• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Sarah Connolly

    [Opera Lively interview # 125] Dear readers, it is with immense pleasure that we bring to you this phenomenal interview with one of our favorite singers, British mezzo Sarah Connolly. She is an extraordinary artist and we were thrilled to meet her in person for this very interesting conversation. Ms. Connolly came to America to sing the role of Irene in Handel's oratorio Theodora, in tour with maestro Harry Bicket and his period orchestra The English Concert. You can read our piece with maestro Bicket by clicking [here]. The publication of this interview is timely, since in a week this performance will hit the waves with broadcasts on March 15-16 of the Theodora concerts scheduled on WQXR and France Musique.

    Of course we've known Sarah Connolly for a long time, and it is no secret that for the Opera Lively community, one of the most beloved and most commented upon video recordings of an opera is her Giulio Cesare blu-ray disc and DVD released by Opus Arte. This is not Sarah's only claim to fame: we'll talk about her extensive recording and performance histories.


    Photo Credit Peter Warr


    Artistic Biography

    Singer: Sarah Patricia Connolly
    Born in: County Durham, North East England, on June 13, 1963
    Fach: Mezzo-soprano
    Web site: www.sarah-connolly.com
    Recently in: Theodora tour with maestro Harry Bicket and The English Concert, USA and the UK, various cities
    Next in: Dream of Gerontius, April 6, and The Apostles, April 12, both with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis, Barbican Hall, London. On April 24, recital of Duparc songs with Henk Nevin and Malcolm Martineau, The Wigmore Hall, London. On May 8, Der Rosenkavalier, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder, Barbican Hall, London

    Sarah as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier


    Sarah Connolly, Commander of the British Empire, is one of the foremost British mezzo sopranos. She is a Fellow of the Royal College of Music where she studied piano and singing. She has been nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award, a TMA Award, two Grammy Awards and won an Edison, Gramophone and South Bank Awards. Sarah lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and daughter.

    Her engagements in the 2013/14 season include the title role in Agrippina at the Gran Teatro del Liceu and the title role in a new production of Ariodante at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. On the concert platform she will sing Octavian Der Rosenkavalier (London Symphony Orchestra/Elder), Mahler's Symphony no. 2 (Boston Symphony Orchestra/von Dohnányi), Berlioz' Les nuits d'été (London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nézet-Séguin), Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis), Irene in an American and European tour of Handel's Theodora (The English Concert/Bicket) and Mendelssohn's Elijah (Filarmonica della Scala/Harding).

    Among her recent highlights on the operatic stage are Fricka Das Rheingold & Die Walküre (Covent Garden); Dido Dido & Aeneas (La Scala & Covent Garden); Komponist Ariadne auf Naxos and Clairon Capriccio (Metropolitan Opera); Phèdre Hippolyte et Aricie (Paris Opera); the title role in Giulio Cesare and Brangäne Tristan und Isolde (Glyndebourne Festival); Sesto La clemenza di Tito (Festival d'Aix-en-Provence); Gluck’s Orfeo and the title role in The Rape of Lucretia (Bayerische Staatsoper) and Nerone L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Gran Teatro del Liceu & Maggio Musicale in Florence).

    She has also sung the title role in Maria Stuarda and Romeo I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Opera North); Komponist (Welsh National Opera) and Octavian (Scottish Opera). A favourite at the English National Opera, her roles there have included Octavian; the title roles in Charpentier's Médée and in Handel's Agrippina, Xerxes and Ariodante, Ruggiero Alcina and Didon Les Troyens.

    Sarah as Agrippina

    She has appeared in recital in London and New York and at the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals and her many concert engagements include appearances at the Lucerne, Salzburg, Tanglewood and Three Choirs Festivals and at the BBC Proms where, in 2009, she was a memorable guest soloist at the Last Night. Much in demand for the great lyric mezzo repertory, her recent appearances have included the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Sir Colin Davis; the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester with Chailly; the Concertgebouw Orchestra with Harding; L’Orchestre des Champs-Élysées with Herreweghe; the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Jurowski, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Rattle and the Hallé Orchestra with Elder.



    Ms. Connolly's repertoire is extremely impressive and includes:

    J.S. BACH
    St. Matthew Passion

    Missa Solemnis

    The History of the Thé Dansant

    I Capuleti e i Montecchi - Roméo

    La Damnation de Faust - Marguerite
    La Mort de Cléopâtre
    L'enfance du Christ
    Les nuits d'été
    Les Troyens - Didon

    Alto Rhapsody

    A Charm of Lullabies
    A Spring Symphony
    The Rape of Lucretia - Lucretia

    Mass in D minor

    Medée - Medée

    In the Beginning

    Maria Stuarda - Maria Stuarda

    Stabat Mater

    The Apostles
    Coronation Ode
    The Dream of Gerontius
    The Kingdom
    The Music Makers
    Sea Pictures

    Orfeo - Orfeo

    Agrippina - Agrippina
    Alcina - Ruggiero
    Ariodante - Ariodante
    Belshazzar - Cyrus
    Giulio Cesare - Giulio Cesare
    Jephtha - Sorge
    Judas Maccabeus - Israelitish Man
    Semele - Ino / Juno
    Theodora - Irene
    Serse - Serse
    Saul - David
    Solomon - Solomon

    Songs of Li Po

    Arianna a Naxos
    Nelson Mass
    Scena di Berenice
    The Seven Last Words


    Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher

    The Diary of one who Disappeared

    Neruda Songs

    Des Knaben Wunderhorn
    Das Lied von der Erde
    Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
    Symphony no. 2
    Symphony no. 3
    Symphony no. 8

    Werther - Charlotte


    L'incoronzazione di Poppea - Nerone

    La clemenza di Tito - Sesto
    Mass in C Minor - Soprano 2

    Stabat Mater

    Dido & Aeneas - Dido

    Hippolyte et Aricie - Phèdre


    Petite Messe Solenelle
    Stabat Mater

    Das Paradies und die Peri - Engel
    Frauenliebe und -leben
    Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart
    Liederkreis, Op. 39

    Ariadne auf Naxos - Komponist
    Capriccio - Clairon
    Der Rosenkavalier - Octavian

    Tribute to Cavafy

    A Child of our Time

    The Silver Tassie - Susie
    Twice Through the Heart

    Das Rheingold - Fricka
    Tristan und Isolde - Brangäne
    Die Walküre - Fricka
    Weisendonck Lieder



    Ms. Connolly has to her name an extensive discography/videography. Her recordings include, among many others:

    BRITTEN: The Rape of Lucretia (title role) on Opus Arte DVD and blu-ray disc
    David McVicar's production for English National Opera, filmed at the Aldeburgh Festival

    MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde on CD
    London Philharmonic Orchestra, maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin

    MAHLER: Symphony No.2, on Accentus DVD
    Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, maestro Riccardo Chailly

    MAHLER: Symphony No.3, on Signum Classics CD
    Philharmonia Voices & Tiffin Boys’ Choir.

    MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn on Harmonia Mundi CD
    Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, Philippe Herreweghe

    HANDEL: Giulio Cesare on Opus Arte DVD, title role
    Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
    David Mcvicar's production from the Glyndebourne Festival

    MAHLER: Symphony No.2, on Linn Records CD
    Benjamin Zander, conductor
    Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus

    BRITTEN: Phaedra & A Charm of Lullabies on Chandos CD
    BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner

    ELGAR: Sea Pictures & The Music Makers, on Naxos CD
    Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Simon Wright

    HANDEL: Duets, on Chandos CD, with Rosemary Joshua - soprano
    The English Concert, Harry Bicket

    HANDEL: Saul, on Coro CD, in the role of David
    The Sixteen, Harry Christophers

    MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen on Signum Classics CD
    Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Vladimir Jurowski

    SCHUMANN: Songs of Love & Loss, on Chandos CD
    Eugene Asti - piano

    MENDELSSOHN: Elijah, on Signum Classics CD
    Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh

    My True Love Hath My Heart (English Songs), on Chandos CD
    Malcolm Martineau - piano

    PURCELL: Dido & Aeneas, title role, on Opuls Arte DVD and blu-ray disc
    Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment, Christopher Hogwood
    Wayne McGregor's production from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

    PURCELL: Dido & Aeneas, title role, on Chaconne CD
    Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Elizabeth Kenny and Stephen Devine


    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Sarah Connolly

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalists Mary Auer and Luiz Gazzola. Proofreading and editing by Opera Lively member Kristin Jensen. Photos used with permission from the singer's web site and credited when credit is known (we'll gladly add more credits if they are sent to us); fair promotional use.


    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - You have significant diversity in your repertoire. You sing everything from a focus on Baroque operas and oratorios to Lieder by Mahler and Korngold, to a couple of Wagner roles, to 20th century operas, and so on. Some singers have maintained that this sort of stylistic versatility is necessary to keep the voice healthy. Have you found this to be true?

    Sarah Connolly - I think it keeps my mind healthy. I’m lucky enough to have worked hard at the technique that allows my soul and my mind to explore all the varieties on offer, and that are suitable, obviously. I think if I just stuck to one genre I might be good at it, but wouldn’t be offering anything new. I have to offer something of myself, and things that I didn’t even know about. I like to explore new music to see how I might react to that, much like a painter might react to different light, or a photographer might see something that he hasn’t ever photographed before, but he wants to try it; so that’s how I feel with all this different music.

    OL - Your Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne was very much acclaimed. This is a production I love and consider that its release on DVD and Blu-ray qualifies as one of the best operatic videos ever released. I had the pleasure of interviewing your colleague Danielle de Niese and we chatted about the production. Now I’m thrilled that I’m talking to you as well. What special memories do you have to share with our readers about that production?

    SC - It was very much designed with these singers in mind. That’s part of Sir David McVicar’s secret, if you like, to work with the talents of the singers he has. So, he would never arrive with ideas in mind which would not suit his performers. For example, Danielle’s strength, apart from singing was dancing, so the choreography supported that. In advance of the first day, I had emailed David wondering if he agreed with me that Giulio Cesare should be played as a 54-year-old, not a young romantic as we see so many times. This was after all his age on meeting Cleopatra. David had already decided Cesare should be the experienced war veteran, rather jaded, emotionally detached, slightly lascivious, wise emperor, and he was delighted I agreed.

    I also enjoyed sharing the energies of my colleagues who were tremendously inventive. Christophe Dumaux and Christopher Maltman in ‘Va tacito’, where we enact a courtly hunting dance, were very skilled actors. We were able to rub off each other, and I had the most wonderful time, generally. I felt empowered by Cesare’s strength.

    OL - I confess that now, every time I think of the historical figure Julius Caesar, the mental image I make of him is the one you delivered in that performance (just like now Cleopatra for me looks like Dani). Then, meeting Julius Caesar in person and – whoa – he is a lady! – is a bit of a mind twist. How are you able to “get inside” male characters mentally or emotionally? Do you find it more difficult to portray a male figure than someone like Mary Stuart or Dido?

    SC - No, I approach all my characters very seriously, as an actress would. I research my characters if they are historic, and if they are not, then I investigate somebody like them. But most of all, I try to find something of myself in the person I am being, and the ultimate inspiration for that is in the score.

    For Giulio Cesare, I read a lot about and around him. This helps me become the character, so that I don’t need to think about who he is when I sing too much, although I always question my motivations. The first day of rehearsals always begins with a sing-through of the scene, no acting required. However, on this occasion I just fell into character as I was so well prepared mentally. I just started pacing around the room then sat down to sing 'Presti Omai.' Something I understand from having watched The Godfather trilogy is that the most important person in the room is always seated. From that moment on, this aria’s staging remained the same. It is not easy to sing, sitting down on a saggy canvas director’s chair with armour knocking your larynx [laughs] But that’s how it came about.

    With Mary Stuart, I had read a lot – almost everything there is to read about her. By the time I was interviewed about Mary Stuart and about Donizetti’s time of writing the opera, I knew something of who she had been.

    Anthony MacDonald was a most sympathetic director. I cannot work with someone who wants a bland formulaic production which does not factor in my brain.

    OL - Speaking of Dido, you’ve sung the Queen of Carthage in both Berlioz’s Les Troyens – my second most favorite opera of all time after the Ring [she interjects: Yes, me too!] - and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, another superb work. Of course, these two composers represent vastly different musical styles. But what about the character of Dido herself. How did Berlioz’s and Purcell’s treatment of this figure emphasize different aspects of her personality? I am highly interested in what you said about Dido's curious spirituality that is in conflict with her earthbound neediness. By the way, your Dido was deemed by Opera News “This Dido does not ‘act the queen’; she is a queen, noble in sound and gesture.”

    SC - The common denominator is obviously Virgil, and I also think of Christopher Marlowe, the British playwright, a contemporary of Shakespeare. He wrote this beautiful play, Dido, Queen of Carthage, which is very much an expansion and update of Virgil’s very short powerful story in the Aeneid, and I know that he influenced Berlioz. It is the most beautiful expression of parting sorrows, of somebody who has invested everything, unwisely, knowing that it was to end in disaster. It seems to be something that resonates with me. Maybe I’ve always understood a certain kind of destiny, a sympathy with something longed for and not achieved, or something worth spending every last penny on, knowing that it will end badly, but just for the experience, just for the moment of love, those moments with Aeneas.

    Sarah as Dido

    The trouble is, she hoped that love could defeat fate, which is why in the Berlioz opera, when Aeneas leaves, she says “We could have had a baby, we could have had a child.” She could even be pregnant and contemplating abortion. Either way, the loss is as deep as her previous gain. She is somebody who has been invented by Virgil to demonstrate the sort of dangers of following your heart, not common sense. If the queen can fall, then anyone can, so take care! But it’s a great story, whether it is fleshed-out in the Berlioz version or the timeless Purcell telling.

    I’ve done a very interesting version of Dido and Aeneas with 2ft tall puppets by director Tim Carroll. Actors played an adapted version of Christopher Marlowe’s play, and singers sang Purcell’s music interrupted by Marlowe’s words. I shared the beautifully made Dido puppet with the actress Dido; when she spoke, she controlled the head and a hand, I controlled the back and stayed subservient to her expression and vice versa. Tim’s inventive production was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank , London. We laid Dido on the funeral pyre at the end, and we were all in floods. Singing the lament with a lump in my throat was very hard. I imagined that I would be terrible at puppetry, but our Dido puppet was so beautiful, and to experience Marlowe’s words brought to life by the actress Yolanda Vasquez was unforgettable.

    OL - Any plans of portraying the Queen of Carthage again in La Didone by Cavalli? I really like that opera as well, in spite of its alternative happy ending (I do like my Dido, Didon, or Didone dead at the end…)

    SC - Yes, it’s beautiful. I’d love to; I’m just waiting to be asked!

    OL - Now let’s address this extraordinary work, Theodora, one of my favorite Handel oratorios, and certainly the composer’s own favorite, even above the Messiah – he went as far as saying that the second act chorus “He saw the lovely youth” was in his words “far beyond” the “Hallelujah” in Messiah – I find this chorus sublime with its solemn and sad quality that then evolves to lively ecstasy. It’s been said of Theodora that it is of such transcendent beauty that words fail to describe it. However if someone can describe it in words, it must be you, so please try. What is special about Theodora?

    SC - It is an intensely aural experience, so by trying to describe it verbally, I will fail. How could one man write so many successful melodies in one piece? A thought occurred to me the other night – is there a contemporary composer who could even write two of these melodies? I don’t think so. Certainly ten musical numbers, including the choruses, are of such a high caliber that only Bach can claim to be on that level of genius– in the St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor. The depth of emotion is exhausting. Irene, my character is kind of a healer in the way Jesus’ tribesfolk were reported to have been, the Essenes. The subject is about loss and spiritual gain, and very dear to Handel, and it tells us something about his psyche, and how he was able to create stories around biblical characters, unlike Samson, and Saul for example.

    OL - Irene – the friend of a Christian martyr. Do you think it’s more difficult for modern audiences to identify with such a story? Although her music is sublime, Irene is not very developed as a character, but for what it’s worth, what is your reading of, shall we say, this character’s personality?

    SC - Yes, I think her music speaks for her. She is a Christian, a priestess, a sect leader. Theodora is a noblewoman, and probably secretly educated, but Irene is subservient to her. As I mentioned before, Irene is a healing character. So she is not such a fire and brimstone Old Testament “Thou shalt not!” – she is somebody who would be seen in 17th century terms as a witch, in Handel’s day. She would be a dangerous person because of her powers. Handel gives her the most extraordinarily powerful almost magical hypnotic arias, restoring the soul. He could have given her martial arias, like “Horrible Romans, down with the Romans!” But no, he gave her beautiful music.

    OL – In the acclaimed Glyndebourne production by Peter Sellars and William Christie, Irene was sung by a great artist we lost to an untimely death, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Other recordings had Susan Bickley and Juliette Galstian. Do you watch or listen to your predecessors, for inspiration?

    SC - Certainly Lorraine, yes. She is just an inspiration and one of last century’s greatest Handel singers, and I mourn losing her. Sometimes I feel that this piece is hers, yet I have found my own voice, my own Irene. I don’t think Glyndebourne will ever stage Theodora again because of the memories of Lorraine, but I would like to do a different production of Theodora with a director open to ideas about Irene. I don’t know how much of Peter there was in Lorraine’s assumption of Irene.. that would be interesting to know. That production is extraordinary and I tell everybody to watch it if they have never seen it before, or have never seen a production, or listened to it.

    OL - You’ve sung a bit of Didymus in recordings.

    SC - Yes.

    OL - Do you prefer Didymus or Irene?

    SC - Irene, definitely, but I miss singing the Didymus/Theodora duets!

    OL - What vocal challenges are involved in singing the character Irene, in terms of difficult ranges, exposed arias, or anything else of that sort?

    SC – There are no major vocal challenges aside from long phrases with steady crescendi and diminuendi, also piano singing with control. The first aria is quite jumpy [she sings a bit of it] indicative of Irene’s desire to grab the attention of the crowd. She is in her zealot mode, she is gathering forces to fight the corruption of the Romans. It’s her only “Thou Shalt Not” aria. All the others concern Theodora.

    OL - Here are some notable numbers for Irene: “Bane of virtue, nurse of passions” – “As with rosy steps the Morn” – “Defend her, Heav'n! Let angels spread” – “Lord, to Thee each night and day” – “O love divine, thou source of fame” (Chorus with Irene) – duet with Theodora “Whither, Princess, do you fly” – “New scenes of joy come crowding on.” What numbers sung by Irene do you consider to be the most compelling?

    SC - “As with rosy steps the Morn” and “Defend her, Heav’n!” for me are the favorites, but they are all amazing. The last one, “New scenes of joy” [sings it] is incredible. That aria is the most interesting, in a way, because she is actually losing her faith. Why did Handel set it in a minor key, in C minor, a joyous text? Irene is despairing at the loss of her friend Theodora, but she feels helpless at the potential loss of Christianity, and her faith; the most perfect bittersweet aria.

    OL - Very interesting answer! So, the performance here in Chapel Hill is in concert format. Although Theodora is an oratorio, it is often staged as an opera. How difficult is it to convey the drama in a work such as this where there are no sets or costumes to provide visual reinforcement of the plot action, and your own gestures and movements are probably limited? Or does it help with the musical focus?

    SC - Well, that’s Handel’s genius: the focus, rightly so is on the music. There is some interaction between us but a lot of the solo arias are delivered out to the audience anyway, and we are all experienced opera singer/actors.

    OL - OK, let’s move away from Theodora. In 2012 you added to your repertoire a Wagnerian role at Covent Garden – Fricka. You received terrific reviews for your performance which was said to be the best singing in the evening, and it was noted that you created a very sympathetic portrait of a character that – especially in Die Walküre – can come across as shrewish. And yet Fricka really has a lot to put up with, doesn’t she?

    SC - Hm, hm. [laughs] Well, when I first learned Fricka, some months before the production, I wrote to the director Keith Warner worrying that I had been miscast. In nearly all of the recordings she is screaming at Wotan from start to finish! There were two recordings with performance, one with Christa Ludwig which portrayed Fricka with sensuality and logic. I said to Keith, “This is only going to succeed if I can play her deeply in love with Wotan, a victim rather than a tyrant”. Fortunately, he was most supportive, as was Tony Pappano. Bryn Terfel was incredibly helpful, inspiring and supportive. I wanted to show Fricka as a tactile, loving woman with a deep affection for Wotan, the basis of a successful marriage. She is the goddess of marriage after all. Unfortunately her task is to maintain Valhalla at any cost. It’s too easy for Fricka to be the stereotypical bitch, to be a tyrant. The music is heart-rending and her loss and betrayal must resonate with the audience’s experience. If you are not moved by her at the start and she doesn’t show any affection for him, why should anyone care? I wanted to show how hard it was for her to give up a marriage.

    I remember that Keith Warner saying to me “This is the softest, most sensual Fricka I’ve ever seen.” (and I suspect he was a little worried...) Papano chuckled and agreed, again possibly a little nervously because I was really making her a victim. Bryn Terfel is so powerful and there was a fear that she wouldn’t be taken seriously, or be seen as having the same weight, emotionally, but I said, “We haven’t blocked the bit where she turns and says ‘Right, that’s it, do as I say!' If we can keep the ‘bitch-from-Hell’ until the end of the scene, then it will be much more powerful." It was a risk however.

    OL - Super interesting! So, you’ve done Brangäne as well - do you think you may take on any other Wagner roles in the future?

    SC - Yes, Waltraute. I’d love to do it. I haven’t been asked but I’d love to do it. It’s the only one left for me.

    OL - I was interested in one of your comments: “Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, La Scala had the background noise of the World Cup supporters. I managed to find the famed acoustical anomaly called the Callas spot and sang The Lament from there.” Please explain to us this Callas spot.

    Sarah singing Dido at La Scala

    SC - [laughs] Well, I’m not sure if it’s a myth or if it’s truth, but there is a certain place where there is an acoustical anomaly where there is a certain bloom, a certain resonance that is peculiar. Stages do have this; you can listen to black spots, as they are called on all stages, and it’s a good idea not to stand there. You can hear it; you take a few steps to the left and your sound just goes whoosh; something to do, I don’t know, just with the way the stage is built. And I didn’t really know where this place was, but someone from the chorus told me where it was. So, I found that spot every night and I did put a little cross on the floor with some tape.

    OL - How was the experience of recording a film sound track, for Children of Men? Would you do this kind of work again?

    SC - Yes, I would love to do it again. It’s very unusual. John Tavener became a personal friend. I’m very sad that he died recently. He turned up himself and conducted the score on a separate track, and then I did the single track recording which is quite unusual for me, but it worked very well, because if anybody makes mistakes in the orchestra or even myself, it doesn’t matter; we can just redo it. The way it was written, it was just a series of melismas on vowels, with almost no text. It was actually quite haunting music, if you listen to the film. I’m very, very proud to have been part of it. It was lovely to meet Alfonso Cuarón, who is a wonderful man, and to be part of that production with Clive Owen. I didn’t meet Clive Owen, but it was very nice to be part of it.

    OL - You had some other unusual experiences for someone who is now a singer: you played piano in the musical Cabaret. What can you tell us about it?

    SC - Only at college, I might add. Nothing professional. I first studied piano. I always liked jazz. Like I enjoy singing different styles, I enjoyed playing stride bass, and being part of this wonderful music. I love Sondheim as well; I’d love to do Mrs. Lovett one day [laughs] in Sweeney Todd. I have such a broad taste! I enjoy most music.

    OL - Yes, your interest in a wide range of musical styles is evident since you were young. You listened to soul music and rock, but also sang along with your mother’s recordings of Janet Baker. Early in your professional career, you sang jazz. At this point, are you completely focused on classical music? Or do you ever consider including a few jazz selections in a recital or a CD?

    SC - No, not in a recital. I did a jazz set with Cleo Laine’s jazz pianist John Horler, at the Edinburgh Festival in a theater called The Hub, which is a small church that is no longer a church but is a very relaxed atmosphere. That was an experiment. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable. I almost wanted to do it under pseudonym, change my name and just be anonymous and make mistakes if I needed to. I don’t know where that is going, if anywhere. My mother’s favorite music was Jobim, the Brazilian composer. We were on tour with the BBC Singers and we went to Avignon, and Jobim was giving his final concert, and we were singing a Boulez piece in the Palais des Papes, and I seriously considered being very unprofessional and going instead to Jobim’s concert. But I thought, “If I do that I’ll get kicked out of the choir, but is this such a bad thing? Is it worth it, going to see Antônio Carlos Jobim’s final concert?” And I thought, “No, it is not,” but I was very upset that I couldn’t see it.

    OL - Let’s talk about your discography – I very much enjoyed your CD Handel Duets with Rosemary Joshua and maestro Bicket. What item of your discography is most cherished by you?

    SC - I think it was the Dido and Aeneas project which I arranged; I raised the money for that. Oh, and also the Heroes and Heroines CD, I raised money for that too. My mother left some money in her will, initially, and I used that money to pay the orchestra. I thought, “God, she is going to be rolling in her grave.” But she would have been very happy, I think, that people took me seriously after that, because nobody was taking me seriously. I was thirty-two, and I wasn’t getting the work I felt I deserved. So I thought, “What am I going to do? Most people are making CDs, that’s how they get on the recognition ladder.” And it worked, it really worked. I chose Harry Christophers because he is a very good friend and I used to sing in his choir. They said they would be happy to do it, I just had to pay the orchestra, so… [laughs].

    OL – Very nice! What about your videography? Of your DVDs and Blu-ray discs, what’s your preferred?

    SC – Well, I’d say Giulio Cesare, and I’m very proud of The Rape of Lucretia as well, that has just come out, which again I managed to dig out of the archives; it was lost for twelve years. Opus Arte very kindly took the video and re-released it, while it was never for sale. It would have been forgotten. So, I worked very hard getting signatures to release that, and writing to singers and asking, “How much money would you be prepared to take in royalties?” It took ten years to get that sold.

    OL - Let’s go back to the beginning of your career now. You studied both singing and piano at the Royal College of Music. Apparently you had some stage fright and didn’t feel comfortable facing the public so you had a difficult transition from pianist to singer. First of all, why did you transition like this? And what made you get over the fear of the audience, being today such an accomplished singing actress with spectacular stage presence?

    SC - I think looking back what made me understand my reason to be a singer – and I say this now in master classes in conservatories in London – is that you have to know why you are singing a piece of music. If it’s just a vanity project, it’s quite dull, because you could just be singing because someone said you have a pretty voice. Well, so very well, but ultimately audiences will drift to somebody who gives something of themselves, some interesting interpretation.

    Understanding of the text is the most important thing. But as a young artist, all that you are trying to do is to sing it technically well, which is important, but if it means you are just being boring… The trouble is, I didn’t understand that it was my job to interpret. I always used to interpret the text and the meaning, but my technique wasn’t always at the service of my brain. So, when I was starting out as a student in my twenties, I was often singing music that was too difficult. I was always singing Lieder. I would take Lieder down to the music rooms and play through all the Schubert and Schumann, Wolf, Brahms, albums and editions, and I’d just mark the ones I liked and I’d bring them to my singing lessons and it was always some evolved song that was too difficult to do and the breath was too long… My teacher would say “Why can’t you sing something simple?” And I would say, “Because it is boring and I want to sing something interesting, something with a good text.” So I always tried to sing music that was too difficult for myself and inevitably, technically I'd not quite make it, and I got a bit scared off.

    Then, the early music, my teacher didn’t know much about early music. I moved to a different teacher, David Mason, who now lives in Madrid. He got me involved in Combattimento, an early music group which he did with David Roblou, harpsichordist. We did Peri’s Euridice with Mark Tucker and various lutenists and string players. I suddenly realized that this was a lovely expression, a way of understanding, of bringing together what I was trying to do, but technically it wasn’t too difficult. So it was easier music than Wolf.

    And then he introduced me to Handel’s operas that I didn’t know about. Also my interest in contemporary music was growing. We’d be learning all sorts of interesting Spanish music, a bit of Turina and Rodrigo, and the Siete Canciones [Manuel de Falla]. Meanwhile, I was continuing as a member of the BBC Singers, to earn money. But vocally however, choral singing was very limiting, and rather destructive for a young solo singer. You came four hours a day to sing alto lines and surmount any hurdles contemporary music hurled at you... My voice became unstable. So, I asked myself “Am I going to become a jazz singer?”

    I had a few months with a psychotherapist, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, who was a friend of Ronnie Scott’s, the jazz club in London. Sidney asked me “What is your favorite piece of vocal music in the world?” And I answered “Ravel’s Shéhérazade,” and he said “Do you see yourself singing that one day?” I said “Yes I do,” and he said “Well, then you have to go down that route.” If I had said a jazz standard then I should have followed that, but there was no question, Shéhérazade was the piece that I should do. When I sang it at the Prom with Susanna Mälkki, I felt I had made the right decision.

    But as to how I made the change from pianist to singer, I think it was just because I thought I would be a better singer than I would be a pianist. I wanted to be an accompanist, but that wasn’t supported at the Royal College where I was. There was no accompaniment course. There is, now. I used to turn pages for Malcolm Martineau, and he is now my accompanist. [laughs]

    OL - How did opera come to your life? Was it a lifetime interest, since your father played opera vinyls to you? You attended The Magic Flute at a young age. What impression did it make?

    SC - Oh, I loved the idea of being on stage. To me that was very exciting. What I didn’t understand at the Royal College at the time, was how the world related to the music. There seemed to be a lot of – I still can’t bear it! – vanity, for one. The productions I saw were poor. I didn’t understand what anyone was trying to achieve. I saw Ann Murray in Xerxes, and I thought, “That kind of production I understand and this is where I want to be. This was at the time when girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers in concerts, it was all very formal. I have never been a formal person in any way. The focus generally seemed to be on appearance not content. I wrote that autobiography page on my web site because I wanted to assure young singers that the route to success can only happen if you are true to yourself, informed and passionate about your chosen area. Sometimes if you win a competition you get – whoosh – straight up. But not everybody gets a break in their twenties.

    OL - Yes, you’ve mentioned many failed auditions before you were able to break into the big roles – although I can’t imagine why on Earth they rejected you. Was it a difficult time, psychologically?

    SC - I have to say, really it wasn’t my fault some of those. I remember auditioning for Wexford. I won’t say who was in charge at the time; it was a man, and I offered an aria from La Clemenza di Tito, Werther, Maria Stuarda, and I don’t know, something else, I can’t remember, and he said “No one can do all of that,” and I said “I think you will find that Frederica von Stade does. I think you will find that Anne Sofie von Otter does.” He banged the table and just went, “Ohh” like that [scoffing]. So I walked up to the pianist and said “He is an idiot,” like that. And I should have just walked out, but I humiliated myself by singing, and of course I didn’t hear anything back from them because he decided that we hated each other from the minute I offered my repertoire. He probably thought that I was a know-all. But the thing is, I did know quite a lot. Singers are expected in audition to be very humble and grateful, and they are seen as difficult if they have an opinion, whereas I suggest that singers are respectful when I give master classes: respectful, good listeners, collaborators, but my God, you have to know what you are singing about, because proper directors will appreciate that. Bullies won’t hire you. So you are better off knowing your stuff than working with bullies who want you to be pliant and stupid, or not stupid but silent, should I say. Definitely, be silent. But you must listen, and be a collaborator. Unfortunately there are a lot of bullies still around, both as directors and conductors, and they ask you to do the stupidest things. I’ve been quite lucky, because I started with David McVicar, and I’ve avoided some of the worst.

    OL - OK. So your big break came under maestro Bicket, when you recorded two Handel arias for a Channel 4 film A Night with Handel which is still available on DVD – and then, boom, you got the title role in Xerxes. Any memories of that phase of your career?

    SC - That was incredible. I was all ready to do it with the current artistic director of the English National Opera, John Berry, and also do it with Harry Bicket who was incredibly supportive. That day just happened. That summer, I had been in Paris performing The Cunning Little Vixen, and should we say, an assortment of small roles, and I got quite bored, and I brought up books of arias to learn, and one of them I learned was ‘Scherza infida’ [from Ariodante]; little did I know that one month later I’d be recording it. It’s extraordinary, really. [laughs] Some people might call that fate. Why should I be learning that particular aria? That aria made my name. So, I’m very excited to be doing it again this summer, in Aix-en-Provence.

    OL - If we go back even further, you were a child prodigy, composing pieces in the styles of Mozart and Debussy at the age of 10. Do you still compose?

    SC - It turned into something else. I do arrangements. Not so much now, but I used to take down orchestrations of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and make them into piano versions of songs. Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles recorded two that I did, on Sarah Walker’s album Blah Blah Blah & Other Trifles. It was an orchestral arrangement I took down and altered, slightly. It wasn’t plagiarism [laughs], it was my own, but it was influenced very much by listening to big band music, blue and sentimental. Harmony was a trigger for me; interesting harmony like Miles Davis and Stan Getz and all this wonderful music from Brazil, and especially modern harmony. I love Alban Berg with his interesting surprises and complex harmonies.

    Again, going back to Theodora, it’s the complexity of Handel’s harmonies that is so extraordinary; he takes it one step further. He has a sequence of sevenths going to tonic, and then another sequence of a minor seventh going to tonic, and most composers would stop there, but he does another two, because it has all to do with the emotion of loss, but it’s the sweetness of loss. Handel really understood how to turn the ratchet of emotions; it is very clever. So, yes, harmony has always been my guiding principle, be it in jazz – or guiding passion, I should say – that’s why I find Rossini’s music not particularly interesting, because I find the harmonic element very predictable and I can’t bear predictability.

    OL - So you were a college table tennis champion, and a tennis mixed-doubles champion. Wow, an athlete, and a singer, and a pianist! How did you divide yourself between music and this sort of thing?

    SC - My mother was a fantastic tennis player, and hockey. I played tennis a lot as a child. My father taught me table tennis and we did it every day when I came home from school. Then I went to boarding school and lost it; they didn’t have a table there. [laughs] So when I left school and went to college in Nottingham, the sports department had a table tennis table and I started again, and took lessons, actually. I have very, very quick actions. I don’t know if I do now, but I did, and I can anticipate moves. I don’t know, table tennis is probably my best game. I have very good reflexes, probably not in other sports, but particularly in table tennis. Maybe it has helped me on stage. I can anticipate things around me. I have very good peripheral vision, it’s important for dangers and to prevent accidents, and also to help people.

    I don’t know if it is relevant or connected, but I think sports are very important to do something as a singer, because of the moves and of playing tricks. It keeps the body healthy and the endorphins going, because when you are away from home you can get depressed, so it is important to see interesting things, go for walks, go to museums, and learn something about where you are, but not get too tired.

    OL - Nice. On the subject of concert programs, almost a year from now on January 20, 2015, you’ll be singing Aaron Copland’s song cycle, Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican. Copland is known for incorporating musical forms such as folk songs, hymns, and jazz rhythms in his works, with songs that are very lyrical, while others are quite demanding technically, with large interval leaps. What attracted you to this particular cycle, and what do you consider the most challenging aspects of this particular work?

    SC - The Emily Dickinson songs do have a big variety of technical challenges, but I think once you’ve sung Geschwitz [in Lulu], which I have, and once you’ve sung these quite demanding contemporary or 20th century roles, Copland’s music is not daunting. Geschwitz has an enormous range, as does Brangäne. Once you’ve sung these roles and yet you can scale the voice back – I sang chorus music as well – the Copeland songs are technically not so frightening, although I’m not saying they are easy, but they are a reward for a singer who worked hard at extending the range.

    I still have lessons with my teacher. He lives in New York now but is a British teacher. But I do take the technical side of things very seriously and I will make sure that if there is any challenge… I sang very difficult songs, lately, by Dominick Argento in From The Diary of Virginia Woolf – unbelievably difficult, written for Janet Baker. I had two singing lessons just on those songs, and my teacher said “Oh God, Sarah, how are you going to do that?” [laughs] “I don’t know!” There is a diminuendo on a top A flat at the end of a breath, you know? John Tavener wrote me a piece which I will be performing soon that has an enormous range, because he listened to me singing Das Lied von der Erde and he said “Well, if you can do that, then I’m writing this piece for you.” Mahler was his big influence, so… I’m very happy to do pieces that are difficult. I like that challenge. I worked hard, spent a lot of money on singing lessons. [laughs]

    OL - Yes, and you also had a role written for you, Susie in The Silver Tassie by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Can you tell us more about that and your work with Mr. Turnage?

    SC - Mark is a wonderful chap, a wonderful man, with very deep emotions, very sensitive human being, very aware of human suffering, and yet he has a very robust sense of humor. That piece I think has everything. I think his piece Greek is a masterpiece as well. I really, really enjoyed being part of that experience, with Gerald Finley as well, and he writes very, very well for the voice. It was great fun to be part of a premiere, as well.

    I was very angry with Germaine Greer afterwards in some television program; she said “It’s not very current, is it?” and I thought, “Well, if you think that maybe Harrison Birtwistle is current because his music is completely atonal, if that’s your benchmark of what is current, then that’s sad. Mark Turnage’s style is his own style, and it is not sentimental, is not in any way inferior to Harrison Birtwistle; it’s just different, and if you are judging music because it is vaguely tonal, that’s pathetic.” I’m a big admirer of Germaine Greer, but not for that comment, I’ll tell you. I don’t have much patience with people who make stupid comments in public, and hurtful comments. I’m hoping that Mark Turnage has laughed, to be honest. I’m sure he did. But it was five minutes after the live broadcast, and someone asked her “What do you think of that” and she said [imitates a sort of odious tone of voice] “Well, it’s not very current, is it?” It is current, he wrote it five minutes ago. He got the parts about six months before. So, I don’t think judging a piece by its tonality is relevant. It’s much more than that.

    OL - That’s a very interesting answer but I wonder if your publicist will say “Don’t put that there.”

    SC - I don’t have a publicist and I’ve always been outspoken.

    OL - So, I can publish that?

    SC - Yes, absolutely!

    OL - Good, good. So, you are a Commander of the British Empire! How does that make you feel?

    SC - [laughs] Hah! Honored! Many British people are skeptical of honors given to people, these kind of honors, as opposed to winning prizes like The Royal Philharmonic Society Award which I’m very proud to have received as well. It’s a national award of general recognition. So I am extremely proud and surprised to be given this. I never tell anyone about it. Nobody knows about it except people who read my CV in the business. I can’t use it to get upgrades on airplanes [laughs] or entrance into The French Laundry in California… But it’s very, very nice to have some recognition, whoever gave me that. I do try to use that when people ask me to be in charge of charities. I’m a patron of many groups, and I’m sure that that came about because I’ve been given this award, so that’s my duty, is to be a patron of musical charity groups.

    OL - How are you as a person, Ms. Connolly? How do you describe your personality, and what do you like to do beyond music?

    SC - Well, I’m a mother. When I’m home I’m very involved in what my daughter does. I try to be involved in her life. She is only ten but she is going to be a wonderful actress. Already she got the final eight of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory auditions with Sam Mendes. She is a very vibrant little girl. I’m going to encourage her – well, she wants to go into the arts, and certainly at the moment I’m sending her to a school with a wonderful drama department.

    I like to cook, I like to read, I like to go to art galleries whenever I can which is not often at home, obviously, so I do when I’m here. I like to read history books; that’s something that interests me more than anything. I’m also quite creative. I love cooking because I like to be involved in making things. I love to teach as well. I like to pass on what I know to young singers, especially those who appreciate that I’m pushing the boundaries at times with the repertoire and with characterization.

    They often ask me “How do you become a man?” and I say “I have one thing, I don’t try to become a man; I try to become the character. To try to become butch is ridiculous. Don’t do that! If you know who you are playing and if you see him as someone you recognize on the street – it could be anyone, Ruggiero, anyone. Learn to feel what they feel; learn to do what they do. Make your body… John Tomlinson told me a very good trick: to lower the center of gravity, because women control their walk from their waist, he said, and he is quite right. When they walk they hold themselves a bit from the waist because it gives them a sense of elegance with the high heels. That’s why their center of gravity is in their stomach. Men’s center of gravity is in their hips and their groins. They walk and they swing their hips a bit, and it comes more from their hip joints, and it is quite true. He said, “When you are playing guys, just be aware not to control your upper body, but to let your hips dictate how you move.” We’ve often done this in master classes in colleges. I don’t tell them what I’m doing, and I pick a guy and say “walk” and they get embarrassed, of course. But then I show them, and we often do these walks. Sometimes we end up looking stupid, like John Wayne, and I say “No, that’s going too far.” But it’s interesting, it’s the only thing that I’m aware of when I play male roles, is that I lower my center of gravity, but the rest is here in the mind.

    OL - Your daughter is ten, now. Is she musical? Does she come to watch you?

    SC - Sometimes, but she kind of equals music with Mum going away, so it’s not such a good thing, and it is quite common. A lot of singers’ daughters are quite angry with them for leaving them. So, singing, she doesn’t want to know any. But I’m always playing orchestral music in the house. We play a lot of orchestral music, but not so much singing. So she is being introduced to all the popular classics, shall we say, and I often put on Beethoven’s symphonies, and particularly 19th century music.

    When I was her age, I didn’t like, particularly, opera. I thought it was weird. I came to it when I was a little bit older. But the piece that really got me – I probably was about… – you said I was a prodigy; I wasn’t too early – grade six at ten is not a prodigy; grade six on the piano. I was playing Chopin waltzes at ten. That’s not prodigy; that’s good but not prodigy. I was not ready early to accept Verdi in my head at that age, but Britten’s War Requiem really interested me, because of the voice, the choir, the bells, the fabulous tri-tones, the tonality… I was playing a lot of Debussy at the time. He was my favorite composer. There was something about the tri-tones, the pentatonic scale that Ravel and Debussy were using; my ears were familiar with that sound, and so when I heard it in the War Requiem I just thought it was the most extraordinary… even now I’m getting chills when I listen to that. And it was Britten conducting, and Peter Pears and Fischer-Dieskau recording. That was the piece that really brought me into singers, because it was about something, it wasn’t just high and low lines, it was actually about something important, even though I didn’t understand what it was about, I knew, I could tell, that it was very serious. [laugh] But it was the extraordinary string writing and choral writing that interested me.

    OL - Back to your daughter a bit, did she come to your performances?

    SC - Giulio Cesare, she did, and she loved it. She also loved L’Incoronazione di Poppea when I did it in the Liceo.

    OL - Did it have an impact on her, to see Mum getting killed?

    SC - It’s interesting, but she hates Mum dying. She came to the Last Night of the Proms and said “Mum, you are not singing Dido again, are you? I can’t bear it!” So she left the box. I paid for a box for my family, and she didn’t stay for that, she stayed outside. If you watch the YouTube clip of me singing Dido, you will see, the camera goes up to the box at the end, and my family are looking back and gesturing “come,” and then she comes running in and goes, “Mummy, Mummy!” But she can’t bear it when I die. “Are you going to die again, Mummy?” And I say “Yes, probably” or I say “I’m not dying in this one.”

    OL - Did she get puzzled with Mum singing a trouser role?

    SC - Mummy kissing a girl is just embarrassing beyond belief. Giulio Cesare, when that’s what I do, she can’t watch that. Well, she doesn’t like to watch anyone kissing, because she is at that age. One of the things we really talked about in some depth, is that I have a lot of gay friends that are married, or not.

    She has been in quite a conservative school. It’s not the school’s fault, it’s just that people in that school are all married and gay people are not talked about or laughed at, and I said to her, because she knows these friends, they come around and we talk, and I just say “They love each other, and that’s that, nothing to it.” So she is very comfortable with this now, and I said “If you hear anyone being stupid about gay people at that school, it would be really nice if you just say – what’s the problem, they are just like you and me; you wouldn’t know – it’s just silly, and I would hope that without putting yourself in any jeopardy you stand up for gay people and don’t fall into the crowd and be silent.” So that’s something that I really hope being in the arts can help at least, that she would understand the sort of sophistication of that.

    OL - OK, nice, that’s about it!

    SC - Yep. Good! It was such a pleasure! Nice questions!


    Let's listen to the singer:

    Here is her iconic Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, 'Va tacito e nascosto' (begins at 1'07"):

    Here she is singing 'Parto, parto' in La Clemenza di Tito:


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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Clayton's Avatar
      Clayton -
      Thank you Opera Lively and Sarah Connolly for a superb interview and wonderful insight in to the work of a world class opera singer.
      This sort of in-depth interview helps me understand and enjoy so much more the operas when I listen to them.
      I want to buy the Giulio Cesare DVD straight away and I don't even have a DVD player yet!

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