‘A Vocal Figure Skater’ Makes His Mark as an Operatic Hamlet

The tenor Allan Clayton was in near-constant motion and almost always onstage. At a dress rehearsal of Brett Dean’s “Hamlet” at the Metropolitan Opera a few weeks ago, he staggered, capered, fell to his knees, leaped into a grave and dueled to the death — all while singing Dean’s difficult, vocally shimmering, emotionally shifting music. Taking a bow afterward, alone on the huge stage, Clayton looked slightly dazed, drenched in sweat and understandably exhausted.

“Hamlet,” which runs through June 9 at the Met, was a breakthrough for the British-born Clayton when the opera premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017.

Writing in The New York Times, the music critic Zachary Woolfe said Clayton was even better at the Met. “His tone is sometimes plangently lyrical, sometimes sarcastically sharp,” Woolfe wrote. “Without losing the character’s desperation, Clayton now makes Hamlet more persuasively antic and wry — more real.”

In an interview a few days before the May 13 Met premiere, Clayton said he was both “a more canny singer” and more stable than when he first sang Hamlet. “It is a wonderful role,” he said. “But emotionally it’s very hard. It dredges up issues in my personal life which were true in 2017 and are still true now, and completely inform what I do onstage.”

His father, he explained, died when he was in his 20s; his relationship with his mother is difficult; he went through a traumatic breakup with a girlfriend during the rehearsal period for the opera. In short, his life had some eerie parallels with that of Hamlet. As he told The Telegraph in 2018, “an awful lot of difficult stuff got drawn on and dredged up.”

Now, he said, he is “better able to distinguish between the character and my reality.”

Clayton’s Hamlet with, from left, Sarah Connolly as Gertrude and Rod Gilfry as Claudius.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Clayton offstage looks very much like his Hamlet onstage: bearded, slightly rumpled, in jeans and a loose T-shirt. Friendly and funny, he takes the British art of self-deprecation to Olympic levels and is clearly prone to excessive self-doubt. Just two months ago, he said, he had to lecture himself sternly when a dress rehearsal of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” had gone poorly in his view (his description is colorfully unprintable) a day before its Royal Opera House premiere.

“I often go through, I can’t do this, it’s too hard, too stressful, and I’m not doing anything useful, like being a doctor or nurse or teacher,” he said. “But I sat in my flat on that day and thought, If I am not going to enjoy myself, why do this job?”

His performance was acclaimed by the British press. “His tenor has gained heft,” said John Allison, the editor of Opera Magazine, in a telephone interview. “And he had the lyricism and the power, and a rawness and vulnerability that made his portrayal of the character as an oddball dreamer so affecting.” (Clayton is scheduled to perform the role again, at the Metropolitan Opera House, in October.)

Clayton, who grew up in Malvern in the southwest of England, began to sing at 8, in his school choir, led by a teacher who followed the Vienna Boys Choir model, and had the students do both concerts and tours. At 10, he won a choral scholarship to the Worcester Cathedral School, founded by Henry VIII. “We sang everything,” he said. “Carols by Britten, work by George Benjamin, as well as the older things.”

Although Clayton modestly said he “wasn’t particularly talented at anything,” he was encouraged to apply to Cambridge University. “No one in my family had even been to university,” he said. He was accepted as a choral scholar, and began to learn about opera and lieder while studying archaeology and anthropology. “Something just clicked in the second year,” he said of his singing. “I thought maybe I could do this.”

After earning a postgraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music, work came steadily. Pivotal experiences, he said, included several roles with the Leeds-based Opera North and his first title role, in Britten’s “Albert Herring” at Glyndebourne in 2008.

But performing Castor in Barrie Kosky’s 2011 production of Rameau’s “Castor and Pollux” proved “a game-changer,” Clayton said. “I realized I wasn’t a particular ‘type’ of tenor, neither Italianate or ‘English.’ I just sing like I sing.”

“I realized I wasn’t a particular ‘type’ of tenor, neither Italianate or ‘English.’ I just sing like I sing,” Clayton said.Credit…Tonje Thilesen for The New York Times

Kosky, who has directed Clayton in six operas, called him his “tenor muse” in an interview. “He has the openness and ability to access his inner emotional landscape that you more usually find with actors,” he said, “but with a distinctive and beautiful voice.”

A small role in George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” (2012) was Clayton’s first experience of having a part written for him. “To have someone write something for you, do an almost forensic investigation into your vocal ability, was thrilling,” he said.

Working with Dean on “Hamlet” was even more intense. First, Dean said, he recorded Clayton delivering several of the character’s soliloquies, “to hear where his voice sat, and his natural rhythms.” In workshops, Dean could “see and hear how he used the words and that influenced how the rest of the piece unfolded.”

By the time he finished writing the second act, he added, “Allan’s ease at singing high without having to belt it out, the flexibility and ease in his voice, were very much in my head.”

Matthew Jocelyn, whose libretto boldly cuts and reweaves different folio versions of Shakespeare’s text, said hearing Clayton in the workshops was useful in both practical and intuitive ways. “He is a vocal figure skater,” he said, and “has that mobility that allows him to twirl and to land, to go to the extremes, both emotionally and vocally. Basically, he showed us we didn’t need to be afraid of anything.”

Clayton said he read and researched the play, but he felt he had to be as truthful and personal as possible in the part. It felt natural, he added, to explore Hamlet’s darkness and imbue him with a febrile physicality. “I move easily, have always liked sport, and it seemed like a natural extension of Hamlet’s character,” he said. “He is light on his feet both mentally and physically.”

The director of the opera, Neil Armfield, said that Clayton’s freedom as a performer made many of the staging ideas come to life. “He is a beautiful physical performer, has the freedom of a ballet dancer without any self-consciousness,” he said. “That fueled a physical sense of something adolescent about Hamlet, his attachment to grief, his breaking of the social rules, his mischievousness and hyperactive glee.”

Clayton is at an important moment in his career, said the conductor Mark Elder, who has worked with him on several occasions, most recently on “Peter Grimes.” Clayton’s voice has filled out, Elder said, “but the strength and passion in his singing has not obscured its delicacy and gentle expressiveness.” The roles he chooses in the next years, Elder added, “are going to be crucial for him.”

Asked about this, Clayton hesitated. “Casting directors don’t know what to do with me, and I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said. “But as long as I am working with interesting people and trying new things, I think I’ll be happy.”