Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in 2004 Lucy Crowe’s talent has been acknowledged with a Second Prize at the 2005 Kathleen Ferrier Awards and a number of noted recitals, but only 12 months ago she was still trying to escape the confines of relative obscurity.
Her performance as Sophie in David McVicar’s production of Der Rosenkavalier for Scottish Opera last autumn, however, launched Crowe as one of the brightest young things in the business.
Hot on the heals of that success came the role of Poppea in Agrippina at ENO, where she stole the show with her stylish soprano (and a spirited striptease), and the work has snowballed from there: Dido and Aeneas with Opera North, Il Re Pastore at Garsington, and a celebrated contribution to Mark Padmore’s latest Handel recording. This month sees Crowe return to the Coliseum to play Drusilla in a new production of The Coronation of Poppea from the acclaimed Chinese-born director, Chen Shi-Zheng. It’s a secondary role and one can’t help sensing a slight frustration at that Crowe clearly has huge ambition but she is full of enthusiasm about the production.
We meet in a gloomy conference room at the Coliseum on a miserable rainy day and it’s her second interview of the morning, but Crowe bounds in and seems cheerful and chatty. I begin by commenting on her meteoric rise and although she is quick to mention the achievements of others this year not least those of her Poppea colleague, Kate Royal she speaks with obvious pride about her newfound status. “It certainly feels amazingI feel like I’ve been able to show what I’m able to do and that I’m making people sit up and listen a bit more.” Having caught the attention of critics and casting-directors she now seems keen to expand her repertoire.
Much of Crowe’s work so far has been in the Baroque or Classical tradition and although she sang the part of Venus in a production of Poppea at college, she has relished the opportunity to immerse herself in Early Music. “I find it a real joy to do something different. It’s a pleasure to sing Monteverdi because you get a real chance to play with your sound,” she enthuses. “Obviously you’ve got to do it tastefully and in the right way, but to be able to take out the vibrato totally and to make some rather ugly sounds, is really quite exciting.”
The music might have come naturally but Crowe admits she struggled with Drusilla at first. “I saw myself in her a little bit,” she explains, slipping enigmatically from third to second person when describing Drusilla’s relationship with Ottone: “she’s blinded by love and they’re so not right for each other, but you throw yourself at this man when there is no need at all.” It was perhaps a reflection on the stability this year has brought (the Agrippina run culminated in an offer from Royal Opera and a proposal from her boyfriend) that let her accept Drusilla’s weaknesses. “I think it’s about realising where I am in my stage of life and that I would never act the way she does but that I can bring my experience to her.”
The Coronation of Poppea like Agrippina delves into the violence and sexual intrigue surrounding the Caesar dynasty, but there was no need to swot-up on Tacitus for this production: “What Shi-Zheng is really about is visionwhat you will see is something quite surreal but beautiful to look at, so in the rehearsal process he’s interested in where we’re standing and our body language, more than really getting into the character.” Like Shi-Zheng’s hugely successful Orfeo at ENO last April, the cast of Poppea will be supplemented by Indonesian dancers from his own Orange Blossom Dance Company and looks set to synthesise a wide range of cultural influences.
Robert Lloyd will bring a necessary distinction to the part of Seneca but Crowe explains that Shi-Zheng was keen for a young cast of singers in the other roles. “It’s funny, in the first few weeks of rehearsal it really did feel like British Youth Opera but in a really good way,” she laughs, “it was brilliant to see all these new young faces.” I hint at the potential for rivalry, particularly in the light of Kate Royal’s sudden celebrity, but she insists they are all good friends. “Of course it’s hard in some ways because everyone would dream of getting a recording deal but you’ve got to keep focussed on what you’re doing. I’m thrilled for Kate and she’s doing brilliantly.”
By the sounds of things Crowe has plenty of varied and exciting projects of her own. Later this year she is travelling to South Africa and Uganda, where she will sing Mozart’s Requiem with the African Children’s Choir and get involved with some outreach work. She’s recording a Craig Armstrong piece for the Virgin Classics label at Christmas, is already booked for a recital with Julius Drake next year, and looking forward to two appearances at Covent Garden in 2009. On top of all of this Crowe hopes to have time to promote the “acoustic-pop-folky-type” music she performs with her fianc, which they play under the name ‘Tea with Genie’ in bars and clubs around London.
This inevitably brings us to the issue of ‘cross-over’ music a bte noire for most opera singers but she seems reluctant to pass judgment and it turns out Katherine Jenkins is a friend and former flatmate. “It’s really difficult,” she says, glancing nervously at the Dictaphone, “if people are making a career and enjoying what they’re doing, good for them and that’s great. The only thing I know people like myself don’t like is when they read in newspapers that the ‘popera’ generation are the best in the world.” Crowe clearly prefers to keep the two genres distinct, admitting she always dreamt of being both an “opera star and a pop star.” It looks as though she’s half way there.
Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea plays at English National Opera on 18,20,25,26 October, 1,2,6 November 2007