Sally Burgess: 'Art is an Adventure.'

Interview on the Chelsea Schubert Festival and her career to date

13 September 2007

Sally Burgess

The closing gala of this year's Chelsea Schubert Festival promises to be a particular treat, for one of the world's great singer-actresses is taking to the stage to perform an eclectic programme of songs by eight composers. Mezzo-soprano Sally Burgess has enjoyed a long international career that has spanned key roles in operas by Verdi, Bartók, Monteverdi and Massenet, appearances in musicals by Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Kern, and jazz recitals with her husband, Neal Thornton. But the role for which she will always be remembered is Bizet's Carmen.

When we meet to discuss her appearance in the diverse Chelsea Schubert Festival on 21 September 2007, she is keen to discuss both the repertoire choices and the shape of her recital.

'I'm doing a couple of Finzi songs to start with, because I think it's always important to make friends with the audience in their own language. Then there are two pretty Mozart songs: 'Dans un bois', which is a sort of 'story song', and 'Als Luise', which is an angry song. After that, I'm going to sing three Canteloube songs. They are usually done with orchestra, but they are absolutely lovely with piano. It's great material for a pianist who really likes playing! To end the first half, I'm singing Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Mahler.'

Equally eclectic is the second half of the recital, which includes four Duparc songs, two at either end. 'I think it's best to divide them up with some lighter pieces because they are too similar and too intense to do consecutively', she explains. 'So in between I'm going to sing some exquisite Chabrier songs. I first sang them with Julius Drake many years ago, when he ran an ensemble with Nick Daniel. They did a series of programmes of music that were about animals, and I sang a couple of these Chabrier pieces to tie in with the theme. 'Les cigales' is about crickets and 'Villanelle des petits canards' conjures up some ducklings. On the other hand, 'L'îsle heureuse' is a beautiful song of love. I think they will be good between the Duparc songs.'

The substance of the second half is made up of a set of Ned Rorem songs, a particular speciality of Burgess'. 'They're all very short and quasi-French. Rorem was born in America but was something of an enfant terrible and went straight to Paris to study. That's perhaps why these songs have such a French quality to them. They are very distinctive. 'Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair', for instance, is a recomposition of the well-known song with weird, distorted harmonies in the accompaniment. It's perfect because it tells a very sad story about a woman who has died. 'Oh you whom I often and silently come' is incredibly short - only three lines - but it's very thought-provoking, as is 'O do not love too long'. 'My Papa's Waltz' is another great poem that you can interpret in different ways. It's about a young boy whose father is big and powerful; he loves him, but he's afraid of him at the same time. He talks about how his father makes him dance in the kitchen, but his mother doesn't like it. He gets trodden on and his dad squeezes his hand too hard, and he both likes it and dislikes it. It's very short and ambiguous; I like being able to explore different possibilities with it.'

So, no Schubert on the programme? 'I've never sung any Schubert, even as a student. There are some incredibly powerful Schubert songs, but I just didn't have time to learn any. Also, I'm not particularly drawn to that repertoire; I prefer the harmonies of French music. I've had and still have a fantastic career doing so many different things and such a mix of things. I've done lots of contemporary music; fabulous standard repertoire like Verdi and even Puccini, when I started out as a soprano; I've done Mozart; I've worked with the Royal Ballet, moving amongst the dancers whilst singing. I've also sung a lot of lighter music - my husband's a jazz pianist so I've done lots of projects with him. I was in Show Boat for Opera North, which was a great experience. And I did quite a lot of recitals in my youth.

'But then I got to the point when I was teaming up with Neal, my husband, quite a lot, and when people asked me to do a recital, I offered them a jazz recital as an option and they invariably opted for that instead. So I stopped doing recitals until about four years ago, when people started asking me to do them again!'

Sally Burgess

What does she like about the dynamic of doing a recital as opposed to a stage work? 'It's a big responsibility because it's just you and the pianist. I do like to talk in between the items and people usually tell me that they like it. I like to talk about the songs and explain how I feel about them. I think it helps people to know what I think a song is about before I sing it, rather than just standing and singing lots of songs in quick succession. I find many songs very complex, and when I go to recitals I sometimes find that there's too much coming too quickly. Even if you have the words in front of you it can be difficult to take everything in. Sometimes I feel like saying to the singer, "Tell me what it's about!".'

Burgess describes her accompanist, Joseph Middleton, as 'fab - a tremendously musical pianist, wonderfully sympathetic to work with', and is looking forward to joining forces with him again after a successful collaboration on a masterclass and recital at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where Middleton is employed as College Musician. He has also recently won two of the most prestigious prizes available to accompanists in the UK - one at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards and the other at the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition - and Burgess hopes that they will have further offers to give recitals together in the future.

She has recently returned from Portugal, where she has been playing Judith in Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Burgess has sung the part many times, including in a highly-acclaimed Opera North presentation with John Tomlinson that was subsequently recorded, and it's become one of her signature roles. How does Burgess connect with Judith psychologically? 'It doesn't seem that complicated to me. She's scared by the situation she's in, but she also likes it. That's what I love about it. There are various points in the opera where I can choose between being frightened or excited. The music gives you the flexibility to do either. It's the sort of opera that I like very much: it's completely open to interpretation. The score is fantastic, with complex harmonies, and the orchestral part is particularly descriptive. That's why some people prefer to experience it as a concert piece - it allows them to imagine what's happening in their heads based on what they hear. But I much prefer to perform it in a staged production; it's such a vivid, theatrical work.'

Another role she sang before the summer is Fricka, Wotan's wife in Wagner's Ring Cycle, which Burgess enjoyed. 'It's so hard and it's my only Wagner role. This was the third production I've been in. Wagner is so relentless; it's hard because you never stop singing. You stand on stage and sing for twenty minutes without stopping. But it's a very interesting part.'

Looking to the future, next season Sally Burgess will be appearing with Scottish Opera as Mistress Quickly in a new production of Verdi's Falstaff. 'I love her down-to-earth character. What an amazing piece to be in! I did the part of Meg Page at ENO, and I know from that experience that it's a very strong ensemble opera. The music is wonderful, and it's such a happy piece to be in, which is a lovely change. It's nice doing a new production that's been built around me, rather than having to fit in with what someone else has done before. It's also interesting having just done Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love at ENO, which I enjoyed enormously. But there's no doubt that the Verdi is the superior piece.'

Sally Burgess

Another new role for Burgess is the Witch in Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel for Glyndebourne on Tour next year. There's a danger that this part can be played as a comic caricature rather than a fully-rounded character; Burgess is as keen as ever to take a fresh look at the character, though she's completely open-minded about how it works out. 'Laurent Pelly is the director and I really don't know what he will come up with. I was talking to a tenor who did the opera with Richard Jones at WNO and he said something to me that made a huge impact. The thing about the witch is that she loves children - she loves them - and she loves them so much that she eats them. That really made sense to me; it's as if something has flipped in her head and she's become a psychopath. It reminds me of Judi Dench's character in the film Notes on a Scandal. She was a manipulative, twisted schoolteacher who gets power over a younger teacher by befriending her and finding out her secrets. I thought it might be possible to play it like that, though it depends on whether it fits in with the rest of the production, of course. It would certainly make it less of a caricature.' However, she assures me that she's open to whatever approach Pelly adopts, be it comic or semi-serious.

We turn to the subject of Carmen, the opera with which Burgess is most closely associated. The Sunday Times described her as 'the greatest exponent of Carmen I have ever seen', and many others have agreed with that description. But why does Burgess herself feel she connected so well with the part? 'I found that the way the story goes is very logical. You never wonder 'why is she doing that?' - it always makes sense. It's also a bit like Judith: she's a complex character who likes the danger that threatens her, but she's also frightened of it. She likes the fear; she keeps the company of violent men. She likes the unknown about life. She makes swift decisions and is very smart. I was lucky to have the opportunity to play her in very different ways. It was also absolutely ideal for my voice. I loved every minute of it.'

Having had such a varied career so far, are there any roles she would like to play in the future? 'I think something like La belle Hélène would suit me very well. I liked the idea of what Laurent Pelly did in the ENO production. I would love to do Azucena in Il trovatore. It's a role that I've done several times and I really love it. I think I'm right for the part now, particularly, and I'd love to sing Amneris again. I've done it in Italian but never in English. I love Verdi! I would also like to sing Dulcinée in Massenet's Don Quichotte again, having done it at ENO. But lots of things keep popping up, and it's lovely. For instance, I did Pierrot Lunaire at the Almeida last year, and I'm doing it again next year in Liverpool. I learned the piece when I was a student and to come back to it was great - I knew it really well. It's hard to do it from memory because the writing is so complicated and unusual. It's bizarre - and I love it!'

Sally Burgess

The other side of Burgess' musical life involves jazz concerts and musical theatre. She makes the transition between opera and lighter music more easily than most singers, but she doesn't accept that she's the only one to do so. 'A number of people are good at it, particularly Americans - it's in their blood. Dawn Upshaw, for instance, has that belt quality that she can conjure up in the lower part of her voice. It's a fantastic 'joined-up' technique that she has from top to bottom. Sylvia McNair did a recording with Andre Previn that I thought was rather good. So American singers have it in their ears. But I think some people think it's a lot easier than it really is. It's not like singing in the bath! You need to understand the style, just as you do when singing French songs or Italian opera. I'm lucky to have grown up with that kind of music around me, so I have it in my ear. I didn't sing any classical music at all until I went to college. What appealed to me, and still appeals to me, is live performance.'

'I've got to a point in my career when I can look back and think what a wonderful life I've had. There have been so many opportunities to sing such wonderful music and play such fantastic characters. And on the whole, I've loved it. There have been one or two occasions when the team has been wrong, or I've wondered what I was doing there, but that's not happened very often. I've done some very special projects. One that stands out was doing Bluebeard for the first time at ENO with David Alden directing, Gwynne Howell as Bluebeard and Mark Elder conducting. We were all aiming for the same thing.'

So what has been the highlight of her career so far? 'I don't think there has been just one! There have been so many. Being taken on by ENO straight after my studies at college and being given a three year contract made me feel secure. I felt that meant they approved of what I was doing, and I didn't feel like I might get sacked after every time I sang (which a lot of young singers feel today). It was a wonderful beginning: Lord Harewood was there, and David Poutney and Mark Elder. I was given lots of opportunities at Opera North by Nicholas Payne. He allowed me to do many roles for the first time at just the right moment for me - Amneris, Azucena, Didon in The Trojans.

'I did my first Carmen in French there, which was great because they gave me all the help and coaching that I needed, so I didn't have to go and find it myself. I never had any problems with the role after that because we did pretty much every piece of dialogue you could possibly use, therefore it always seemed easier in the future! There have been some blips, health-wise. I had two hip replacements last year, but now it's great to be able to walk again. Otherwise, I've had a wonderful career.'

Is she optimistic about the future of opera? 'Oh yes! There seems to be loads of opera going on. All these little companies all over England - it's amazing how there are so many outdoor summer festivals now, and they're all popular. It's interesting having just been to do Bluebeard in Porto (in Portugal). They have a fantastic new concert hall where none of the tickets cost more than £15. It means they get a huge variety of people in the audience, especially young people. It's like the National Theatre here - it only costs ten quid, so you feel like going to see things that you might not be tempted to otherwise. Mourning Becomes Electra and A Streetcar Named Desire with Glenn Close were outstanding, and you can sit in the front few rows in the theatre for very little money. Another great thing is British Youth Opera, which I'm going to see later in the week. I also enjoy teaching, though I can't do too much because I'm away quite a lot - I have two students at home and three at the Royal College.'

As we part, Burgess tells me that 'art is an adventure'. Her recital at the Chelsea Schubert Festival on 21 September seems the perfect opportunity to join her on her personal musical adventure.

By Dominic McHugh

Sally Burgess appears at the Chelsea Schubert Festival on 21 September 2007 at 7.30. Information on the recital can be found at www.chelseaschubertfest.co.uk.