Saturday 14 February 2015

This Other Eden - An encounter with Kitty Whately

Kitty Whately - credit Natalie J Watts and the Royal College of Music
Kitty Whately
credit Natalie J Watts and the Royal College of Music
Mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately's debut disc, with pianist Joseph Middleton, comes out next month on the Champs Hill Records label and we met up to chat about the disc. Called This Other Eden: A Landscape of English Poetry and Song, the programme mixes English song with poetry, read by Whately's parents the actors Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton, as well as involving the Navarra Quartet. The selection of work is varied, including songs by Joseph Horowitz and James MacMillan and concluding with Samuel Barber's Dover Beach which sets poetry by Matthew Arnold (who was a friend of Kitty's ancestor Archbishop Whately).

The family connection is important as Kitty wanted the disc to be something very personal. The idea of doing a mixture of poetry and song made the disc, she felt, a little bit different. Kitty feels that few people buy physical discs any more, so her first had to be something to remember. She performed a programme of song and poetry with her parents, Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton, at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead last year, as well as performing programmes with her mother, so that to do a similar programme on record would involve them. The family involvement also extends to CD artwork, where the pictures are of her daughter.
CHRCD094 - This Other Eden - Kitty Whately

The disc was planned from the start to be of English song, as this is a genre which Kitty loves. She sent pianist Joseph Middleton a huge list of all the English songs which she knew. It was his idea to divide the disc into sections, with songs and poems themed on This Other Eden, Forests and Gardens, Meadows and Fields, Wilds of Scotland, Coasts and Seas. Initially many of the songs were quite pastoral, so they deliberately chose some grittier songs and poems.

One such work, certainly not pastoral is Joseph Horowitz's Lady Macbeth: A Scena, which is a work which Kitty loves (and she sang it at Sarah Walker's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall). She has had coaching on the piece with Horowitz and was determined to include it on the recital, hence the inclusion of a section on the Wilds of Scotland. Another unusual, rather bleak, piece is James MacMillan's The Children and here Kitty was unsure whether the song would work because of its great use of silence.

Many of the songs on the disc were already in her repertoire, and some such as Howells's King David she has known for ever. Kitty sang King David at the Kathleen Ferrier Competition which she won in 2011. Other songs have become personal, such as Ivor Gurney's The Fields are Full which will be sung at her wedding (she is engaged to tenor Anthony Gregory). But a few were new including the James MacMillan and Roger Quilter songs. These latter (I will go with my father a-ploughing and I wish and wish) use string accompaniment from members of the Navarra Quartet. By including the works with strings, including RVW's We'll to the woods no more with solo violin, she felt the recital gained a variety of texture.  The RVW is in fact from a cycle of Houseman poems for violin and voice and Kitty comments that she would love to do the whole cycle.

Kitty Whately and Anthony Gregory in 'Cosi fan tutte' with English Touring Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Kitty Whately & Anthony Gregory in
Cosi fan tutte with English Touring Opera
 photo credit Robert Workman
The Navarra Quartet also features on Samuel Barber's Dover Beach, a work which Kitty loves. She clearly also relishes the connection between Matthew Arnold and her forebear Richard Whately, who was Archbishop of Dublin. Though she has performed the work in concert, she admits that it sits rather low for her and it is a bit of a challenge.

Kitty clearly enjoys recital work, and she has been a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist since 2013 which has brought her plenty of recital opportunities from the BBC. But as a New Generation Artist she cannot repeat anything, so she laughs that she has spent the last two years learning which has made the recital work rather intensive. Whereas, for her, work in opera is teamwork with a weeks long rehearsal process in which to get things wrong, doing recitals is far more scary and intensive. But she is interested in poetry and text and so enjoys recitals, and particularly choosing programmes on a theme. Her recent Wigmore Hall BBC Radio 3 lunchtime recital explored Schumann's settings of Adelbert von Chamisso poems. She had sung the Hans Christian Anderson songs (Chamisso translated Anderson's poems) at college and was keen to do all of the Chamisso settings including Frauenliebe und -leben, commenting that it was amazing that Schumann wrote them all in the space off a week.

Kitty Whately & Joseph Middleton with Kitty's parents at the Wigmore Hall
Kitty Whately & Joseph Middleton with Kitty's parents
after her recent lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall
Other work with the BBC includes show songs with the BBC Concert Orchestra (she was on Friday Night is Music Night on 30 January with Gavin Sutherland and the BBC Concert Orchestra, where the other guests included Simon Butteriss and Roy Hudd). Kitty did a similar concert with them last year, and it was one of her favourite concerts. She loves show songs and says that the only thing that prevented her from going into music theatre was that she couldn't dance. She is particularly fond of the classics - songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim. She got into singing partly as a result of her parents playing Rodgers and Hammerstein songs in the car. The National Theatre's production of Oklahoma made a big impression, and she started out joining an amateur musical theatre.

Further BBC plans include a recital for International Women's Day, as well as Ravel's Scheherezade with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Other plans include a tour Haydn's Nelson Mass with the Britten Sinfonia, which will take in Tenerife and Amsterdam. This summer she is appearing in Jonathan Dove's Flight with Opera Holland Park (opens 6 June 2015), the first major London production of the opera since British Youth Opera's production in 2008. Dove is writing her a song cycle to be premiered at the Cheltenham Festival (7-9 July 2015).

Our talk moves from English opera to opera in English, as Kitty sang both Barber of Seville and Cosi fan tutte in English for English Touring Opera. She likes opera in English as she feels that it is nice for the audience, especially for a company like English Touring Opera which takes performances to remoter places where audiences have less opportunity to hear opera. But she finds it technically difficult, particularly coping with the English vowels and dipthongs. However, both Barber of Seville and Cosi fan tutte are comedies, and it helps the audience. She finds also, that doing them in English helped her performances in Italian (she sang Rosina for Opera Holland Park last year), though it proved complex moving from English to Italian with one or two lapses in rehearsal. In the English Touring Opera production of Cosi fan tutte, Ferrando was played by her partner Anthony Gregory and Kitty comments that it was lovely (and quite rare) for the two of them to be able to do so. It does not happen very often (they were both due to be in the ENO production of L'Orfeo which has been cancelled). English Touring Opera tours can be rather gruelling, but doing the tour together made a difference.

Kitty Whately (Rosina) Nico Darmanin (Almaviva) and Nicholas Lester (Figaro) at Opera Holland Park, 2014 © Fritz Curzon
Kitty Whately (Rosina) Nico Darmanin (Almaviva) and Nicholas Lester (Figaro)
at Opera Holland Park, 2014 © Fritz Curzon
When learning Cosi fan tutte they helped each other during the learning process. Singing together in opera is however a rarity, and she jokes that if they do so they have to buy a second score as they tend to have a single copy of each work. However she and Anthony do do occasional recitals together. She feels that, with so much time apart, you have to be disciplined in your relationship and that so many musical couples find their relationship goes to bits.

With both her parents actors (and in fact as a child she appeared with both in Auf Wiedersehen Pet) I wonder whether she was at all influenced by her parents in her choice of career. She admits that there may be a subliminal influence, but her brother has no interest in the theatre and is studying literature. She never wanted to be an actor. When she says that she was put off seeing how competitive the profession is, she breaks off and laughs realising that the same can be true of opera.

She was always performing as a child, and loved music. She was brought up with lots of music in the house, with both parents music lovers and her father a folk singer back in the 1970's. Her parents encouraged her in her choice of career, but were always realistic.

Kitty Whately - credit Natalie J Watts and the Royal College of Music
Kitty Whately
credit Natalie J Watts and the Royal College of Music
When it comes to her own daughter (who is 8), Kitty is not so sure and admits that she would be very happy for her if she did not want to perform. But her daughter is growing up in a musical environment as both her parents, and both their current partners are all singers! Kitty also comments that her daughter is a massive show-off, and always singing and dancing, and she was furious that she did not get to appear in the YouTube promotion video for the new CD, despite featuring in the photographs.

Kitty herself came to prominence after winning the Kathleen Ferrier Competition in 2011, and I ask her what she thinks of competitions. She says that she would not do another competition but when she did the Ferrier she was still a student, singing in the Glyndebourne Chorus, and that she has no regrets as participating in the competition opened doors for her and even got her an agent. But she is still not sure whether competitions in general are a good idea. The results can be very subjective, and all can depend on who is on the jury panel the year you singing; you cannot gauge from the result whether you are on the right track. And the pressure is cripplingly terrifying, she and others have found it a negative experiences; winning a competition is a bit thing to live up to. But it does look good on the CV. She enjoyed choosing the repertoire for her competition recitals, and being able to sing at the Wigmore Hall, but she feels that doing competitions is not essential and many fine singers have not gone that route.

She is hoping that people will buy physical copies of her CD, as the artwork is so beautiful. The booklet includes texts for all the poems and songs, as well as more pictures. Kitty clearly feels that it is a shame that CD's are becoming a dying art. She recorded the disc at Champs Hill in Sussex, where it was almost a working holiday as it is such a lovely relaxing place. The disc was produced by Nigel Short (who also moonlights as the conductor of the conductor of the choir Tenebrae), and she treasures the whole experience.

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