Welsh National Opera visit Milton Keynes Theatre

Welsh National Opera is bringing a feast of Italian operas from three of the most well known composers to Milton Keynes Theatre.

Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni

The season, entitled Rabble Rousers, will feature a new production of Verdi’s La forza del destino alongside revivals of Puccini’s Tosca and Mozart’s Don Giovanni from Wednesday to Saturday, April 4 to 7.

The season opens with La forza del destino directed by WNO artistic director David Pountney and conducted by WNO conductor laureate Carlo Rizzi in a personal debut for the maestro this season.

The well-known overture sets the scene for this dramatic opera full of twists and turns that sees the heroine Leonora torn between her lover Don Alvaro and allegiance to her family.

Claire Rutter

Romance and tragedy are on the menu for WNO’s revival of its production of Tosca in this thrilling story of love, lust, murder and corruption, which has become one of the best-loved operas.

Featuring beautiful arias including Floria Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, the story is punctuated with twists and turns from its start to its gripping finish.

Conducting of Tosca in Milton Keynes will be shared by Timothy Burke and Carlo Rizzi.

The final show is the revival of John Caird’s 2011 staging of Don Giovanni, with design by John Napier.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Based on the tale of Don Juan, Don Giovanni follows the demise of opera’s legendary seducer as his rogueish womanising catches up with him and he meets his end through a force from beyond the grave.

One of the most popular and much-performed operas, this has everything from murder to lust, to comedy, drama and the supernatural.

La Forza del Destino is rarely performed whilst Tosca is often chosen as the perfect production for those wanting to experience opera for the first time. Both operas feature beautiful music and plots full of romance with lots of twists and turns.

The dramatic soprano roles of the female leads Donna Leonora and Floria Tosca will be performed at different performances by Mary Elizabeth Williams and Claire Rutter on the UK tour.

Claire Rutter

We catch up with both singers who share the roles to get their different perspectives on the same questions about being a female opera star and approaching two of the biggest roles in music. ...

You have performed with Welsh National Opera before. What do you enjoy most about working with the company?

Mary Elizabeth Williams: This is my fifth contract with WNO, and I have been fortunate to sing extremely varied repertoire with this company. I am very grateful to the Artistic Administration of WNO who continually takes risks hiring me, and allows me to try new roles I am interested in studying and performing. The primary reason I continue to come back, though, is the “family” feeling I get when I work here. Artists need a friendly space to take risks and push themselves beyond what they know of their capabilities; WNO has always provided that safe space for me.

Claire Rutter: It’s great to be working back at one of my favourite opera companies, plus it’s nice to see so many familiar faces - I feel quite at home here as if I haven’t been away! WNO has always been so welcoming and friendly. A singer feels they’re surrounded by staff, crew and colleagues that care. WNO is like family away from home! And that’s quite unusual these days. We also work very hard, with efficient use of the time to get the best possible results. It’s no wonder the productions are of such a high standard!

Mary Elizabeth Williams

You will be performing two roles with the company this season. Is it more challenging combining two roles rather than one?

Mary Elizabeth: Well, I haven’t actually done it yet—I will be able to better answer this question at the end of February, once TOSCA and FORZA are both on their feet, up and running! But I will say that I would NEVER have agreed to do this if TOSCA weren’t a role that I already know well. Typically, I find that roles are very much influenced by the roles one has performed just before...so I am sure that my Tosca this time around will perhaps be more tinged with lyrical touches that bleed in from FORZA. It will be interesting, also, to work with Maestro Rizzi on both Verdian and Puccinian repertory, simultaneously! I hope to have the energy and stamina to fully profit as an artist from this unusual juxtaposition.

Claire: I don’t usually like to sing two roles at the same time, but at least Tosca and Leonora are both dramatic roles, therefore not so far apart in style. I’ve sung so much Puccini and Verdi that I find it quite easy to click from one ‘zone’ to the other! Leonora is a first for me, so I’m enjoying learning the new role alongside my much-performed Tosca.

Tosca is such an iconic role in the opera world. What do you look forward to most about performing the character?

Mary Elizabeth: In my opinion, Tosca is the most perfectly organized opera that exists, from a dramaturgical point of view. The story moves fast, there are no “unnecessary” scenes or characters, and it reads like a trashy novel. I love singing it not just for the music, which is already a good enough reason, but because we singers can also get caught up in a good story as we are telling it!

Claire: Tosca is as much about the acting as the singing, and our director, Ben Davis, has challenged the singers with new ideas, which I’m really looking forward to presenting to our audiences. I’ve worked on so many different Tosca productions that it’s refreshing when a new idea pops up! I’m always open to rethinking a role I’ve performed a lot, even if it takes a few goes to get the new idea to work. It keeps the opera fresh! Ben is also open to the singers’ suggestions and this collaboration will make for a much more organic production.

I have to say, not only is there a talented creative team behind this Tosca but wonderful strong colleagues making it shine.

You share both the lead female roles on the tour. Is it interesting for you to see how different singers interpret and sing the role or do you just focus totally on your own interpretation?

Mary Elizabeth: Claire Rutter and I are friends, and have been for several years. She and my husband worked together on Fanciulla Del West at Grange Park Opera. I sat in on many of their rehearsals, and I learned things from her then, even though Fanciulla is not yet in my repertoire. She is a wonderful singer and because I respect her artistry immensely, I look forward to hearing what she does with both roles. Unfortunately because of the rehearsal schedules, we haven’t seen much of each other yet...but I hope that changes in February, and into the tour!

Claire: Mary Elizabeth will bring her own ideas to the role, and so it’s highly likely we won’t be performing the ‘same’ Tosca. This is good. It has to be personal. But we all have to fit into the same stage mapping, in case of sickness, etc. in order to be consistent for our colleagues. Mary Elizabeth and I rehearse separately, but I do hope to see one of her performances on the tour.

Female opera stars have often been stereotyped as opera divas. Why do you think this is and have you encountered this in your career?

Mary Elizabeth: I think opera singers have to be extremely careful to protect our energy and our health. This need for good health causes us to zealously protect our environment—perhaps over-protect, if judged by people who don’t sing. It is perhaps hard for people outside the business to understand that rest, environmental noise, eating and drinking habits, weather, allergens, and in general, any environmental changes out of our control can adversely affect our ability to perform, and put our vocal health at serious risk. So, yes, as my teacher says—a large part of singing technique is the willingness to live a sheltered existence! From outside, I imagine all that self-protection looks very strange and perhaps haughty...but it comes with the job.

Claire: Ha ha ha! There are a few Divas on the planet but I think female singers are generally better behaved than folk imagine! I have to say, I find there are some Diva male singers too! Or should that be Divo?! Companies and colleagues tire of ‘Divas’ who are difficult and they just don’t get booked again! No one has time these days to pamper a tricky ego!

Do you have any superstitions or rituals before you perform?

Mary Elizabeth: I like to light a small candle in my dressing room before I go onstage. Unfortunately for me, that is evidently against the fire code at the Wales Millennium Centre! So, I have to light a “virtual” candle at gratefulness.org when I sing in Cardiff. It’s not the same, but it does the job.

Claire: I don’t have any rituals as I never want to be tied to superstition!

Do you have your own female singer/opera hero?

Mary Elizabeth: My biggest singer hero of all time is Frank Sinatra, for triumphantly surviving ups and downs in his career and incredibly managing to stay musically relevant over an incredibly long career. My operatic female heroes are Maria Callas and Shirley Verrett.

Claire: Naturally I love Maria Callas for her interpretation and mastery, but also Renata Scotto and of course Luciano Pavarotti for his perfection. For sheer beauty of tone I love listening to Kiri the Kanawa. I can’t pin it down to just one singer I love. They each have their own qualities.

Do you have any special moments/performances in your career that have stood out as a special memory?

Mary Elizabeth: I loved singing the role of Norma, which I have had the pleasure of doing only once so far in my career. I hold that experience with Florida Grand Opera as one of the most challenging and rewarding moments of my career. Also, I am very proud and still surprised at how much I enjoyed my experience singing Rosalinde(Die Fledermaus). WNO hired me for this role after I had expressed an interest in exploring comedy—I had been hoping for Falstaff, to be honest. But WNO offered me Rosalinde, and I took a risk and said yes. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to sing it, frankly, but with very generous colleagues and expert direction by Maestro Hanus, it turned out to be fun. It goes to show that sometimes taking big risks can teach you things about yourself you never thought to ask!

Claire: I have so many it’s difficult to pin it down to one event! I sang a recital at Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2012 and I felt so honoured to be there with an intimate audience, eating supper afterwards from Queen Victoria’s crockery!

Singing a Maria Callas tribute concert aboard Aristotle Onassis’s yacht in Monte Carlo was unique, and one of the most memorable weekends of my life.

Is there a role you have never performed that you would love to sing?

Mary Elizabeth: I would still like to sing Alice Ford in Falstaff!

Claire: I’d love to sing a few more Verdi roles, and also a staged Turandot. I’ve sung her in concert with Scottish Opera, but would love to stage it! Also, I had a big success with Sieglinde in Die Walkure last summer so it would be amazing to sing more Wagner - particularly Isolde. I’d like to tackle Brünnhilde one day too!

For more details or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.co.uk/miltonkeynes or call 0844 871 7652