Michael Volle talks to Michael Cookson
Michael Volle one of the leading baritones on the international stage today is a recipient of eminent German Theatre Award ‘Faust’ and in 2008 and 2014 was named ‘Singer of the Year’ by opera magazine ‘Opernwelt’. In a 2008 interview with Jim Pritchard for Seen and Heard, Volle had yet to sing Hans Sachs a role which has since established him as one of the greatest acting baritones of his generation. A pinnacle of Volle’s career was singing Sachs in Stefan Herheim’s production of Die Meistersinger at the Salzburg Festival 2013.
For this Berlin interview I caught up with Volle in 2016 in a restaurant close to Gendarmenmarkt just after he had completed the day’s rehearsals for Tosca. Volle was playing Baron Scarpia at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater with Angela Gheorghiu in the title role. A few days later I reported from the opening night of the production (review here) with Volle giving a stunning performance as Scarpia making a menacing, red wine swilling chief of police scheming, depraved and violently lustful. I have seen many renowned Scarpia’s, notably Tito Gobbi on film with Maria Callas and Ruggero Raimondi. In live performance more recently I have been captivated by the performances of Scarpia by Bryn Terfel, Erwin Schrott and Juha Uusitalo who have set the bar extremely high, but Volle is up there with the finest.
Volle first came to my attention in 2013 during a magnificent performance in the role of Guy de Monfort during a live cinema relay of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes from the Royal Opera House, London (review here). In addition I greatly admire his CD release Michael Volle – A Portrait a recital recorded in 2012 at Munich on the BR Klassik label. The collection comprises of opera arias from Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, orchestral transcriptions of Schubert lieder, Millöcker and Lehár operetta, Verdi’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah (review here).
Volle grew up in southern Germany where he sang in his church choir and played violin in local orchestras. A pupil of Josef Metternich he went on to study with Rudolf Piernay at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. A late starter Volle didn’t begin performing in opera until he was thirty. From 1999 to 2007 he was a member of Zürich Opera with roles that included Beckmesser (Meistersinger), Eugene Onegin, Golaud (Pelléas et Mélisande), Marcello (La bohème), Count (Le Nozze di Figaro), Barak (Die Frau ohne Schatten) and Wolfram (Tannhäuser). In 2007 Volle joined Bayerische Staatsoper singing title roles in new productions of Eugene Onegin and Wozzeck and further roles like Count (Le nozze di Figaro), Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde), Amfortas (Parsifal), Wolfram (Tannhäuser) and Amonasro (Aida).
Volle has performed at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden including new productions of Jochanaan (Salome), Dr. Schön (Lulu) and Jack the Ripper, and Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde). He has also performed in the Opéra National de Paris, Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona and the State Operas of Vienna, Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and is a regular performer at the Salzburg Festival and in 2007 and 2008 appeared at the Bayreuth Festival as Beckmesser (Meistersinger) and will return in 2017 as Hans Sachs (Meistersinger). In 2014 Volle made his debut at Metropolitan Opera, New York as Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde).
Michael Cookson: In your career who has been the most influential?
Michael Volle: That’s a very difficult question because there are quite a few episodes in my biography that involve influential people and they all form part of this destiny of mine. It’s not by chance I call it a destiny. It started with my parents because I grew up without knowing that I would become a singer or musician. But at home there was music all around my family. I grew up with seven brothers and sisters and four of us are artists. There is an actor, another singer and my sister is already retired as a flute player. So music to us at home was a common occurrence. The next person to influence me, I would be about eleven or so, was an amateur violin teacher, a private teacher, who gave me the joy of music and the chance of playing together with others in music. Initially I played the violin and then around twenty or so I changed to the viola. When I was 25 I came into singing. [MC: Late to start singing] Yes, it was, very late.
Almost without realising it at the time I did lessons in singing with the next important person in my development who was a chorus director with the Neue Vocalsolisten, Stuttgart, also a professor of conducting at the university and he was really the first vocal teacher for me. The next influential person was an accompanist and teacher at Stuttgart High School where I was studying. I didn’t learn singing with him but I worked with him and he was the next person who pushed me towards my goal as a singer. He once said forget the university, you must go to Josef Metternich a well known German baritone who was celebrated in Italian repertoire from La Scala to the New York Met. Then in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama I studied with professor of singing there Rudolf Piernay. Studying with him was the next event on my path. So you can see that I cannot mention a single person who was solely influential on my course through music.
MC: I recall tenor Piotr Beczała telling me that whilst singing in the cast at Linz at the last minute he was invited to the Zürich Opera to take over the evening’s performance from a tenor who was ill. Thanks to that he was unexpected offered a contract there. In your career did you have a similar big break?
MV: Well my career wasn’t like that. In my Fach as a baritone I am not sure we have the same opportunities for a big break. It’s something that more likely happens to tenors and sopranos. We baritones do not have the same focus as tenors and sopranos with their glamorous roles. I must say I love Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann as singers. I know them well and I have sung with them; they are extremely fine singers, the best solo artists of course in the glamorous arena. There is too the mezzo Elīna Garanča one of the superstars who is also part of this glamorous world. In former times there was Alfredo Kraus – what a man, what a singer – and Nicolai Gedda but not quite on the same level as the others. Of us baritones the only superstar in the last decades has been Plácido Domingo and for a short time Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and there is also my hero Bryn Terfel of course but we baritones don’t have the same glamour. Nine years ago in 2007 I did Beckmesser in Meistersinger at Bayreuth (review here). This was a big explosion in my career.
Before that I think with the start of my contract at Zürich Opera in 1999 I was ready for the final level in the world of opera singing. This happened step by step. I was a member of the Zürich cast for eight years up to 2007 and then I did four years at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich up to 2011. So Zürich was a very decisive time in my career because I met a lot of famous colleagues and directors and we did a number of DVDs. [MC: The right time for you!] Yes, this was the right time for me. In former times I was very anxious and I thought why do I not have this success? But you are young and want to be everywhere like all the others on the scene. There I gradually learned about being patient. The success did come, and month by month, sometimes day by day I achieved more and more success. I’m very content about that.
MC: What about success that comes early for singers?
MV: It’s not good really to have careers where success comes quickly. You see I was not ready in former times for this career because now I have no problems whatsoever with the pressure it brings. I have had sufficient time to grow up and now I know that as baritones the ice is very, very thin but we have a little more time to survive if we have problems compared to tenors and sopranos. If they crack once or twice then ‘splat’ it’s nearly impossible for them to come back without their reputations ruined. Thankfully much more patience is given to baritones as we are not in the spotlight to the same degree. I’m 56 now and although I don’t know for how long I can continue to sing I can sing as long as everything is ok with my voice.
MC: How has your voice changed over the years? Can it improve?
MV: Absolutely. You cannot stretch an individual voice to unlimited regions as there are of course limitations. You are never allowed to go to the edge of those limits. You must always stay within those limits or your voice will not survive for long. Whether the voice is improving well you will have gained much more experience. Of course there is on the one hand this process of ageing. This is a physical thing and women’s voices tend to lose their freshness sooner – the higher voices earlier than the lower ones, both female and male. Yet there are a lot of female singers who sang in a special way until their sixties and seventies and further in some cases. But you must be very careful to be convinced of yourself so the audience don’t say well she or he was wonderful, but now it’s time to stop singing. You have to decide to stop singing yourself so the audience say what a pity she or he had to stop. It’s very dangerous ground.
Now I feel much more relaxed. Of course it’s more routine, but in the best sense. It doesn’t feel like a job of work which would be bad. You must however feel a range of emotions like tension and joy and suspense all the time. My wife Gabriela Scherer who is 21 years younger than me has restarted her career as a mezzo-soprano. Last Sunday she had her opening as Ariadne in a new production at Lübeck. She’s not a beginner but after having two children and a career break she has restarted. This is very interesting for me too because I realise fifteen years ago I was at that same level of self-discovery again and presenting myself and fighting against challenges that exist. Now my fire is very strong but if there is something around which is not good I now have more patience and I’m more relaxed. I can’t tell you how satisfying that is for me. It’s all a question of experience.
MC: How do you find learning new roles?
MV: Ah, this is also a question of experience. Because you are used to learning people will say I can’t imagine how you remember all that. But as singers you see it’s our job, our work. Other people work twenty years at a job doing something that I can’t imagine being able to do. [MC: So it’s just part of the job] Yes, it is. I started my first contract in 1990 and now I have been in the business twenty-six years. There are not so many roles that are new to me now. There are quite a few in Italian opera but in the German and French mainstream roles there is not so much for me anymore. I hope there will be an Iago, a Rigoletto, a Germont in Italian opera and some Puccini maybe, let’s see. But the German roles that I’ve got require only renewing and redoing so they are not so much work anymore.
MC: I get the impression that if you didn’t do any new roles you would be happy with those you have already done?
MV: Absolutely. I don’t know but maybe in ten years time it might be different. I was asked by casting director Peter Katona at Covent Garden to do Enescu’s Oedipe but sadly I wasn’t free. My friend José van Dam said to me years ago if I had to do only one opera then it should be Oedipe. It’s an absolutely great work and a new production was given at Covent Garden in the 2015/16 season. It’s not a mainstream work but it’s wonderful music. As I said before, I started when 25 in 1985 and I have done a lot of contemporary works as well as traditional opera in my twenty-six-year career, works that I have only ever sung once. Of course that happens and it’s all part of your general education and it adds to your experience. But over the last few years I’ve reached the level where I am in a position to choose what roles I want to sing. And I am very grateful and happy about that mainly because this allows me more time to spend with my family.
MC: We all hear about opera directors, who are not necessarily from an opera background, presenting often shocking and sometimes wacky productions. Do you ever get asked to do things that you don’t really want to do?
MV: I love to sing. That is the finest thing but I’m very happy that we live in a time where for decades the playing and the acting are important. Because if it wasn’t important then we wouldn’t need to do six weeks stage rehearsal. I like to work and to be experimental. You have only two possibilities when you start a production. First you stay with the production and you must stay with it to the end. Or second which happened to me ten years ago at Bayreuth in Meistersinger where the tenor as Stolzing said on the second day to the director “I can’t do that. I must leave”. This was good both for him and the production. [MC: Why do you say that?] Because he couldn’t stand aspects of the production so it was better that he went.
Another case was at Munich in Rigoletto with a Planet of the Apes theme or something, which was a curious idea and maybe not too good. The tenor left the production just four days before the opening and this is not correct especially as it works against his colleagues. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept everything. A good director knows this and has to fulfil his ideas but with the material he has with us. So if something doesn’t work for me I must say something to the director and tell him or her that we have to change, because with this I am not as good as I possibly could be. If I have to do something that I am really fighting against inside then this has a direct influence on my level of performance, and normally this approach works absolutely and you can handle that.
MC: Do you often find yourself working with the same stage directors on a regular basis?
MV: There are directors that I love to work with again and again and they have different attributes and ideas. For example there is Christof Loy, Claus Guth, Stefan Herheim, Harry Kupfer and some of those I have worked with several times. It hasn’t always been at the same high level but was always very interesting and rewarding work where you do not come home at the end of the day rehearsing saying to yourself let’s end it subito [immediately]. But it can be a totally different encounter as my wife has discovered in her career. I must say how lucky I have been with my experiences and there have been only two or three names on my black list or ‘rat list’.
Other aspects are the reviews and the press coverage that you read which are sometimes totally different to the audience reaction. I had that happen in Salzburg last summer with a half new Così fan tutte directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. It was a good work but the press were so upset and nearly every one of them said you can’t do this, but it was a huge success with audiences and we felt wonderful. The same with music director Ottavio Dantone, who comes from a baroque music background – a wonderful, stimulating conductor – and the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra played with such freshness it was marvellous. One Vienna critic said “it is impossible to do Mozart like that today” and another from the Vienna press said “This is the only way to do Mozart today” so it is a personal viewpoint. For me I realise that it is much more important what the audience think and how it reacts to the work.
MC: Do you have a particular stage director that you enjoy working with?
MV: I have been lucky to do three productions with Norwegian opera director Stefan Herheim. I did a celebrated Meistersinger in 2013 at the Salzburg Festival. In autumn 2013 at the Royal Opera House, London we did a new production of Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) which will be redone next autumn and I’m looking forw ard to this. [MC: Yes, it was magnificent. I reviewed the DVD/Blu-ray of this production (review here)]. It is an incredibly good production.
Last summer I was in Bregenz for my first Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) and I played the four villains. I must admit that I didn’t understand every one of Herheim’s schemes because he comes up with numerous fertile ideas. A lot of people, including my wife, thought it was the best production she had ever seen. A big part of Herheim’s success is that he doesn’t just think of the theatrical aspects he loves the music. You see he is so musical because he grew up as the son of an opera cellist and he plays the cello himself so he knows the opera world, which is the ideal platform for an opera director. What I like is that everything he does serves the music so well, he is never against the music. He is so full of productive ideas about images and lighting etc. Some people are afraid to work with him because his agendas are so big and demanding, especially for the technical department of the house. But the results are almost always spectacular. For example, recently one of the greatest things was in Amsterdam with Mariss Jansons’s conducting Herheim’s new Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) by Tchaikovsky. People like to work closely with him because he is extremely inspirational.
At the ROH I did the Montfort in Les vêpres siciliennes with Antonio Pappano, who is one of the greatest music directors, also Jack the Ripper in Lulu and Kurwenal in Tristan there in London with Tony who is so enthusiastic and attends right from the first day. Tony knows of course the stage director in Lulu and Tristan who is Christof Loy such a wonderful stage director. Tony Pappano is not only responsible for the music; he has a close collaboration with the stage director. He knows a lot about singing and he is truly with the process. These are the best conditions to have and to work with. This is the ideal way.
MC: What about other conductors you admire?
MV: As I mentioned before there are big differences. The most important aspect is the context of the relationship with the conductor. You don’t have to be best friends, that wouldn’t be right. But you must make a connection in the short term. You must be very close so you can trust each other explicitly. Certainly the conductor is the boss in the relationship. Of course no performance is like another, this would be boring even if it is performing difficult contemporary music; like say in Wozzeck or something because it not as simple as one, two, three, it’s more with emotion or with breathing. This is a thing not every conductor can do, being able to breathe with the singers. Also every orchestral player must also be able to breathe with the conductor too. It is the same with the voice which must feel the conductor and then you can rely on him. If you can’t rely on the partnership then you cannot do the best possible in your job. This makes all the difference.
Even if you have sung a role 20 or even 50 times and suddenly somebody comes and brings new aspects to the role or new ideas, that can make you very happy because it’s never dead, it’s very invigorating. Also your own way of singing changes over the years. In five years – maybe even one year – I will sing my Scarpia very differently. Working with others fluently as a team is an ideal situation and makes me happy. If not then it’s a one-way street and I’m not interested in that at all.
With regard to individual conductors I love to perform with Franz Welser-Möst. I had eight years working with him at Zürich Opera and I had incredible music experiences with him working with different types of music. I remember exactly a time at the beginning of 2010 I did Die Frau ohne Schatten with him at Zürich and I did Tannhäuser in Munich with somebody else, no names. One day in Munich it was terrible as I had a morning stage rehearsal with the orchestra for Tannhäuser and I had to catch a plane to Zürich in the evening. In the morning the conductor in Munich didn’t please me at all conducting this incredible, highly emotional music of Wagner that was not really together. Then by contrast in the evening in Zürich with Welser-Möst I felt at that moment that I didn’t need the music if I watch him. The way Welser-Möst conducts the music, it’s flowing, it’s expressive and it’s quite wonderful. It was a real difference how I felt about the two conductors.
MC: What do you think about the perceived lack of charisma that is often mentioned about Welser-Möst?
MV: In opera we don’t talk about charisma and a person’s character in our daily business. It’s only my opinion because it is not tangible. You can judge someone technically if a high ‘C’ is wrong or the coloratura wasn’t good, but the rest is indefinable. If you watch clips of Furtwängler or Solti conducting for example they conducted oddly but there must have been something they transmitted that captivated audiences.
Another great conductor is Jimmy [James] Levine. I was so lucky to meet Jimmy in Munich when he was chief conductor of the Münchner Philharmoniker and we collaborated on a concert version of Beethoven’s Fidelio. I did a chamber recital of Schoenberg with Jimmy on piano which was excellent and I remember doing a Brahms Requiem with him in Boston some years ago. Then he became ill and I was worried that I wouldn’t have the opportunity of working with him on the opera stage of the Met. Then some eighteen months ago I was asked to do a revival of Meistersinger at the Met the final time of the staging by Otto Schenk (review here). Unfortunately I could only do two performances. One of them was streamed live to cinemas I think it was at 11am in New York and 5pm in Europe. I mention the time because Jimmy is very ill. For the previous evening he was extremely exhausted after a long performance of around five and a half hours and he did it pretty well too. The next day when we started at 11am he sat there in his wheelchair that had been pushed to the podium in the orchestra pit. He turned around to acknowledge the audience who applauded him fervently. At the end of the performance I nearly cried when I saw him from the stage when he congratulated me from the pit. He was so with the singers and a lot of people say he is one of the finest opera conductors we have had. Of course now he has stopped [as the Met’s music director], but it was incredible being together with a conductor who has done the work some sixty to eighty times. In his hands, Meistersinger felt like something new. You feel that the conductor is getting some inspiration from you too. It’s give and take and the results make you very, very happy.
MC: With this production of Tosca you are rehearsing, a revival, I’ve noted that leading performers arrive on different days?
MV: During a production you have to know precisely about all the different elements because you haven’t much time to create a lot. Because we do not work again with the stage director we work with his assistant. The stage director has told us in a few words the main philosophy the production. Then the rest is our turn and we bring it in. It’s not the best approach. It’s all about timing. A performer arriving at a later date is not the best thing, but there are no hard and fast rules for everything. Sometimes you may need six weeks of rehearsal on the other hand two weeks is enough and six will be too long. [MC: So you have to work flexibly?] This particular production of Tosca is not new; it’s from 2014. I have done it before. I’ve done it in Vienna and I’ve done it at Deutsche Oper Berlin. I have of course my own ideas of the role and the character and let’s see what input comes from my colleagues.
MC: Some people might be surprised by the collaborative nature of opera production and may think the stage director is in attendance right through to the opening night.
MV: No the director won’t be there. Sometimes at festivals that might happen like that even in the following year. For example in I will be in Bayreuth next summer, and the year after that, for two seasons as Hans Sachs in a new Meistersinger. Barrie Kosky from the Komische Oper, Berlin is the stage director. There the director will again be in attendance the following year, but for less time. For the first production in 2017 there will be six weeks of rehearsals and the following year maybe two to three weeks. With Philippe Jordan conducting I’m sure we will all have a great time. I’m looking forward to it and the crew is wonderful there too.
MC: How do you handle on stage problems with other cast members?
MV: That’s difficult to answer. You see I’m very addicted to human harmony. I was brought up and educated like that and it is not the worst thing to be. If I do an opera production that I love then I must have harmonious conditions around me. If someone jeopardises that I will be very upset because nobody has the right to introduce a bad atmosphere into a production. There are of course some colleagues for whom it is more important to show off how beautiful and talented they are than to be part of a team. The really big performers in opera never act like that. I remember when I worked with bass-baritone José van Dam for the first time. For example suddenly he was there on stage and I didn’t realise it, such was his lack of arrogance. For forty years or so José was one of the greatest singers in the world.
Plácido Domingo too, I met him once in Salzburg and he came over and said meekly “Hello I’m Plácido”. A friend from Zürich once told me there was a Gala performance with Plácido who came one hour before the performance, had a short talk with some advisors on stage and then said to this colleague on stage “Martin please don’t be angry with me if I might mix it up and come from the left side instead of the right in this scene”. Martin was speechless that someone – who is on a different singing universe – consulted him in such a collegial way. But this is the greatness of the man. [MC: Such humility!] Of course! He is so open to colleagues on the lower ladder of hierarchy. This to me is the star quality of the man. Not like the men and women that burst in with loud voices saying in effect “look at me, look at me!”
MC: Can you think of operas that are neglected and deserve to be staged more often?
MV: Well the first that springs to mind is Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy an opera I love so much because it’s such an individual piece. There is a special atmosphere in the work. It’s very difficult to play and to sing my role Golaud,, but I think that it’s not such a big hit for the audience because of its libretto and subdued action, However the atmosphere it generates is really special. I do not sing Berg’s Lulu anymore of which I have done five productions. It’s hard work for me, but I do love to perform Wozzeck; I could perform it every day if I had the chance. It’s so-called ‘modern music’ and the story is pretty cruel; brutal even. You see I mention this opera from the viewpoint of the singer although it’s only a third or a quarter of what I sing in my most significant opera Meistersinger as Hans Sachs. Wozzeck is for me so exhausting every time I perform it, yet I feel so content and so exhausted afterwards, just like I would after a Meistersinger which takes about three or four times as long to perform. But Wozzeck is an incredible work which I have sung three or four times but with only one new production. It’s really amazing.
There are a lot of operas that deserve to be produced more often and it’s a shame that they aren’t. There was a time when conductor Gerd Albrecht was especially known for championing the music of Jewish composers Zemlinsky, Schrecker, Korngold and the music of Krenek too. Although I find the librettos not too bad the music can be indifferent and not as clear as you find in Italian opera Verdi and Puccini, and even in Wagner and Strauss. I believe one must be entertained in a way which is not over complex. If you are forced to think about something too much people will not have much patience with that.
MC: What would you say are the most technically difficult roles that you play?
MV: My Wagner roles are really very hard to perform. Hans Sachs is the hardest work I have to perform for my Fach. It is the longest, very challenging and testing to my stamina. With two intervals it takes around five and a half hours. It is so demanding for example in the third act you don’t stop singing. It’s really like an endurance sport as it feels so physically demanding. You can’t do this at the start of your career. You see experience, stamina and also good technique is essential to success. You have to be an economical singer putting your reserves of energy in the right places and save energy here and there because it increases in arduousness. Before the end of this mammoth five and half hours there are two extremely long monologues and if you survive those then everything is fine. The Wozzeck too is also a very demanding role – both mentally and physically – because you have to sing this modern music as beautifully as possible. But it is a much more expressive role as you have to sing, shout and talk and all his has to be controlled otherwise it will crack your voice. Something also very difficult is to sing is a three or four hour long Baroque opera. Yes, this is also highly demanding.
MC: I don’t associate you as a singer of Baroque music. Is that fair?
MV: Well I don’t get asked any more to sing Baroque opera. Normally I’m not asked for Mozart either. Mozart is for me my music God, as is J.S. Bach. I find it hard to understand how people can write music as incredible as that. It’s medicine for the voice. But some people say that if you excel in the so called heavy roles like Verdi, Puccini, Wagner you cannot any longer sing Mozart: Oh bah! I say. This is not meant arrogantly, you see in my career I am more and more able to handle my voice in a good way, in a flexible way. I did Mozart’s Così fan tutte at Salzburg this summer and this later year I will do a recording with a period instrument orchestra of solo Bach cantatas and will do concerts with them. Although it is not true, unfortunately some people in decisive positions say you cannot go from heavy roles back to doing Mozart. So you need someone who trusts you.
For me as a German it’s hard to understand what I got told in past years. I was in a very famous opera house doing The Merry Widow and I said I wanted to do Pique Dame or Eugene Onegin because I especially love them and the Russian conductor there told me no, we have of course the Russian singers for those. Ok, then I asked to do a Marcello from La bohème or something. No, we hire Italians for that. Ok then, I asked please give me Mozart and I am told oh no, we hire the English or American colleagues who have the more neutral voices. Why? But this was just one conductor.
I am very lucky that Peter Katona, casting director at the ROH admires me and trusts me to sing. I did my first Scarpia at the ROH as a German singer and this is very unusual. Now more and more I am getting Italian roles. In two years I will sing Scarpia at the Met, I will sing Iago at the Met and other roles there because someone trusts me and thinks I will succeed there. It’s a bloody business! So now it is easier for me to do Mozart because it’s not much work vocally, it’s written very easy for me, now that I have done Don Alfonso in Così, I don’t have to worry about my voice. It was a lot of work the whole evening and a lot of action involved but it went very well. The audience enjoyed it and I received pretty good reviews. I truly hope some casting people will realise that I just need to do Don Giovanni and need to do the Count in Figaro. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see!
MC: Has anything amusing happened to you on stage?
MV: Ha, ha, oh yes. I remember very precisely a couple of amusing incidents in my first year in the opera house. This was in Mannheim, south of Frankfurt. I sang some one hundred and thirty performances in around twenty different operas in my first season. It was perfect for me being on stage every second or third day as it gave me a lot of security and was great experience. For example, you play Figaro for two weeks then six weeks break and so on then you and your colleagues get used to that. In the big ensemble of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai – such incredible music and very funny libretto – there was a colleague who was around thirty years older than me, he had a good evening and was in a joking mood, then suddenly with a pair of scissors he cut the braces on the back of the soloist who was performing the big aria. In another incident he was holding a watering can for the garden flowers and then out of the blue he watered the head of another soloist. Me, as a beginner, I just stood there and I couldn’t sing in the sextet for laughing, and the conductor went mad because everyone on stage was laughing so much.
My wife played a servant once in Elektra and the curtain should have risen twenty centimetres so that all the servants were required to put their heads underneath and sing but the curtain didn’t move, not a single millimetre. The conductor was going crazy as he and the audience could not hear a thing. My worst case was as Amfortas in Parsifal. It was my first entrance and I was to be carried in on a stretcher from the back of the stage – all timed to music – and then I was supposed to have been laid down at the front of the stage, in front of the conductor. Backstage the stage manager normally calls “Amfortas on stage please” and I also usually listen to the music. In this case I should have come on much, much earlier but that day for some reason I didn’t do it and I wasn’t called. So I listened for my music but when I heard it I knew it was much too late to go all the way to the back. They had already begun to enter the stage carrying the empty stretcher – but without me on it! A colleague spontaneously sang my first three words for me. Somehow I walked across the stage towards the stretcher and lay down on it, sang the rest of my aria. Best of all the conductor hadn’t noticed what had happened. Thankfully I didn’t get boos from the audience. This is the funny side of our bloody business.
MC: Do you read your reviews?
MV: Yes, I do. I must admit I’m very pleased if I receive a good review. This summer as Don Alfonso in Così at Salzburg I read some criticism which was disappointing as I was very content with the production and everything else. Tony Pappano tells me that he has stopped reading reviews. There are critics who are frustrated individuals, I know them, who wanted to be great artists, instrumentalists or singers, but they have the ability to write so they get a job in a newspaper then they have the power which enables them to get their revenge. I reckon that’s how it was some hundred or two hundred years ago and I think little has changed.
I remember my first appearance at a higher-level opera house. I was in Paris doing a small part in Lohengrin and there was a famous British soprano who played Ortrud. At the end she was so massively booed by the large audience. I was shocked standing so close to this storm of boos. She stood there stoically and took those boos and I thought she must die hearing all this. On the outside she seemed to take it all well, but on the inside, well it must have been terrible for her. In today’s times, now immediately after the last note of an opera you can read on the internet terrible criticism, personal criticism written there from a laptop or smart phone. But these are our times!
Alexander Karpeyev in Conversation with Robert Beattie
Alexander Karpeyev has been a major prizewinner in a number of international piano competitions including first prize at the 2007 Dudley International Piano Competition. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music in London. He is a noted exponent of Medtner’s music and recently defended his doctoral thesis on the performance practice of the music of Medtner at City University of London. Last year he organised the first International Medtner Festival in the UK and he is the curator of the Pushkin House Music Salon in Bloomsbury Square which showcases Russian chamber music. He recently gave a superb recital in Kings Place which focused on Russian music composed immediately prior to the Revolution of 1917 (review).
I asked him what specifically attracts him to Medtner’s music. I also spoke to him about his recent concert at Kings Place, his work as the curator of the Pushkin House Music Salon and as Artistic Director of the International Medtner Festival, and his future plans.
Robert Beattie: Many congratulations on your recent recital at Kings Place. I particularly enjoyed your performance of Medtner’s Sonate-Ballade. It is a great tragedy that Medtner’s music does not feature more often on concert programmes. What draws you to this composer and who are your favourite interpreters of his music?
Alexander Karpeyev: Medtner was one of the last defenders of the Romantic musical language. His music is special and it can be something of an acquired taste. He was held in very high regard by his contemporaries. Rachmaninov said to him, “You are, in my opinion, the greatest composer of our time” while Glazunov called him the, “firm defender of the sacred laws of eternal art”. He was a brilliant pianist himself and knew how to exploit the capabilities of the piano. He was also half- German so in a sense he brings together the German and Russian musical traditions. He only recorded two of his own piano sonatas – the Sonate-Ballade and the Sonata Tragica – so these were clearly important works for him and that is why I wanted the Sonate-Ballade to form part of my recital.
Rachmaninov was one of the earliest advocates of his music and the English pianist Edna Iles also championed his music throughout the 20th Century. Iles had the advantage of having studied with the composer for twenty years and she specifically concentrated on how to play a number of the tales, sonatas and songs as well as the three concertos. Gilels helped to revive Medtner’s music in the 1950’s and he recorded the G minor Sonata. With regard to Medtner advocates nowadays, I have enjoyed listening to Berezovsky, Milne and Hamelin.
RB: Who have been the major influences on you as a musician?
AK: All of my teachers, including Alexander Myndoyants and Vera Gornostayeva at the Moscow Conservatory and Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama have helped shape my musical personality. Nikolai Lugansky has also been an extremely helpful informal tutor and I have learned a lot through talking to him about music. I also listen to a vast amount of recorded music including opera, symphonic and chamber music and this helps to inform how I approach and play particular pieces.
RB: Your recital at Kings Place focused on music written immediately prior to the Russian Revolution in 1917. Why did you decide to focus on music written in this period?
AK: I always feel there is a sense of something beautiful dying in 1917 with the Romanov family. All of the composers who featured in my recital left Russia after the Revolution. Rachmaninov did not support Bolshevism and his family estate, Ivanovka, was seized by the Leninist authorities and his house was burned down. He never forgave this and he and his family left Russia for Scandinavia at the end of 1917. Prokofiev also left Russia in 1918 for the US and then Europe and he only returned to Russia in 1936. I also wanted to include Grechaninov in my recital as he was an important composer of sacred music. He and Medtner both left Russia a little bit later and both settled in Paris in 1925. Stravinsky was travelling around quite a bit both before and after the Revolution but I felt it was important to include him in the recital. The period from the middle of the 19th Century to 1917 represents a Golden Age in Russian music and literature and the compositions written in the years leading up to 1917 are a final blossoming of the music written during that very important period.
RB: You are the curator of the Pushkin House Music Salon in Bloomsbury. Can you tell us about the work of Pushkin House and which concerts will be featuring in the music salon?
AK: Pushkin House is a charity which supports and promotes Russian culture in London and beyond. We have begun to run a series of monthly chamber music concerts in the music salon which are designed to showcase Russian chamber music. Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva will be playing piano duos by Stravinsky in April, Igor Golovatenko and I will be performing songs by Golovanov in June and the Navarra Quartet will be performing works by Beethoven and Shostakovich in July. Dinara Klinton will also be giving a recital next month featuring Liszt’s Transcendental Studies and the International Medtner Society will be having its Inaugural concert at Pushkin House in May.
RB: I saw Dinara Klinton performing the Liszt Transcendental Studies very recently and she was terrific and I also saw Golovatenko give a superb performance in Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne. You are also the Artistic Director of the Medtner Festival – can you tell us a little bit about that?
AK: We set up the Medtner Festival in 2014 and it has now become a regular festival. It features a series of talks and concerts all dedicated to the life and work of Medtner. Dinara and Igor are both personal friends and I have known Igor for many years as we were both students at the Moscow Conservatory. He is a very accomplished conductor and cellist as well as being a world class baritone.
RB: Do you have any projects in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
AK: I will be performing in a series of recitals across Canada and France in the comings weeks and months. Soprano, Sofia Fomina, and I are also planning to do a recording of Medtner songs for Hyperion. I have my ongoing work organising concerts for the Pushkin House Music Salon and I am planning to organise another Medtner Festival next year. I am also planning to turn my dissertation on Medtner into a book.
RB: It sounds like you will have your hands full over the coming months. Thank you very much for talking to us.
NICOLAI GEDDA (1925 -2017)
His daughter, Tania, announced the death of Nicolai Gedda on January 8 at his residence near Lausanne, Switzerland. His death occurred a few months after that of his first wife, the pianist Nadia Gedda-Nova – Tania’s mother – and a few days after that of Georges Prêtre with whom he collaborated several times, notably as Don José in the recording of Carmen alongside Maria Callas. Read more
To Contact Seen and Heard International
Please email email@example.com
Or visit us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Seen.and.Heard.Intl
Or on Twitter @SeenandHeardInt
Readers wishing to contact individual reviewers should use the above in the first instance
Various composers: Maria José Siri (soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano), Long Zhang (tenor), Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore (baritone), Matteo Peirone (bass), Symphony Orchestra of India / Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 2.2.2017. (JSM)
Verdi – Overture to La forza del Destino; Otello (excerpts)
Giordano – Andrea Chénier (excerpts)
Bizet – Carmen Suites (excerpts)
Puccini, La Bohème Revisited: Soloists, Symphony Orchestra of India / Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 8.2.2017 (JSM)
Rodolfo – Giordano Lucà
Mimì – Olena Tokar
Marcello – Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore
Musetta – Maria Mudryak
Colline – Andrea Concetti
Schaunard – Daniele Terenzi
Alcindoro/Benoit – Matteo Peirone
Narrator – Sax Nicosia
Director – Sax Nicosia
Lighting – Alberto Giolotti
Artwork – Francesco Calagnini
Projections – D-Wok
Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts has scheduled an opera-based season with three concerts and three performances of Puccini’s La bohème. This second concert in the series featured soprano Maria José Siri and tenor Simon O’Neill, accompanied by Carlo Rizzi and the Symphony Orchestra of India.
One wishes one could be more enthusiastic about what was publicized as a ‘Gala’ event, but the concert, despite flashes of musical distinction, was often uneven.
The first part of the evening was devoted to Verdi, and its beginning was perhaps indicative of what was to come. The opening bars of the overture to La forza del Destino were played with scarcely any sense of baleful foreboding, and the ensuing performance (which was on the brisk side) seemed perfunctory. The music of Alvaro’s plea and Leonora’s prayer lacked lyricism, and it all built to a raucous climax with shrieking strings and bellowing brass.
The Love Duet from Act 1 of Otello followed, with an opening that could hardly be termed atmospheric, despite some sensitive playing by Principal Cellist Boris Baraz. As the title character, Simon O’Neill sang with great musicality though he lacked the vocal heft of the true dramatic or heldentenor. He has a well-placed ‘high’ instrument with gleaming tone and total security on the top notes, which were utterly effortless and able to cut through orchestral fabric. However, his middle voice seemed somewhat pallid or grey in comparison, and his tone tended to spread on open vowels.
Maria José Siri as Desdemona was similarly musical, but she tended to become squally when singing loud above the stave, an area in which she also found it difficult to sustain soft phrases.
All of the above was evident in the duo’s performance of Act IV from the opera, done in its entirety with a supporting cast. Here, Desdemona’s repeated cries of ‘salce’ could have been more varied in tone and expression, though the last ‘prega’ from the ‘Ave Maria’ was ethereally beautiful. O’Neill’s Otello was curiously tame during the murder, nor was there much plangency in ‘Niun mi tema’, though Ms Siri was totally involved in the music and drama. Maestro Rizzi went beyond providing merely efficient accompaniment to whipping up the orchestra into a full-tilt climax during Desdemona’s strangulation.
The second half of the programme began with excerpts from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. After another sensitive solo by cellist Boris Baraz, Ms Siri gave a superb rendering of ‘La Mamma Morta’, which was truly the high point of the evening. She seemed much more comfortable here, musically secure and dramatically convincing, with a thrilling top B and another (unwritten) high note at the end of the aria.
Mr O’Neill then gave a reading of Chénier’s ‘Come in bel dì di Maggio’ where his high notes were clarion-like and free. However, his prosaic phrasing short-changed the poetic expression in this aria’s words and music, which was not helped by the fast tempo.
Tenor and soprano came together in the opera’s final duet, in a performance that could best be described as workmanlike rather than transcendent. Both singers’ strengths and weaknesses were evident here; but despite the initially lukewarm temperature, they managed to drum up a fair amount of excitement, as did the orchestra, at the very end.
In what seemed to be a case of quirky programming, it was the orchestra that ended the evening, with excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen Suites. Maestro Rizzi began with a tepid reading of the ‘Fate’ motive and a sluggish ‘Aragonaise’, after which there was a lyrical Intermezzo and an orchestral version of the ‘Toreador’s Song’ played with bite and vim…and much crashing of cymbals. The last selection was the ‘Danse Bohème’, which began rather too fast (thus compromising the gradual accelerando required) but was controlled and precise even at its most frenetic.
The tendency of this orchestra to shout during fortissimi could perhaps be the effect of the reflectors above the stage which accentuate upper-middle and high frequencies, beaming the sound at the audience. It is revealing that visiting orchestras usually have these removed: why does the SOI continue to keep them for their own performances on their home turf?
Modern interpretations of opera have now become the norm, and they range from the truly inspired to the totally ridiculous. But even the worst excesses of self-styled auteurs stop short at tampering with the music, which remains, in all but the rarest cases, sacrosanct.
Sax Nicosia, who has conceptualized and directed La Bohème Revisited, apparently thinks otherwise. His version of Puccini’s La bohème dispenses entirely with the chorus, and thus with much of its music. Act II ends abruptly with the reprise of Musetta’s waltz; and it opens with only the orchestra, as does Act III. Further cuts were made in both acts.
One wonders at the reasoning behind taking such license with Puccini’s score, as the musical losses are obvious. If, in a dramaturgical sense, it was done to focus on the personal lives of the principal characters, they exist within a public, social framework; and doing away with the latter robs the opera of this juxtaposition that Puccini and his librettists intended. Furthermore, since Mr Nicosia has taken the novel on which the opera is based, Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, as the foundation of his interpretation, the hustle and bustle of Parisian café society is very much a part of that vie.
Be that as it may, this was essentially a semi-staged concert performance, billed as “an innovative new production” by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). It took place within a gilt-edged, antique frame that became the proscenium, fronted by a scrim. Nicosia himself appeared before each act as Henri Murger, speaking the words from the novel that preface it, accompanied by projections of Impressionist paintings on the scrim. This in itself was not a bad idea, as it set the production in time and place, but it continued excessively throughout the opera. The scrim went up, only to come down periodically and be flashed with animated images of fanciful moons, flowers and snowflakes as big as tennis-balls, among other things. These were irritating and distracted one’s attention from the music and action onstage. Moreover, the images seemed completely gratuitous and redundant: they didn’t offer any real insight into what one was hearing in the words and music.
The projected surtitles were often barely legible; and Mr Nicosia’s direction was generally gauche. The singers performed at the front of the stage, which had a few pieces of furniture and props. Behind this were the orchestra and the conductor with his back to the singers. Thus, there were inevitable lapses in ensemble, which even a maestro like Carlo Rizzi was unable to avoid. However, he elicited playing of great beauty from the Symphony Orchestra of India (especially the string section), bringing out many felicitous details in the music, although the orchestra was sometimes too loud and drowned out the singing.
The cast was mostly young and more than competent, with well-placed voices. They seemed totally committed to their roles. Olena Tokar as Mimì really stood out: she was utterly musical, with some magical moments, like the phrase ‘addio senza rancor’ at the end of ‘Donde lieta uscì’; and the pianissimo reprise of ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ in her death scene. However, her lower register did lack warmth, and her tone developed a hard edge above mezzo forte on high notes.
One wished the production had allowed the music itself and the musical talents of all concerned to shine, instead of compromising them with choices of questionable artistic merit.
It is perhaps easy to present such work in a milieu where a majority of the audience lacks a frame of reference in which to evaluate what they have seen. It becomes a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. But any cultural institution that aspires to be internationally recognised could, and should, do better than showcase an ill-conceived travesty.
Jiten S. Merchant
NEW JETTE PARKER YOUNG ARTISTS ANNOUNCED FOR 2017
The Royal Opera is delighted to announce the five singers who will join the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in September 2017.
American soprano Jacquelyn Stucker
Korean soprano Haegee Lee
Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina
Korean tenor Kuno Kim
British baritone Dominic Sedgwick Read more
Fighting Back From What Life Throws At You And Inspiring Others: Jim Pritchard Interviews The Soprano Elisabeth Meister
One of the highlights of the recent concert performance of Die Walküre for the Saffron Opera Group was Elisabeth Meister’s wonderful Sieglinde. Peter Reed in Opera magazine described how ‘gathering depth and brilliance’ she ‘built towards an orchestra-surfing “O hehrstes Wunder!” of pulverizing grandeur’. On this site I said she just ‘got better and better’ and how ‘Meister is an intelligent singer who knows how to project her voice, and she achieved extraordinary heights of passion in Act III without pushing the voice beyond its limits.’ (For full review click here.) I also mentioned how Elisabeth was – with this performance – returning to singing after something of a hiatus to her singing career, which was set to have a meteoric rise after leaving the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. Elisabeth has a remarkable – and inspirational – story to tell which involves losing and regaining her singing voice.
There is now much more to this undoubtedly ‘intelligent singer’ than her voice, including how she now sings under the name Elisabeth Meister. She describes it on her Meister Music website (click here): ‘I was born in 1975 in Bristol, and christened Elizabeth Clare Kitchen. At eight years old, my paternal grandpa died, and we suddenly uncovered a 47-year-old secret: my dad had been adopted in the 1930s, and his biological father’s surname was Franklin. We changed our family name to Franklin-Kitchen, in his honour. Years later, on my mum’s side of the family, my grandma passed away. She had always been a huge lover of classical music, and would come to my concerts whenever she was able. My operatic career began to take an upward turn, right at the time grandma sadly died. Her name was Elisabeth Meister.’ This was the first thing we talked about when we recently met.
EM: It was 2008 when I adopted the name. Elizabeth Franklin-Kitchen had always seemed a bit clunky, taking up too much space in concert programmes for starters! I had thought about taking my mother’s maiden name, which was Angel: my repertoire at the time largely resided at the lighter end of Mozart and Puccini, so Angel would have suited me quite well, but from 2008 I began exploring the heavier repertoire of Strauss and Wagner, so I decided that grandma’s name would suit me much better, and it also meant I could carry her memory around with me wherever I went. Taking on the European spelling of Elisabeth also gave it a timeless quality – you might not be able to tell which decade I was born just my looking at my name and, as I age, I think I prefer it that way!
JP: Let’s look back and please tell me about your background in music and how you began singing.
EM: I started singing in a local church choir when I was about 7 or 8 – basically as soon as I could read music well enough to follow along. My dad was the organist at the church. It wasn’t long before I was regularly pestering him to let me sing a solo at communion! After a few years I also took up playing the trumpet and double bass. Soon, music was all I cared about. I wasn’t particularly gifted academically, and nor was I all that popular at school. In fact, I was bullied pretty badly – perhaps on account of having ginger hair and being overweight, I’ll never know – so I retreated more and more to the music department. It wasn’t long before I was spending every evening taking part in a different musical activity: brass band, wind band, choir, orchestra – I loved it, and I didn’t even care that my school work suffered enormously as a result (I came away with a small handful of useful GCSEs and a couple of A levels).
JP: How did you eventually settle on singing as a possible career?
EM: When I was 17 I moved with my family up to Nottingham. After a few months I joined the parish church choir at St Mary’s, High Pavement. Their director of music, John Keys, encouraged me to start having singing lessons. I was recommended to Ruth Holton, based in South London. I was on the dole at the time, receiving something like £70 a fortnight, so having lessons in London seemed a crazy luxury. But Ruth was so important to me, that I would spend my entire allowance taking the National Express from Nottingham to London, then the number 2 bus from Baker Street to West Norwood, and doing it all in reverse after just an hour’s lesson. Sometimes, I simply couldn’t afford to pay for the lessons, so would offer to do Ruth’s ironing in lieu of payment!
After a couple of years, in the mid-90s, my family decided to relocate to London, and it was at this point that both Ruth and John strongly encouraged me to apply to music college. I did so and, after a somewhat clunky start which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into here, I enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music. However, a year or so later the clunkiness returned: I had recently become engaged, but the relationship hadn’t worked out. I became clinically depressed, and my mental health suffered to the point where I was no longer able to continue my studies. I ended up leaving the RAM halfway through my second year.
JP: What did you do then?
EM: I was still doing some choral singing whilst working ‘out in the real world’, doing reception work, secretarial things, bar work, whatever came along. After a while, I had garnered a pretty good reputation within the BBC Singers, as well as a number of other professional choruses. In 2002, I decided to have another go at a solo career and, after a brief, informal consultation with Robin Bowman (the then head of vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama), I successfully applied for a place on their postgraduate programme. During that year, in 2003, I came joint second in the Kathleen Ferrier Singing Competition and that made me really think there was a good chance of success as a soloist. In 2004 I went from the Guildhall to join the chorus at Glyndebourne, and later with English Touring Opera, where I also covered Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte.
During that tour with ETO I had the amazing opportunity to perform Fiordiligi three times. This was my first ever operatic role on stage, and I can’t tell you how exciting it was. I had just 24 hours to get myself ready for it, and I’ll never forget the kindness of my incredible colleagues, especially my long-time buddy Rachel Nicholls, playing my sister Dorabella, who pushed me around the stage and directed me towards the right doors at the right time. I knew at once that this was who I was – I was born for the stage, and only just now did I really realise it. But I was already 30 by this point, so further training and support were going to be difficult to come by.
In 2005 I travelled to Germany to audition for a few houses, though I had been warned they might try and put me in a more dramatic Fach. Actually, one person I sang for there said ‘You think you are a lyric soprano but really you are soubrette and, frankly, with your build you will not get work as a soubrette.’ So, that was disappointing.
I started going through a bit of a desperate time, financially. I had very little work on, but I was determined not to give up and go back to office work. I ended up losing my flat, along with all my possessions. I simply couldn’t afford to live there anymore. I basically became homeless: occasionally sleeping at friends’ homes, on my parents’ sofa, sometimes in my car. After a year or so of living like this, I got a bit of a break, and was offered a year’s worth of work as a chorister with WNO. They helped me to relocate to Cardiff and, my gosh, I can’t tell you how amazing it was to have a place I could call home again.
It was while I was there that the tenor Dennis O’Neill spotted me. After a successful audition with him in 2008, I went to study for a year at his Cardiff International Academy for Voice, assisted financially by the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Susan Chilcott Scholarship, for which I will be eternally grateful. CIAV was where I started to learn my craft: it was all very well being able to sing endless top Cs at 100 decibels, but what I needed to learn was finesse, and stagecraft, both of which were offered in spades on Dennis’s programme. At the end of that year I auditioned for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at Covent Garden and again was successful. This was an incredible moment. I was one of over 140 sopranos who had auditioned for just one place on this most prestigious of programmes. Even now, years after leaving the programme, I find it mind-boggling to have been granted such a place. After all, I still didn’t have much repertoire; all I had ever sung publicly was Fiordiligi and that was it. I was a very left field person to take on.
JP: What was your voice like at the time?
EM: I guess I would describe it as a ‘loud lyric’! I hadn’t really considered what Fach I was. In fact, my audition repertoire consisted of a bizarre range of roles, which included Musetta, Countess, Leonora (La forza del destino) and Turandot! At Covent Garden the first roles I covered were Octavian, then the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen, followed by Aida, all terrific roles which I just soaked up. It was a great time for learning what I was capable of, and where my boundaries were.
JP: Tell me more about the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.
EM: The Programme runs for two years and I was on it from 2009 to 2011. People audition from all around the world for up to five places each year. The idea is that you are salaried members of the music staff; you cover big roles, sing smaller ones on stage and in between there are recital and concert opportunities. So you get that experience of being on stage with the biggest-named artists and conductors in the world, along with one of the greatest orchestras. The very fact to be in the same room as Soile Isokoski, Eva-Maria Westbroek or Simon O’Neill – all of whom were really supportive of me during my time there – really ups your game, they’re such inspiring artists. After you finish the programme you have access to the practice facilities at the Royal Opera House, on a first-come-first-served basis. They also offer you up to 50 hours of coaching a year. You can have language coaching, music coaching or whatever you need. You can also have conversation classes: when I worked in South America in 2011/12 I took Spanish lessons for several weeks before I travelled.
JP: What were the highlights of your time there?
EM: One of the biggest things that happened to me is that I went on as Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen in 2010. I had only been on the programme for six months, and I still had very little solo experience at that point, with that Fiordiligi in 2005 and the minor role of Pale Lady in The Gambler at Covent Garden in 2010. It was extraordinary to be able to work with Sir Charles Mackerras – I still don’t know how I got through it. It was sung in English, though Sir Charles didn’t care too much for the translation we were using. Each night he would come to my dressing room and suggest a change of words here and there – I don’t think I ever sang the same set of words two nights running. It was amazing to sing that for a whole run.
One of the most fun roles I covered was Anna Nicole. I had already been involved in the creative process of this new creation before joining the Programme, singing the title role during a number of workshops, so it was really great to continue my involvement during my time as a Jette Parker Young Artist.
JP: You have mentioned some names who have been important to your development as a singer. Are there others who have been a particular influence?
EM: At Covent Garden there were a number of people and the head of music, David Syrus, continues to inspire me. He is incredibly humble and will say ‘I didn’t do anything’ and ‘It’s a pleasure for me to accompany you’. I must say he makes you sing really well. Susanna Stranders is also a JPYA alumna, and she is absolutely incredible to work with – she doesn’t miss a thing, and really draws out the best in you. Outside of the music staff, one of my greatest influences was the soprano Elizabeth Connell. I studied under her right up to her passing away in 2012. It was a great honour to invoke her memory at her memorial concert later that year, singing the entry aria of Turandot, one of her signature roles.
JP: What happened after you left the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme?
EM: My first role after leaving the Programme was Aida for the Teatro Municipal de Santiago de Chile, in October/November 2011. That was an absolutely wonderful experience. I made some really great friends there, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. The day after my last performance I got the morning flight up from Chile to Chicago to cover Ariadne and sing First Lady in Die Zauberflöte for the Lyric Opera. I’ve never mastered the art of sleeping on planes no matter how long the journey, so by the time I got to Chicago that same morning I was in rehearsal after 30 hours with no sleep.
In that 2011/12 season I returned to Santiago to sing Lucrezia Borgia. This was a very short notice contract, to replace an ailing soprano, so I had just a few short weeks to learn this incredible role. I had never sung any bel canto repertoire before, and it was amazing to see how well my voice responded to Donizetti’s beautiful lines. I came back home for just two weeks before returning to Chile for a third time, this time to sing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. Again, after the final performance, there was a rush to catch a plane, this time to return to the UK, where I was taking part in the 2012 Ring cycle at Covent Garden. After another sleepless 17-hour flight, landing at 7.30am, I had just enough time to get home, dump my luggage, and have a shower, before getting myself to ROH for the afternoon rehearsal: the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene. I was singing Helmwige and, with Tony Pappano in the room, there was nowhere to hide my lack of sleep and jetlag! I loved my time in the Ring – it’s an incredibly special thing to be a part of, wherever you’re doing it, but at Covent Garden, it was something else. I was also covering Sieglinde, as well as singing Third Norn in Götterdämmerung, so it was great to really sink into Wagner’s extraordinary world.
JP: Then unfortunately matters took a turn for the worse for you, so what happened?
EM: It was the autumn of 2012 and I began to notice that something strange was happening, vocally. I was beginning to find singing somewhat more effortful than usual but, since I’d been travelling quite a bit lately, I wasn’t unduly surprised at the time. During 2013, though, I noticed a steady decline. After performing in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, I found it hard to regain some of the legato quality in my voice. I constantly felt like I was fighting off a cold or something. For the rest of 2013 I didn’t have a huge amount of work on – apart from a Lucrezia Borgia in Brussels – I was mostly covering at Covent Garden – First Lady, Turandot, Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana and a concert performance in Cambridge of Peter Grimes in December. By the beginning of 2014 I was really in trouble. However I was singing Lady Macbeth at Scottish Opera before going to sing Turandot in Bilbao. I was really concerned about what was going on. I started withdrawing from engagements. I certainly felt unable to do any auditions and at the same time things were becoming increasingly rocky with my agent, so we parted company.
To cut a long story short, over the next couple of years, I was treated for all manner of ailments, from acid reflux to endocrine issues, but nothing seemed to work. Over the course of those two years, I lost every ounce of work that I had in the diary and, by the end of 2015, I could barely sing at all. I decided that I would have to call it a day, at least temporarily, as the more I stressed about my voice, the harder it became to produce anything much above a squeak!
I decided to start applying for regular, 9-5 jobs, though having not worked outside of singing for so many years, I found it impossible to find anything at all. After several months of looking, I ended up working in a hospital theatre as a healthcare assistant. My job was to provide the scrub nurse and surgeon with whatever assistance they needed during surgery, record all details of the surgery, and to clean the floors and operating table and generally clear away the bits and pieces the patient ‘no longer needed’! It was an absolutely grotesque job. I’m fairly squeamish at the best of times, and having to stand and watch knee and hip replacement surgeries, and various endoscopic procedures was rather more than I could handle. I managed just five months there before my mental health once more began to suffer, and so I decided to quit.
I had developed a very painful back during my time at the hospital, even though I had received extensive training on manual handling. I decided to go and see an osteopath. This turned out to be one of the most amazing decisions I’ve ever made. It was this osteopath who finally unlocked what had happened to my voice.
JP: Tell me more.
EM: So I had gone to see this amazing guy in Hove called Rex Brangwyn, who is both a psychologist and an osteopath. I had met him through my partner, as they had both recently completed their MSc in Behavioural Psychology.
Although I had gone to see him for back pain, I had also explained about my voice loss. He felt my throat and neck, and asked if I had ever been struck in the throat with anything! I searched my memory, and suddenly remembered that a few years before I had been playing Frisbee with some friends and – yes! – I had indeed been hit in the throat with it! You’d think I would remember such an event, but the brain is an extraordinary thing and I had completely forgotten all about it!
This was such a big deal to me – I thought I had shut the door on my singing career, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to build up my hopes again, only to have them dashed. However, I decided to at least give it another go, so I booked appointments with Ed Blake (a laryngeal physiotherapist) at his practice on Harley Street, and Nick Gibbins at the Voice Clinic at Lewisham Hospital. They were both instantly in agreement with Rex’s diagnosis. They concurred that the trauma to my larynx had caused it to twist round, but it had done so incredibly slowly over the course of a few years, that it would have been impossible to spot at the beginning of my troubles. By the time they diagnosed me, the twist had reached a whopping 30 degrees!
With the huge generosity of Help Musicians UK, in early 2016 I embarked of six months of physiotherapy with both Ed and Rex, and started voice lessons with the amazing Linda Hutchinson. In March 2016, I was able to sing the solos in a performance of Elijah and, although it appeared my performance was good enough for the choir and conductor, I felt it was well below par. But I’m delighted with how my performance in Die Walküre the following October had gone.
JP: So that wonderful Sieglinde I heard was something of a comeback?
EM: Yes indeed. It’s amazing to now know that I will be able to return to a career in singing. I’m starting pretty gently (Sieglinde notwithstanding!), with a return to choral singing for a while. I have to say I’m thoroughly enjoying being back with colleagues who I haven’t seen for a very long time. There’s something tremendously bonding about being with the same group of people week in, week out. I’d forgotten that aspect of my former life, and if it turned out that I was destined to sing in choirs and choruses for the rest of my career, I would be delighted. I’d love to have a solo career, of course, but my priorities have changed a great deal over the last few years, so we’ll just have to see what happens.
JP: Looking back now on that time what are your thoughts?
EM: In many ways it has taught me a huge amount about who I am. I was training as a Life Coach when I got the diagnosis and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Part of the training meant I had to receive coaching as well as give coaching, and this enabled me to work through all the issues of ‘identity’ I had. I learned that singing needn’t define me, especially as I am now a certified Life Coach as well. For so many people, being a singer is the most important thing (it was certainly the case for me), and if they reach a point where they can no longer sing they lose that ‘personal construct’: the identity of who they are. One of the biggest pieces of learning I’ve done since my own identity crash is that, when we singers define ourselves purely by the quality of our voice, and by what other people think of it, we are doomed only to feel validation from those other people’s opinions. I’ve seen singers collapse, crushed by phrases as simple as ‘perhaps wasn’t quite as polished’ or ‘was pretty good’.
We’re supposed to be this magical combination of able-to-bare-our-souls one minute, and thick-skinned and armoured-against-criticism the next.
I’m still working on this balance, but the thing I’ve found most helpful right now is this: if I don’t define my whole being by my voice, if I understand that someone else’s view of my performance is simply an opinion, that all that really matters is ‘did I give a performance that I was proud of?’, then that’s all that really matters. Also, I’m much more than ‘a singer’: being a singer is one personal construct that makes up a part of who I am. I’m also a sister, a daughter, a partner, a coach, a friend, and several other things that combine to make me uniquely who I am. Being present in all those personal constructs, showing up, not being afraid to be vulnerable in all of those roles helps me to understand who I am as a singer too, but being a singer must never be the be-all-and-end-all.
It’s much easier said than done, but it’s the continued practise of this kind of conscious mindfulness that will help keep us strong and vulnerable.
JP: … and looking ahead?
EM: I would love to go back to at least a 70:30 singing and coaching career. So many doors have opened up to me while I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do and how I might earn a living. I started the Meister Music Opera Platform to help other singers in the UK wishing to return to their career after they have had a period of absence, whether it be through personal/family circumstances, or whether they, like me, have gone through a significant change in their vocal development. Since launching my website in 2015 I have had hundreds of emails from singers around the UK and Europe. Although it’ll be a little while before I can fully launch the project (these things are jolly expensive!) I am currently writing personal development workshops, and organising social events, offering a safe space for singers in very small groups to talk about things that are worrying them. We often open up to others who have been through similar experiences, but if we don’t know who those people are, we might decide to keep it all bottled up, and down that path lies trouble.
JP: What roles are you hoping to sing in the future?
EM: There’s so much repertoire I’d love to explore. I want to keep my voice nice and supple, so that I can sing those beautiful legato lines of Donizetti and Bellini. Sometimes, though, I think I should just stick to the German repertoire, as it’s really gutsy and visceral, and really taps into some part of me that loves to express myself in that way. In terms of specific roles, I’d love to sing the Marschallin one day, certainly do more Sieglindes and, if my voice allows it, Isolde and Brünnhilde. I adore Verdi’s heroines too – there are too many to name now. I would also want to keep my voice as fresh as it can be. I want to sing the roles that fit the voice, rather than the other way around.
I’ve had glimpses into the amazing career that my initial trajectory had pointed to, and it really has been wonderful – apart from, you know, the abject poverty and the homelessness – but I have now got something else: a much greater sense of my identity, and the knowledge that I can help others, whether it’s through coaching or the Opera Platform. I may yet return to that trajectory and it’d be wonderful to return to ROH, and perhaps even the Met may well still be on the cards when not so long ago it definitely was not. ‘Que sera, sera’ as they say, and as long as I continue to do everything with the utmost integrity, I’ll be happy whatever I’m doing.
JP: Thank you and yours is an inspirational story of triumph over adversity and it is great to have you back singing and I look forward to what you do in the future.
THE BEST OF 2016 FROM REVIEWERS OF SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL Read more