Written by: Mansel Stimpson
For any singer a debut appearance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden must be a significant and thrilling occasion. All the more so, of course, if the role is a major one, but I can’t help wondering how the Dulwich-born Kate Royal feels about making her debut there in a work so far away from the repertoire in which she has already made her name. The acclaim that has come her way in the opera house has been in works by Mozart (Pamina in The Magic Flute and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro) and by Britten (The Governess in The Turn of the Screw and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but it’s neither Mozart nor Britten that she’s working on now but the first return to Covent Garden of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest which had its world premiere in this house in 2004. Her role is, indeed, an important one, that of Miranda, previously sung by Christine Rice, and she is performing alongside Simon Keenlyside as Prospero, Ian Bostridge as Caliban, Toby Spence as Ferdinand, Cyndia Sieden as Ariel and Philip Langridge as the King of Naples, all of whom are returning to their original roles.
You might expect Kate to find this prospect a daunting challenge, but in fact it’s the kind of thing on which she thrives. Furthermore, she immediately touches on a positive aspect of making her debut in such a modern work: “It really appeals to me because you don’t have that thing of thinking about how many other singers have done the same part. With the Mozart roles I was aware of how every great singer on the planet who was suited had done Pamina or the Countess. Here it’s only Christine Rice who has gone before and, although I have to say that I admire her hugely, this is a situation in which you can bring some element of invention to what you’re doing.”
Is she, I ask, a singer who likes to consider the approach taken by other artists when she is preparing a role? “I don’t spend a lot of time on that,” she says, “perhaps because I’m scared that I might try to pick up on what they’re doing too much. I usually make a point of learning roles without first listening to recordings. But with this role I needed to hear it to decide whether or not it was something that I wanted to do. After that, however, it was the score that I turned to in order to decide how I was going to tackle things. There’s also the fact that here we have the composer as conductor – not a situation that I’ve been in before. It’s an amazing experience, and he’s such a gentle guy. What I really appreciate is the fact that he’s letting me get on with it. Never once have I felt that he was breathing down my neck and saying ‘this is how it should be; this is what you should be doing’. I’ve been trying just to let the role live in the way I’ve chosen to sing it, and he’s allowing that to happen which I think is just lovely.”
New as this experience is, Kate is, of course, well placed to make comparisons when it comes to operatic treatments of Shakespeare in English. Whereas Britten’s ‘Dream’ abridged the original text, for The Tempest Meredith Oakes has come up with a libretto in verse that only occasionally takes phrases form the original. “In terms of people knowing lots of the lines from it, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more famous than The Tempest and I think the style here is well suited because the music is difficult enough to mean that on a first hearing you have a lot to take on board. Had that been combined with original lines from Shakespeare I think it would have been overload – I really do, even with surtitles. I don’t know about you, but if I go through a Shakespeare play I come across many lines that I need to read more than once in order to understand them. So to do The Tempest in a stripped down, simplified version textually works very well. Of course whenever you attend an opera it adds to the experience if you know the story, so it’s probably helpful to have read the play if only in terms of understanding the characters. But, having said that, this is very different from the Shakespeare – and you recognise that immediately from the minute the overture begins because of the atmosphere that is created.”
With a work as rich as The Tempest it’s probably a case of each member of the audience drawing from it what they will out of a range of themes – and that’s equally true of the opera as of the play. Seen in the light of today’s world, it could be regarded as emphasising how those in power are so placed that their own idiosyncrasies, ambitions and traumas affect not just those around them but society as a whole. If that view is taken, then Adès’s opera could be seen as being in its concerns closer to Tippett than to Britten, although comparisons with Britten have been made due to the way in which Adès, like Britten, is capable of surprising his audience with adventurous writing that nevertheless grows out of and returns to traditional aspects of music. It can even be suggested that the quintet in Act Three of The Tempest echoes the threnody in the last Act of Britten’s Albert Herring, both because of the placing of it and on account of the music’s emotional impact. For Kate, however, what needs to be stressed as a move away from Shakespeare is how through their love Miranda and Ferdinand discover the power to find their own way ahead.
“It’s their love that enables Miranda to break free, and the opera has discarded scenes in which her father, Prospero, imposes tasks on Ferdinand in order to prove his love for her. One of the great moments in this production for me is when Prospero lets go of the spirit Ariel and abruptly you see his weakness fully exposed. He’s been the guiding figure throughout and then, suddenly, at this moment, you see him without any power at all and you recognise how much he has needed Ariel’s help and protection. However, I must admit that I can really only see the opera from my character’s point of view because that’s what I spend all day long considering. It’s such an interesting relationship between Prospero and Miranda and the opening scene is, I think, for her the moment when the course of her life starts to change. That’s when she chooses to confront her father: ‘Tell me what’s happening because I don’t really understand what I’m doing here’. And then, although he tells her something of what happened, she realises that he can’t adequately answer her questions, can’t deal with this kind of confrontation despite the fact that he’s so incredibly powerful.”
This reflection on Miranda’s character leads on to thoughts from Kate about the music of the opera in general. “It’s interesting to consider how high the tessitura of the roles is for every single singer, and then to see how only Miranda is not stretched to the absolute limits even though she’s striving for a new and different life. If that straining is less extreme in her music, I think there’s something to be read into that. Her stability is actually heard in the music.”
These thoughts confirm the depth of Kate’s involvement with this particular role and to sing in an opera by Thomas Adès is certainly part of her quest to broaden her repertoire while exploring roles suited to her voice as it is now. If Mozart and Britten dominated earlier, her upcoming opera appearances will add to the variety of her work. There’s Micaëla in Carmen coming up at Glyndebourne and Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea for English National Opera. Ask about other works that might appeal and the potential range is revealed as even wider: “Having done a lot of French music in the concert hall, I would certainly like to sing some Massenet. In time I’d love to sing his Manon, and my recent recital work has made me realise the affinity I have with the music of Richard Strauss. Then there’s another French opera: I would adore taking the role of Mélisande.” As she talks, the possibilities for Kate Royal seem very wide indeed and if they come about they will be both her pleasure and ours.
- The opening night of The Tempest is 12 March 2007 at 7.30 and runs until 26 March
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera