Going Deep: Susan Gritton and Carmen

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The British soprano discusses her career and her first Micaëla…

Susan Gritton. ©Tim Cantrell

For Susan Gritton her singing career is not something apart. That fact is confirmed when she talks about the music that attracts her the most. “I like roles that challenge you to dig deep and to explore your human make-up: for me it’s that and not just singing some pretty tune that is the motivation for being a singer. If a youngster of, say, seventeen or eighteen who is thinking of studying singing comes to ask me about it, my immediate advice is to do something else first because experience of life is such a help. When you listen to the great artists, you feel that they’ve got that depth of understanding that takes you somewhere else.”

In Susan’s own case having an interest additional to music was established early on and remains to this day. “Throughout my years as a teenager I had these two passions: one was music and the other was botany. I come from a musical family and, although we hardly ever listened to the radio, we were greatly involved in playing chamber music and singing madrigals and my father conducts. As for my mother, she teaches the piano, but that doesn’t begin to describe fully what she does because she’s an all-round musician and a fantastic composer who would do arrangements for us. Go back a generation and you have Eric Gritton who was a concert pianist and a good friend of Vaughan Williams. I actually thought that if I were to go into music it would be as a violinist, but then singing came up. It was by chance really because just before I went to university my violin teacher moved away but I couldn’t immediately find a replacement and wanting to keep involved with music I turned to singing. But my huge love of plants meant that I read botany at Oxford and I’d then gone to London University to do a doctorate part-time. I was self-financing at that point and living a double life in that I continued to sing all the time. I did have to make a choice and I can remember sitting under a tree in my parents’ garden pondering this great dilemma. But joining the Glyndebourne Chorus decided me, because I realised then that I wanted to do more with my singing, to put much more into it than had been the case previously.”

If that recognition was the first step in Susan’s decision, a second one followed when she started to take part in singing competitions. They not only helped her financially at a time when she needed it but gave her encouragement, too. “I felt that it was the people who listen who are really the ones who decide whether you should be in the profession or not, and it was their response that finally made me decide to put a comma, as it were, in my botanical studies and to give the singing its head – to give it a go for a few years at least.” In fact the first time that Susan entered the Kathleen Ferrier competition she got through to the Finals and then four years later in 1994 she won the Ferrier Memorial Prize.

Susan Gritton

In the years that followed, Handel, Mozart and Britten would become prominent in her career. “It’s partly been a matter of chance, but Handel has been central for me in the past few years. There was the privilege of being involved in some wonderful recording projects and that advertised the fact that I was singing Handel and so I came to have great times singing his music in Munich, roles such as Cleopatra and Rodelinda, and Romilda in Xerxes. I think that every singer should sing Handel – it’s just the best training. But, then again, I think that every young singer should be able to sing Mozart, and he writes for the developing voice so you mature from the Zerlinas and the Susannas to the Countess and to Donna Anna. And then there’s Britten: I’m looking forward to singing Ellen Orford (in Britten’s Peter Grimes) for the first time in the near future for Opera Australia.

We talk mainly about the operatic side of Susan’s work, but she is equally at home in concerts and in recitals. “I’m incredibly privileged to have all three aspects alive and well in my diary. Now that my two children are getting older, recitals are coming back into my schedule and I would love to do more. Recently when doing the Beethoven Missa solemnis I met the Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn who is very much emerging as a recitalist and we just hit it off. So now we are doing a very exciting duet recital-tour together, with venues all round Europe and also all being well here in London in the autumn. I would love to do more opera too. But I can’t really say that I have a preference between these musical forms – it’s much more dependent on the material that you are singing and who you are actually working with. I know that there are many wonderful conductors in the world but nevertheless I can say without doubt that the musical highlights of my career have been when I’ve worked with the Berlin Phil and Simon Rattle. I love singing in French and with Simon I’ve done L’enfant et les sortileges (Ravel) and Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sebastien. As a singer I’m very much aware that we can hide behind technique and behind easy masks, as when one conforms to a particular kind of sound that pleases an audience. But Simon searches for the best that everyone can give in any particular moment and challenges you to reach deep, and that desire to go deeper is something that we share.”

In passing, Susan touches on roles that she hopes may some day come her way: she mentions Donizetti’s Lucia and his Tudor queens as well as Richard Strauss roles including the Marschallin and she would love to receive suggestions in the field of French opera. But for the rest of the time we talk about one particular French opera, Bizet’s Carmen, in which she is making her debut in the role of Micaëla. The occasion is a revival at Covent Garden by The Royal Opera of Francesca Zambello’s production to be conducted by Daniel Oren and we discuss how Susan approaches a role like this. New as the role may be, she is anything but unfamiliar with the music, as she reveals when I ask to what extent a singer will take special note of a part that could one day be in her repertoire long before that point is reached. “It’s often quite hard to pinpoint when you first get to know a piece and identify with it. But like many a soprano I have sung Micaëla’s Act Three aria from very early on. It can come up in a recital if someone wants to include something from opera and, of course, it’s a good piece for competitions. In my case it was one of the things that I did when I won the Ferrier in ’94. It’s great to sing it now, though, when I feel that I can fit her clothes as well, this being a time when things within my voice have fallen into place to give me the facility both for the coloraturas and for the lyric power required.”

I next ask her if she listens to other singers when considering a new role. “Yes, absolutely. Not having studied at any music-college or conservatoire, I think that I’ve learnt the most by listening to other singers and what they bring to their work. You can’t always put into words what a great artist teaches you, but it’s from them that you learn. I have to say that part of where I am today is due to the fact that in Munich I’ve experienced hearing Edita Gruberová live in quite a number of roles: her technique gives her so much freedom, so much expressive power.”

Since it is currently the role of Micaëla that Susan is tackling for the first time, it provides the perfect opportunity to discuss dramatic interpretation. Some might stress the pathos and see her primarily as a victim of misfortune since she loses Don José, the man she loves, when he deserts the army and commits himself to the tempestuous Carmen. But Micaëla is also a 17-year-old of real pluck who overcomes her fears to follow her man into the mountains hoping to bring Don José back to his dying mother. So what were Susan’s thoughts about Micaëla prior to her arriving at Covent Garden for rehearsals? “She undertakes a great journey, and even to have the courage to travel from home to find José takes a great deal of confidence. She’s known him all her life and later, aware of his downfall, she has the conviction that she can save him. So she’s definitely not a weakling but a strong girl. In the opera she only appears a few times and doesn’t get a large amount of music – and that’s the challenge of the role because a lot goes on for Micaëla in between the scenes in which she appears and you have to build those experiences into the role by working the sense of them into the scene that follows. In Act Three it is really up to the director how within Micaëla’s aria you mix the elements of courage, fear and support from her religious beliefs. You could even have scope there for a crisis of faith, but I feel that in Francesca Zambello’s production her faith is her strength. In talking about the role with Francesca I’ve sympathised greatly with what she’s said and been able to ask questions to clarify things. We’ve worked together before so I’ve felt very much at ease and I find this particular role one of rewarding richness.”

In discovering more and more about Micaëla and the best approach to take, Susan is aware of influences both before and during rehearsals. “Decisions about the best way to perform the music link with your sense of how the character herself is evolving. With Micaëla you need to concentrate on more than just singing a line because then it can sound self-pitying and over-sentimentalised. Listening to Micaëlas on recordings, I find that those who make her really speak are the ones who possess great simplicity and directness because that is truly a part of her character. There is fresh air there, something positive. I am thinking especially of the interpretation by Ileana Cotrubas whom I find just beautiful. But you also discover things in rehearsal, particularly here from the Covent Garden music staff, and then there’s our conductor, Daniel Oren. He’s a man of great conviction and he possesses enormous emotional depth. So much is being explored day by day.”

Nancy Fabiola Herrera

My penultimate question concerns the fact that Micaëla does not appear in Act Two, a fact that makes me wonder if it is a disadvantage for the singer of this role to be cut off from awareness of just how the audience response is affecting the performance. Susan, however, feels that at least with this particular role one is less affected by the audience than by the orchestra who with a good conductor will respond to the atmosphere and build on that to feed the artists. “It’s really in the hands of the conductor, that sensing of the moment and of letting that moment spin so that it becomes a collective effort arising naturally rather than a matter of control.” But the most striking reaction to my question about sitting-out Act Two comes in Susan’s unsolicited praise for this production’s Carmen. “I’ve sat and watched from the side and Nancy Fabiola Herrera is one of the most beautiful singers I’ve ever heard. Even if you’ve seen Carmen a hundred times, you have to come and hear her because she has everything this role requires and you never want to stop listening to her.”

The last question of all is about the way in which Susan will decide how successful her first Micaëla has been. Is it down to the critics, the audience response or to her inner feelings? “I do take account of how I feel so, if some critic gives me a bad review and I myself thought that I hadn’t done very well, I would accept that. There are also times when I read a favourable review and think to myself ‘Oh, I’ve got away with it again’. Of course, it also depends on what you feel about the reviewer. But the fact is that it is very hit-and-miss as to whether or not what you feel you have achieved in a performance compares to how it is received. One of the things I learnt from working with the director Peter Sellars is that although you need a really firm technique what is required when you’re sure of it is to let go, to let things happen. It’s when you escape from controlling things that the best performances occur, but that’s also when you can be uncertain of it has worked. I am very fortunate in having a husband, Stephen Medcalf, who is an opera director. Throughout my career I have found him a fantastic pair of ears and sometimes he will confirm that what you are feeling inside is not necessarily how it appears from the outside. I may say that I thought that a certain performance was my best only to have him say ‘yes, it was alright, but it was too controlled’. He has a great skill in saying what I need to hear and I don’t mean by that that he will say that something was lovely when it was terrible. On the contrary, he provides a wonderful filter.” In some senses then it is Susan’s husband who has the last word, but I shall be very surprised if he is not totally complimentary when commenting on her performance in Carmen.

  • The opening night of Carmen is 25 March 2008 at 7.00 (5 & 12 April at 6.30 p.m.) and runs until 17 April
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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