Alice Coote has become an ever more exciting presence on the opera stage over the past few years. Of her sheer vocal quality, and promise, there was not much doubt from her first public appearances, but the path to singing and acting stardom was not exactly smooth. The story is well known: a false start at the Guildhall, after winning a scholarship but finding life in London utterly miserable, an interim period spent ‘jobbing' and then her real musical training, at the RNCM in Manchester. In an internal competition there she was spotted by Brigitte Fassbaender, whose pupil and protégée she promptly became. From 1995 onwards, when Coote left Fassbaender, she has made a string of ever more eagerly awaited appearances on the opera stage: Sesto, Ariodante, the Composer, Octavian, Nero in the 2008 Glyndebourne Poppea – the list has gone on growing. But now she is stepping outside the pants role repertoire and into the character of the highly feminine and passionate Charlotte, heroine of Massenet's 1892 tragic opera Werther. How does she feel about this transition?
'It's absolutely great. I get to kiss the man for once! I can be true to my feelings - the way that Charlotte acts, feels, reacts to the situation she is in and to the people around her is the way that I would react. Her feminine emotions are so truthful that the role is not only physically but also emotionally demanding. But although it often reduces me to tears, after an intense rehearsal, I simply love it'.
She has had a try-out in the role, at the Frankfurt Opera. What is different about this production? 'Oh, you can't really compare them in any way. I stepped into the role in Frankfurt, it was only for a week and it was a revival of a very old Willy Decker production. But at Opera North, I feel as if I am tackling it for the first time. We have a six week rehearsal period – it's fantastic. It gives you the time and space to get to know every aspect of the cast and the production, you really become involved in it. Tom Cairns has set it demonstrably in Germany but not in any specific timeframe. It's more modern than the original setting, but very truthful to the characters. You must come and see it!'
Her Werther in this new production is Paul Nilon, by far the most redeeming feature of the controversial Orfeo mounted by Opera North a couple of seasons ago. How do they get on as the star-crossed lovers? 'I think Paul is absolutely wonderful. It was my choice to do the work, and my choice to do it with him. He is fantastic in the role'.
Opera North is performing the work in the original French, with surtitles. What is it like to sing a technically demanding role in French? 'Oh, it's a really tough challenge. The way you have to pronounce French vowels and consonants to get the meaning across can really conflict with the musical line. Thankfully we have a fantastic French language coach (Nicole Tibbels) who has taught me so much. So it's working, but I agree, to sing idiomatically in French is difficult'.
Werther, of course, is the epitome of late Romantic opera. The 1774 story that inspired it, Goethe's Sufferings of Young Werther was a sensation all over Europe at the outset of the Romantic movement (Coote admits to having a copy by her bedside, for late night reading, and finds – however hard she has been working on the Massenet in rehearsal – that it still provokes the odd tear as she reads and re-reads it) and Werther-mania ran well on into the nineteenth century. Coote clearly finds the humanity and emotional truthfulness that are at the core of the opera something she can respond to. But I switch topics by asking her for her attitude to new music. Is she a quick sight reader and learner and does she want to become more involved with contemporary compositions?
'To be absolutely honest, I have not had all that much exposure to truly contemporary music. The big exception is the song cycle that was written for me by Judith Weir, that I premiered at the BBC Chamber Proms and then sang a couple of years ago at the main Proms. I suppose my attitude to new music is very similar to my attitude to contemporary art – I have to feel a personal response to it before it interests me. So much of it is immensely hard work, and I cannot see the point of that. As an artist, I want to be myself. We live in a world where technology reigns, where lots of things are harsh and brutal and humanity has been squeezed out. That's not my kind of music. In what I perform, I want to convey humanity to the audience and to the world'.
I mention her extraordinary performance of Nero in Glyndebourne's Poppea, an account of the role that I saw live in 2008 and on DVD very recently. Coote laughs. 'I haven't watched the DVD – I'm not sure I want to. I was physically ill the night they recorded it, taking time out to recover in the wings before staggering back on'. I point out that it was clearly recorded over two performances (the conductor Emannuelle Haim wears a completely different outfit for the middle act!) and Coote expresses relief. 'Maybe they spliced in the bits that weren't so bad'. But she goes on: 'Anyway, talking of modern music, is there anything more modern than Monteverdi's music in Poppea? It says everything, and it's as fresh and relevant to perform today as it was in 1643'. Her performance in the role truly was extraordinary, the physicality and brooding menace of the character emerging as I have never quite seen it before. That connoisseur of fine singers, Michael Kennedy, described Coote's assumption of the role as 'world-class' and described her as 'singing at her lustrous and expressive best, every word pregnant with meaning, every note perfectly placed and nuanced'.
I ask Coote which she prefers, performances on the opera stage or performances in recital. I had in mind her thoughts on opera as divulged to Richard Morrison in a Times interview over a year ago: 'You would have to be a psychopath to thrive in an environment an opera singer exists in. You are cut off from everyone you love. You are plunged in with people you may not get on with. And you can be very demoralised. Particularly nowadays when you're asked to do things you don't agree with'. Her frank comments later formed the basis of an editorial in the magazine Opera. She does not quite repeat her former strictures – indeed, throughout our conversation Coote makes it crystal clear that her Opera North Werther experience is all about the best kind of teamwork and thorough preparation that good opera productions (pace Glyndebourne) have to have if they are truly to succeed – but she does make her feelings plain. 'I love doing recital evenings. I can do programmes that I want to give and there is nobody else in the way, telling you to do this or to do that. I'm going to embark on a recital tour soon (with Julius Drake, her favoured accompanist) and I know how enjoyable it will be. We're doing a programme of English songs, and it will just be us, deciding everything. Bliss!' So there's no director, imposing a concept, no conductor, insisting on a particular tempo? 'You have all that in opera, of course, and I call it the democracy of opera – everyone has a say. But to do a programme in recital that I want to do, in the way I want to do it, without all the compromises – I really like that'.
I ask Coote when she might start to sing Wagner. She has a very definite reply. 'Not for another ten years – when I am about 50. My voice is still developing and I'm not ready for Wagner yet. And I have lots to do before I face up to that challenge'. Indeed she has – Haensel at the Met (and next year at Glyndebourne) is on the schedule, as is Octavian in Berlin, the Composer in Munich and an exciting sounding Marguerite in a Harry Kupfer production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust in Frankfurt. And Coote will continue to sing one of her favourite roles, Ariodante (as Opera once put it, 'Alice Coote's wonderfully sung and emotionally gut-wrenching performance of the title role suggested she is the natural heir to Janet Baker in this repertoire'.) High praise indeed.
I finish by asking Coote about her voice. There have been problems over the years, unfortunate cancellations and withdrawals, that have made many people wonder how robust a physical instrument her voice really is. She is forthright in reply. 'I think my voice is now in its best state ever. In fact I would go further – I think I'm just beginning to learn how to sing'. I ask if I can quote her on that. 'Of course you can, it's what I really think. I can remember Brigitte Fassbaender saying something very similar, right at the end of her operatic career. She said that having reached the end, she felt for the first time as if she had learned how to do it, how to sing properly. Well, I haven't reached the end (she laughs) but I feel something very similar. I'm learning how to sing. And the voice is expanding, both at the higher end and at the lower end. It's great'.
Coote is a stimulating interviewee – funny, down to earth, infectiously enthusiastic and keen to communicate. She is also that precious being, a serious performer, an artist for whom not everything has gone smoothly but who has emerged the stronger for it. Her mentor Brigitte Fassbaender was a memorable Charlotte in her time, a performance recorded in the 1970s being one of the all-time classic incarnations of the role. So I expect great things of Coote's first 'real' portrayal of one of opera's iconic heroines. Opera North audiences are in for a real treat.
Werther opens at the Grand Theatre, Leeds on Saturday 26 September
CD Review: Alice Coote in The Dream of Gerontius (Halle)
Opera Review: Alice Coote in Hansel und Gretel at Covent Garden
Opera Review: Alice Coote in The Coronation of Poppea (Glyndebourne)
Concert Review: Alice Coote in Handel's Messiah
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