Ana James: 'Being a Young Artist is such a fast-track for your career.'

Interview on the ROH Young Artists' Summer Concert, and working with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

12 July 2007

Ana James

New Zealand soprano Ana James has had a number of successes since joining the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists programme. A memorable Barbarina in last year's new production of Le nozze di Figaro, she made an outstanding contribution to the recent concert performances of Massenet's Thaïs alongside American diva Renée Fleming, and the company mounted a production of La serva padrona for her in the Linbury Studio as part of the 2006 'Meet the Young Artists' week. She is also notable as the first person to be awarded the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation scholarship, with exclusive access to the great New Zealand diva.

On 21 July, James is participating in the annual Young Artists Summer concert, which is this year entitled 'A Journey Round the World'. It features scenes from eight operas, and James is looking forward to it enormously. 'I'm doing the Konstanza-Belmonte duet from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail with Nikola Matisi?, who was in Rigoletto. It's a beautiful duet at the end of the opera. Then I'm doing another duet with another tenor - the duet from the end of Lakmé with Chinese tenor Haoyin Xue. It's really gorgeous music, and it needs strong voices so it suits him really well. We're having great fun.'

She's also excited about the outfits that are being specially designed for the concerts by Gavin Douglas, winner of the prestigious Fashion Fringe 2006. 'He's designed dresses for us girls, and he's been very flexible with us. He's only been used to designing for stick-thin models so he didn't know what we'd need in terms of breathing and feeling comfortable on stage. And because it's a semi-staged concert, we're not sure yet how much movement we're going to have, so we were concerned to have the right kinds of material. But he's actually been brilliant. Costumes are really important for singers, especially when you're singing something different.'

Having never been to a Young Artists concert before, I ask what format it takes. 'There's no set, though there are some props. The orchestra is onstage, just like in Thaïs. The area at the front of the stage is free, so we can move around and act. It's up to the director, Harry Fehr. He has to be as imaginative as possible with the staging. We can use the proscenium arch, and we can sit on the edge of the stage. In general, it's much more difficult doing a concert version of an opera. There's nothing to hide behind.

'We had a great time doing Thaïs. Both Liora [Grodnikaite] and I found it incredibly inspiring to work with Renée. She's the nicest woman and such an amazing singer - completely in control of what she's doing, and she can do whatever she wants. That was great for us to experience. And for her to be such a lovely person, too!'

The conductor for the concert is Stephen Barlow, who conducted the recent concert performances of Sweeney Todd at the Royal Festival Hall. 'We worked with him a couple of months ago, but that was early days and now we're on top of things. The rehearsals with him are going well.'

Ana James has evidently had the time of her life as a Young Artist. 'It's such a fast-track for your career. Many friends of mine who were at college with me are still struggling to get work. But here it's a golden opportunity to have people see you singing. And of course the repertoire you learn - I've done over fifteen roles here in two years. They work you very hard and you learn a lot about yourself. You find out how much your brain can cope with. Now my brain can't wait to have a month off! It shows you how disciplined you have to be. Of course, as a freelance singer, you only have to do four or five roles a season, which is luxury to me, so I'm looking forward to that.'

So what has she learnt about herself, precisely? 'You have to be very flexible in rehearsals. And you have to be able to adapt yourself all the time to the people you're working with. Directors are so different from one another. Some have reputations, and as a young singer you can be nervous about that. It's very interesting watching the older, more experienced singers dealing with people. I think that the ones who are the most successful are those who are able to work with anyone - they're pleasant and communicative, and generally nice people.'

Who stands out for her as an example of people she's worked with who have been like that? 'Well Renée was definitely one, and her singing in Thaïs was the best singing I've ever heard. And I'm not alone in thinking that. I'll never forget the memory of hearing that. The Figaro I did last season was another example - the cast were all wonderful, with Maestro Pappano conducting. Jonas Kaufmann is somebody who stands out for me - his singing was immaculate in Carmen, and he's a very professional and warm human being. You hear a lot of great singing here. The thing about Jonas is that he's so technically secure in what he's singing that he can totally forget about it when he's onstage and just concentrate on his acting. That's what we're all striving for. Ostensibly, Don José is the most boring character in Carmen, but he came out as the most interesting. He gave him a journey through the opera.'

Living and working at the Royal Opera House has clearly been an eye-opening experience for James. 'The level of professionalism backstage is phenomenal. People don't know generally about the dressers who look after us, but they are very important - they're there when we come off the stage and are with us the whole time to make sure we're as comfortable as we can possibly be. The same goes for the hair and makeup people. They are not only good at their jobs but they are also very astute and understanding. They quickly realise what different personalities need and are flexible to it.'

Ana James was the inaugural recipient of the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Award, which was set up by the famous singer to support young New Zealand artists at the start of their careers. 'I met Kiri about three years ago when she was looking around for New Zealand singers, to see what there was out there. She heard about me from the Royal College of Music, where I was just finishing up, because she sang a lot with Lillian Watson, my teacher. She contacted Lillian and came along to hear me sing in Dialogue of the Carmelites, which was my last performance at college. We met then and has been a mentor to me ever since. She sponsored me to study the bel canto repertoire in Italy for a couple of weeks. She's given me numerous coaching opportunities up at her place in Sussex. She's a very generous woman, and she's great fun to be around.

'I think she's very happy now and content with her life, and she's so passionate about her Foundation. She's always having weekends up at her place in Sussex with six or seven New Zealand singers that she's heard about - she always has her ear to the ground for new talent. Her coach is wonderful - Jonathan Papp - he comes along, and people sing for her. They're always terribly nervous because of who she is, but she relaxes them and they work well for her. As a coach, she has some fantastic ideas. She's very interested. Even things like gowns and dressing well - she's very helpful about it, and gave me the number of her dressmaker! Now that she has the time and energy, she wants to give back. It's hard when you're from a country that's very far away - you can feel incredibly isolated. My whole family is still in New Zealand, but I'm lucky to have an English husband, so I have a second family over here.'

Ana James has a number of forthcoming commitments, some of which have not been officially announced yet, but Pamina in Glyndebourne Touring Opera's production of The Magic Flute is something to look forward to. 'I've never sung Pamina before, only The Queen of the Night. That's quite a different thing, but definitely the way I'm going. I sang the Queen for British Youth Opera and at college and that high coloratura facility was always easy for me, but now that my voice has settled I don't enjoy being up there right at the top as much. And Pamina is a much more interesting role. The Queen is stressful and boring - people are just waiting to hear the high notes. Later on, I'm going home to sing Gretel in Hansel and Gretel with New Zealand Opera for the first time. I don't know the opera at all, so I'm excited about it. And I'm back at Covent Garden in December to sing a Flowermaiden in Parsifal with Bernard Haitink. I'm also doing a concert tour of Japan next season. Further ahead, I'd love to sing Lulu, Violetta and Zerbinetta. I saw Diana Damrau singing Zerbinetta here a few years ago and will never forget it. And I've always wanted to sing some bel canto, but the big houses tend to sign big names. I really want to sing Lucia.

In such a competitive world of opera, what motivates Ana James to be a singer? 'God gave me a voice and singing is the only thing I've ever wanted to do. I've always sung. I can't think of anything else I'd like to do. Having said that, singing is not absolutely everything to me. It's not my life. That's not for me - it's my career. I want to have a life and a family. My husband is my life, and I hope we can have a family together. But singing means joy to me. I love singing in church even - the joy of singing hymns. And it's thrilling to sing onstage. A singer that doesn't admit that you enjoy being onstage is lying! It's like a drug - the adrenaline of performance is unlike anything else.'

By Dominic McHugh