This month Sarah Tynan returns to the Coliseum to sing Adina in Jonathan Miller’s staging of The Elixir of Love, a production that originated at Royal Swedish Opera and arrives in London for the first time, via New York City Opera.
Maybe it’s just been a long day of rehearsals. Maybe it’s because the practice room we’re in more closely resembles an interrogation chamber. Or maybe I’m suspected of being a rogue hack with scheming intentions. Whatever, Sarah Tynan seems a reluctant conversationalist at the start of my interview.
More likely, perhaps, it comes down to the fact that she is unused to press attention. Although this young singer has established herself as a considerable talent on the British stage, thrilling audiences and critics alike with her supple, sweet-toned soprano, she has so far done few interviews. Things are surely set to change. In recent years, Tynan has made her Proms debut, her Saltzburg Festival debut and visited New York with Edward Gardner and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as making regular appearances at English National Opera. And she has come to be seen as something of a star.
I begin by pressing her to describe Miller’s approach to this bel canto classic. “It’s set in 1950s America, in the Midwest, and Adina runs a diner,” Tynan says. “I think Edward Hopper’s paintings have provided the inspiration.” Of course, Miller’s Rigoletto made brilliant use of a Hopper-style bar but I have visions of The Elixir cooling into a weird study of existential angst (Adina mixing cocktails amid curls of cigarette smoke, Nemorino a lone alkie, perhaps). Tynan assures me, however, that the piece has lost none of its charm. “It’s very funny, and [Miller] is very keen to reveal the human elements in the piece rather than relying on grand gestures.”
Has she done much research into the characterisation or sung history of Adina? “The role is so well known, and there are a number of different interpretations: heavy sopranos have done it, light sopranos have done it, a whole range and colour of voices, but it’s better not to think of that,” she explains. “I’m not Maria Callas, I’m not Joan Sutherland, I’m not Angela Gheorghiu, I’m me and I do it my own way.” Sometimes Donizetti’s rom-com is dismissed as frivolous froth but Tynan shows a strong commitment to the story-telling aspect of the piece: “I think finding things about Adina that are believable, that you see in yourself or in a friend is importantthe theatrical side of things has always interested me, it’s the drama that makes me tick.”
Tynan, who grew up in London, studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and then at the Royal Academy of Music before joining ENO’s Young Singers programme. “Coming [to ENO] straight out of college was brilliant because I had the chance to do a really wide variety of roles. I played Papagena in The Magic Flute and the Woodbird in Siegfried, then Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and some Gilbert and Sullivan,” she says. “It gave me the chance to really learn the craft but in a slightly sheltered environment.” From that she progressed to a Company Principal and now works freelance with a close association with ENO. In 2008 she won particular acclaim there for her role debut as Sophie in David McVicar’s production of Der Rosenkavalier
Having undergone such a long and intensive training process herself, I wonder what Tynan thinks about Popstar to Operastar, the ITV reality show that seems to have polarised opera singers and critics in recent weeks. “I haven’t seen it so can’t really comment,” she replies, diplomatically. “But I’m going to tune in next week because everyone is talking about it. I was on a train last week with one of my colleagues who was saying they weren’t sure about it and the guy sitting next to me, just a random passenger, turned round and said actually it’s my favourite programme!’”
Now relaxed and a little chattier, Tynan is happy to elaborate on her involvement with James MacMillan’s opera The Sacrifice, which premiered at Welsh National Opera in 2007 and has just been released as a live recording on the Chandos label: “It was a wonderful experience to be in the same room every day with the man who composed the piece because nearly all the composers we work with have been dead for hundreds of years.” And she enthuses about his lush orchestration and vocal writing. “When people think of contemporary music they tend to think it’s going to be ugly or unapproachable, so when I heard The Sacrifice and it was so beautiful it seemed even more extraordinary.”
For the moment, the only up-coming role Tynan can talk about is that of Ilia in Katie Mitchell’s new production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, which opens at the Coliseum this June. Mitchell is undoubtedly hot property right now but, based on her previous opera productions, her staging will almost certainly divide taste. Tynan has worked with the director twice before indeed her professional debut was in Mitchell’s production of Handel’s Jephtha with Welsh National Opera and she is quick to praise her passion and dedication, describing her as “extremely hard working she cares really, really deeply about every moment in the piece.”
Tynan won’t even hint other parts in the pipeline but she lists the title role in The Cunning Little Vixen, and Pamina in The Magic Flute as dream parts, and also expresses her desire to become involved in the creation of another new opera. She is forthright and articulate about the importance of opera as a genre, and the value of new compositions more specifically: “It’s just another art form like anything else. Are people frightened of Shakespeare? Well, sometimes, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle it,” she says. “And just because we perform his plays doesn’t mean we can’t do new plays.”
Tynan’s repertoire is already wide-ranging and stretches right back to Purcell and Monteverdi: she was the luxuriously cast Second Woman in Sarah Connolly’s celebrated recording of Dido and Aeneas last year, and has previously sung Drusilla in L’incoronazione di Poppea. With characteristic modesty she puts this versatility down to her type of soprano: “There are lots of different styles of music for my kind of voice type. I think if you have a huge, heavy voice and you’re suited to Wagner it’s easier to become specialised but I have the opportunity to do more varied repertoire and I want to make the most of it.” Truth is, this variety would be difficult to pull off without Tynan’s competence and flair.