Q&A with opera star Christopher Ainslie

English Touring Opera perform Giulio Cesare here over 2 nights on the 16 & 17 October.

We sat down with accountant-turned-opera singer Christopher Ainslie, who has the daunting job of taking on the title role of Giulio Cesare (aka Julius Caesar). He tells us what he loves about it:


What’s it like to play such a well-known role?

 It is always a great privilege to portray an opera character on stage, and all the more so when it is one of the great characters in the opera – and in this case baroque – repertoire.

Most of the role is either full of bravado or potentially superficial lightness. While the opera needs exactly this lightness to keep it afloat, alongside the devastating emotions of Cornelia, Sesto, and Cleopatra, it also poses a challenge in portraying Cesare as a complex human with the full spectrum of emotions. There are just two brief moments where the audience can see into his soul, and these must be used to their fullest potential.

I am enjoying exploring this man’s eternal optimism, and perhaps lack of life experience, until he is confronted with the head of Pompey, and then meets Cleopatra and experiences infatuation and love, probably for the first time.


Photo: Oliver Rosser

Are you enjoying the opportunity to perform in such an epic opera?

Giulio Cesare has been explored and brought to the public more than any other Handel opera. I think it is our challenge to create each character, and the plot, as if we are experiencing it for the first time. This means finding our own personal motivation for every utterance and movement on stage; a tremendous, hard, and rewarding process, all the more so when presenting the opera in its complete form, as we are.

Handel is a master of portraying real, complex human emotion, and it is our challenge to uncover this with all the clarity we can. If we manage that, and hold those emotions, then even for the modern audience, over 4 hours of music pass quickly. We have to maintain an energetic high that keeps the audience captivated with a story portrayed in an art form that inherently requires a suspension of disbelief.

Wonderful costumes and lighting effects help, but ultimately we have to bring Handel’s music to life and trust in its very real power to stand alone, without apology.


How did you first get into music?

Yes I sang in choirs and played instruments from before I can remember. Music was a big part of our family life, although I am the only one who took it on as a profession. As a family we would take part in singing weeks exploring German church music, we sang in choirs together, and my brothers and I had a string trio (I play the viola). Between sailing regattas – nothing got in the way of our sailing – we spent many a late night bashing through Shostakovich string quartets. Once we even gathered a bunch of youngsters to play the Mendelssohn Octet in our home in Cape Town!

Playing viola in orchestras was also a big part of my musical life, one of the highlights being co-leading the national youth orchestra in South Africa. So yes, music has always just been a natural part of everyday life.


Did you always want to be a performer?

In fact I studied finance straight after school, and didn’t consider music as a career until after I completed my articles as a chartered accountant. At that stage I thought I would take a break and study music for a while to experience a bit of that world. Very soon I realised I had found my home, and never looked back. I enjoyed finance but it didn’t mean anything to me personally. Music and singing on the other hand is central to who I am; it makes sense that should be what I do.


What is it that you love about this kind of music?

My love of music encompasses much more than baroque music, and often I wish I had the voice-type that would allow me to sing Shostakovich or Puccini! But baroque music has a very special place in my heart. I love its directness. It leaves the performers exposed and demands clarity of sound and emotional intention to allow it to come to life. And when it does come to life, there is nothing like it. There is so much scope for personal choice in baroque music, as the composers did not prescribe every dynamic marking and tempo like in later years. So one can feel like new music is being created every time a piece is performed, if you’re brave enough to go there in your performing…


Photo: Richard H Smith

Do you have any techniques for portraying your character?

Growing up in Cape Town, surrounded by the sea, lakes, and mountains, sports played as big a role in my life as music, and I developed a fascination with movement and the human body. I practice yoga and various movement and energy forms like Qi Gong, Feldenkrais, Reiki, and Alexander Technique, and over the years they have become part of the way I use my body and mind, which naturally influences my portrayal of characters on stage. I am fascinated with discovering how a character moves, and how this relates to my vocal production.


Are you excited to visit Norwich?

There is something very special about performing opera in cities that don’t have the kind of supply of opera that London has. The audiences seem to relish the chance to see live opera, and we as performers can feed off that energy to give more back to them. I’ve appeared as three characters in Norwich: Ottone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Eustazio in Handel’s Rinaldo, and David in Handel’s Saul, all with Glyndebourne on Tour, and I can’t wait to be back. I also have a few very good friends living in Norwich, and my touring lifestyle allows me the chance to visit them when shows come their way.


Christopher is here when English Touring Opera perform Giulio Cesare on 16 & 17 October. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.