Hey Presto! Emma Bell and The Cunning Little Vixen [The Royal Opera’s The Cunning Little Vixen, 19 March-1 April 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Ferrier prize-winner who is at Covent Garden to sing in a Janáček opera for the first time…

Emma Bell

Emma Bell is a Warwickshire lass. Her birthplace was Stratford-upon-Avon, but she grew up in Leamington Spa, which would prove very important to her because one of the buildings in that town was occupied by Presto Classical. “It was just one of those fortuitous things”, she tells me when we meet to talk about her singing career and about her latest venture, the role of Fox in the Covent Garden revival of Janáček’s remarkable opera The Cunning Little Vixen. The conversation that ensues is more like a chat than an interview because Emma has none of the airs of the diva and comes across as somebody totally at ease.

When explaining to me the importance of Presto Classical, she admits “I’ve got a thing about being in bookshops” and one can well understand the special appeal to her of a music shop like Presto – all the more so because she first recalls a key memory of her time at infants’ school. “We children were sitting around a table and the question came up ‘What are you going to be?’ So it was ‘I’m going to be a nurse’, or this or that. But as soon as it came to me I said ‘I’m going to be an opera singer’. To say that I can remember the first opera singer I ever heard would be a lie, but mum and I used to sing along to all sorts of things when we were in the kitchen. Nevertheless the idea of my being an opera singer kind of disappeared after infants’ school although singing continued to be a hobby. I remember being annoyed something chronic when my sister, who was older than I was, was allowed to join the church choir and I had to wait for two years. I would claim that she had no passion for it all and that I did! But it was way too premature. When I was at secondary school I heard the music teacher, someone who was a trained opera singer, perform at a Christmas concert and that was it, that was the moment when I really said to myself ‘that’s what I’m going to be’. So when I went into Presto Classical and saw an advert there for singing lessons it made me harangue my mother: ‘Mum, mum, can I have singing lessons?’ I went on and on about it regardless of any question as to whether or not I was old enough. The fact is that I’d always been in choirs – never stopped singing – but nothing I’ve done has been by the formal route. I don’t have an ‘O’ level or ‘A’ level in music.”

In these circumstances chancing on the right teacher took on an extra importance. “Joy Mammen came from Australia and had moved here, as had the owner of Presto who was a life-long friend of hers. So it was that she became the one who taught me and with whom I still study. With her help I was able to audition successfully for the colleges and went to the Royal Academy of Music and the National Opera Studio. Then in 1998 Joy encouraged me to go in for the Kathleen Ferrier prize although until then I had not been drawn to taking part in competitions. In college you sort of fit into categories and some seem born to be prize-winners and to get grants. But I just felt that I wasn’t one of those people and the only competition that I wanted to do was the Ferrier. I definitely wanted to win that if I could. The reason for that came from reading the names of previous winners, just amazing singers at whose feet I would fall. So it seemed to me that if I could win I would have earned a stamp of approval and that became important to me in a way that nothing had before.”

This was no pipe-dream, for Emma emerged as the winner, and enabled her to start building a career as a freelancer, although in 2002 she combined that with a contract with the Komische Oper in Berlin which lasted for some three years. Reflecting on this, she questions whether the mix was appropriate but expounds on the generosity of the house in the way she was treated. “The realities of what we do are such that you should do one or the other: either you should be in a house working and commit yourself to that establishment or else you should develop a freelance career. Doing both is pretty hard to sustain, but everyone in Berlin was so wonderful and generous in the flexibility they gave me that I almost had the best of both worlds.”

Emma Bell

Certainly Emma’s development helped her to establish an exceedingly wide repertoire, from Handel to Britten and from Mozart to Stravinsky. Add in her performances in the concert hall and you get also Beethoven, Mahler and Bach (both of the Passions) among others. Surveying what she can do, what she might do and what she can’t do, Emma is astute but humorous with it. “I think that I’m responsive to all of it: I am a soprano absolutely and the label need go no further than that as far as I am concerned. I believe in embracing everything and I always fall in love with the thing in which I am currently involved and that becomes my favourite. I would hate to be straitjacketed. If they said ‘you can’t do more Handel’ I would say ‘Why not? Tell me; remind me. My voice is flexible, I can do coloratura and I can float, so why would I not return to Handel?’ Don’t tell me that a man who writes music like that about the human condition wouldn’t respond to anybody giving of themselves and I consider myself to be a giving performer.”

Usefully there’s a self-critical sense that Emma possesses and which comes into play as to roles better left alone or not repeated. “One role that did not fit was Puccini’s Mimi. I adore it but La bohème never felt like it was my bag. I wish it was, but I recognise now that the first Act is not really for me. Having benchmarks can be helpful: there’s a reason why I would never wish to cover a Shirley Bassey song and a reason too why you shouldn’t sing a role when you know how much better (Mirella) Freni does it. I mean it’s a case of needing to be able to bring something to a role. Even if it turns out not as good as some others there must at least be something that inspires you or other people, and that was something that I don’t think I brought to Mimi.” It could also be that Emma feels that certain roles require a kind of fragility in appearance that she lacks. “I have a burning desire to sing Madam Butterfly which dates back to when mum brought home a double cassette of that opera, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.” She laughs as she says this, but there’s no laughter when she talks about other roles that have not come her way. Richard Strauss, for example, has featured in her recitals and on a recording she made for Linn Records for whom she has nothing but praise, but his operas have so far eluded her. “There’s no way I’d go to the grave without doing Rosenkavalier and another role I want to sing for sure is Salome.”

Meanwhile Emma is opening up other avenues. She is, for example, planning to appear as Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 2011. “Yes, it’s my first Wagner and my toe is being firmly dipped”. Does that mean that she then plans to plunge in? “It’s a world that needs to be explored for sure. As for unfulfilled ambitions, one I’ve had was to do a new opera, but I’m about to do that. Judith Weir is composing a piece for Bregenz which will subsequently be done here at Covent Garden in the 2010/11 season. The working title is Miss Fortune and I haven’t seen a note of it yet. But when I met with Judith we talked about my voice so, yes, it will be created with my strengths or weaknesses very much in mind, and that’s why I took it on. What we do in opera is creative, of course. If you are in a new production of something, there’s a new vision of what the piece might mean, but to be involved right from the off as part of the whole creative process is far beyond that and it’s really great.”

Also new to her is the music of Janáček since The Cunning Little Vixen is the first of his operas in which she has appeared. She has, however, worked before with Sir Charles Mackerras who is conducting this latest revival of Bill Bryden’s acclaimed production. At the time of our meeting Sir Charles has been in to work with the orchestra but not as yet with the singers. “Bill came back from that rehearsal and said: ‘It’s wonderful: you just listen to what he has to say and his notes are so pertinent, so right’. I found this at Welsh National Opera when I was with Sir Charles for Mozart’s Mitridate. He’s one of the most experienced conductors on the planet and it’s splendid to work with somebody possessed of so much knowledge.”

For all his distinction in other spheres Sir Charles is recognised above all for his role in establishing Janáček’s operas in the international repertoire, so Emma is in the safest of hands. However, The Cunning Little Vixen is in several respects a unique work which could be thought of as offering many challenges including those faced by Emma in the role of Fox. The opera succinctly blends together a tale of animals and humans. Its source was a popular novella-cum-comic-strip serialised in a newspaper, but any fears of cuteness can be laid aside. The Vixen may be the central character but it’s certainly not safe to be a hen in her vicinity and the human figures include a gamekeeper who will bring about her death halfway through the last Act. Consequently there’s a dark side to this piece. For Emma, however, the task that faces her as Fox, the Vixen’s dashing suitor and eventual mate, is to tackle not just the role of an animal but also what is in effect a trouser-role.

For the composer the perils inherent in such material are obvious but because Janáček was so astonishingly assured in finding the right blend and the right tone the difficulties for the artists may be less than one might suppose? “I think that the leap is just very, very natural. It’s not a new production so I’m fitting into ideas and geography that already exist. There are certain difficulties because it is a trouser-role so I’m first of all doing bloke and then I’m doing fox, but much of it comes down to detail. People say that you wear your heart on your sleeve, but I think you wear your heart in your hands in that hands betray so much about a person. So here we’ve got little clasped hands that suggest paws. When I go to touch the Vixen, I don’t do it with an open palm so there’s an essence that is different from the way I would feel somebody’s face in a love-duet in a normal opera. It’s a language to learn, but whatever the differences Fox is probably the most romantic role that I’ve ever done. That’s what it feels like.”

If we can say with certainty what this opera avoids – cuteness, sentimentality – it is more difficult to describe what it is, and that may be because it is several things at once. When I mention the darker side of it, Emma pauses before responding. “Because of where we are now in the rehearsal process I can only right now see this opera through the eyes of my character and it’s nothing but a celebration of nature from the point of view of the fox and the vixen. Indeed, if you were going to take a child to the opera for the first time you might well choose this one. We’ve discussed that with Bill because it’s multi-layered. Adults may draw all sorts of parallels from it, but for children it seems more like a fairy-tale and my six-year-old son knows the opera through a wonderful DVD with animation. He loves the animals and the wonder of it, and he’ll be coming to see the show – but, admittedly, he was born in the womb with opera.”

This aspect of the opera is not to be gainsaid but death is a part of the tale and the lives of the human characters are none too happy. Two of them dream of a girl who will never be theirs while the gamekeeper, who in a less-subtle work would be the villain of the piece, has a touching scene towards the close that captures the sadness of a beauty that is all too fleeting. Perhaps because both works end with a reference to the next generation, I make the suggestion, exaggerated though I know it to be, that The Cunning Little Vixen is not so far from being like Berg’s Wozzeck without the angst. What I really have in mind is that both works offer a world view but, while Wozzeck adds madness and the despair of a young creator, Janáček’s piece confronts the sadness of life and its ephemeral happiness with the wisdom of the old that allows for an acceptance of life’s tragedies and disappointments. This viewpoint is one that Emma can accept only in the most general of terms, or so I suspect. “A young person doesn’t accept things in the way that people can do when they get older. Life either destroys you or you accept that there are swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, highs and lows.”

If I have overstressed this element in The Cunning Little Vixen it is still a point worth making because it is indicative of the complexity and profundity of a work capable of being appreciated on many different levels. Emma’s debut in Janáček’s world is one she would love to follow up: “Jenůfa and Katya – it would be wonderful but, my word, what an undertaking – all that Czech!” She laughs again, and then we return for one last time to any unfulfilled ambitions. “I’d like to visit Handel’s Rodelinda again: I love it so much and that would be like returning home. But actually I’m very fortunate to do so many different things and I feel very honoured to do what I do.”

  • Five performances – sung in English – at 8 p.m. from Friday 19 March to Thursday 1 April 2010
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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