Friday 29 June 2012

Christine, Pauline and Elisabeth - an interview with Janis Kelly

Janis Kelly
Janis Kelly
I was lucky enough, last week, to be able to catch up with Janis Kelly whilst she was in the middle of a busy rehearsal schedule for Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo, in which she plays Christine in Stephen Unwin’s new production which opens this year’s Buxton Festival on July 7, with Stephen Gadd as Robert, conducted by the festival’s new artistic director Stephen Barlow.

In the middle of rehearsals, Kelly was finding the role of Christine tricky but rewarding; not for any technical reasons but because the role is so expansive, so huge. For Kelly, it feels as if Christine is ten times the size of role compared to the Marschallin, a role for which Kelly is well known. Intermezzo is a highly conversational opera, and Christine is in virtually every scene. That’s a lot of bars of music and every bar has its complexity; each is what she describes as a gourmet bar. Though the role is a challenge and difficult to get into the system, it is a challenge that she clearly relishes.

She suggests that one reason why the opera is so rarely performed is the reluctance of sopranos to learn the role of Christine and she names a famous Strauss soprano who has stated that she won’t be learning the role. Even compared to Countess Madeleine in Capriccio, Christine is long. Kelly points out that Capriccio, though full of dialogue, has a great deal happening in it what does not involve the Countess. But for Kelly, the reward in Intermezzo is that Strauss paints Christine in a very three-dimensional way.

The opera was based on an incident in the life of Strauss and his wife Pauline. Pauline was notoriously temperamental, with a strong temper. Kelly is wary of stretching the parallels too far; though they have been bearing Richard and Pauline in mind during rehearsal, she says firmly that they are playing Robert and Christine, the drama as Strauss wrote it. She points out that Christine can at most be a picture of what Strauss imagined his wife to be like. Christine is temperamental, but though you get mood swings and bad tempers, Kelly feels that Strauss lets the music show the pain and pathos which underly the character, showing why she feels so lonely. The opera isn’t heroic at all, it remains purely domestic, but Kelly is finding it a revelation. Unwin is a director with a primary background in spoken theatre and she describes them as rehearsing the opera like a play.

Klimt's The Kiss
Though Strauss’s roles for soprano run the gamut from soubrette to heroic, Kelly has so far remained firmly in the lyric roles and she names Arabella as a role that she would like to sing. In other repertoire she has been moving things up a notch or so in terms of dramatic weight by performing Lady Billows for the first time. This was in Los Angeles in a production directed by Paul Curran which, as Kelly puts it, took my voice and character into account. She describes her interpretation as being more Fanny Craddock / Joan Crawford than Joan Cross. Let us hope that we get to see her in the role in the UK sometime soon.

Kelly has also directed operas, having done two successful production for Grange Park Opera. Whilst she enjoys wearing two different hats, she endeavours not to bring her director's side into the rehearsal studio. She tries not to see the process from the outside and comments how much she loves working with a director like Unwin.

There are, however, no Kelly directed opera productions in the pipeline at the moment. She describes how, when she started directing for an opera company, she received rather too many comments about how she had stopped singing. Besides which, she says that she kept being offered singing roles which were just too tempting. Not that she has stopped directing entirely. As part of her teaching at the Royal College of Music she directs scenes with the students.

Teaching is something that Kelly takes very seriously. She is in her fifth year of teaching at the Royal College of Music and has from seven to nine full-time students. She admits that fitting in both performing and teaching can be tricky, but that it is something worth making an effort for. Her students have had successes both in RCM competitions and in the Ferrier award.

Her own period of study in Paris with Elisabeth Grummer made a huge difference to her own technique. She feels that, for whatever reason, she did not come out of college with a technique she could rely on. Grummer made all the difference. Grummer taught a precise Italian bel canto technique with emphasis on diction, tongue and vocal placement; classes also included exercise classes. Kelly taped her lessons and continued to return to these tapes. When she started preparing for her own teaching she returned to Grummer's lessons. Thanks to the internet she was able to research far more about Grummer’s teaching technique and in effect re-taught herself, finding her own technique rejuvenated.

In fact, Kelly has done quite a bit of research on Grummer and the lineage of her teaching, tracing it back five generations to the Manuel Garcia. This is something which clearly interests her and she has produced a DVD on the subject, appearing alongside Norbert Meyn in a DVD entitled An Exploration of a Vocal Lineage. 

Kelly’s vocal technique has meant that she has been able to sing a wide variety of roles from baroque to contemporary (both James MacMillan and Rufus Wainwright), from grand opera to musical theatre (she made notable appearances in Ian Judge’s production of Showboat as well as Weill’s Street Scene). She delights in this ability not to be pigeonholed. Her sympathy with musical theatre partly arises from her background.

As a child she was part of a family singing troupe, six siblings sang traditional Scottish songs in close harmony; something she describes as a Von Trapp family of the Highlands. She feels that she would not have felt so at home on the stage if she had not had this early grounding and says that she would still jump at a role on the West End stage. She feels that performing in this lighter style of musical theatre can have other benefits for a singer. Such roles tend to have more speaking and if a singer can’t speak with confidence then they cannot build a singing voice.

It is here that we have to, reluctantly, bring our conversation to a close. Kelly’s insights into the role of Christine have certainly whetted my appetite for the new production of Intermezzo. And beyond that I am keen to see what this charming and fascinating singer will do next.

Watch interviews and rehearsal clips from the forthcoming Buxton Festival production of Intermezzo.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012

City of London Festival 2012

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