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12th October 2020

Mark Padmore on what’s next for the classical music world

by Fiona Sampson

In July 2020 the government announced £1.5bn funding to help the arts and entertainment sector recover from the Covid pandemic. This means that the books, films, music, TV streaming and gaming we relied on during lockdown will still get made. And we’ll be able to enjoy live performance – theatre, musicals, bands, festivals, concerts – in the years ahead.

Lockdown underlined just how much we rely on these things. We need the distraction, glamour and excitement – even, sometimes, the consolation – they offer. What isn’t necessarily so obvious is that the arts and entertainment are an industry, one which in Britain alone employs around 364,000 people and is worth £10.8bn annually to the economy. Indeed, it’s economically vital, every year generating a further knock-on £23bn and contributing £2.8bn to the Treasury. All of which means there are thousands of jobs in hundreds of different roles in the sector, and you don’t have to be either well-connected, or wildly lucky, to break in: as our inspiring interview guest shows. The world-leading tenor Mark Padmore is a musical ‘star’, used to touring internationally all year round. But, as he reveals here, he’s risen to the summit of his profession without elitist hothousing – although helped by public education structures that aren’t currently in place.

So what does his career look like? Mark Padmore collaborates with the world’s leading musicians and directors, opera houses and orchestras to worldwide acclaim. He performs across genres, creates new roles in key contemporary work, and directs the St Endellion Summer Festival. A list of highlights includes his Artist in Residency at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 2017-18; his extensive discography has received numerous awards, including Gramophone magazine’s Vocal Award, the Edison Klassiek Award (Nederlands), and the ECHO/Klassik 2013 award (Germany). Voted 2016 Vocalist of the Year by Musical America, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Kent in 2014 and appointed CBE in 2019. We asked him to talk us through life as a contemporary performer right now.

Can you tell us how you got interested in music?

I received a recorder from Santa Claus when I was four and immediately took to the excitement of learning to play. From there I was given the opportunity to learn another instrument and chose the clarinet. My parents weren’t particularly musical nor well off but they understood that I had a particular passion for music.

Fortunately the Kent County Music Service was very strong and offered opportunities to children who showed some talent. From the age of 12 I was supported by the Kent Junior Music School and each Saturday morning was enabled to travel to Maidstone, the county town, for intensive lessons. I also joined the Kent County Youth Orchestra and each school holiday attended week-long courses. These provisions have long been reduced and had I been starting out now I may well not have become a musician.

When did you first know you wanted to be a musician – and did you always plan to be a singer?

Singing was always something I enjoyed but there was no opportunity to attend a choir school. Playing the clarinet and then the piano had developed my sightreading skills and it was through this that the possibilities of singing opened up. I had decided that I didn’t want to be a professional clarinet player – the competition was very tough and I was not really good enough – but someone in the Youth Orchestra suggested I try for a choral scholarship to Cambridge. Getting in to King’s College choir was the first step to realising that I could become a professional singer.

That’s a lot of commitment from an early age. Has music ever become a chore for you?

There are definitely moments when perseverance is necessary – courage and determination are vital. Even now there are times when I can be daunted by the task ahead and need to grit my teeth to make progress.

What did you feel was your first big professional success?

My Chinese horoscope sign is the ox, and I have always been a plodder. Fortunately I have plodded on and on and have caught up with a hare and even a tortoise or two! I have really tried to do my best at each stage and although there have been moments of satisfaction they are fleeting. I guess my first real experience of success was being asked to appear in Charpentier’s Medée with Les Arts Florissants at the Opéra Comique in Paris playing Jason to Lorraine Hunt’s Medée. Being on stage with Lorraine was thrilling.

You do extraordinary work across a whole range of fields: opera, oratorio, lieder & chamber music. Could you share some favourite experiences with us?

I have always felt an urge to escape pigeon-holes. I love moving between genres and exploring new territory. My favourite opera experiences have been Billy Budd at Glyndebourne and Death in Venice at Covent Garden along with creating roles in Tansy Davies’ Cave and Harrison Birtwistle’s Corridor and The Cure. I also loved being in two Katie Mitchell productions – Handel’s Jephtha at WNO and Bach’s Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne.

The Bach Passions with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in stagings by Peter Sellars were some of the most profound and thought-provoking experiences I have had. In lieder and chamber music it is the collaborations with great musicians that have given the most pleasure.

Can you talk about the advantages and disadvantages of such an international career?

We live in a culture of celebrity and sometimes the performer is disproportionally the focus of attention. I have had wonderful experiences travelling as an ‘international’ soloist but I am beginning to question the desirability and viability of this way of life. I have, along with my colleagues, used up an unsustainable number of air miles and whilst I understand the huge benefits of cultural exchange I also believe that we need to engage more deeply and meaningfully with our local communities. Days away vary each year and I have tried to avoid being away for longer than about two weeks at a time.


As one of the world’s leading tenors, you’re at the forefront of international music-making, and its disruption by the pandemic. What does it mean for performers themselves?

Covid-19 is causing a reassessment of how we access music. Having done just two concerts in the last four months – both to empty halls for streaming services – I miss the buzz of looking out at an attentive audience.

Music-making is essentially a communal activity that needs interaction between performer(s) and audience. This period is full of uncertainty but also full of possibility – both reassessment of what performance has been in the past and what it can be in the future. As the cancellations came in, my first instinct was to take the opportunity to reflect on what it is I do and why and to explore thoughts of how I might do things differently. Creatively,

I have been liberated from the need to prepare a large repertoire – I normally have between 70 and 80 performances a season. This has meant I can take time to practice in my studio and go back to basics with pieces that I have known well for many years without the urgency of having them available for immediate performance. Financially, I have had to extend my mortgage and face the possibility of no significant income for many months and a realisation that I will probably have to accept that my income will remain at a much lower level than before. Emotionally, it has been up and down. The adrenalin of performing has been sorely missed.

On what platforms do you listen to music, when it’s not live?

Any recorded performance is in some ways mediated and therefore more distant. I find myself less engaged when listening to a performance I can interrupt at anytime to take a phone call or make a cup of tea. Music is ‘heard’ rather than ‘listened to’ – a distinction similar to John Berger’s notion of the difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘looking at’. I use all the methods above but none comes close to the experience of being in amongst an audience.


How much does a musician get paid for a performance downloaded on a digital platform such as Spotify?

I have received no money direct or through a record company for Spotify even though at least one track has had more than 3 million plays. I also get paid less for recording than I did in the 1980s. If musicians are to survive in a new digital era this will have to be addressed urgently.

What does this shift away from paying for the music we listen to mean for musicians working in Britain?

State subsidy in the UK has diminished greatly over the last ten years and all arts organisations are expected to generate something like 80 percent of their income from ticket sales or sponsorship. Without a paying public this model is unsustainable. Other countries, particularly in Europe, are much more generous. I fear for the viability of the arts unless the UK government has a change of approach. Music-making is essentially collaborative, and the better the conversation between performers and composers/writers the better the resulting work. This will be true also for innovative ways of producing performance in the future. Discussions are already happening about how best to film ‘concerts’ so as to deliver the best possible experience for audiences. One thing we have been able to do during lockdown is talk to one another and I am excited by some of the ideas that are beginning to emerge.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of international music-making?

Many of the models for international music-making are teetering on the brink of collapse. Will opera houses and large symphony orchestras, concert halls and international music festivals survive? These were the main producers of classical music. They initiated most of the engagements and artist agents acted as intermediaries. I think we may be looking at a very changed world in the next few years.

The positive side may be a much greater investment in community and nurturing a local and loyal audience. Climate change and travel restrictions will also make the jet-set lifestyle much less attractive. What I hope will not be lost is the passionate engagement of performers and audiences with the wonders of the classical music repertoire

Fiona Sampson is a leading British writer, whose latest book Come Down is published by Corsair.

You can read more about Mark Padmore at

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