You’ve recently made your debut as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes at La Scala, which has received rave reviews. Congratulations! How have you found the experience?
It’s long been my dream to work with the director Richard Jones, but it’s been better than I could have imagined. The whole process has been wonderful – also working with Robin Ticciati, who has such a fresh lyrical approach and incredible maturity for a man of his age. It’s been a great process.
And to sing at La Scala – as great a thrill as it seems from the outside?
Well it is just incredible. It’s hard to express. It can be quite intimidating, in a way, the sense of all the ghosts here. But the acoustics are extraordinary; I have never worked anywhere where the sweet spots are quite so specific. Every time I wasn’t on stage during rehearsals I went and sat in every possible position around the house to try and ‘solve’ it! The way they make music at La Scala is unlike any other theatre – it’s chaotic, but the end result is possibly better than anything that might have come from some very organized system. They don’t define the end product, but that allows for moments of simply exquisite music-making.
How have you approached the role?
In Richard’s production I feel that Ellen, at last, can be seen for whom she is – she’s compassionate, she wants to help Peter; we’re really exploring the full dimensions of her as a character. She sees him as a project, a soul in need, and Richard has followed that to such an extent that she is subconsciously manipulative – at the end of the show, she is as guilty as Peter. In fact, Peter isn’t guilty in this production. And all this psychological exploration has been helped not only by the brilliance of Richard and Robin – and Britten himself, of course! – but by John Graham-Hall, who approached the role not as vocal showcase for one person, as it can often be, but from a character-led way of thinking. That also helped me enormously.
It sounds as if it has been a very rich creative collaboration?
True collaboration is the greatest delight in this profession and, yes, it is quite rare that you can collaborate in way that you’re transformed like this.
Britten aside, are there certain periods or composers whose music you most enjoy singing?
Where do you start?! I love singing Mozart. That is my core repertoire; he keeps my voice really fit. I recently sang Donna Anna at the Bolshoi and Konstanze in London, Munich and Berlin. I’d always love to do more Mozart. From concert arias to the operas, the sheer range is just extraordinary; he just understood character, and voices, and how to allow the voice to stretch itself, stretch its arms! Having trained up my voice on the great Handel and Mozart heroines, I am ready to sing bel canto repertoire such the Donizetti Tudor queens or a Desdemona which I use as my warm-up! I relish a role with great dramatic potential for that is where the music comes from. I also have a strong affinity for Janacek and particularly Strauss having just sung my first Countess Madeleine, and I love singing the Vier Letzte Lieder. The Marschallin will be on the cards soon I hope.
Your repertoire is incredibly varied, ranging from Elettra, Vitellia and Rodelinda to Micaela, Tatyana, Blanche de la Force and Liu. How do you approach singing in such different styles?
I always start with the text, and then, when I feel I’ve really got inside the character, I learn the music. At that point you can hopefully feel where the challenges are, where the composer’s coming from.
Your discography is also huge and very varied. Do you enjoy the recording process?
I find the experience varies so much to do with the companies you work for, as well as the orchestra and conductor. With Richard Hickox, for example, we used to do three takes and be done; while other people are much more about details and like to do endless takes. I’m a kind of first-take girl, which can be a challenge if you’re doing rehearse-record!
Are there any recordings you’re particularly proud of or feel worked particularly well?
The key element for me is working with friends. I love recording with people I really get on with, musically as well as personally. It’s intangible, but you sort of meet in the music. For example, I recorded Shostakovitch’s Seven Romances with the Florestan Trio, and Anthony Marwood and I have a long-standing friendship, we played together as violinists in the National Youth Orchestra. Or I recently recorded Les Illuminations with Ed Gardner which I loved doing – I’m really looking forward to doing Elgar’s Coronation Ode with him at the First Night of the Proms. Essentially I love working with people who are searching and who also allow vulnerability into the process.
At university you studied botany: do you still find time for your interests outside of music?
I’m away from home a lot so I can’t do as much as I like but I am involved with my local council for the management of an SSSI [Site of Specific Scientific Interest], helping with habitat management and biodiversity recording. I’m fascinated in the perception of nature and how that informs the way in which people use the environment. To me, it’s all connected to my music: on an aesthetic level, how we approach the sublimity in nature has parallels within music – people think it’s separate, but music is a part of nature too.
What are you reading at the moment?
I love to read widely - the classics, poetry, modern literature, aesthetics and anything about the crossover between science and art. At the moment I’m reading some Yeats. We’ve just moved house and I’ve inherited lots of books from my parents so I’ve been working through the classics, things like DH Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers. I’m trying to keep up with my daughter, who reads voraciously!
What’s on your iPod?
Well I never really listen to opera! If I need to chill out, it’s Amy Winehouse. I love jazz, particularly Miles Davis. If I need a rich experience I put on the amazing pianist Geoffery Tozer. I love his Medtner recordings, the intensity, variety and detail. But I do also listen to Edita Gruberová singing Mozart – it somehow makes me feel aligned.
An opera singer's life is a famously itinerant one; where do you feel most at home?
As a singer, my spiritual home has been Munich in the [Sir Peter] Jonas era. Working in that house is an immense privilege. The trust that he had in understanding what roles were right for me was amazing: you don’t feel like you’re being judged all the time – you can make mistakes. It taught me how to jump on a stage with minimal rehearsal and respond to the moment. But music itself is a kind of home in itself. And I definitely feel it with Britten. I began at the Britten-Pears school singing Governess for Steuart Bedford and so many of my projects have been in Aldeburgh, like last year it was Female Chorus with Oli Knussen. So home, for me, is also onstage. [Laughs.] And also in my vegetable patch in Reigate…
© Clemency Burton-Hill