Saturday, 30 July 2016

Elsa, Tosca and co: I chat to soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn as she prepares for her debut as Tosca

Elizabeth Llewellyn - Photograph by Shirley Suarez
Elizabeth Llewellyn - Photograph by Shirley Suarez
The soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn made her English National Opera (ENO) debut in 2010 as Mimi in La Boheme, subsequently singing the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro with ENO and with Opera Holland Park (for whom she also sang Fiordiligi in Cosi van tutte), and Amelia in Simon Boccanegra with English Touring Opera (a role she also sang at short notice with Mark Elder and the Halle). Since then she has rather disappeared from UK stages, but has not been silent. She has performed Bess (Porgy and Bess), Giorgetta and Suor Angelica (Il Trittico) with the Royal Danish Opera, and sung a number of roles with Theater Magdeburg including her debut as Elsa in Lohengrin. Later this year Elizabeth will be making her debut in the title role of Tosca at Theater Magdeburg so I caught up with her to chat about Elsa, Tosca and the interesting direction her voice has taken. (see also part two of our interview).

In person Elizabeth is both charming and articulate, and she clearly thinks deeply both about the roles she undertakes and the type of role which suits her. Our discussion ranged widely but in great detail looking at how Elizabeth thinks about roles such as Elsa and Tosca, but also at the wider issues facing young singers as their voices develop. In this first part of the interview we talk about how her relationship with Theater Magdeburg developed, how it was there she felt comfortable debuting Elsa and Tosca, and the importance of knowing your voice when looking at roles.

Elizabeth Llewellyn as Elsa in Lohengrin at Theater Magdeburg 2014
Elizabeth Llewellyn as Elsa in Lohengrin
at Theater Magdeburg 2014
Though Elsa is a jugend-dramatisch role, Elizabeth has a very clear-eyed view of her assumption of the role. The theatre at Magdeburg is not a large one and the house was not looking for a big dramatic soprano, also Theater Magdeburg is a company with which Elizabeth has started to feel at home. When she made her debut as Elsa, she had never sung any Wagner and in fact never sung any opera in German. I ask how her German is, and she laughs and says that it is good now; working at Theater Magdeburg, which is in the former DDR, meant conversing a lot in German.

The Intendant at the theatre is Karen Stone whom Elizabeth feels has changed the face of the house and the audience, bringing it into the 21st century and doing joint productions with companies such as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. The company has a really solid ensemble and orchestra, doing a mix of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini on a regular basis along with some really interesting world premieres. The company has a full season, and Elizabeth comments that it shows what reasonable government funding can do for the arts so that even second or third level houses in Germany have full seasons.

There is, of course, a lot of operetta and light opera in the schedule but they get sell-out houses. There were nine performances of Lohengrin (an opera which was a big undertaking for a house that size) and all were sold out. Elizabeth sang Mimi in La Boheme with them last year, and Karen Stone's production was in fact the first time the company had done the opera for 10 years.

The system has flexibility, members of the ensemble guest and guests like Elizabeth come and perform. She has done five or six productions with them and it felt right to make her role debut as Tosca at the house. She feels that it is a very logical role for her to be singing now, and finds the role beautifully crafted and and written for the soprano voice.

Part of the singer's job is to find repertory that almost sings itself,
so that you can cope with the physical demands of the production


Elizabeth Llewellyn as Suor Angelica at the Royal Danish Opera, 2015/16
Elizabeth Llewellyn as Suor Angelica at the Royal Danish Opera, 2015/16
She feels the same about the roles of Giorgetta and Suor Angelica in Puccini's Il trittico which she sang with the Royal Danish Opera. The music felt natural for her, what was difficult was the very physical production which made singing hard. Her performance had to encompass running up and down ladders, doing laundry and other physical work. But she adds that part of the singer's job is to find repertory that is suitable, that almost sings itself, so that you can cope with the physical demands of the production.  For Elizabeth, roles like Elsa, Giorgetta, and Suor Angelica almost 'sing themselves', she find the beautiful vocal lines placed so that the voice is working efficiently.

One of the subjects were return to in our conversation is that of finding the right role for your voice. Elizabeth has learned not to listen too hard when people say 'ooh, that's a big sing', quietly thinking to herself have they sung it? This applies very much to Elsa, an iconic role which more dramatic voices than hers have performed. But she thinks that performances by more dramatic sopranos bring certain expectations and can lack that sense of naivety which a more lyric voice can bring, a naivety which helps emphasise Elsa's youth.

A relief to sing them without feeling she has to 'shave the edges off the voice'


Elizabeth is still best known in the UK for her lyric roles, but clearly her recent performances in Denmark and Germany show that her voice has moved on. She feels she is a lyrico spinto, not a dramatic soprano but not a straight lyric any more. She could still sing the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro but there are other roles which are more comfortable. Roles like Elsa, Giorgetta, Suor Angelica and Tosca are ones that she feels she can sing fully, it is a relief to sing them without feeling she has to 'shave the edges off the voice' as she would have to do now with the Countess.

Elizabeth Llewellyn as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, 2011
Elizabeth Llewellyn as the Countess in
Le nozze di Figaro, 2011

But it is clear she chooses roles with care, she has coaching from people who have known her a long time and whose judgement she trusts. But it is a fine balance, a singer can only sing what they are offered. And in getting to know a role, Elizabeth feels that for some roles simply covering the role 'does not cut it', you won't know whether you can sing them without doing it.

The first time she was offered the title role in Tosca she told them they were crazy


She goes on to say that a singer has to know and understand the timbre of their voice. The first time she was offered the title role in Tosca she told them they were crazy, she just could not hear it in her voice. In fact she has been offered the role four or five times, and has only now decided the time and place is right. She enjoys working in Magdeburg and Tosca will have the same conductor as the performances of La Boheme which she sang with them. She feels that it is a safe place to make her role debut, and there are 10 performances so by the end she will know if the role really fits.

She admits that it is difficult for a singer to say 'no' or 'not yet' but she feel that if the role is right for you then someone will offer it to you again. Her voice has always been warm and well rounded but the upper register has developed and often she has discovered things simply by doing a role. She has never had the blade in her voice to sing dramatic roles. So she has had to nicely say no to things in the dramatic soprano canon such as Senta in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, and she adds the comment that 'I don't make those sort of noise'.

Elizabeth is clearly a singer who thinks deeply about her voice and what is and isn't suitable. She says that you have to be honest with yourself, can you make those sort of noises? She looks at where the role likes, how it is written, how many big moments there are and what is happening around them, how it is paced and where it is written in the voice. All this goes towards assessing whether a role looks comfortable. Elizabeth never says yes or no to a role without analysing it, doing far more than just listening to it on YouTube.

See also part two of my interview with Elizabeth Llewellyn
.
Update: One of my correspondents pointed out that we should not forget to mention Elizabeth's sumptuous Donna Elvira (in Mozart's Don Giovanni) in Bergen last year!


Puccini's La Boheme, with Elizabeth Llewellyn as Mimi, recorded during a stage & orchestra rehearsal at Theater Magdeburg in January 2015.

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