Magazine article The Spectator

'You're Always Learning'

Magazine article The Spectator

'You're Always Learning'

Article excerpt

Just as dancers are fortunate if they have especially long legs and strong, flexible feet, there are all sorts of different physical attributes that can help a singer to produce a good sound. But there's a particular facial, or cranial, disposition which certain singers share and which is to do with high cheekbones and a generously sized mouth indicating a large, resonant cavity within. Renée Fleming has it and so does Sally Burgess, who uses it to produce not only a luscious singing tone but also a fabulously abandoned, downand-dirty laugh. It's a laugh that certainly featured in her performances of Bizet's Carmen, back in the late Eighties at English National Opera, and may well have been employed on numerous occasions since then, as she went on to sing the role in opera houses worldwide.

Actors can and do perform the same role more than once during the course of their careers but singers do so with more frequency. Indeed 50 or more years ago, most singers would only ever perform a tiny handful of operatic roles, refining and deepening their interpretation with every repetition.

'That doesn't really happen any more, thank heavens -- it would be so boring!

But there's something incredibly rewarding about singing a role lots of times, if you're good at it, because you get better each time. You're always learning.' Was that ENO Carmen her first?

'Yes, it was, and it was a fantastic grounding for all the other Carmens I did afterwards. It was in English, of course, which was wonderful because it meant that I really understood everything that was sung, and got the meaning under my skin from the start. Mind you, it was a version by Anthony Burgess and a lot of it was completely unsingable so we had to change it. That's a really interesting process in itself, though, working in detail on the text with a director and conductor and, ideally, the translator, to make sure that it's good to sing and also that it's as close to the original meaning as possible.

'The other thing that was great about that production was that I was able to be extremely physical. I'm not a trained dancer but I do like moving a lot and I discovered that it actually helps me to sing. I did a production with a ballet company once, with the choreographer Michael Corder, of Duparc's L'Invitation au voyage. I remember him saying in rehearsal, "It would be wonderful if you could run across the stage before you sing that phrase, " and I said, "Oh, no, I couldn't do that, I'd be out of breath." He looked a bit disappointed but gave in so easily that I thought, "How pathetic -- let me try it." So I did and it was fantastic, I sang much better.' Burgess's unfettered, loosely natural style of movement was a notable feature of her interpretation of Carmen, pounced upon with glee by director David Pountney, who suggested that she take a course of flamenco lessons. 'I really enjoyed that but trying to play the castanets at the same time was a complete nightmare. In the end we worked out a way for me to produce the sound and rhythm with my feet instead. Quite late on in rehearsals I was doing my bit and was just thinking I'd managed it really well when Mark Elder, who was conducting, looked up and said, "Do you really have to do all that stamping?" I remember striding down to the front of the stage and saying, "Look, I've been working on this for months and I'm not going to cut it now." The stamping stayed in, as did a lot of rolling around on the bonnets of cars, and a memorably wanton way with foodstuffs, which even got picked up by the tabloids. …

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