Emma Bell Interview

Written by: William Yeoman

Soprano Emma Bell talks about her new CD devoted to arias from Handel operas…

British soprano Emma Bell has just released a new disc of Handel arias on Linn Records. Both this and her previous release (songs by Richard Strauss, Joseph Marx and Bruno Walter) were made possible through Emma being awarded a generous grant by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. “The Borletti-Buitoni Trust was born out of a conversation that Mitsuko [Uchida] had with Ilaria [Borletti-Buitoni] about supporting talent for the long term and not feeding the trend towards youth and flash-in-the-pan artists. It offers huge awards to artists who already have their feet on the boards but who might benefit from a substantial fuel injection to help them further. Those involved work in secret – the first thing you know about it is that you’ve won and you suddenly have the support of this fantastic team who pool their artistic, publicity and management skills to help you spend your money in anyway you see fit (within reason!).

“Some people choose to commission work; I chose to make recordings, so after some thought we decided to do two discs with Linn Records. It was an incredible opportunity to be given so much freedom to choose repertoire and be part of projects that were simply (without compromising anyone’s standards) about raising my profile.

“So, having chosen a song-recital disc for the first release there was no hesitation at all when deciding the repertoire for the second. There was, in fact, little or no discussion. I adore Handel; his music has been the mainstay of my career thus far, having sung Rodelinda, Radamisto, Tigrane, Almirena, Salustia, recorded Saul, and sung so many of his oratorios. The choice of arias was left up to me to decide but my agent, Robert Clarke, spent a happy afternoon scouring the shelves of the Westminster Music Library looking for suggestions and possibilities and Linn asked for ‘heroines’. We discussed ‘themes’ but decided that omitting or keeping something based purely on ‘fitting the bill’ would not necessarily have resulted in the best programme. Of course there was never any question that Rodelinda had to figure.”

Emma’s first disc was very different from the Handel, and, thanks to the independence, allowed her in deciding on repertoire featuring some rarely-heard songs by Bruno Walter. “The beauty of this award is that both Linn and the Trust gave me artistic freedoms that may not have been in place with a different company or recording contract. The Trust was adamant that the award is only there for the furthering of my career. They have done everything possible to promote and assist in the release of these discs, but the choice of repertoire has been left, in the main, to me.

“Strauss has been a passion of mine since hearing ‘Morgen’ for the first time and hearing the ‘Four Last Songs’ at the Barbican on a birthday-trip with my mother. This music fits me; it’s written perfectly for the soprano voice and I feel instantly at home singing it. The Marx and Walter choices were chosen after investigation rather than through an already-existing passion. Linn, my agent, and the Trust had a meeting where my initial desire for Strauss to be the basis of the disc was accepted. They then discussed the working title ‘Strauss and His Contemporaries’. But which ones?

“Robert Clarke suggested investigating the output of Walter. I wasn’t even aware that he had written any songs! So I toddled off to the library on Unter den Linden and was astonished to find not only enough to choose from but enough of quality to choose from. Walter has a strong, individual voice if very much of his time and is heavily influenced by Mahler and Strauss.”

We seem to live in a Golden Age of Handel-singing at the moment, with so many good singers, each with their own distinctive approach, like Sarah Connolly, Sandrine Piau or Magdalena Kožená. “I love anyone singing Handel who brings the music off the page. Sarah is a serious favourite. I have sat on the edge of my seat at English National Opera wishing she was being played on a reel and they would never turn it off. Rosemary Joshua never ceases to amaze me with the pure beauty of her voice and the utter charm of her delivery. I also like singers like Sonia Prina who have what might traditionally be classed as too big or too dramatic a voice for Handel. The more colourful the better I say!”

In addition to his obvious extrovert side, Handel seemed to have had that inner immensity of spirit that Rilke so often talked about. Emma’s expansive singing style has a similar kind of self-reflexive quality which offsets her exuberant freedom of technique and suits Handel perfectly. But to what extent is she able to align her own expressive needs to that of Handel’s music? “I don’t think I need to submerge my personality for Handel, or indeed any of my repertoire. I think performers have to use all the resources available to them. Handel roles require that you take a long psychological journey and throughout an evening you will draw on every part of yourself: those moments you have felt vulnerable, hurt, angry, violent and deliriously happy. Perhaps you try to submerge your audience in your personality rather than submerge your personality. I don’t find there are compromises to be made with expression. I think this music begs for emotional interpretation – that’s why I love it.”

Emma has worked with many different musicians within the ‘Early Music’ field. Each has his or her solution to questions of authenticity, particularly in relation to affects and how the application of different colours influences the emotional impact of a particular aria. Or how ornamentation should be realised. On this Handel disc Emma worked with Richard Egarr. “Working with Richard was wonderful – he is such an incredible musician. He has the knack of being able to access the heart of a piece of music so quickly and easily; he’s not a talker, he’s a doer. He directed the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from the harpsichord, and it was amazing to see the band react to style, tempo, dynamics and colour based on his flourishes and head nodding!

“The beauty of ornamentation is that it’s never the same twice. Listen to five singers’ interpretations of the same aria and you will discern wholly different moods or journeys from the da capo sections, which were traditionally used in part as a technical demonstration, partly to heighten the psychological journey and partly to be integrated with stage direction. I get very unhappy when people criticise the da capo form and say that they find it a total bore! I sit on the edge of my seat waiting to see what delights await me.

“I remember feeling totally inadequate when I first worked with Emmanuelle Haïm on ‘Rodelinda’, that I wasn’t an expert and that my ornamentation didn’t pass muster. She told me that of course we have to respect the traditions of the music we perform but always remember we are performing with the knowledge, the social structure and ears of the here and now. When we ornament today we cannot ignore the fact that we know Wagner and Stravinsky. So a quirky harmony here and there and a shockingly chromatic cadenza hold no fears for me now. Bring it on! Some conductors want to dictate every note you sing, some want you to have thought about it and others want to write them with you at their side. I’m in favour of the latter, more collaborative way. It’s really worth noting that I now realise that the art of ornamentation is to know the aria like your sister. I think I have sung Rodelinda enough to sing anything in the da capo, but with ‘newer’ pieces I have to be a lot more careful not to tie myself up in knots.”

The approach to authentic-performance-practice has changed over the last ten years or so; but does it have a continuing validity outside of being a purely interpretational choice? “I think that being historically informed is fantastic! Authentic? Isn’t that a holy grail? We don’t perform in the intimate courts of our patrons, we perform in venues the size of the Met; we have modern orchestras with violinists playing Strads and call it our modern sound. It’s all a bit confused and blurred to me.”

Reviews of Emma’s two Linn CDs are found below.



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