Interview: Welsh soprano Sarah-Jane Davies on English National Opera's The Magic Flute

'Im not a competition singer. Id rather be creating a character and throwing myself into it. '

21 January 2009

Sarah-Jane Davies

For an opera singer, being born and raised in Wales is an excellent pedigree. And if you're a Mozart soprano, even more so: with Margaret Price and Rebecca Evans as famous precedents, Sarah-Jane Davies can firmly join the line of Welsh sopranos to have excelled in the role of Pamina in The Magic Flute, which will be revived at English National Opera in Nick Hytner's production from Saturday.

A past contender at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, Davies is a graduate of the Royal College of Music and now studies with Lilian Watson. She was a member of ENO's prestigious Young Singers programme, during which time she sang major roles on the main stage including Romilda in Xerxes, Pamina and First Lady in The Magic Flute, Angel in Jephtha and Dunyasha in War and Peace. Since leaving the programme, she has excelled in further Mozart roles for Garsington, including the Countess in Figaro and Fiordiligi, as well as returning to ENO for the Countess and Servilia in La clemenza di Tito.

Now she's back at ENO for her fourth stab at Pamina, which has become one of her signature roles. Davies has an interesting take on the character: 'She's been brought up by her mother, this huge domineering figure in her life she lost her father quite a while ago and didn't know him well and it was almost like child abuse. In this production, she gets dragged around the stage violently by the Queen.

'Yet Pamina is very protective of her mother. She stands up for her in front of Sarastro, and she feels she wants to make everything right or better; she wants to heal things, without thinking of herself. The way she stands up to Sarastro is completely without any thoughts of self-preservation.

'So her dilemma is about her relationship with her mother versus her love for Tamino. Doing this role, the word 'love' always grabs my attention, both as a singer and as a character. First, there's the news that the Prince has fallen in love with her portrait. And Sarastro says, 'Love has captured your heart'. If you've been deprived of love, as Pamina has, then I think you grab the opportunity with both hands if it comes along. That explains the wonderful moment at the end of Act I where Pamina has a lovely feeling of both adult love and the love she's never had as a child.'

Returning to a familiar role several times, does she find it a different experience? 'This time there's been a great transition for me. As a person you develop as a result of the relationships you've had. I'm a different person, and I think that reflects on my portrayal of this role. In a way it's been harder; you have both good and bad experiences in life, and they all inform what you do.

'This is my fourth Pamina, and it's the first time I've not had Andrew Kennedy as my Tamino! I know Rob Murray really well already we've been friends for ages, so there's no awkwardness. But I've found a very different aspect of Pamina by working with his very different Tamino. I feel I've grown a huge amount.

Sarah-Jane Davies 'Ian Rutherford, the revival director, encourages us to try different things in any case even with Roderick Williams, who was the Papageno last time. Robert Lloyd wasn't available in the first week of rehearsals, so we all kept getting excited thinking "Oooh, a British legend is coming!" Then he arrived, and it was just like Sarastro's magnificent entrance in the opera he's amazing!'

Last year, ENO announced that Nicholas Hytner's production of the opera was being retired, yet it proved so popular still that they've brought it back another time. Why does Davies think it has endured so well? 'I think the design is so magnificent it's timeless,' she enthuses. 'Bob Crowley's designs are very clever: although it's set in Mozart's time, it's not costumed in a specific era.

'One great thing about the production is that Nick Hytner really tells the story very clearly. It's open to children and adults in fact, it's a bit like Harry Potter in that respect: you can understand it on many levels. It does not discriminate against any age group. Anyone would enjoy the magic element of it: the live doves, the cute little bears. Then, too, the story has elements of light and dark; in a broad sense, it's about relationships within a community. Anyone can relate to it. It's a jewel.'

Davies feels very lucky to have been part of ENO's Young Singers programme for all the chances it gave her to get up on stage and learn the craft of opera singing. 'It was a fantastic transition,' she says. 'I was still in my final year in the Royal College of Music's Opera School, and it gave me that transition between study and the profession, with lots of guidance. To have Phil Thomas for an hour a week and still have my lessons with Lilian Watson, plus coaching sessions with conductors, was amazingly helpful.

'I was extremely lucky to get to do major roles, and I got the benefit of their guidance: they know what they can give you that will push you but still be the right thing. None of the roles weren't useful. That's not necessarily the case at college, where I did Agrippina, for instance, and I don't imagine doing it again. ENO was a gentle introduction.' She says that there are plans for her to return, though she can't reveal what they are. But she adds that 'My relationship with ENO is a strong one: I have huge loyalty and respect for them as an institution. Ed Gardner is fantastic and I hope I'll always have a place here.'

Welsh National Opera has just announced its 2009-10 season, including a revival of Carmen in which Davies will play Micaela. 'It's my house debut,' she confirms. 'There's been discussion before, and it's been a case of finding the right project. Back to Wales! That will be great. Although ENO feels like home, I'm Welsh, so it's important to me to sing at home.'

I ask her whether this signals a move to more Romantic repertoire. 'Not necessarily,' she answers cautiously. 'My voice is developing. What I can see myself doing is the Strauss roles it seems like a smooth transition. When I sang 'Beim Schlafengehen' at the Cardiff competition, is was a strong fit, which was a surprise to me. Once I finish Flute, I'm going to look at Arabella and things like that. It seems natural. I did my first Four Last Songs with orchestra in Wales last September. It felt wonderful!

Sarah-Jane Davies 'And then there's maybe some lighter Wagner. The word 'Wagner' seems like "Oh my gosh, that's really grown up." I don't know yet, but various coaches are making noises about it something like Eva in Meistersinger. But I was brought up on Mozart and it's hard to think of giving it up!'

Davies has twice had success as the High Priestess in ENO's production of Aida, and I ask whether she would consider taking on further Verdi roles. 'Desdemona is one that would suit and it's very beautiful,' she says. 'I saw the WNO production before Christmas, and it was the first time I've experienced the opera in the theatre. I think I'd find that a challenge and a different thing to do. But the Strauss seems to fit so naturally in the voice that I think that's where my future lies.'

The soprano's upbringing was not particularly musical, she says, though there was plenty of music around. 'Being Welsh, we always sang in the Chapel and at Sunday School. I learnt to play the piano when I was five, and my mum plays a little. Dad has a very good tenor voice but never pursued it. And the whole family can sing in choirs we did Eisteddfods and things like that. It wasn't until I was about sixteen that I started singing lessons. I'd been in a choral society when I was twelve, and at school I always sang in tune so I got solos. At sixteen I was looking for a second instrument, and I'd tried the flute and violin, which hadn't grabbed me. Then a lady from the RCM came to teach at school, so I was offered singing lessons.'

From there, Davies went to the Royal College of Music to study, and eventually found herself in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2007. She describes the experience: 'It was sort of surreal. I was in the middle of La clemenza di Tito at ENO. On Friday was in Tito, then in Cardiff over the weekend, then back at ENO on Tuesday. So it almost feels like it never happened. For a competition like that, you really have to hone in on it, if you want to get through. I love St David's Hall, I love Carlo Rizzi, and singing 'Beim Schlafengehen' was an absolute joy. During the orchestral rehearsal, I started to cry, because it was so beautiful!

'So it wasn't a bad experience, but I know I didn't get as much out of it as I could have. And I'm not a competition singer. I never did things like the Ferrier, because I find it hard to be judged and to only sing small things in isolation. I'd rather be creating a character and throwing myself into it. It's just a personal thing I have nothing against competitions or people who enter them!'

Davies is optimistic about the future. 'I'm doing an Elijah with the Opera North orchestra in Leeds, and a couple of other concerts. I seem to be lucky that things appear people offer me projects that are interesting to me. But opera is definitely my favourite thing, and there's plenty of it lined up.'

To close, I ask her about her dreams. 'I have lots of silly ambitions,' she confesses shyly. 'I've always wanted to sing at the Sydney Opera House I love Sydney and the opera house is so iconic! And I'd love to sing the Welsh National Anthem before a rugby match! But my serious ambition is to sing my first Strauss opera, particularly the Marschallin. I love the music the trio at the end is heartbreakingly beautiful. I think Strauss is going to be my next Mozart; I can't wait to find out more about him.'

By Dominic McHugh

The Magic Flute opens at ENO on 24 January 2009.

The Magic FluteRelated articles:

Andrew Kennedy discusses the previous revival of ENO's The Magic Flute

Robert Lloyd discusses playing Sarastro in ENO's Magic Flute, and his career to date

Review of the previous revival of The Magic Flute

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