Mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer is one of the most respected and admired opera singers of the past three decades, her vivid performing style, pronounced acting ability and vocal prowess fitting a wide repertoire from Bach and Handel to Stephen Sondheim.
She has performed with all the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors and was awarded the CBE in 1993.
After acclaimed performances with the Royal Opera in recent years in Sweeney Todd and Elektra, she’s now back to play the Marquise de Berkenfeld in a new production of Donizetti’s La fille du rgiment.We caught up with her a week before opening night to chat about her extensive and intriguing career. She arrives at the interview clearly very tired, explaining that she’d already been at the opera house for five hours already, and this was only lunchtime. “Nobody realises quite how much hard work weeks like this really are,” she smiles. “Coming in and doing a rehearsal in the studio is fine, but to get in, get warmed up and put the full garb on means getting in at least two hours before it starts, and that’s quite tiring.”
One of the reasons behind the success of Palmer’s career, especially since she changed from being a concert soprano to an operatic mezzo in the 1980s, has been the care she takes in choosing her roles – psychologically as well as musically, it seems to me, but she explains that this is partly a natural result of her voice type. “It just happens that because I’m a mezzo doing certain roles, psychologically they are very interesting. I think if I were a soprano playing milk white ingnues, I would find it very hard. The comic roles are interesting, because I’ve found that in order to make it funny, you have to play it seriously. The baddies it’s the shadow side of all of us, which we all have inside us somewhere. To get to the truth of the character I like to look at some redeeming features. I don’t go into deep psychoanalysis about it, of course, but I’m not very interested in just playing caricature villainesses. I want to know why they behave in the way they do there must be a reason for it, and there must be a normal side to them.”
Back in Christmas 2003, Felicity Palmer’s performance as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd lit up the stage, stealing the show as the murderous pie-maker. Her performance is already the stuff of legend, I tell her, and she confesses that “it was the experience of my life, which I didn’t really expect. I remember during the rehearsals the choreographer said to me, ‘You really love this woman’. I know she was a murderess, but I’ve met a lot of these cockney women, and how ever horrendous they may come across well, they weren’t murderesses, obviously! there’s something incredibly endearing about them, which Sondheim captures brilliantly. It was the last thing I expected, but I knew when it was in the offing that I wanted to do it, and I thought, well, I can almost retire now, because I’ve enjoyed that more than anything.” Would she do it again? “It was to have been revived and Mr Sondheim didn’t want it in an opera house again all that work for nine shows! I’d have to think carefully about it it was a busy production and I’m not a youngster. I had to run up and down a lot of steps and I went into training for it to make sure I could do it. But it felt a great achievement and I’ve never had more fun.”
Palmer has only played the role of the Marquise in La fille once before does she find her psychologically interesting? “Well, I think this production is making her more interesting because they’re aiming for melodrama as far as she is concerned. It is quite a fun production. It hasn’t been entirely fun so far, if I’m honest, because it’s been a hard grind with all this French dialogue, which is a challenge to a foreigner. It’s felt a bit nail-biting. I think everybody knows there hasn’t been quite enough rehearsal time. To get that witty dialogue very snappy as we did it in Sweeney Todd, it has to be perfect, not just in and out. They’re aware of that I think another week in the studio would have taken some of the pressure off, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. We’re getting to the point when it will be fun, but in order to have fun you’ve got to have the discipline of doing the hard slog.”
The cast of this new production includes some of the finest singers of the day: Juan Diego Flrez, Natalie Dessay, Alessandro Corbelli, Donald Maxwell, and, er, actress Dawn French will be making her Royal Opera debut. “I like the cast very much, and it’s a pleasure to work with them. It’s an astonishingly gifted cast and I don’t include myself in that. I hope I’m doing my bit, of course, but I think Natalie and Juan Diego are about as good as you’ll ever get in these roles. Alessandro and Donald I’ve both worked with before, and they’re pretty brilliant. We’re all working together as a team; it isn’t like one person can’t be bothered.”
Felicity Palmer has worked the world over, from small touring companies like Welsh National Opera to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. What’s it like working at the Royal Opera House? “I like the people very much, they’re very friendly and professional. I’ve had wonderful dressers every time I’ve worked here, and it’s on a par with the big international houses. The dresser is always there and comes with you to the stage, and on Sweeney I had one that was with me all the time with water and costumes you get looked after, and it’s not like that everywhere. Not all of them escort you to the stage. I feel very blessed, and the minute you come to the stage door they’re friendly.”
She made her Royal Opera debut in 1985 in Tippett’s King Priam, and has seen a lot of changes in that time. “It went through a pretty rough patch at one time. When I first came it was John Tooley, who was really wonderful: he would make it his business to greet all the singers personally. I haven’t been as frequent a visitor here as I would selfishly like to have been, if I’m honest, though I feel I’ve established things now. I’m not sure if I was good enough, though or I wasn’t ready for it, put it like that. So then when I came back, the House was going through ructions: the dressing rooms had moved, and one felt that the people were struggling a bit and weren’t entirely happy. They themselves were as efficient as ever: it’s always been a crack music staff and backstage staff, for instance. But there was a feeling of discomfort that was tangible. When I came back again, Tony Pappano was here I knew him a bit from Chicago there was a different atmosphere. It’s a much happier place.” Palmer returns to the ROH in June for Janacek’s Kt’a Kabanov, but says has no plans to come back beyond that at the moment.
If there’s one subject guaranteed to get Palmer going, it’s the training of singers, particularly those at the start of their careers. What does she feel is wrong with the traditional approaches that didn’t work for her, though? “My limited contact with colleges at the moment gives me the impression that they’re trying to improve, and there are extraordinary things going on in all of them, I think. The problem is that they seek out, of course, people who have had careers of a kind not nearly as many as should have done have but in my day not many had had a career. My first teacher had done a bit of singing in the war, and was actually a very witty man. But even if you’ve had a wonderful career, that doesn’t mean that you’re able to pass on a technique that only works for you. The other thing is, there’s nobody much around who’s able to tell whether a person will be able to pass on anything of much value before damage or good has been done. Sometimes those that have had difficulty and crises and have had to resolve them and I include myself in that have had time to think about what they’re passing on. There are others who were phenomenal singers but were different sorts of personalities and made no problems for themselves. But when push came to shove they couldn’t help somebody who didn’t know quite what to do.
“Then you have the additional stuff of bringing people in at 18 years old: whether they’re streetwise or not (and in my day we were innocent at that age), if what I now know had been presented to me at age 25 or younger, I don’t think I’d have known what to do with it. The journey for me had to be to put my trust in all sorts of people, and there were many of them. I see now how interesting it is that there are young singers and professionals who seem to cope with stress and the risk and being judged and criticised, a lot better than I do. They don’t make such problems for themselves.
“But sensitive artists tend to be quite complicated. I once read an acting book that said, ‘You take on stage everything that you are. All your fears and anxieties go on stage. There’s no point going to acting school: you take yourself on stage and present that to the public.’ My feeling about my training from a personal point of view is that there was no guidance at all about what being in the business was really like. Sometimes singing is the last thing you have to think about, and nobody tells you that. Noone tells you what it’s like to be in a foreign city, stuck in your apartment or hotel, being judged daily by this ‘Nuremberg Trial’ line up of people in the rehearsal studio, on your own, sometimes in a foreign language, with currency you don’t know, trying to establish yourself while jetlagged from a flight. I suppose that’s a given, and in my case there was not an idea that I would get beyond the chorus, so perhaps it didn’t occur to them to tell me. But it was English amateurism at its absolute worstI honestly don’t know what the answer is. We live in a world where everyone wants quick solutions, but in a singing career you have to know what you’re doing.”
Our conversation broadens out, and I ask Palmer if she thinks there is a future for opera in general. “I hope so, because I think live performance cannot be replaced. But I don’t quite know about opera in this country. It’s not seen as an integral or necessary part of life here. The snobbery means that it’s been seen as something that only the nobs go to. That is changing, and I think Covent Garden and ENO are doing remarkable work. The fact that all the regional companies have sprung up means that people have access to it, too, which is good. But it is nevertheless an expensive hobby and people find it a lot to pay. How it’s going to be sustained, I don’t know, considering the small percentage that can afford it and are interested. It is still seen to a large degree as something set apart. I’m hopeful, but I don’t know if I’m optimistic. I’m not very optimistic about this country at the moment: I feel as if we’re going out of control. There seems to have been little awareness in both this government and the one before it of what the country needs. We should be a country which respects its arts and values them as a necessary part of life; if you let that go, it becomes a fight, though it’s been a fight for as long as I’ve been in the business. But some extraordinary things are being done by some people with vision in this House alone – so I have to be hopeful.”
After more than thirty years in the business, does she have any ambitions left? “To retire!” she laughs. “I suppose the only one, and I really don’t know if it will happen now, is the idea I had many years ago of doing a one-woman show. It nearly got off the ground, but it didn’t quite make it for various reasons. I think I’m edging towards a period in my life where I think I’d rather get out before people wish I were getting out, and have happy memories. It doesn’t have to be an absolute cut. It’s perfectly normal I’m over 60, and I don’t have the energy of a 40 year old. I don’t even know if it would work, but it would certainly need me to clear the schedule. I’d quite like a bit of a life as well as being a singer, and for the most part I’ve denied myself that.” Does she regret that now? “How can one regret it? I think there’s a bit of a regret, yes, because it can be a pretty narrow sort of existence. You work as a team towards this goal of the first night, and then you become almost factory workers: do the show, and go home. I’ve put everything into this life, and I don’t think I could have done it any other way. But it was a bit of a hermit existence, and sometimes you sit and wonder, what is this about?”
And how would she like to be remembered? “Very interesting question!” she smiles. “I’ve never been asked that before. Two words come to mind. I would like to be remembered for honesty and passion. To that, I’d add commitment, because that’s something I think I have. The singers and performers and people I admire the most are committed. But more than anything, I want to be remembered as a communicator. Singers who don’t communicate the words as well as the music can make you feel bored very quickly. That’s not to say that I don’t think ravishing voices are sensational to listen to, but after a while, I want more. I have no illusions about my voice. It’s a distinctive voice, but I hope I’ve used it to communicate what I wanted to communicate.”