Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Sarah Connolly

This month sees British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly back in breeches as the boisterous young count Octavian in David McVicar’s celebrated production of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. It’s a part she debuted, to rave reviews, in the same production at Scottish Opera in 2006. I meet her during rehearsals in a deserted caf at English National Opera’s North London studios.

Since her ENO debut as Xerxes in 1998 she has slowly but surely without hype or histrionics established herself as one of the world’s leading mezzos, a widely respected Handelean, and something of a cross-dressing specialist. Mezzo-sopranos are often pitied for their ‘witches, bitches and breeches’ roles, but as Connolly has proved, these can be some of the most interesting and remarkable characterisations on the opera stage. In some interviews Connolly has come across as feisty, forthright even, but perhaps a day spent sulking, strutting and sword fighting has taken its toll because our conversation is mellow and relaxed.

Octavian presents an incredibly demanding role, both physically and vocally, and she admits it can become exhausting. “In performance, the adrenaline keeps you going and it’s important to keep eating throughout the intervals, otherwise your energy drops and you can’t keep it going. It’s perfectly doable and the music carries you through but I’m absolutely shattered at the end of the show and almost voiceless the next day.” Otherwise, however, she is upbeat and clearly relishing the chance to play the toy-boy lover once again.

“I’ve been ready to sing it since 2003 or 2004, around the time I was doing The Trojans my voice opened up a bit at the top and that’s what you need for Octavian, a free and strongish top.” A fluent German speaker, she has spent time revising and updating Alfred Kalisch’s translations of the original Hofmannsthal libretto for her part, but remains ambivalent about singing the opera in English: “It does ultimately sound better in German because Octavian’s nature is expressed with quite explosive consonants. For example the opening, ‘Vie du warst! Vie du bist!’, is quite a sexy thing to say, but if you’re going ‘How you were! How you are!’ it’s not sexy, and it’s quite difficult to follow the expression.”

However, as she explains, the audience will no doubt benefit from the immediacy of the humour, and McVicar’s intricate and extravagant production does much to restore the subtlety of the piece: “It’s absolutely amazing,” she enthuses, “no stone is left unturned, every joke to be had is there, and he doesn’t just let the person singing wander off, there’s always a consequence to one’s actions.” Contrary to his (largely exaggerated) reputation as an enfant terrible of the opera world, McVicar situates his Rosenkavalier in a conventional eighteenth-century context, playing on Hogarthian aesthetics to convey a sense of salaciousness and satire.

she will happily ad-lib da capo ornaments

As a pair they have collaborated on many projects, including The Rape of Lucretia, La Clemenza di Tito, Alcina and, perhaps most notably, Glyndebourne’s rip-roaring Giulio Cesare, which is now an award-winning DVD in its own right. The latter had critics and audiences enthralled by Connolly’s vocal capabilities (blessed with a natural instinct for harmony, she will happily ad-lib da capo ornaments on the night) and astonishing portrayal of the Roman Emperor. Some still declare her Cesare more masculine than David Daniels’ interpretation in the revival run (“horses for courses,” she shrugs) and YouTube viewers have often mistaken her for a ‘handsome’ counter-tenor. There’s certainly no doubt that Connolly has mastered the art of playing a man.

Octavian is much younger and more impetuous than Cesare but similar rules apply: “It was actually John Tomlinson who said in conversation years ago that he’d noticed that what differentiates men and women when they walk is the hip line, that women control their hips when they walk whereas men have a lower hip line and lower sense of gravity. So I consciously let my legs swing a bit more in the hip joint and just the thought of that seems to work, though you have to be careful that you don’t assume a John Wayne stride! If you think the right thoughts, your body takes the pose to reflect them.”

Although she started by studying the piano at the Royal College of Music (where she has just been awarded a Fellowship) she quickly opted to combine with the voice, and after graduating sang with the BBC Singers for five years before deciding to pursue an operatic career. The subsequent transition from ensemble singer to soloist was no easy ride, and she endured three years of unsuccessful auditions, which were “demoralising beyond belief”, before she could prove her talent. “I didn’t believe in myself enough, I wasn’t confident at all, the only thing I knew was that I had good musical instincts, and that I had so much to say but my technique didn’t always back it up.”

“I would love to do a low-key recording of jazz classics”

At one stage, during her early 30s (she’s now 44) Connolly considered ditching classical music in favour of jazz, and she stopped singing for four or five months to follow trumpet riffs just so she could understand how to scat-sing. It remains a great passion her record collection is mostly comprised of jazz and she cites Carmen McRae as “one of the greatest interpreters of song, ever” and she speaks excitedly about her desire to branch out again. It wouldn’t be cross-over stuff, she explains, it would be the real deal, with microphone, jazz-trio and the works. “I’ve actually got my eye on a wonderful young pianist at the Guildhall I won’t say who because I haven’t asked him yet! and I would love to get together and do a low-key recording of some jazz classics, just for my pleasure.”

Connolly has also shown an active interest in contemporary music, performing work by composers such as Paul Edlin, Jonathan Harvey and Mark-Anthony Turnage, who wrote the part of Susie in The Silver Tassie for her. Asked if she has faith in the future of opera composition, she mentions the huge respect she has for Turnage’s work and talks enthusiastically about Harrison Birtwistle’s new opera, Minotaur, which she caught at Royal Opera the week before. “I’m absolutely heartened that this is the way forward, to have a strong drama, strong lyrics, and a strong production, something that’s challenging but lyrical it’s got to be lyrical for singers, I don’t understand music that cannot express what the voice does by snatching at phrases.” When I mention the fear-mongering that goes on about a crisis in opera she dismisses the suggestion with confidence.

Whilst Connolly’s repertoire has traditionally focused on Handel’s heroes, with Cesare, Xerxes, Ruggiero and Ariodante all under her belt, it boasts an eclectic range, including Bach cantatas, early Schoenberg lieder, and more recent work by John Taverner, and it is some measure of her musical agility that Purcell and Berlioz Didos now feature on her CV. Her stage characters have tended to have a cerebral quality to them, which suits the intelligence of her approach, and it’s hard to imagine her doing ditzy as Dorabella or enjoying the frivolity of Rosina or Angelina indeed, Rossini’s music is something of anathema “I don’t like to sing it and I don’t particularly like to listen to it, I don’t like the repetition.”

long over-due Covent Garden debut

That said, anyone who caught her gin-swigging, hand-bag-swinging Agrippina last year will know she makes a fine femme fatale, and she reveals that Clairon, the camped-up actress character in Strauss’ Capriccio, is on the horizon, though the precise details of the production are still under-wraps. Meanwhile, and excepting her return to the Proms for Ravel’s Shhrazade, she is immersing herself in Purcell’s Dido: she sang it at the Wigmore Hall only last week, she has a Chandos recording coming up, and makes her long-overdue Covent Garden debut with the role next season. Royal Opera’s disinterest up until now has caused much consternation amongst critics and of course with Connolly herself. “I’ve actually become quite blas about it because I never expected it to happen, I had decided to stop hoping, I’d just got the feeling.”

Perhaps with RO’s new-found appreciation of the baroque repertoire their casting directors suddenly realised what they’re missing. Connolly knows and admires Wayne McGregor’s choreographed production of Dido and Aeneas having done it at La Scala in 2006 “I love it. It leaves the music free to be expressed and yet there’s a strong sense of antiquity, power, beauty and mysticism” and she is clearly grateful for the opportunity to tread those sacred boards. “Let’s just hope it changes a few people’s minds,” she sighs. If her Wigmore performance is anything to go by, it’ll knock ’em dead.

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