In the post-war years of austerity, Benjamin Britten was at the forefront of a new type of opera, the “chamber” opera. Although principally focussed on new works, this pioneering venture aimed to widen the reach of live opera performance: small orchestras, no chorus, simple costumes and staging. In the last few decades, this genre has come of age with “reduced” arrangements of repertoire works, allowing performances in venues from public gardens to prisons.
My new arrangement of Massenet’s Werther is a complete re-working of the rich, Romantic orchestral score, adapted for only four players: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Rather than being a mere reduction of the full score, this version attempts to create an entirely new chamber piece. Every player is a soloist with their own character: the clarinet agile and melancholic, the violin soaring and passionate, the cello rich and soulful, the piano full and supportive. Taken as a whole with the vocal lines and text, the intention is to conjure an atmosphere of intimate and direct expression.
The scenario of the opera is perfect for this approach: a “normal” domestic household is disrupted by passionate personal conflicts. Musically, this brings the sound-world closer to that of song, especially the mélodie so beloved of French composers. Massenet himself composed many volumes of songs, and this arrangement taps into that deep source.
French music is often noted for its transparency, lightness and delicacy, qualities that we will be exploring. Our production places the players on the stage, at the heart of the action. It promises to be a truly personal theatrical experience.
Arranger and conductor
ETO’s French opera season opens at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on Thursday 1 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.
Tell us a bit about yourself – where were you born and where did you grow up? Do you come from a musical family?
I was born in North London within the Hertfordshire border and lived in the same area till I went to college. I come from a very musical family; my parents are professional musicians in London orchestras, and my aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and grandparents all played instruments so for me, there was no escaping a musical education, and I’m very grateful for that. One of my favourite feelings is being totally surrounded by live music, as I was when I played the violin in my school orchestra, and I imagine it stems from growing up in the midst of a lot of musical people making a lot of noise.
Why is opera important?
I could philosophise about this all day, but my short answer is that opera, like all art and indeed sport, is intrinsically optimistic. lt is not a crucial part of our survival, but instead it provides us with the optimistic idea that there is more to life. The reason the first cave drawings were so fascinating is because they set this new standard for living – they raised the bar from sheer survival to something more, something undefinable and ever-evolving, and opera is a highly-evolved extension of that original expression. It is a form of beautiful communication between humans – it reconnects us to our passion and our humanity, and gets us to think on a higher level, where the ultimate aim is to transcend and make something more beautiful of our lives.
What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?
The most exciting moment was definitely a working audition with Antonio Pappano. He is an incredible musician and a tough man to impress so I was quite nervous, standing in his room at the Royal Opera House with him watching me intensely from two feet away, but he conducted me through my arias and I was so inspired by his passion and technical knowledge of the voice that I was able to do exactly what he wanted and it felt amazing.
La traviata or Anna Nicole?
Interesting to compare these two as there is something iconic about both the female leads. However, I have to say La traviata. Anna Nicole is undoubtedly a great piece with some very juicy music and I’m a big fan of the composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, but I could probably live without ever doing that role whereas Violetta is a role that I’ve always aspired to do one day.
Mélisande is the epitome of indirectness; it’s hard to understand her and she retains a sense of mystery throughout the opera, avoiding answering any direct questions. She is sensual and childlike, quite fearful but at other times surprisingly bold. She could be described as a Lorelei, a tragic siren-like character who unwittingly lures people to their doom.
Have you ever toured before? What are you looking forward to the most?
I toured Kurt Weill’s Street Scene with The Opera Group in 2011. We did 30 shows in 28 days and it was tough! This tour looks a little more forgiving with rest days in between shows, thankfully. I’m looking forward to going to some places I don’t know so well, such as Aldeburgh, and I’m hoping I’ll have time to go to Bath Spa. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know the rest of the cast; we’ll be rehearsing from August so there will be plenty of time.
Who are your inspirations?
Well, there are so many to list here but in terms of sopranos, I love Maria Callas, Mirella Freni, Mariella Devia and Renée Fleming. Closer to home, my friend and ex-housemate Sophie Bevan, American soprano and friend Corinne Winters, my husband, tenor Ben Johnson, and perhaps most importantly my teacher, Jeffrey Talbot.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
I try to listen to my body on the day of a performance and figure out what it needs, for example, I might have to steam or meditate if I’m not feeling great, but usually I combine a vocal warm up with some stretching and yoga, then eat a big late lunch, rest, warm up some more and then slowly get into costume and make-up.
What is your dream role?
I would love to play Liù. Turandot is my favourite opera – in fact I think it was the first opera my dad introduced me to as a child – and no matter what mood I’m, in I can always get swept up emotionally in that dramatic music – it’s wonderful.
And finally, what would you say to someone coming to see Pelléas & Mélisande for the first time?
I hope you enjoy it! It’s a symbolist work so don’t be put off by the lack of action; it’s all in the words and dream-like quality of the music.
Susanna will play Mélisande in ETO’s new production of Pelléas & Mélisande, opening at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music on Thursday 1 October 2015. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk/pelleas-et-melisande
You began singing as a chorister at Temple Church. Did you always want to be a singer when you were growing up?
No, not at all. Singing always played a big part in my life, first at the Temple and then at the Junior Department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but I knew very little about music as a profession. I never thought that I would get the chance to sing for a living!
What was your first experience of opera?
At Cambridge. I’d won a Choral Scholarship to Clare College and singing there introduced me to a generation of other singers, enthusiastic about music, opera and the prospect of singing as a career. In my second year, the college music society put on a production of Dido and Aeneas and at the suggestion of my friends I auditioned for the role of Aeneas. To my surprise I was cast. I didn’t have any stage experience so it was a big leap into the unknown, but I loved it! I went on to sing in productions of Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and by the time I left I was hooked.
Can you describe your time at the Royal Academy of Music? What was the most valuable lesson you learned there?
The Academy was an incredible place. It’s difficult to pin down which lesson I’d consider the most valuable. But if I had to choose, I think it would be the way it challenged me to think more instinctively about performing. Embracing the fact that each performance is a canvass of its own was hugely liberating. There are, of course, certain parameters – before I fall out with every conductor and director I might ever work with – and these need to be established in rehearsals and from close attention to what is in the score. But you don’t make a plaster cast in rehearsal out of which come a series of identical performances. Nor is there any such thing as a ‘perfect performance’. Each night is different. The journey you go on with your character changes, as do those of the characters around you. Your aim is to inhabit the world that you are creating for the audience, not to reproduce a sound or gesture that you may have liked one Tuesday afternoon in rehearsals. It makes things so much more exciting for performer and audience alike.
You are performing in a new piece (Macbeth) for Glyndebourne in August. What are your thoughts on contemporary operas and their role in introducing new people to this art form?
For centuries people went to the opera and expected to see new work. Mozart did not earn a living from revivals of his operas, but from writing new ones. Donizetti wrote 75 in his lifetime! But I think as music has moved into modern and postmodern styles, new work can often seem too challenging for many people. And as audiences have grown cautious, so too have many opera houses. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep returning to and reinterpreting great works written in any era; we should, we do, and the scope of such works is what has ensured their survival. But there is something so direct about new opera coming out of our own culture and times. I think the more we can do to encourage new work the better. As a performer it is also incredibly exciting creating a new role for the first time.
How do you learn a new role?
Everyone approaches learning roles differently, but most singers would say that they start with the text. If it’s in a foreign language I’ll translate it word for word, then into my own words, before returning to the original text and trying to make sense of it idiomatically. I then go through and break each word down into the individual vowels and consonants so that I always know exactly what I’m singing on, especially if it’s in English since we are so lazy with our own language. Having done this, I try to learn the notes by singing them just from vowel to vowel, to help establish line, before finally putting it all together. Once the nuts and bolts are in place I try to empathize with the character I’m playing, what motivates them, what makes them vulnerable, what frustrates them, what amuses them, everything really. And then I wait and see! You discover the most in rehearsals and with the input of the cast and creative team around you.
Werther is an extraordinary piece, based on one of the defining works of romantic literature. It is built on extremes. Extremes of love, ecstasy, rejection and despair, but also on a figure whose very experience of life is extreme. A poet who responds to the world with such feeling that he fascinates and confuses those around him, ultimately winning the heart of his beloved Charlotte but not before his agony at her rejection drives him to the depths of despair and the terrible decision to take his own life. Werther is, in a sense, the story that helped establish many of our modern artistic stereotypes; the lonely and sensitive thinker, the suffering artist, the youthful anti-hero who defies convention for the sake of his desires. And whilst the story borrows heavily from courtly love and classical tragedy it is something distinctly different in putting the hero’s emotions centre stage. This depth of feeling is something to which Massenet’s sweeping late romantic writing is ideally suited, as indeed is the operatic genre itself, capturing and expressing more than can be put into words alone.
Which of the composers whose work you sing would you like to have dinner with?
Puccini. He was a great bon vivant and knew how to throw a party!
If you had a time machine and could go anywhere in the past for 24 hours, where would you go?
Wow. Talk about difficult questions! If I was only allowed to go sightseeing, I think I’d go to the Venice Carnival in the early 18th century, but if I was allowed to go fact finding I’d go to London in the late 16th century and find out if Shakespeare really was Shakespeare. That’s assuming, of course, that stopping wars and curing diseases is off limits!
What is your dream opera role?
Billy Budd. Britten has always been such a huge part of my love of opera and for me Billy Budd is his magnum opus. Coupled with a love of naval history, it really would be a dream to play that role.
And finally – did you know that you were featured on the fan site Barihunks in 2012?
Um, yes. Not sure what to say to that!
Ed will play the title role in ETO’s new production of Werther, opening at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music on Friday 2 October 2015. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk/werther