Thanks for participating in our Seattle Opera social networking...I notice you’re among the ever-increasing ranks of opera singers who tweet! (Follow Rosalind at @raplowright!)
I haven’t been doing it very long, but it’s fun! And good for networking. I do find it difficult to fit everything into those 140 characters and of course, once you join a social network, all your privacy goes out of the window!
I love how you succinctly describe yourself on Twitter: “Opera Singer, (specialising in Witches, Bitches, Bags & Hags), actress, teacher, mother and fell walker. Loves cappuccinos and good wine.” What is fell-walking?
[Laughs] Oh, it’s an English thing. You know about our beautiful Lake District, in the north of England. It’s not as huge or dramatic as your Olympic Peninsula here, but it’s very beautiful. The mountains are lower, so we call them “fells.” My husband and I go up there twice a year, knees permitting. We rent a little cottage, put on our ruck-sacks and go out fell-walking.
And this isn’t backpacking, overnight, carrying your tent and sleeping-bag...
No, no, day hikes. The fells are wild, and the scenery is wonderful.
And it’s different from walking the trails in southern England, the Cotswolds ramble...
It’s nothing like that. The fells are the highest part of England. We also have Mt. Snowdon in Wales and Ben Nevis, up in Scotland. Those are major mountains.
So, will you go out to our Olympic National Park while you’re here?
I did last time! I had a three-day gap between performances so we went out to the Olympic Peninsula. I remember once we came to a sign that said, “If you meet a bear, here’s what to do,” and I totally freaked out! [laughs] I thought, I don’t know if I really want to be out here!
Bill Mohn, photo
Now, changing the topic to opera, you were amazing as Klytämnestra in Elektra in 2008. People around here still talk about that performance, particularly how you managed to make this grotesque horror so vunerable and sympathetic. Does she have much in common with your role in Suor Angelica, this Zia Principessa?
Not really. Klytämnestra is a murderer, isn’t she?
Yes, but with good reason.
[laughs] I don’t care! The Principessa is a devout Catholic! She wouldn’t murder anybody.
Photo from www.rosalindplowright.com
No, she just psychologically tortures her poor niece for years and years...I’ve never seen anything so sadistic as the way you treat Suor Angelica...it’s worse than Scarpia!
That’s what [director] Bernard Uzan told me to do, you know, to just treat her with...total disdain. I would say that both La Zia Principessa and Klytämnestra are regal and powerful. As I play Klytämnestra there are some areas where she totally loses control. Vocally the roles are quite different. The Zia Principessa is not long, but it’s very exposed. Klytämnestra is not quite as intimidating.
That’s interesting; the Zia Principessa is more in control, Klytämnestra is more scattered. Certainly the words are just tumbling out of Klytämnestra...
...whereas the Principessa knows exactly what she has to say...
...and takes her time to do it.
Alan Alabastro, photo
So in terms of grandeur, there’s a similarity. I love the acting side of all my roles and I love doing the character roles, these old ladies. I’m having much more fun now than when I was a soprano, playing the tragic heroine (as was mostly the case). There were many occasions when the director just left me to my own devices and as most of Verdi’s music requires the stand-and-sing delivery, for me that was very frustrating as I wanted to do more. The best thing I ever did was an Aida in Frankfurt by a cult German director called Hans Neuenfels. The production was extremely controversial, actually...
You sang Aida, or Amneris?
Aida, in this case. That’s another opera, like Suor Angelica, where I’ve done both roles. Neuenfels had set it in a museum, Aida was a chambermaid, and the King was a mummy that had been dug up. The last scene was especially shocking, for instead of being entombed, Aida and Radames were gassed. Not a good idea in 1981 Germany, or perhaps it was, because it caused such a scandal there were queues around the house every night.
You get juicier acting roles playing these older mezzo characters. You’ve sung Jenůfa— Kostelnička. And there’s one in Kat’á as well—Kabanicha.
No, I haven’t done that one yet. I do another Janáček role, Mila’s Mother in Osud. It’s a very short part but she has this completely manic scene, only about 3-4 minutes, and it’s fantastic. It’s a rarity—a wonderful, wonderful piece! It needs to come back into popularity.
What fun to play all these horrible, horrible characters!
Yes, well, the part I love the most is not horrible. That’s another nun, Mme. De Croissy in Dialogues of the Carmelites. Again, a very regal person and the role sits perfectly in my voice.
Photo from www.rosalindplowright.com
Have you ever done the less regal—the crazy old bag lady type, Azucena, or maybe La Frugola in Il tabarro?
No, I haven’t. I never did Azucena. I did Leonora many, many times; it was my calling-card, I recorded it with Giulini. I would have liked to have sung Azucena but having had so much recognition with Leonora, perhaps people didn’t think I was right for it...that’s fine. The closest I did to this kind of character was the Beggar Lady in Sweeney Todd, we did it at Covent Garden with opera singers playing every character.
Now when you were speaking with Fred Plotkin, who wrote an article for our Suor Angelica program, you said that Suor Angelica was perhaps your favourite Puccini opera.
Well, I love all of Puccini’s operas. I sang Tosca many times, and Manon Lescaut. Suor Angelica is certainly up there with them. You know, I was taught by nuns, I went to a Catholic primary school and then a Convent school, so I had nuns as teachers all the way. Some of them were real battle-axes and some of them were very endearing. So I did get some insight into convent life which I think helped when I sang Suor Angelica. I thought the piece was a real gem, I still do, especially that final chorus, it’s heaven. I adored the music so much that I found it very hard to sing. I got too emotional.
What are your other Puccini roles?
I’ve done Madama Butterfly...in some aspects that felt physically wrong. It was a very controversial production for its time, directed by Ken Russell...do you remember him, the film director?
Oh, yes! Mahler and Lisztomania and all those...
Well, he did not want the conventional look-alike geisha, and he certainly got it with me!! He did this production, first in Spoleto, USA, and then later in Houston where I sang it. He set it in World War 2 and of course being set in Nagasaki, at the end, the atom bomb went off! The Houston audience was very shocked!
Once in Italy Ken Russell ended up with a death threat when he made Mimì a drug addict. It caused a huge scandal and I think he was banned from working in Italy again. Behold, recently I was watching Netrebko singing Mimì in Salzburg, and what is she? A drug addict! But back then, you couldn’t do that and especially in Italy....these operas were sacred.
Times change, values change. Speaking of which, do you think there’s a ‘moral to the story,’ with Suor Angelica?
Never really thought about it being “a moral” as such.....Don’t get pregnant out of wedlock? Is that what you mean? The thing is, we don’t know the circumstances by which Angelica got pregnant. She could have been raped. The opera doesn’t say. But at the time the story took place, (the latter part of the 17th century) religion ruled and punishments were very severe for that sort of thing.
Alan Alabastro, photo
I find myself sitting here and being judgmental about la Zia Principessa, calling her a cold, unfeeling, hypocritical monster, but...what if she’s right?
Well, it would be difficult to update this story to the present day...although...
When I was at music college in the late ‘60s I had a friend who got pregnant. This was back in the days of free sex and drugs and hippie morality. When her baby was born he was taken away from her and she never saw him again.
Just recently they finally closed the last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland that was run by nuns. This was a place where girls who had been promiscuous were sent to “pay for their sins” and in most cases there family disowned them. There was a film, based on a true story, made about it called The Magdalene Sisters, and it’s absolutely shocking what the nuns made these poor girls go through to pay penance for what they did. So I don’t know, maybe you could set the story of Suor Angelica in the present. This situation with the Magdalene Laundry is based on the same morality.
What happens to the Zia Principessa after she walks off the stage here? Does she just go home and live her life and forget all about Angelica?
I think it would always haunt her. I think...she loved her sister very much and I think she’s done this for her sister, for Angelica’s mother. This child has brought disgrace upon this family, and she cannot forgive her.
Now that you’ve been both a soprano and a mezzo, tell us the truth: who has more fun?
Mezzos. Maybe it’s my age and experience but now when I perform I feel less pressure. I’ve nothing to lose!! I’m enjoying it so much more now. As a soprano there’s so much pressure. You have to hold everything together and sit on the top of those huge Verdi ensembles. I enjoyed it at the time but there was also a lot of angst. Now I’m delighted to take a back seat.