This has been quite a season for Nancy Fabiola Herrera, the mezzo-soprano from the Canary Islands. In recent months, she's been on a concert tour of China, performed zarzuela (Spanish operetta) in Madrid and the Verdi Requiem in Barcelona, and has just come to London to perform the title role in The Royal Opera's revival of Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen, a part she has just sung to great acclaim at the New York Met having also previously sung it there in 2005.
I chatted to Herrera as she prepared to join conductor Daniel Oren, tenor Marcelo Alvarez and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen for this exciting revival of an opera which has become her calling card (she'll also sing it in Washington and Los Angeles next year for her company debuts in both cases). 'It's been very intense', she says of the rehearsal period, as we start our conversation. 'But I'm having the most wonderful time.'
It's with considerable enthusiasm that Herrera describes the character of Carmen. 'To me, you just can't afford to forget that she's a gipsy. So even within the conditions of her own culture, she's always an exception; she follows her own rules and is quite different from everyone else. I love the fact that she's very comfortable in her own skin. And she has a strong sense of living in the moment, so that even when she knows she's going to die, it doesn't change her attitude. She's also a very fanciful person. She has an inner drive, so that she doesn't want to waste her time: if something's not giving her pleasure, she drops it. She gives herself completely to her lover, and even if it only lasts a week, it's true – she's not fooling around with others. She loves to flirt, but that's ingrained in the Spanish culture. You can flirt in a healthy way but there are lines you can't cross. It's part of the fun of courtship, to flirt with your eyes, a smile or a joke. When a beautiful woman crosses the street, all the men look at her, but she likes it. It's a nice compliment!
'So it's very healthy and often even ingenious, and Carmen would have been used to it. She's a strong woman who knows what she wants and doesn't care what people say to her. She's very passionate and in touch with her sensuality; she's not a slut, she's just flirtatious. So she's a combination of leading her life to the full and being as joyful as possible. In gipsy culture, you can do business from 4am to nightfall. There's always time to enjoy yourself, make love, eat – and work as little as possible!' The singer also sees herself in Carmen, to a certain extent. 'I have certainly learned a lot from her – in particular, that it's good to be yourself. Her belief in destiny is so strong that it gives her strength in turn: she knows that you can't change it.'
Why is Carmen so popular? 'It's a combination of things. There's the wonderful score – Bizet was a genius. Visually, it's great to watch. And perhaps most of all, Carmen is a fascinating character. At the time when the opera was written, the Spanish culture was very exotic – in fact it still is. All the singing, the dancing, the drama, the humour, the passion, the love story, the children: it's got everything. Although it was unsuccessful when it was first performed, it's been one of the top few operas for a long time now. It's just magical.'
Nancy Fabiola Herrera made an auspicious Covent Garden debut a few years ago as Suzuki in a revival of Madama Butterfly, a performance described as 'rich-voiced' by The Guardian and as 'moving' by The Times. 'It's such a pleasure and honour' she says, in all sincerity. 'I remember when I first came here for Butterfly, it was amazing: it's a dream for all singers to perform with this company. It has such a long history and tradition behind it. I had such a good time and made lots of friends, who are still my friends now even though I haven't seen them in a long time. I feel very comfortable here: the public is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.'
Chatting to Herrera, it's clear that music is an important part of her being. But it's a surprise to learn that music wasn't part of her background – 'not at all', she says. 'But I always wanted to study and when I was about eight years old, I went to the conservatoire to study the piano. It was a very useful experience, because it also gave me a good musical base and firm roots for the future. The singing came much later: I liked to sing, like every kid, and I have a good ear: if someone asked me to sing anything, I would sing it for them. But I never thought I had a lyrical voice and never considered singing seriously. Then I got into a choir as a teenager and was introduced to polyphony for the first time.
'When I finished high school, I wanted to be a Tour Guide and went to Madrid to study to become one. I still wanted to do music, though, but I knew I wouldn't be able to get into the conservatoire as a piano major. I'd only studied as a hobby. Yet when I sang for the course conductor, he said 'You have a voice', and to my surprise I got in! So I had to develop my young mezzo-soprano voice. They gave me lots of opera scores and zarzuelas to study, and in six months I have to learn all this music.
'There was a zarzuela company going on tour at that time and I auditioned, though I thought they were crazy to encourage me! It was a tour around seven countries, which was an amazing opportunity for an eighteen year old. Initially my father wasn't happy, but it was my first paid job, so I delayed my tourism exam.' And the rest, as they say, is history: her parents agreed she could become a singer if she was dedicated in her studies, and soon all thoughts of becoming a Tour Guide went out the window. Any regrets about that? 'It's one of those things', she replies.
Nancy Fabiola Herrera can look back on her career so far with considerable contentment: it includes engagements as Carmen, Maddalena and Suzuki at the Met, Giulietta in Les Contes d'Hoffmann opposite Rolando Villazon at the Bastille and Pauline in Pique Dame in Madrid. 'Each has a particular meaning,' she explains. 'Singing at the Met for the first time made me think "wow!" – I couldn't believe it. It's one of those things you don't forget. It seemed so impossible as a student that I would one day be singing Carmen at the Met, yet I've actually made it. But there are so many wonderful experiences: the Royal Opera, the Bastille, the Met, Madrid, Carmen at the Caracalla Baths in Rome. They were all different but all very special.'
She takes on a warm glow when talking of Plácido Domingo, with whom she has sung many times; their performance together in the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda is available on an excellent Opus Arte DVD. 'He's fantastic – it's such a pleasure to sing with him. He is an incredible artist and, perhaps even more importantly, a great human being. That means you learn a lot from him, and as a colleague onstage he gives you absolutely everything he has. That makes your performance even better. The man's a tour de force; and yet, with everything he does, he still finds time to help young artists. It's fabulous.' She also assures me that a future project with Domingo is in the pipeline; rumour has it that she will star opposite him in El Cartero de Neruda, the new opera by Mexican composer Daniel Catan based on Il Postino, for Los Angeles Opera.
We discuss the subject of ambitions and Herrera mentions various things. 'In terms of singing new roles, I'd like to do Eboli, and I've got Dalila next year. There are also some houses I'd like to sing in – Vienna, La Scala, and Glyndebourne would be wonderful.
'In general my ambition is just to keep singing well and keep growing, but at the same time to make sure I still enjoy it. Sometimes when you get better, the pressure increases and you have to be able to maintain the balance. As a person, I'd like to be remembered as somebody that people could respect and love; as an artist, someone who was able to be truthful and able to reach people regardless of language. But the human relationships are the most important thing.'
Nancy Fabiola Herrera sings the title role in Bizet's Carmen at the ROH from 25 March. Photo credits: Fidelio/Outumuro.