Wednesday 26 February 2014

ISM's evening with Dame Felicity Lott

Dame Felicity Lott
The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) presented an evening with Dame Felicity Lott at the Forge in Camden (25 February 2014) in celebration of Felicity Lott's 40 years of membership of the ISM. The evening started with Felicity Lott and Joseph Middleton performing a group of song, and then Felicity Lott talked about her career in conversation with Edward Seckerson.

Felicity Lott and Joseph Middleton started their group of songs with Schumann's Widmung, in a highly communicative performance which was emphasised by the intimate nature of the venue; you felt as if Lott was singing to you personally. Frank Bridge's Go not, happy day combined a lovely rippling piano from Middleton, with some rather jazzy rhythmic undertow, and a lovely flowing melody from Lott.  Britten's Fancie was vividly intent. Reynaldo Hahn's A Chloris was magical, with Lott giving a lovely sense of shape to the vocal line and making it seem deceptively easy. Richard Strauss's Morgen followed, with a flexibly expressive performance and a beautiful thread of voice. Finally, Francis Poulenc's delightful Chemins de l'Amour where Lott and Middleton's light touch still conveyed the sadness underneath. Finally, a delightful performance of Noel Coward's If Love Were All.

Felicity Lott's conversation with Edward Seckerson ranged widely and took in all aspects of her career, as well as providing some remarkable insights into the life of a great artist. Coming from a musical family, with both parents as amateur musicians, Felicity Lott grew up with music around her and both parents were involved in concert parties during the war. She decided to study French, intending to be a translator, and she talked amusingly of her year in France marooned in a small town outside Grenoble. With no other English students to talk to (they were all in Grenoble) her French came on by leaps and bounds, but she found that her talent for teaching English to the recalcitrant young French girls was limited. With time on her hands she enroled in Grenoble Conservatoire and it was the discovery of a sympathetic teacher there which led to her decision to concentrate on her voice.

Approaching the great teacher Vera Rosza, she was advised by Rosza that she would be better off at one of the colleges as there would be a platform for her to perform and people would hear her.

At the Royal Academy of Music the young Felicity Lott smoked rather a lot (she gave up in 1981) and flirted with mezzo-soprano roles such as Dorabella and Octavian. Always a nervous performer and conscious of her height (something which cropped up often in the conversation), she failed three auditions for the Glyndebourne Chorus. Shyness was another thing that she repeatedly came back to, how confidence in her innate ability seemed to be lacking sometimes; she referred to some parts saying 'no money could be worth going through that agony'. Another area where this cropped up was when talking about recording and how 'when the red light goes on I stop breathing'. Comments such as 'terribly fragile' and 'the voice is you' made you realise that no matter how experienced a performer, having to rely just on your own voice is a difficult and unnerving way to make your career. (In her autobiography, the great dramatic soprano Regine Crespin talked of a similar fraught relationship with the recording process).

Early on Felicity Lott sang in the Handel operas at Abingdon and went on to understudy Pamina at ENO (in the Anthony Besch production) and actually went on; an occasion when there was no time to be nervous. Her Glyndebourne debut was as Anne Truelove and she thought that this was perhaps her only decent autition. Her first major Strauss role at Glyndebourne (the first of many) was the Countess in Capriccio on tour, in the John Cox production (the first of many times she would work with that great director).

Felicity Lott confessed that the Strauss roles she sang (she never sang Ariadne, Salome or Elektra) were all ones where the vocal writing was more lieder-like and played to her vocal strengths. She talked about not having the vocal strength to do the more familiar Italian roles. Even as she got older, she found that her voice did not develop strength and depth, in fact it got higher!

She first played Poulenc's Voix Humaine on tour with Glyndebourne in the 1970's, commenting that it is one of the hardest things to learn as there is no other performer to give you a prompt. Another role much associated with Felicity Lott is the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro a role which she loved singing. She has also sung Elvira in Don Giovanni and confessed that, though she enjoyed the role, she disliked the fact that people laugh at Elvira a lot. When singing Elvira she would always insist on including Mi Tradi.

When Edward Seckerson mentioned her singing a more recent role, Lady Billows in Britten's Albert Herring, Felicity Lott commented 'with great difficulty'. She had nothing but praise for Peter Hall, the director of the Glyndebourne production, but felt that her voice hadn't got the welly for the role.

Eva in Wagner's Die Mestersinger was the only major Wagner role she ever sang (in one performance a young Ben Heppner came on was the understudy Walter). When Edward Seckerson asked why she didn't do more Wagner, she commented that no-one had ever asked her to do Eva again. This was a comment that she applied to Strauss's Octavian as well. Commenting on Wagner, she said that she had been rather frightened of being sucked in and never coming out again. During rehearsals she found singing Wagner a lot like singing recitative, but on-stage with the orchestra discovered that it required a lot more power and vocal concentration.

Graham Johnson and the Songmakers Almanac were inevitably a strong topic for conversation. The group met when young and all had a similar love of song. It was only later that opera came along 'and broke us up eventually'. They performed the concerts for very little, and the first one was about vices with the audience not knowing that they could laugh. Talking about song recitals in general, Felicity Lott said that during them there was nowhere for the singer to hide, but there was also no-one to get in the way.

There was an opportunity at the end for the audience to ask questions, and amongst the many one person asked about teaching younger singers and Felicity Lott promptly commented that most have no diction at all and that simply hearing a beautiful shape with no words was boring.

Though she talks about scaling her activities back, it is clear that Dame Felicity Lott continues to be an active recitalist all over the world. Chatting to her at the post-concert drinks she commented on the lovely acoustic of the new theatre in the Canaries where she had recently given a recital. So I think that we have many more lovely such evenings to look forward to.

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