing of forgotten pieces.
In the title role of Don Giovanni at Opera Holland Park 2017, Ashley Riches was an urbane cruise passenger. Photo: Robert Workman
'Opera Holland Park gives people the most fantastic night out in central London. I love the unfussiness of [Director of Opera] James Clutton and [General Director] Michael Volpe, and they take chances with the repertoire. They don’t have any time for alienating productions; accessibility is really important. And they’re very good at spotting people and pieces.’
One of the few perks of the singing life is having complimentary tickets for other productions, so it is high praise indeed when he adds: ‘I have paid to go to Opera Holland Park with my own money!’
Earlier this summer the singer was at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, cast for the role of the student Brander in the opening work of the season, Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust.
On paper this is a relatively small if important part, renowned for its Song of the Rat, but there was a surprise in store when Riches turned up for a costume fitting and was told he had six changes. Director Richard Jones took full advantage of the singer’s flair for acting, and had him walk on in scene after scene, in a range of personas.
Ashley Riches (centre) in La Damnation de Faust at Glyndebourne in 2019. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
In consequence, Riches was constantly involved in the action. ‘Quite often when you do a small role you are only acquainted with your scene. It was quite nice to see it all, and it was an opportunity for lots of character acting.'
That acting ability had come to the fore with at OHP in 2017. ‘Don Giovanni is basically an acting role,’ he says. ‘There’s not a lot of singing in it. He’s never alone on stage, and when he sings his three arias he is with Leporello, or a woman, or a crowd, to whom he even denies being Don Giovanni. There is an emptiness about his character.’
Life at home could scarcely be more different from that of the dissolute aristocrat. Keeping him grounded is nine-month-old daughter Silvia. His wife runs her own business, and not the least of OHP’s attractions is the company’s famously family-friendly schedule for singers and crew. ‘Family life is not particularly easy for people in this profession, and you have to want to make it work.’
Keeping up with a baby is a workout that all parents will recognise, but Riches is also a fan of the all-round exercise and health regime CrossFit. ‘For a singer, a stronger and more flexible body is no bad thing.’
In the new year.Ashley Riches will be in the revival of Calixto Bieito's Carmen at ENO, here staged in 2015. Photo: Alastair Muir
In this rich seam of British singers and with this full home life, the sought-after baritone can choose to work abroad as little as possible, a gain for British opera houses. ‘I’m determined to be at home quite a lot.’ But even freed of many of the long travelling hours that beset musicians on the road, he entertains and stretches himself, and calls up his literary expertise, by writing.
Inspirations include Edgar Allen Poe; he is an admirer of the intensity and economy of the short-story form and also its capacity to conjure up a heightened atmosphere. You get the impression that there is a modest determination for Riches to do well at whatever he undertakes; it will come as no surprise if that writing goes into print.
In the meantime, it will soon be time for another costume. Stand by for 6ft 4in of toreador strutting his stuff when Ashley Riches sings Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen, for English National Opera. In this streetwise production, with Butt Philip also in the cast, there will be more white linen than gilded brocade for the image-conscious fighter. But that’s got to be more fun than donning a lawyer’s black robes.
Iolanta is at Opera Holland Park, with Il Segretto di Susanna (22 July to 3 Aug); Carmen is at English National Opera (29 Jan to 27 Feb)