Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston made her Bayerische Staatsoper debut in 2013, and has since enjoyed a close relationship with the house, returning for a variety of roles. This season, she’ll perform in Puccini’s Il Trittico (17 Dec to 1 Jan) and Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Die Walküre & Götterdämmerung. She speaks to Charlotte Gardner about her relationship with Munich, how she became a singer, recordings, singers who’ve inspired her, what she’s reading and more.
You’re currently in Munich for a new production of Puccini’s Il Trittico with the Bayerische Staatsoper, singing Die Lehrmeisterin der Novizen in Suor Angelica and La Ciesca in Gianni Schicchi. So, uplifting religious redemption and a conniving bunch of greedy relatives! Is it as fun as it sounds?
Oh it’s great! The director, Lotte de Beer, is fantastic. She’s leaving the three operas set in their original periods, but with a very modern stage. It’s very clever. Then Suor Angelica has also been very unusual, because absolutely everyone onstage is a woman, and we’ve had such a nice time! Ermonela Jaho in the title role is utterly amazing too. Very inspirational. And of course Kirill Petrenko is conducting, which is always an absolute joy. So we’re fingers crossed for a big success.
So then Gianni Schicchi is quite a contrast. Are you looking forward to that?
I am. I’ve never done anything quite like it either. Ensemble operas are notoriously incredibly difficult, because musically it’s interjection after interjection. This makes the learning difficult because you can’t hear everybody else, so we’ve all expressed a wish to really work hard on it, to make sure it’s as fluent as possible. It’s also an interesting opera in terms of characterisation. Building the scene of a bickering Italian family….
How do you go about preparing your own characterisations for roles such as La Ciesa, and indeed Die Lehrmeisterin der Novizen? Does their being smaller roles present extra challenges?
At the moment my opera roles are largely character ones, simply because I’m still quite young in my repertoire, and there’s a real joy in that, both with regard to knitting my role in with the music, and then to interacting with the other characters onstage. It makes me feel a little bit more like a singer-actor, and there’s a definite difference in terms of the preparation for that; I do a lot more detailed preparation in terms of what I say to others, what they say to me, what they say about me, and how I fit in any kind of hierarchy. For instance with Suor Angelica I think my character probably falls third in the hierarchy of the senior nuns, so it’s how do I then relate to the youngest novices, and how do I relate to the older nuns who aren’t part of the tram race of management… It’s quite a fascinating thing, and I absolutely love it.
You’ve also got Das Rheingold coming up with them in January, which you’ve done in Munich before.
Yes, and I’m changing roles, because previously I sang Wellgunde and this time I’m singing Flosshilde. With Götterdämmerung though, which is next, I’m singing Second Norn, which is what I’ve always sung there.
In fact your debut with the company back in 2013 was as Second Norn in Götterdämmerung, wasn’t it?
It was, and it was an official debut rather than a step-in. I felt very fortunate, because not very many British singers appear in Munich.
How did it come about?
I actually auditioned for Glyndebourne, not Munich, but the casting director is the same person. The audition itself was the most random thing, because I’d been asked to bring Wagner and Mozart. Now the Wagner was fine, but unsurprisingly the Mozart I was really struggling with. However when he heard the Wagner he said, “Okay, I don’t think we need to hear any Mozart!” He then asked me how I’d feel about flying out to Munich to sing some of the music he wanted to hear me sing, and asked me to prepare one of the Second Norn sections. So I went out there and sang, and they not only said yes to me straight away but also immediately offered me other things too.
What’s the experience like of working with Kirill Petrenko?
He’s a remarkable conductor. He’s so clever and so specific that in the first rehearsals you almost can’t see the wood for the trees, but what that does at the other end of the process is to produce musical standards of the type you don’t get in very many other places. There’s no compromise at all, and I really admire him for that. In fact personally I don’t ever really want to be left to my own devices; the reason I enjoy singing concerts so much is because of all the different conductors I get to work with, and the challenge of fixing my voice around what they would like to create. Then on a personal basis I like him as an individual. He’s lovely in a rehearsal room, and it’s certainly the case that the orchestra absolutely adore him. He’s an ideal person to be in charge of an opera house, so we’re very lucky indeed.
Another very important opportunity that came your way was being on the BBC’s New Generation Artists scheme between 2011 and 2013. What did that period do for you?
It was an extraordinary experience. I’m somebody that, given an opportunity, will grab it with both hands. So to be given a BBC orchestra for an afternoon and told I could record whatever I want was just amazing. Then there’s the technical recording knowledge it gave me, because it’s all done so quickly – with none of the luxuries of a commercial recording – that you have to be ‘on it’ all the time, which I love. It’s also meant that my repertoire is much bigger than most singers of my generation. Furthermore, there’s the legacy it’s left in terms of my relationship with the BBC orchestras, because I now sing once or twice a season with them in a couple of cases. I’ve actually just recorded John Adams’s Dr Atomic with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with John himself conducting.
And recently you released Discoveries with them, on Albion Records, featuring new orchestrations of Ralph Vaughan Williams songs.
Yes, and that was Grammy nominated as well. Actually those orchestrations came about in the first place because Adam Gatehouse, who was running the BBC NGA programme when I was on it, heard me sing those songs in recital and thought how great it would have been had they been orchestrated. So they were commissioned especially for me. I mean, what a privilege! So I premiered them at the Proms, and then we recorded them.
Jumping right back now to the very beginning, how did you become a singer?
I took a slightly circuitous route into music to say the least. I come from a family where music was always part of my upbringing, and I joined the church choir when I was seven. I then went up to Cambridge to read Law, on a choral scholarship, but after a year in my college’s chapel choir it became evident that I was simply too loud, and so the Director of Music and I came to agreement that I just wouldn’t sing any more with them. It was just too difficult. And given that I now sing Wagner that’s not very surprising! So I went and became a barrister in London. However I then sang at a friend’s wedding, important people there told me I should think about singing, and so Stephen Cleobury – who’d known me as a student – said that if I wanted to apply for the music colleges he’d coach me. So I gave it a go, the Royal College of Music offered me a place, I thought I’d just be taking some time out of law, but I never went back.
Who were the singers you especially looked up to as you grew up and then trained?
There are three singers who made an impact personally on me more than any other. Firstly Sir Thomas Allen, who was Professor of Singing at the Royal College. I appeared as Mrs Herring when he make his directorial debut at the college with Britten’s Albert Herring, and the consequence of that was being signed by Askonas Holt. During that production Tom also took the time to do one-to-one stagecraft sessions with us, which were incredible. So I feel very lucky that I happened to be there at that time.
Secondly Philip Langridge. One particular thing I did with him was a course at the Britten Pears School in Aldeburgh, where we were eight singers and eight pianists working as duos. That was a remarkable experience that unlocked all sorts of different things in us, and later I always kept in touch with him. He was a bit like a mentor really, and I still feel his loss now.
Then of course probably the most important person of all is my own singing teacher, Lillian Watson. I started with her in 1999 and she’s still my singing teacher today, although now I just go in for the occasional MOT. I wouldn’t be where I am without her, and she is in my view the greatest singing teacher that the UK has produced.
What are those qualities that make her such an excellent teacher?
She has given me such a very solid technique that when I’m away for months on end I don’t have to worry about anything vocally. I’ve learnt how to diagnose problems for myself, and I’ve learnt how to cope when I’m not feeling brilliant.
Furthermore, with her own background as an international level performer she can mentor in the real sense: decisions about repertoire, what direction is healthy, what I should be doing now, all of which can be very hard with a bigger instrument. I think with lighter voices it can be easier to see a path. That’s actually also why I’m so deeply grateful to Munich, because they’ve allowed me to continue to be onstage doing really good roles, but without being under the pressure that will come when I eventually tackle the really big stuff I’m young for at the moment. So that combination of Lillian, the BBC and the Bayerische Staatsoper have been a trio of luck. I’m very, very fortunate that the three have existed side by side.
Going really frothy for a moment, what are you currently reading?
I’m in the middle of reading a book about the Holocaust. I’m also reading a couple of travel books because in the spring I’m doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Tokyo with the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst, and when the concerts are over I’m staying on for a holiday with my daughter. I’ve never been to Japan before, I’m fascinated by the culture, so I just want to make the most of it for both of us.
Sticking with world sights, if you had to pick one favourite view where would it be?
My parents’ house sits on the coast overlooking the Welsh mountains and the Mersey estuary, and the beach where Anthony Gormley’s iron men statues are. For me that’s home, so if I could take any view in the world with me then it would be that one.
If you did have to spend some time alone on a desert island, what one recording would you bring?
Let’s talk a bit about social media now. It’s really interesting to see different artists’ attitudes to engaging with it. Some just don’t. Some do, but in a very a controlled PR-y way. But you’re one of the few who actively engage and debate, and even sometimes show us your life beyond the stage. So what exactly are your personal guiding principles in terms of engaging online?
In terms of breaking barriers down, I do think that it’s important that at least some of us make an effort in social media terms, just to enlighten people a little bit to the fact that we singers are generally genuinely normal people; too much mystique, and the danger is that it puts people off opera, particularly when every time an opera singer appears in the press it looks and sounds glamorous, but also remote.
Still, I’ve recently restricted myself to work-related posts on Twitter. That’s not to say that I won’t pass an opinion if I think it’s necessary, but I think Twitter has become a bit lawless. People can say terrible things when they can’t see each other. So I think what I’ve learnt is that whilst it’s nice to invite people in to a degree, it’s also nice to keep them out to a degree.
What beyond Munich are you looking forward to in the coming season?
I’ve got quite a lot coming up, and the joy of it is that it’s all completely different; there’s no sort of big pattern to everything. So, as I said earlier I’m looking forward to going to Japan, and it’ll be an interesting experience to take Beethoven there, and all the more so with Franz Welser-Möst and his wonderful orchestra. I’m also doing Thomas Adès‘ Totentanz again, only this time not with Tom conducting but with Daniel Harding in Sweden. Then beyond that I’m actually in the opera house for a lot of this season, so for once it’s not endless concerts all over the world. I’m in one place for a bit.