Making Her Way: Eri Nakamura and Werther [The Royal Opera’s Werther – 5-21 May 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the former Jette Parker Young Artist as she returns to Covent Garden for Massenet’s Werther…


Eri Nakamura. Photograph: Chris Gloag Being away from her homeland is no new experience for Eri Nakamura who was born near Osaka. She does sing in Japan from time to time but between 2008 and 2010 she was based in London having successively auditioned for the Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House and she is now a member of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. But if Japan is distant that does not prevent it from being at the forefront of her mind. We meet at Covent Garden as she is preparing the role of Sophie in a revival of Benoît Jacquot’s production of Werther which, as in 2004, is being conducted by Antonio Pappano. But, although Eri is concentrating on her art, other thoughts do obtrude, not least the recent earthquake and tsunami.

“Thinking of the state of things in Japan in recent weeks has made me feel depressed because we continue to get awful news every day and we are still in the process of coming to accept what has happened. My family and relations are from the south so they are not directly involved, but it is a national disaster and so many people are suffering. There are times when it makes me feel guilty because I am safe and so useless. I did, however, take part in a concert for Japan under maestro Kent Nagano that was arranged in Munich and I wonder what else I might be able to do.”

That her feelings should extend to a sense of guilt is understandable, and all the more so because she experienced an earthquake herself. “When I was in high school some sixteen years ago my family and I were caught up in an earthquake. It happened in the middle of winter and killed six-thousand people. Fortunately we all survived it but it makes normal life seem so precious. You discover what it is not to have water and gas and it was scary because we didn’t know exactly what had happened. We had no mobile phones then and no Internet – only the TV gave us some information, but even then those outside the area knew more than we did. The traumas that result are long-lasting, they come back. So while I have no duty as such in the matter I try not to forget what is happening there now. I go forward with my life but want to be ready should I be able to do anything for my people and for my country.”

Eri’s life as a soprano of increasing fame is not one that she ever anticipated in her childhood years. “I am the only musician in my family. They knew little about music and wanted me to have a secure position in life. When I was a child my mother in particular encouraged me to have as many hobbies as possible: she wanted me to do all the things that she hadn’t been able to do at that age. I played volleyball and badminton and went swimming, and I wrote in Japanese script. Painting didn’t work for me, but I did love music and taking up the piano became one of those hobbies. What I didn’t like was practising, but things changed when I went to junior high school at the age of thirteen or so. That was when I became inspired by brass bands and started to play the trombone as well as the piano. Singing came last of all.”

Eri Nakamura. Photograph: Chris Gloag It’s possible that the earthquake which she remembers so vividly played a part in changing her future because it came at a time when she was playing the piano for four or five hours a day. The aftermath was not the time for that: “Even if I had been able by then to play like a professional pianist some people in that atmosphere might well have been irritated by my playing, so I stopped practising. In any case my family was not sufficiently rich to support me financially in a career. So because I loved teaching also I went to the Osaka College of Music with the aim of getting a diploma or licence to teach since that I felt would convince my parents. As for the singing, while still in high school I had enjoyed taking part in the chorus when a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony was put on, but the turning point was my encounter at the College of Music with a professor who assured me that I had a voice, a real voice. I hadn’t realised that, but she did and she pushed me in that direction.”

Eri Nakamura as Sophie (Werther, Royal Opera, May 2011). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore On leaving Osaka Eri joined the Opera Studio at the New National Theatre, in Tokyo, and that step led also to another place of study, the Netherlands Opera Studio, in Amsterdam. “In Tokyo I met many teachers from abroad and that was when I started speaking English and felt the need to learn some languages to help me to communicate. It was there that I studied Italian and a bit of German, but it became rather too much to take on. However, I had never been abroad at that time and it was partly to help my English that I went to Holland where the coaching in the Opera Studio was either in English or in Dutch. They were very patient with me and really helped me make progress. It was after that that I was able to apply for the two-year programme at Covent Garden.”

However, it was not a case of Eri forsaking Japan for Europe and her studies in Amsterdam did not prevent her from making frequent returns to Tokyo. “During that period I was already taking some leading roles at the New National Theatre including Susanna in Figaro and Ilia in Idomeneo. But the key point was singing Nannetta in Jonathan Miller’s production of Falstaff because the head coach became really anxious that I should meet Covent Garden’s David Gowland and indeed also recommended to David that he should meet me. On that occasion David was around for only five days and I was rehearsing every day but eventually we did meet, albeit for just ten minutes. I did just one aria for him – Manon’s ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ – and he gave me his card. That was the first time that I had heard of the Covent Garden Young Artists Programme of which David is artistic director and it came at the very moment when I was wondering what to do after Amsterdam and wanting to stay in Europe for as long as possible. So I applied and I got in.”

Eri Nakamura as Sophie & Sophie Koch as Charlotte (Werther, Royal Opera, May 2011). Photograph: Catherine Ashmore It was in November 2008 that Eri first took to the Royal Opera House’s stage. The opera was Elektra and as the Fifth Maid she had only a few lines to sing. Nevertheless the occasion impressed her. “Whatever I sing at Covent Garden, be it a small role or a larger one, I feel inspired. I found that debut very exciting and besides Elektra is a great opera.” Soon afterwards she was briefly in the spotlight as the Sandman for several performances of Hänsel und Gretel but her most significant appearance that season was yet to come. “When they told me what parts had been allocated to me during that first year I found that the biggest one was to be the cover for the role of Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti i Montecchi. When I heard later that Anna Netrebko was singing the role I felt even more awestruck: it brought home to me what a gift it was that I had been given. There were times during the rehearsals when she did not sing and I had the opportunity to do so, but it was also a chance to watch her and see what she did. However, I did not anticipate going on. Even if a singer is indisposed and somebody has been asked to cover, it is often the case that the theatre will bring in a replacement who knows the role very well. For the person who covers it is a valuable learning process but not necessarily more than that. If a cover does go on it can be at the very last minute, but I was luckier than most because when Anna did have to cancel for one performance it happened the day before and not on the day itself and they did ask me to go on.”

Eri Nakamura. Photograph: Chris Gloag Eri’s appearance as Giulietta won high praise and in her second year as a Young Artist she was seen as Musetta in La bohème and even more memorably as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. The latter event again involved replacing an artist, but this was no last-minute event because Camilla Tilling had withdrawn due to being pregnant. Eri welcomed the chance to switch from reprising the role of Frasquita in Carmen to taking on Mozart’s Susanna. “When I first did the role in Tokyo I jumped in only two weeks before because the soprano had cancelled. Consequently I felt that I was not really sufficiently prepared. So I was delighted to be asked to do Susanna here especially since it was in David McVicar’s beautiful production. It was an opportunity to prepare really well, and I hope that I did.”

Before turning to Werther we talk about Eri’s widening repertoire and about her wish to do more concert work and song. “I did some Lieder here for a lunchtime concert and I’d love to do more. I adore Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss, not forgetting Brahms and Schumann. In the concert hall I’ve done Mahler with the Tokyo Philharmonic and with the London Philharmonic and in the case of the latter I’ve been invited back for Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Royal Festival Hall on 15 October when Yannick Nézet-Séguin is again the conductor. But I’m currently part of the ensemble in Munich so I always need permission and sometimes an offer comes in from Tokyo or elsewhere which clashes with their requirements. But in the future there will, I hope, be wider opportunities. As for opera, I’d like to keep singing Mozart roles for as long as possible because it’s such beautiful music. I have Liù coming up and Turandot will be a challenge for me, but I’m very keen on Puccini and really enjoy singing lyric roles. So that’s my direction, I think.”

Massenet at Covent Garden is not new to Eri since she performed extracts from Manon with Ji-Min Park, an artist she admires, when they appeared together in a Jette Parker Young Artists concert. Now she plays the lively 15-year-old Sophie, sister to Charlotte whose tragic love-affair with Werther is at the centre of Massenet’s treatment of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. “It’s the first time that I’ve really worked with Tony Pappano although I was the cover for Lauretta when he did Gianni Schicchi. At that time I would sit in the auditorium and would watch and learn. But with Massenet there’s so much inside his work, so much detail: every line, every sentence, every marking has to be considered and Tony is inspiring not only as regards the singing but in explaining the motivation. Although I didn’t grow up in the west, I have a little sister, so knowing how families feel is something I can draw on in portraying this young girl. The opera may be set in the 1780s but then and now young girls have a certain kind of purity and innocence. Certainly Sophie is like a ray of sunshine and that contrasts with the emotions and the melancholy of Werther and Charlotte. But during the opera Sophie’s life changes: in the first Act she is always with Charlotte who has taken the place of their dead mother but when Charlotte marries Albert it means that Sophie has to grow up. She does not necessarily fully comprehend the depth of Charlotte’s feelings for Werther but she does ask Charlotte to confide in her, claiming that she is now old enough to understand. Sophie herself is also in love with Werther but in her case it’s a kind of first love. When he leaves in Act Two and says ‘Adieu’ that’s a shock. What she feels may not be the equivalent of what Charlotte feels yet who can really say because in their own way young girls can be very much in love.”

As a final point we discuss the opera’s conclusion. When Werther recognises that he is about to die he regards it not as the end but as a beginning. If we share his view then Sophie’s Christmas song heard in this scene (‘God allows us to be happy! Happiness is in the air!’) need not be ironical, but Charlotte herself declares at the moment of his death ‘It is all over!’ So what does Eri feel about this ambiguity? “It’s complicated. Just before coming here I was again singing Giulietta and the director was taking the view that at the end of that opera death was the opening of a new door. I think that’s absolutely right for Giulietta and for Romeo, but in Werther you could have either emphasis depending on the interpretation offered or you could leave it to the audience. We shall see how that goes as we rehearse further, but already our explorations of the opera have reached that magical moment when the music sparks into life.”



  • Werther – Six performances at mostly 7.30 p.m. from Thursday 5 May to Saturday 21 May 2011 [3 p.m. on Sunday the 8th and 7 p.m. on the 21st]
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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