Saturday 17 September 2016

A debut in the land of enchantment: I chat to Rhian Lois about performing Zerlina in Santa Fe

Rhian Lois and ensemble - Don Giovanni - Santa Fe Opera
Rhian Lois and ensemble - Don Giovanni - Santa Fe Opera
Whilst I was in Santa Fe, the Welsh soprano Rhian Lois was also there making her American debut at Santa Fe Opera as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni. I recently caught up with her to talk about how she had enjoyed singing at Santa Fe, to find out about her future plans and, as it turns out, chat about what its like to sing when you are pregnant!
Rhian Lois - Credit: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi
Rhian Lois - Credit: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Asked to sum up her three months in Santa Fe, Rhian comes up with two words, incredible, spectacular, calling it a most special experience in a land of enchantment. On her first day of rehearsal she describes seeing the house in its spectacular surroundings for the first time, and for the rehearsals and performances she found the incredible views so inspirational. And as a Welsh singer, it was special to follow in the footsteps of Bryn Terfel and Rebecca Evans, both of whom made their American debuts at Santa Fe Opera; Terfel as Figaro in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in 1991 and Evans as Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in 1995.

Rhian was there for three months, performing ten performances of Don Giovanni in all. The fact that there was sometimes a gap of 10 days between performances meant there was a lack of continuity, but also meant that the excitement built before each performance in a way which does not happen with a close run. She found the cast a joy to work with, and she refers to them as all 'quality singers': Daniel Okulitch was Don Giovanni, Kyle Ketelsen was Leporello, Leah Crocetto was Donna Anna, Keri Alkema was Donna Elivra, Edgaras Montvidas was Don Ottavio, Soloman Howard was the Commendatore, and Jarrett Ott was Masetto, with Ron Daniels as director and John Nelson as conductor. Riccardo Hernandez's designs for the opera were clearly a hit, Rhian calls the set gorgeous and was pleased that the luxurious costumes were beautiful to wear.

All in all she says that she cannot wait to get back. In his review for Opera Today, James Sohre said 'Ms. Lois’ flawlessly produced soprano and her highly musical singing was a fine complement to the other ladies, and she even made the balance of power far more interesting.'

Rhian Lois and Jared Ott - Don Giovanni - Santa Fe Opera
Rhian Lois and Jared Ott - Don Giovanni- Santa Fe Opera
Mozart is currently her all time favourite. The roles of his that she sings (Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Despina in Cosi fan tutte, Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, Pamina & Papgena in The Magic Flute) fit her like a glove and she feels that something in her comes alive. Zerlina is a particular favourite, partly because she covered the role in her first job at English National Opera (where she is now a Harewood Artist).

At Santa Fe Opera there was just three weeks of rehearsal so the singers had to arrive extremely prepared, but Rhian rather liked the fast pace of working. She talks about arriving knowing what you want to do, but being flexible and willing to cooperate. She found that the cast all worked well as a team, and they had fun both on and off stage, and 'did everything together'.

An interesting complication to Rhian's time there was that she found out she was pregnant just before leaving the UK, and she did the whole rehearsal period and a few of the shows before she felt that it was safe to tell everyone. And of course, three months is a long time when pregnant, especially in the early stages when the body changes so much. But she found the costume department extremely accommodating and everyone was supportive. She calls it an amazing experience, singing her favourite music realising there was a person growing inside her, and it made her look at the music in a different way. Whilst in Santa Fe, Rhian hiked a lot. The high altitude at Santa Fe can cause problems for singers, especially combined with being pregnant as in Rhian's case. It hit her at the first rehearsal, but she found that the hiking helped to get her acclimatised.

She is due in January, so will be finishing working in December and then taking three months off before returning to work singing Adele in Die Fledermaus with Welsh National Opera. Adele is a role which Rhian sang recently at ENO and she is pleased that this will be her first role post pregnancy. Mischievous and bubbly, Rhian says of Adele 'she is me'.

Rhian Lois as Musetta in La Boheme at ENO
Rhian Lois as Musetta in La Boheme at ENO
Rhian has a busy 2017/18 ahead of her as she will making her European debut in Geneva, returning to WNO and singing what she describes as 'her dream role' at ENO. This Autumn she has a number of concerts as well as covering Leila in Les Pecheurs de Perles at ENO. It is an obvious next step for her, and She feels that this is a good way to get the role under her belt. She does, however, point out that by the time of the final performance she will be eight months pregnant, which would do interesting things to the dramaturgy if she did have to go on stage!

She feels energised and the moment, and as she is feeling great she thought why not continue, though she admits that everyone is different and some women stop far earlier. She has a lot of things to learn and is having coaching three times a week as part of being a Harewood Artist at ENO, but she thinks that having a goal really spurs you on.

She has great admiration for the singers performing Mozart's other female roles, finding the music thrilling and the roles interestingly complex. At the moment she has no interest whatsoever in roles like Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, and says that she loves her current roles, what she describes as 'the maids' (Zerlina, Despina, Susanna). As long as she looks and sounds youthful she wants to continue these roles, 'why not?'. She enthusiastically talks about wanting to sing them everywhere, repeating the roles at new houses. One of the reasons that Rhian likes singing 'the maids' is that not only do they suit her voice but she can see herself in them and so it does not make sense to move on to bigger rep at the moment. Though these characters are not her, there is something of them in her. She brings something of Rhian Lois to the stage, yet also learns something from the characters.

Rhian Lois as Frasquite in Carmen with ENO
Rhian Lois as Frasquita in Carmen with ENO
Zerlina is a country girl who gets led astray and though she is strong and independent, there is a side to her which is a bit weak. But Zerlina's arias are beautiful and Rhian feels strongly about getting to sing them. An aria like Zerlina's 'Vedrai carino' is very bare and leaves the singer laid bare with nowhere to hide. For Rhian, Mozart shows a singers technique at its very best, as well as showing the character's true emotions. And all can related to operas like Le nozze di Figaro because the work is essentially about everyday affairs.

We return to the subject of pregnancy in a singers life. Despite the difficulties of singing whilst pregnant, Rhian feels that you have to just make it work. With all the hormones changing in the singer's body, their voice can change during and after pregnancy. At the moment Rhian feels her voice is better than ever, but she comments 'who knows what the body will do' and at the moment feels her voice is growing. She seems comfortable with any possible changes, and refers to it as an adventure. For Rhian, being pregnant whilst performing brings another dimension to what she does .

Regarding timing, she comments that 'nature happens' and she feels incredibly lucky in the way that her pregnancy slotted into her schedule nicely. She has support from both her own family and that of her fiancé, Joseph, so that she and Joseph are confident about making work the logistics combining her career with bringing up a child.

Rhian Lois - credit Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi
Rhian Lois - credit Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi
Having an operatic partner can be tricky, someone whose day job involves appearing on stage in character. Joseph does not come from a musical background and his career is in finance. He has come to both love opera and see Rhian on stage, and is very supportive of her career. She admits that being an opera singer is a strange job, becoming a character on stage and then becoming yourself again afterwards. And she often gets asked what her day job is!

Before going on stage she stays quite quiet, but once on stage it is as if a light is switched on and she can bounce into action. The type of role she loves requires her to be a ball of energy on stage, but if you give your all on stage, then the day after though is a different matter. 'I can't tell you how tired I am' and calls it 'a performing hangover'. Rhian finds being a singer rewarding, calling the theatre her second home, but it means working long hours, can be very stressful, and performers need to be disciplined. She refers to singers as vocal athletes and exercises every day. But this discipline can make you selfish, and she is clearly pleased to have a partner with whom she is able to share her job.

Rhian's first language is Welsh, and is comfortable singing roles both in the original and in translation. She sees it as all about adapting. At ENO where she sings in English she feels that this can bring another dimension when the translation works well. But that it is lovely to be singing in the original as they did at Santa Fe. Singing in the original does require more coaching, as it needs to sound like your mother tongue. She finds German easy because Welsh is a similarly guttural language, though the vowels in Welsh do related to Italian vowels.

Looking ahead, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier is what she describes as a dream role, one which ticks a clear box for her. It fits her voice like a glove and she cannot wait to do it. There are a number of similar roles in the same fach, she is engagingly eager to try all of them, referring to Oscar in Un ballo in maschera as 'such fun'.

Welsh National Opera's production Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, directed by John Copley, conducted by Tomas Hanus with Rhian Lois as Adele opens at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 20 May 2017.

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