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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Return of the Great British Soprano

By Norman Lebrecht / March 4, 2009

In the grey dawn of 2009 there is just one British soprano still standing on the international circuit. There used to be a flock of them. Not long ago, Bayreuth would ring London for its next Isolde, Munich knew where to find a Marschallin and even the monoglots at English National Opera could be seen mugging up their Czech books for an upcoming Janacek lead in San Francisco, Paris or Madrid.

The heroines became Dames of the Empire, deservedly so. Gwyneth Jones, Ann Murray, Anne Evans and Jane Eaglen commanded the Wagner roles. Felicity Lott, Margaret Price, Lillian Watson and Josephine Barstow led in Mozart and Strauss.

No longer. Over the past five years the stock has fallen to a critical low. The death in 2003 of Susan Chilcott, aged 40 and fleetingly intense, exposed a talent vacuum. Amanda Roocroft is the last British soprano on the world stage and her career has been so chequered she almost gave up. When Roocroft sings Jenufa next week at ENO it will, she tells me, be the first time she has felt comfortable with what she does. ‘It got to a point,’ says our leading diva, ‘where I really did not enjoy my voice.’

You can read what follows in two ways. In one respect, it is a personal odyssey from rustic beginnings to great adulation and the traumas of adjustment. But it is also an indictment of a star system that destroys as much talent as it discovers. Amanda Roocroft has survived to tell the tale, and her survival yields hope of regeneration.

Some 15 years ago, when she was being hyped by the record industry as the next big thing, I made a film about Amanda for the BBC. A shy lass from the Lancashire mill village of Coppull, she played cornet in the local band and enjoyed a good pint after weekly practise. ‘I was expecting to go into chorus at Glyndebourne and work my way up and after about ten years emerge,’ she reflects.

But at 28, she had a big EMI deal and a choice of roles at Covent Garden. The pressures were intense. She hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when her boyfriend, a singer in the Glyndebourne chorus, got up and biffed a tenor who showed too much enthusiasm for a rehearsal snog. The chorister got dumped.

As did two husbands. She married a singer in Munich, then a vocal coach, giving birth to three boys, her pride and joy. In the 1990s she was a fixture in the firmament of Bavarian State Opera while Sir Peter Jonas and Zubin Mehta were in charge, singing Mimi, Desdemona, Eva in Meistersinger and all but the heaviest roles. Finding herself discarded by a change of regime, she moved back to England and kept flying off on an international career that gave her diminishing satisfaction.

‘The expectation was so high that I felt I was letting people down all the time,’ she relates. ‘They wanted me to be big news. And all I wanted to do was sing as well as I possibly could. I kept worrying that one day I’m gonna get found out. For about five years, I didn’t enjoy my voice.’

Conductors, she says, were supportive – particularly Mehta and Simon Rattle, with whom she scored a Salzburg triumph as Ellen in Peter Grimes – but her self-criticism was relentless and the stress took its toll both on her family situation and on her voice. There was always a volatility to her performances that divided critics and audiences. Some she wowed, others not.

Three years ago, she moved to Cambridgeshire and ‘did a complete detox on my life’. Out went her agent and the singing teacher she had been with for 21 years. When ENO offered her Jenufa, she thought ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go, got nothing to lose, I might as well enjoy it – and, if not, I’ll stop.’

Around the same time she joined the Baptist church in her village and, raised an Anglican, was born again into a more ecstatic, more personal faith. ‘Any challenge I’m given now,’ she says, ‘I know I’ll be able to succeed because I wouldn’t have been given the challenge if my God didn’t think I could cope with it.’

Her Jenufa at ENO won an Olivier award but was not quite what she wanted. ‘Whatever you are feeling,’ she explains, ‘it will show in the voice. The voice never lies. I still had too much tension in those performances and the voice was saying “you’ve got to get yourself sorted out ‘cos I’m not going to work for you any more.”’ She had not yet overcome the burden of expectation.

Returning this week to rehearse the revival at ENO’s shabby West Hampstead studios, she looks and feels at ease with herself. ‘No matter what I do, I’m forgiven,’ beams Amanda Roocroft as she prepares for Janacek’s harrowing role of a young woman whose baby is drowned by her godmother to save her marriage prospects. At 43 Amanda has found the confidence to fulfil her gift as a dramatic singer. ‘This is the best it’s going to be, so I might as well enjoy it,’ she laughs.

It takes real depth of character to cope with a role like Jenufa and with the ups and downs that Amanda has ridden. It need not have been so haphazard. Something is wrong in the system when so many good artists drop out or burn out. Amanda mentions that her best friend from college, the Liverpool soprano Rosa Mannion, has given up singing and is taking private pupils in Somerset. Our culture of overnight stardom destroys evanescent talent and disillusions fine performers in mid-life.

Teaching at the Royal College of Music, Amanda fears that young people are too easily seduced by what they see on television, ‘where being a celebrity is more important than singing well.’ Today’s students,’ she says, ‘all they want is to have a big voice, not to have their own voice.’

She’s right, of course. Opera, the most composite art form, is at risk from the instant gratifications of talent shows and celebrity culture. Sopranos are not the only victims. The grim struggles of the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, desperately searching for stability after a blitz of over-publicity, demonstrate that singers need protection from an excess of expectation.

That lesson has sunk in at some British conservatories and the next generation of sopranos, led by Susan Bullock and Kate Royal, are being groomed more cautiously for the big time. ‘I am so blessed that I am still here,’ sighs Amanda Roocroft with a hint of surprise, but her survival story has helped to light her successors on a less troubled path. The Great British Soprano is on the way back.

Jenufa opens at ENO on March 12.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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