Ben McAteer

Winner of NI Opera's Festival of Voice competition tackles the classics at Queen's

Two years ago, Newry-born baritone Ben McAteer won NI Opera’s inaugural Festival of Voice competition. He has since been busy furthering his vocal studies in London, where he is currently completing an intensive year of training at the prestigious National Opera Studio.

McAteer’s recital at the Harty Room at Queen's University, part of Belfast Music Society’s Northern Lights Mini-Fest, is an opportunity for local audiences to gauge how far the young Northern Irishman has travelled on the demanding path towards a career as a classical singer.

The evidence is overwhelmingly positive. It’s obvious from the opening set of songs – Roger Quilter’s Seven Elizabethan Lyrics – that much has happened to McAteer’s voice since he became NI Opera’s first festival winner.

The low register, a touch on the dry side two years ago and still a work in progress, is now filling out noticeably, and is tonally more centred. This brings an added expressivity to the Quilter settings, where ‘My Life’s Delight’ is notable for the warm assurance of the interpretation.

McAteer’s enunciation, already very good, is now consistently excellent. He works hard on length of vowel and clarity of consonants, without straining for effect or making the technical process of articulation too explicit. This makes the other English songs that McAteer includes in the recital a delight to listen to – you’re not straining to decipher words, as you are with a surprising number of classical vocalists.

Both ‘Linden Lea’ and ‘Silent Noon’, from a short Vaughan Williams set, are exemplary in this respect. The storytelling emerges with a natural clarity and ease of utterance bespeaking high levels of technical ability, and a mature understanding of the extent to which folk song influences infuse Vaughan Williams’s writing.

Three operatic extracts show McAteer equally adept in other languages. His German in ‘O! Du mein holder Abendstern!’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, is assured and idiomatic. So too are his Russian and Italian, in arias from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro respectively.

McAteer does opera with particular relish. He’s a natural stage animal, marshalling an impressive variety of facial gestures and manual manoeuvres to underscore what’s happening in the music, without overdoing the amount of stage ‘business’. If you were Figaro, you’d quail at McAteer’s Count Almaviva: it’s an angry, glowering personation, communicating powerfully even in the truncated context of a recital platform.

The same ability to instantly inhabit a new scenario is evident in McAteer’s inclusion of ‘Belsazar’, a rarely-heard ballad setting by Schumann based on the Old Testament story of the Babylonian King who curses God, literally sees the writing on the wall, and is dead by morning.

It’s a gift to someone of McAteer’s theatrical instincts, and the sheer size and power of the young Newry singer’s voice is unleashed to full effect, as Belshazzar hurtles heedlessly to his date with destiny, murdered by members of his own retinue.

Part of McAteer’s future clearly lies in opera, where he already has professional engagements pending. What’s most striking about this Harty Room appearance, however, is the extent to which he is maturing as an interpreter of classics, and the subtleties he is now bringing to the table as a recitalist pure and simple.

These were nowhere more apparent than in a breathtaking performance of ‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’, from Finzi’s short cycle Let Us Garlands Bring. It’s a masterpiece, but a demanding one for the singer, who needs outstanding breath control to support the slow unravelling of Finzi’s expansive phrases, and maturity of interpretive insight to unlock the poignancy and profundity of Shakespeare’s marvellous lines from Cymbeline.

McAteer has all of that, and shows great poise and artistic self-assurance in an interpretation that stills the habitual twitching, rustling and heavy breathing of the typical concert hall audience. For six magically hushed moments, all is otherwise silent, and he is beautifully accompanied by the New Zealand-born pianist Catherine Norton, outstanding throughout the recital.

McAteer returns to Belfast on May 14 next year, to perform Copland songs at a lunchtime concert with JoAnn Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra. That’s one event that I will definitely not be missing.

Visit the Belfast Music Society website for information on forthcoming Northern Lights Mini-Fest concerts throughout October and November.