Taking on the Challenge: Ailish Tynan and Hansel and Gretel [The Royal Opera’s Hänsel und Gretel – 23 December 2010-7 January 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The Irish soprano is Gretel in Covent Garden’s Christmas revival of Humperdinck’s popular opera…

Ailish Tynan. Photograph: Sussie Ahlburg

Talking with Ailish Tynan is a delight and not only because of the Irish lilt in her voice. She is both lively and unaffected and even when she refers to her height – she is decidedly petite – you never feel for an instant that her remark is defensive. Ailish’s humour is never far from the surface, but what emerges most strongly from meeting her is something else: that whether on the stage or not she engages with life by engaging with people.

From early on Ailish was singing in choirs because she went to convent school where the nuns nurtured that. Even so the idea of singing as a career did not enter her head. “When I went to Trinity College in Dublin I really wanted to study law. My eldest brother had set up his own law firm in my home town of Mullingar and I thought that would be just great for me. But he said ‘I just couldn’t imagine you doing it – you’d find it boring’. I should mention that there were six of us children and he is twenty-one years older than me – I was a bit of a mistake at the end – and when he saw that I was determined he said ‘Well, come into my office for one day’. So I did, and it was all taken up with farmers and their disputes with neighbours. It made me think that I couldn’t possibly spend fifty years of my life doing that: no way. But now I look back on it I see that my brother is absolutely loaded and I think ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ Faced with the need to think again, I found that people were saying to me that I ought to become a singer but coming from the middle of Ireland I thought that was a crazy idea, that nobody could make a living out of it. I’d never been to an opera in my life and wouldn’t do so until I saw David McVicar’s production of Alcina at English National Opera when I was twenty-five. But I kind of met those suggestions half-way by deciding to do a teaching degree with music – that meant that I could still have some singing but would study modern European history and mediaeval Irish history enabling me to go straight into a school and start teaching. So I got the degree, got the job and was at a really nice school for two weeks, but then came the realisation ‘oh, I should have been a singer!’.”

As she recalls this, Ailish laughs – and not for the first time, even if it might seem from what she was describing that she had foolishly walked into the same trap twice. I ask if the school was as boring as the law firm. “No – the truth was not that it was boring but that for the teacher it was not boring enough! It was far too lively, and every time I turned round to write something on the blackboard the class of boys would start boxing each other’s ears and everything. So I decided against it.”

Ailish Tynan as Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel, Royal Opera, December 2010). Photograph: Johan Persson

This then was the path that brought Ailish to the Royal Irish Academy of Music and to a definite decision to attempt a singing career regardless of the fact that other students being already established and holders of appropriate degrees looked at her askance. “They all thought at that stage that I was a bit of a joke, but I found a wonderful music coach there called Jennie Reddin. She came from Dublin and really kept me on the straight and narrow where my singing was concerned. She was always encouraging me to do more and more and she was my real mentor.”

The next step for Ailish was to come to London where she attended the Guildhall School of Music & Drama having recognised the need to move on at that time from the RIAM. “We did have the opportunity to study a lot of Lieder and French song but I don’t remember having very much language coaching and there was nothing by way of opera classes and we didn’t do any staged operas. Fortunately it’s much better now: a friend of mine, Deborah Kelleher, has taken over as director and she’s wonderful. She loves singers and will supply the help that they need.”

For Ailish an important event occurred in 2003 when she won the Rosenblatt Recital Prize in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and she acknowledges how valuable that was since it led to her singing with orchestras as a BBC New Generation Artist. “That was a fantastic opportunity.” But when I mention that her Cardiff success was only one of a series of prizes that she won she chooses to highlight instead what happened to her in 2002. “Without a shadow of doubt the biggest influence in my career and the most helpful thing giving me the biggest push was becoming a Young Artist here at Covent Garden. There was such a level of discipline and often you would start at half-ten in the morning and not get home until half-ten at night when the show had finished. They taught you everything. My languages were really, really poor when I arrived but now we’ve been doing Hansel and Gretel and because of that training that they gave me I’ve hardly had a note from the German coach. It was at the end of my first year here that I represented Ireland in Cardiff which became a great thing to put on my CV but from the point of view of the day-in, day-out hard grind the Royal Opera House has to take all the credit for that.”

Ailish Tynan as Gretel (Hänsel und Gretel, Royal Opera, December 2010). Photograph: Johan Persson

As a Young Artist Ailish appeared on the Covent Garden stage in not only the kind of small role that you might expect such as First Niece in Peter Grimes but also as Papagena in Die Zauberflöte (a role in which she will shortly make her debut at La Scala). “I was so new to opera that I knew nothing about Simon Keenlyside who was my Papageno, but I soon discovered how amazing he was, somebody who gives a million per cent.” Since then Covent Garden has seen Ailish as Marzelline in Fidelio and her further return now to play Gretel emphasises the wide range of her repertoire. In the operatic sphere it extends from Handel to Janáček and from Mozart to Lehár while in the concert hall her composers include Haydn, Mahler and Vaughan Williams and in recitals she goes from Gluck to Poulenc. “I’m terrible: I can’t say ‘no’ to anything. My agent will phone me up and perhaps mention a work that might be difficult, modern stuff or something like that, and I always say ‘send me the score’. More often than not I’ll say ‘yes’ because I love the diversity and I love the challenge. However this year the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra asked me if I would do the Verdi Requiem for a charity performance in aid of the fund they have for orchestra members who fall ill or suffer injuries. I love that orchestra but I had to say ‘I don’t know’ because that work is such a big jump from what I’ve been doing. In the last year or so my voice has been getting bigger and I’m beginning to look at things likeTraviata and roles such as Fiordiligi. But with the Requiem I thought ‘Would it be one step too far?’. So I went away to think about it and asked some of the people here. I always come back here when I need advice because they’re like a family to me, especially people like the artistic director David Gowland and the music coaches David Syrus and Mark Packwood. And their response was ‘Do it: it sounds great’. But the really funny thing with that Verdi Requiem was that just about a week after I said ‘yes’ to Bournemouth I got a phone call from an orchestra in Germany also asking if I would do it. So of course I immediately said ‘yes’ because it’s in my repertoire now!”

Now known in America and Europe as well as in the United Kingdom, Ailish can also claim a special relationship with Royal Swedish Opera. She made her European debut with them in Der Rosenkavalier (of all the composers whose music she sings Richard Strauss is her favourite because of the way he writes for the soprano voice) and later she returned to that company for Falstaff and Xerxes. “I did my last performance of Xerxes with them about three weeks ago right before we started these rehearsals for Hansel and Gretel. Now usually when a show ends I’m delighted to move on. I think ‘That’s over! All the cheques are in the bank! Good work – on to the next one!’ But this time in Sweden I found myself crying because I’ve made so many friends there and they threw a big party to say goodbye to me and brought me presents. It’s a house that makes you feel so welcome and they really take care of their singers.”

Ailish loves all aspects of her work and talks of the pleasure of singing in Wigmore Hall (“It has that wonderful acoustic and sometimes, if you do a recital early enough on the day and it’s still bright, the sun comes through the roof”). Furthermore, for all her love of being on the operatic stage (not least at Covent Garden where her boyfriend is the principal bass trombone in the orchestra), she makes a perhaps unexpected remark: “For me there is nothing like working with an orchestra. There’s something about the sound of an orchestra when it’s behind you and supporting you: the grandeur of it is just so exciting.”

When Ailish returned to Covent Garden for Fidelio in 2007 Antonio Pappano yielded the baton on one occasion to upcoming conductor Rory Macdonald so Hansel and Gretel is for Ailish a reunion with him although originally most performances were to have been conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras. “This was supposed to be the last thing he would conduct at Covent Garden – but they’ve probably said that for years and then he’s come back again and again. It would have been amazing to do it with him and we were totally gutted by the news of his death. But the great thing is that Rory came along and he’s so open to collaboration. He’s a lovely person for whom I have the greatest respect and it would be good to think that making contact at this stage in our careers we might go on to see much more of each other along the way.”

When we discuss Hansel and Gretel Ailish welcomes the notion that like the film The Wizard of Oz this is a work loved by children but also by adults and that they are further linked by the fact that despite containing no reference to Christmas each has become a seasonal favourite. Humperdinck’s opera shares with that classic film an evil witch who has to be overcome but musically it’s an odd mix being influenced by Wagner, by operetta and, as Ailish is quick to mention, presages Richard Strauss (who conducted the first performance). “That it coheres is the genius of Humperdinck. He has managed to take all these different things and yet to make out of them his own brilliant work. Some people look at it, find a few little tunes in it and say ‘Isn’t it lovely?’. But I can tell you something for nothing: it’s a hard sing. There are times when you really have to welly it out and you never stop. When you’re singing you have to be dancing and throwing mattresses around. By the end of it you have had a full work-out and that’s probably just as well because we eat so much food in this production. I definitely need the work-out to work it off!”

Much of the first Act of the opera is innocent fun as we enter the world of the two young siblings the boy Hansel, played in this production by Christine Rice, and his sister Gretel, but as the story develops they get lost in the forest. By this juncture we have seen something of their parents who are poverty-stricken and the outside world with the frightening Witch contains real menace. This reflection of human experience starts with the cocoon existence of childhood but grows into awareness of a dangerous universe and that equates to an opera which creates fun and excitement that can be appreciated by children is also open to being seen as a work with a serious backbone. “We’ve really tried to play it very seriously by genuinely expressing the terror in the forest. It’s pitch-black with things coming out of nowhere and sometimes I feel like bursting out in tears because I’m so into it. And when I saw this production the first time around I really felt the fear of God in me when the Sandman first appeared – this grotesque tiny little dwarf-like thing”. At this point Ailish changes the mood by inserting a comparison: “People probably say the same thing about me, but I want it on record that I’m actually taller than the Sandman!” She pauses to laugh before adding “Not much though”. Reverting to the witch, she asserts that there’s no moment of frivolity about her: “My life is seriously in danger here.”

Ailish is equally serious but in another way about her solo scene at the start of Act Three when Hansel is still asleep. “Those pages in the score when Gretel wakes up are just gorgeous and I love singing that bit because it’s like a Schubert song. I feel that I’ve almost been transported and I sometimes wish that Hansel would never wake up so that I could just keep on with those lovely melodious lines over the orchestra, music which allows Peter Manning as first violinist to play so beautifully.” But whatever depths are touched on in this work one must not forget that much of the piece is concerned with the two children and the way they play together.”I think that Gretel is maybe the older by about a year, but by the time they get into the woods it is definitely Hansel who is in charge although earlier Gretel, inheriting some of her mother’s guilt about not working hard enough and not providing for the kids sufficiently, has been a kind of nagging, pestering figure to Hansel. Once she gets out of the house though she suddenly gets her wings – she’s the one who first succumbs to eating the strawberries and later the gingerbread.”

Bringing Gretel to life requires the closest collaboration with the singer who portrays Hansel and Ailish is absolutely delighted that the casting of that role here means that she is working with Christine Rice for the third time this year. “We spent two months down the road at ENO doing Radamisto and at the beginning of the year we were in Paris for two months and I was over at her house all the time because Christine has got four children and they were like my family. So we got very, very close. That’s created such a strong bond that even before the rehearsals got going we were already in character behaving like naughty children. One day I brought in some fake poo for the end scene with the children, and I was saying to Christine ‘Shall I put the poo in?’ and she was saying ‘Go on’. Even in real life we love a bit of banter and getting on so well together has compensated for not having a longer rehearsal period. It has helped us to do what is so essential in this opera, to make the interplay between Hansel and Gretel seem absolutely natural. The costume helps too. When I put on this dress and get onto the set, it’s so very easy to take on the whole persona of a little girl. I feel that from day one Christine and I have just had such great fun.” Sharing that fun with the audience begins on 23 December and Ailish will love every minute of it.

  • Hänsel und Gretel – Eight performances at various times (first-night at 7.30p.m. and with several matinees post-Christmas) from Thursday 23 December to Friday 7 January 2011
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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