Tallis Scholars to give Newcastle its own cultural renaissance

FINAL FLING: Countertenor Patrick Craig (fifth from the left) will perform overseas with the Tallis Scholars for the final time this spring on their Australian tour.
FINAL FLING: Countertenor Patrick Craig (fifth from the left) will perform overseas with the Tallis Scholars for the final time this spring on their Australian tour.

UNDERGOING speech therapy at 22 to relearn how to use your voice would be a frightening experience for anyone. It becomes even more problematic when you are a professional singer.

That was the dilemma faced by Englishman Patrick Craig. He did not only successfully overcome the challenge, but the experience became career-defining. For the past 19 years Craig has been part of the acclaimed early music vocal ensemble the Tallis Scholars.    

“I spoke at falsetto until I was 22, so I was speaking two octaves higher,” Craig tells Weekender from London. “I thought my voice hadn’t broken, and kept being told it would break one day, and at 22 I was thinking I wasn’t sure about this. I found a speech therapist who said, ‘Of course your voice has broken, you’re just not using it.’ Eventually I went to a speech therapist for two weeks and learnt to speak like this.”

In hindsight, Craig believes the experience was beneficial. It helped create a niche for Craig as one of the world’s leading countertenors, which is often described as the male equivalent of female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice types.

“I don’t recommend it as the way to become a countertenor, but strangely it served me well with the reliably of voice,” Craig says. “Singing with Tallis Scholars you’re getting on planes and travelling around, so you need stamina in this job and I do have a strong instrument and I haven’t missed many gigs in my time.”

The reason for Craig’s low cancellation rate during his fabled career has been a strict diligence to voice preparation.

“You have to be careful,” he says. “I’m the countertenor in the group so I sing high and I use half my vocal chords to sing. So I always feel like my voice is slightly more fragile than a bass voice. Basses tend to smoke and drink and can still sing brilliantly the next day, but countertenors have to be more careful. I go easy on the alcohol, try not to eat too late at night. It’s all about sleep and water as far as I’m concerned.”

The Tallis Scholars last performed in Newcastle back in 1997. That tour was Craig’s first overseas with the ensemble, which specialise in European Renaissance sacred and secular composers. Since then Craig has performed more than 1000 shows with Tallis Scholars and revisited Australia in 2000, 2007 and 2014.

The next Australian tour in October and November will be Craig’s last with the Tallis Scholars as he plans to dedicate more time to his other projects, which include singing in the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir and conducting his all-female choir Aurora Nova.

“Life between St Paul’s Cathedral and Tallis Scholars is very full and has been for 20 years and I’ve not had time to explore other avenues,” the Cambridge University-trained vocalist says. “Aurora Nova, the all-female choir I run, haven’t done much recording or touring, so the plan is to see what else I can do and explore other avenues.”

The Tallis Scholars was formed in 1973 by British choral conductor and musicologist Peter Phillips. Since then the 10-member ensemble has developed a reputation as the premier performers of Renaissance sacred music. The ensemble has performed at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican and have collaborated with popular music icons Paul McCartney and Sting.

Does Craig get overawed by the expectations the Tallis Scholars have created through 43 years of performances when he walks on stage?

“We’re carrying a torch for previous generations of singers who have done amazing work and laid the foundations for what we do,” he says. “In a way you go on stage and it’s just about the here and now and the people in front of you. If you got too weighed down with the history of the group and the responsibilities it would be too hard to make any noise at all.

“What we do is bring the program we’ve got and sell it now. We are an exciting live group, it’s not the same as the recordings, it’s a different sound and something exciting to come to live.”

The Civic Theatre show on the upcoming tour will be the Tallis Scholars’ only performance in Australia of their second program. That will feature renditions of Orlando Gibbons’ O Clap Your Hands, Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium and William Byrd’s Laudibus in Sanctis.

“I love the repertoire,” Craig says. “It’s an extraordinary quality repertoire. We do 200 years of music and it’s a massive endless amount. We’ve still only just scratched the surface, even after 2500 gigs. There’s an endless amount of good music to do and people keep discovering things in libraries and it gets passed on to Peter Phillips because we are the chief group that do this music and it’s a never-ending voyage of discovery and that’s the good thing about it.”

The Tallis Scholars perform at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre on November 1.