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.