Saturday 19 January 2019

The main thing is to sing well and be a good performer: I chat to soprano Chiara Skerath, associate artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera

Chiara Skerath with Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall in 2018
1768 in Retrospect - Chiara Skerath with Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall in 2018
The soprano Chiara Skerath has recently become an Associate Artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera, artistic director Ian Page, and I was able to chat to her recently when she was in London to record a new CD with Ian Page and the Mozartists. This will be her second CD with them, she has already recorded one, Mozart's Il sogno di Scipione [see my review] as well as taking part in last year's concert at the Wigmore Hall, 1768 in Retrospect [see my review], and singing in Mozart's La finta semplice [see the review in], all as part of Classical Opera's Mozart 250 project. Chiara will be back in London later this year with Ian and The Mozartists for the 1769 in Retrospect concert at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday 29 January 2019, and for performances of Hasse's Piramo e Tisbe later in the year.

Chiara Skerath recording with Ian Page and the Mozartists earlier this year
Chiara Skerath recording with Ian Page and the Mozartists earlier this year
The Hasse opera is entirely new to Chiara, she had sung the aria before but has all the recitative to learn, but she finds it exciting to be trying out new repertoire. She comments that Hasse, who rather loved himself, said that Piramo e Tisbe was the best opera that he had ever written. (The work was premiered in 1768 when the composer was nearly 70).

Ian Page's Mozart 250 project is working through the composer's life, year by year, so that last year we celebrated 1768 and this year it is 1769. Each year Ian and The Mozartists give a retrospect concert pulling together both music by Mozart and the music by other composers written at the same time, that Mozart would probably have known. Chiara feels that the music in last year's 1768 in Retrospect concert was rather stronger than that in this year's concert looking at 1769, but that there is always something of interest.

She has great admiration for the way Ian Page researches the music for the concerts, going into libraries and digging up scores, she feels that he is very passionate about the music and is very sympathetic and inspiring to work with. A lot of music of the period has been forgotten and Ian's retrospective concerts enable us to see the highlights. Last year Chiara sang an aria from a Jomelli opera, Fetonte the 26th of his 27 operas, at the 1768 in Retrospect concert and this proved very popular, she points out that sometimes the arias are the highlights and the whole operas might not be to the same standard, and of course nothing can beat Mozart.

Chiara has done a lot of Mozart, having sung most of the 'maid' roles (what she calls the 'As', Zerlina, Despina, Barberina, Susanna, Servilia, Ninetta, Papagena etc), and she will be completing the list by singing the First Lady in Die Zauberflote in Opera de Paris in Summer 2019. She is still having so much fun doing the maids that she does not see herself moving 'upstairs' yet, and points out that once you have performed the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro there is no going back to Susanna. When Chiara sang Ninetta in Mozart's early comedy La finta semplice with Ian Page last year she did what she always does in such operas and starts with a plan, who is married to whom, who loves whom, to enable her to get a handle on the complex plots, and she adds that there is so much in these early Mozart operas and all he needed was a Lorenzo da Ponte, a good librettist!

Chiara Skerath recording with Ian Page and the Mozartists earlier this year
Chiara Skerath recording with Ian Page and the Mozartists earlier this year
The recording she is currently making with Ian Page and The Mozartists is devoted to music of the Sturm und Drang period, with music by Haydn, Traetta and Jomelli, a mix of vocal items and orchestra pieces. Chiara started working with Ian Page, The Mozartists and Classical Opera around three years ago, and it came about by accident. Another soprano was booked but cancelled, and it happened that Chiara was looked after by the same agency as original soprano so they suggested her. The collaboration with Ian Page seemed to click, and she has been back regularly and is now an Associate Artist.

Chiara describes Ian as much more than a conductor, she loves to hear him talking about the music. During performances of La finta semplice last year, people were laughing during the recitatives (which hardly ever happens) rather than applauding the arias, thanks to a combination of Ian's inspiring interpretation and his lively translations of the texts.

Though now based in France, Chiara is in fact Belgian and her father is Flemish whilst her mother is Swiss Italian, an mixture which gives Chiara a wide linguistic background. She learned French properly at the age of 14 when she was in France, and came to love the literature. She has been singing Mélisande in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. A big change from Mozart roles, but Chiara loves the role, though it is one she can only sing two or three times a year as it is so emotionally heavy. She regards singing Mélisande as a life changing role, and that she can sing it in French is a big achievement.

When she first saw the opera as a member of the audience she admits that she never understood it, but then she started really learning the score and found it an incredible score, each time she returns to the opera she discovers new things. Her most recent outing of the role was with Marc Minkowski in Bordeaux, and she was lucky as this was a very fine production.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande - Chiara Skerath, Stanislas de Barbeyrac - Opéra de Bordeaux (Photo Julien Benhamou)
Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande - Chiara Skerath, Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Opéra de Bordeaux (Photo Julien Benhamou)
Another music style that we chat about is musical theatre, Chiara has done one role, Eliza in Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, and she says that she loved it even though it turns out that she cannot dance!

In recital, Chiara is happy singing French,  German, Italian and Czech, though she comments that there are so many good English singers she rarely sings in English (she did Haydn's English canzonets when a student). Her linguistic flexibility comes, partly, from her background, whilst growing up she spoke Flemish with her father and Italian with her mother (she adds that her father was also a big Mister Bean fan, something that she is trying to communicate to her young daughter). She has even sung in Japanese, but admits that she doesn't sing in Flemish. Despite this, she feels that it makes a difference when singers perform in their native language, something just clicks in the performance. This variety of language is helpful in opera too, as Chiara rarely has to translate the roles she is singing, but learning a new language can also be exciting.

Chiara was exposed to opera from quite a young age, and feels that there is a problem with music education nowadays in that young people are not encouraged to go to the opera. She is a bit dismissive of some opera stagings, feeling that if someone has come to the opera for the first time a difficult staging can be off putting. If the singers themselves don't know what is supposed to be going on on stage, how can they tell the public. But she adds that stagings don't have to be 'super old school' either.

Mozart: La finta semplice - Ninetta (Chiara Skerath), Don Polidoro (Alessandro Fisher), Rosina (Regula Mühlemann) - Classical Opera (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Mozart: La finta semplice - Chiara Skerath, Alessandro Fisher,
Regula Mühlemann - Classical Opera (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Some directors, however, are superb and have changed her way of thinking. She enjoyed working with Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, as they always enabled her to know what her character was thinking, this helped her a lot and made her a more natural actor. She comments that being an opera singer is not always easy, but then no job is, and she also learns a lot from colleagues, some of whom are natural stage animals.

She has always sung and was taken to the opera when little when she lived in Leuven, and now she does the same with her young daughter (who loves Rameau and Mozart but not Offenbach!). As a young girl Chiara loved the drama of the opera, the feelings, though she sometimes fell asleep in the longer operas, and here Chiara comments that the modern trend of doing operas for children is a good thing.

She is currently very happy with the lighter lyric repertoire that she sings though she understands that voices change, but you have to be careful and go slowly, but not too slowly. Also, she feels you need to be happy with what you are actually doing, that you do your thing with integrity. Nowadays there is a pressure for singers to sing all languages and do all repertoire, it was probably the same in the past but there was more time then. Now it is difficult to do things 'under the radar'.

1768 in Retrospect - Chiara Skerath with Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall in 2018
1768 in Retrospect - Chiara Skerath with Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall in 2018
This brings us to a discussion about social media, and Chiara admits to liking Twitter and feels that it can be fun, you need to take the positive view but it is also good to meet people in real life. She has a similar positive view of YouTube as it enables her to see what other singers are doing and she has done some successful auditions via YouTube! But it is important also to disconnect, you don't have to know everything about an artist.

The main thing is to sing well, and be a good performer.

  • Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande is at Opera de Bordeaux on Sunday 21 January 2019, see the Opera de Bordeaux website for details
  • 1769 - A Year in Music is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday 29 January 2019, see the Southbank Centre website for further details
  • Hasse: Piramo e Tisbe is at Cadogan Hall on 28 March 2019, see the Classical Opera website for further details
  • Mozart: Die Zauberflote is at the Opéra Bastille from 27 April to 15 June 2019, see the Opéra de Paris website for details
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Perhaps a film manqué: Stefan Herheim's Queen of Spades at Covent Garden (★★½) - opera review
  • Lux: A trio of striking works to celebrate the Norwegian girls' choir's 25th anniversary (★★★★) - CD review
  • Early and late: Schumann from Robin Tritschler & Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Stories in music: Roses, Lilies & Other Flowers from The Telling (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach in Cologne: Christmas Oratorio performed in the Kölner Philharmonie (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Finding an identity in classical music: composer Shirley Thompson on her career and recent projects - interview
  • Unwrapping Venus: the music of Barbara Strozzi at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky? & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn (★★★★) - operetta review 
  • A year at Lincoln: Aric Prentice and the choir of Lincoln Cathedral on Regent Records (★★★) - Cd review
  • Handel at Cannons: Chandos Te Deum and Chandos Anthem No. 8 from Adrian Butterfield, London Handel Orchestra and soloists (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seeing out the old year and seeing in the new: Tony Cooper at the Tiroler Festspiele, Erl (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ancient and modern: Liam Byrne, a viola da gamba and a laptop at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Diverse tapestry: Clare Norburn's Burying the Dead at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: violinist Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc, The Polish Violin - interview 
  • Strong and vibrant: Tallis masses and motets from the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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