Rosemary Joshua on ENO's Partenope, specialising in Handel and her career so far

'It's music that speaks to me. I'm never bored of it. I'm never bored of hearing it, singing it, listening to it. It's very direct. I'm never in any doubt as to what it's saying to me on an emotional level.'

18 October 2008

Rosemary JoshuaCardiff-born soprano Rosemary Joshua is one of the most in-demand Handel singers in the world, yet opportunities to hear her on Britain's shores are far too seldom. That makes English National Opera's new production of Handel's Partenope all the more welcome: Joshua takes the title role, one of the most demanding in the repertoire, in an unjustly neglected work from the composer's maturity. I caught up with the soprano at the Coliseum after the first night of the run to talk about Handel, her belated debut at Welsh National Opera, her returns to Covent Garden and the Proms, and her plans for new recordings.

Joshua is looking relaxed and self-confident as we meet, and she's evidently relieved to have had a few days' rest after an exhausting rehearsal schedule. Christopher Alden's new production has baffled many of the critics in its aims, so I ask Joshua to clarify the thinking behind it.

'It's very difficult to explain,' she admits. 'Christopher had so many fabulous ideas, and did so much research into this era; it's very interesting to think of the Surrealists and see everybody coming together and get a sense of "anything goes". He wanted to create this environment of a group of people who work together, hang out together, with Partenope as a queen bee dressed as Nancy Cunard or Coco Chanel. It's like the Bloomsbury Group, which is a really interesting idea.

'The problem I have with that,' she continues, 'is that when you're in an environment where anything is possible – all the cross-gender, cross-dressing, the affairs between various characters – it takes the danger away from the huge dilemma that we work up to in Act 3. In order to have a metaphor like the battlefield of love, there needs to be something to compare it to, and I think the feasibility of the duel was taken away.

'The way he does it is really funny, and he totally pulls it off, but I think he set himself a very difficult job by putting it in this era. The thing about fighting a battle is that one of them would be killed, so it's an incredibly dangerous thing to do, and it strikes me that Rosmira is a terribly courageous person to show up dressed as a man, knowing she could be killed. And the whole of thing of him then saying "Take your clothes off – I'll only fight you if you're bare-chested" is funny, of course, but it doesn't have the same significance in this production. I think he wanted to be very light-hearted with it, and it's fantastic; he could have chosen an easier route and caused less work for himself, but it's a lot of fun.'

Joshua is thorough in her preparation for the roles she plays, and has lots to say about the character of Partenope. 'She's a terribly charismatic, powerful woman, who is a little bit like an objet d'art – a bit unreachable. I don't think, personally, that she's terribly interested in anybody. She has a little bit of a connection with Emilio because she sees his power, his completely different social standing, and she's interested in that, but I think she's just playing a game. She's never found the man that has stood up to her and been an equal and made her think "Wow!". She tries with Arsace, and they have a very physical relationship – they obviously have great sex – but she's never found her true soul mate. They're all vying for her attention for her power, rather than for who she really is. There's a lot of vulnerability in that, and she wants to be taken for a woman on an emotional level. She wants more.'

Rosemary JoshuaPartenope has to sing something in the order of nine arias in the opera, which is no mean feat for a singer. 'I have to say that's one of the most difficult things about this role,' Joshua confirms. 'I've sung a lot of Handel, and something like Semele is a marathon in itself. But it's constructed very carefully: it starts off very gently and gets to the vocal fireworks right at the end, so you can really get yourself into it.

'With Partenope, though, you start off with one of the most technically difficult bravura arias of the evening. It's hard to start in that way and to have to tell yourself that you have another seven or eight to do. I find it really hard simply because every single aria in this role requires something different from your technique, whether it's the pyrotechnics, or the legato, or the bravura, or the light floaty stuff, or the 'pingy' top bits. It's almost written for a couple of different voices, and it's incredibly high lying.

'I've struggled a bit with singing that in modern pitch. I find it a killer singing baroque music in modern pitch anyway, because I'm so used to working with orchestras like the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra – the Rolls Royces of period instrument playing. They can hear you and follow you and accompany you; you can breathe where you like and they breathe with you. It just fits in the voice.

'But if you take it into modern pitch, you're learning another role. It's a semitone higher. When you've got a role that's already written in a very high tessitura, it pushes your voice into an uncomfortable stratosphere. I remember it was the same when I sang Semele here – you can never relax. You're constantly having to be a technician because your voice is never in a relaxed position: the larynx is always slightly higher than it wants to be. So in order to get yourself through it, you have to have masses of run-throughs.

'We had seven weeks of rehearsals, but we didn't really have enough time to go through the whole thing many times. For a role like Partenope, I should have done at least six run-throughs before the first night in order to really know where the danger points are, where I can save and can't save, and so on. That was a bit scary for me. You only have to have a tempo that's given to you slightly out of your goalposts to throw you off, so that's a worry too. So it's not an easy sing, and you've got to get to the end. The final two arias aren't long but they're really tricky, because they're really 'pingy' and you have to be so accurate with them.

'It's a hard slog: it's a real working part, you work hard all evening, and you don't have the connection with the audience that some of the other characters have. They get all the humour; all the comedy is the subplot going on around Partenope.

'Psychologically, too, that's very hard to deal with: I'm working bloody hard all night and everyone else is getting all the laughs and having fun, and I'm just having to concentrate. It's a great challenge.'

Even though Partenope is a mature work from well into Handel's career – indeed one which has an unusually large number of ensembles and pursues the comic element as never before – it's rarely performed. Why has it not taken on the popularity of, say, Giulio Cesare or Orlando? 'I've been asking myself that question a lot – I'm not sure it's ever been performed in the UK by a major opera house before. I don't quite understand it: it's a small cast, so it can't be terribly expensive from that point of view, it's funny, it's touching, it's got fantastic music, a great story. It comes late in Handel's career, so it's a mature work.

'I'd like to have another go at it, preferably in Italian. It's very hard to sing in English in this tessitura. That's partly why we had seven weeks to rehearse: we were tinkering a lot with the text for the first three weeks. It's not like the normal scenario where you get a score and you know what to expect and what's expected of you. What a lot of people forget is that the words are just as important as the music, and they have a specific colour. He painted his music around the colour of the words. So to translate an Italian opera into English is very difficult because it changes the colour of everything.

Rosemary Joshua'I'm absolutely in favour of singing in English, but of course you can't change the music, and if the colour of the music doesn't match the colour of the text, you've got a battle on your hands. For me, to sing this sort of music is also tricky because you can't come off the notes in the same way. Italian has such a melodic, lyrical flow to it: it's all there and you don't have to try very hard. You can come off the note at the top of the voice so easily. With English, because of all the consonants and diphthongs, it's harsher and very tiring.'

Joshua has over ten Handel roles in her repertoire, with more on the way. She explains that in one sense, it was not entirely a matter of choice, though she's delighted that it's become her mainstay. 'Obviously, when you become well known for one thing and a lot of people are asking you to sing it, that's a big factor in your career moves. I've been singing for twenty years now – that's a long career already, and I'm still doing it. I'm very proud of that, because in the present musical climate it doesn't happen a great deal now. People come and go more quickly. So obviously it suits me to be asked to do it a lot.

'But more importantly, it's music that speaks to me. I'm never bored of it. I'm never bored of hearing it, singing it, listening to it. It's very direct. I'm never in any doubt as to what it's saying to me on an emotional level. I love the directness of it. It's very challenging, the concept of a da capo aria; it's great for stamina, and it's really healthy music to sing. It keeps your voice very agile. It's wonderful for young singers when they're studying, and I did a lot of it as a student – at the time I had no idea I would go on to sing it for the rest of my career. It's a great way of acquiring your technique, because it really does demand everything. So I find that really rewarding. And I just think it's such fantastic music. Maybe I wish I was a mezzo; he wrote such great music for mezzos – the showstoppers and the beautiful lyrical pieces.'

Would she like to be Julius Caesar rather than Cleopatra? 'Well, I wouldn't mind,' she responds eagerly. 'I do like Cleopatra, but to be honest I think it's one of the least painted roles. She doesn't really go anywhere in this opera. Musically, it's phenomenal. It's absolutely stunning to sing. But as a character, I find she's not developed very much. It's quite one-dimensional. I think the piece is more based around the story of Tolomeo, Cornelia and Sesto, rather than Caesar and Cleopatra, even though they get the best music. So I find it not so rewarding to perform, but it's a gift to sing. Those Act 2 arias – 'Se pietà' and 'V'adoro pupille' – are absolutely sensational.'

Are there any more Handel pieces she'd like to do? 'I'd love to do Theodora and Rodelinda. There are so many things I'd like to do, but Theodora is top of the list. It's come up so many times, and then it keeps getting cancelled. Twice in Berlin I've got to the contract point and then had it replaced with something else, which is a shame. I'm hoping that it will come, though. It's an oratorio, but Glyndebourne have staged it very successfully.' Would she like to do it there? 'Why not! It's about time I was back at Glyndebourne! It's nearly eight years since I was last there.'

In February, Rosemary Joshua makes a belated debut at Welsh National Opera as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro opposite Rebecca Evans. 'I'm a Welsh girl, born and bred in Cardiff. All my family are there – half of them have never heard me sing live because they won't travel outside Wales, so there will be busloads coming to Cardiff. It's crazy that I've never sung with WNO before. But it's just one of those things: my career took off, and it never happened. So I'm very pleased to be performing there finally. I haven't got many more Susannas in me, but it's a fantastic part and the longest role in my repertory. I love to sing it, and it's great fun to be onstage as her. So to go back and sing a fabulous role like that in a new production with Rebecca's first Countess is wonderful. I imagine nobody in the cast will be able to get a word in edgeways for the whole rehearsal period with the two of us on board!'

I remark that I didn't even realise that Joshua was Welsh before. 'Well of course! Somebody said to me recently, "Yes, you're Welsh – it's one of Wales' best-kept secrets!" I don't quite know what that means, but I'm proud to be Welsh and I'm glad to be going back. I hope it's the start of lots of things there. The new management has invited me to do this, and I'm sure we can collaborate and get something regular going. It's lovely to be in the new opera house – Cardiff's great!'

I ask the soprano whether she plans to follow Evans' move from Susanna to the Countess? 'No,' she says firmly. 'My voice has developed – there's a lot of colour in it – but I don't feel in my throat that I want to move on to those Fiordiligis and Countesses. I could do them with the right conductor in the right house. But I've never so far taken a step in the wrong direction. And I think the reason I still sing Handel so well, and have been able to keep the voice agile and youthful, is that I've never pushed my repertoire too far. The Countess could happen, but I might want to retire in ten years! I don't want to be travelling round the world, living like a gypsy forever!

'I'm just happy with the things I'm singing at the moment. I've got another Vixen coming up in Amsterdam, for instance, in the Richard Jones production. It's an absolutely phenomenal staging, and I feel so privileged to still be being hired to sing a role like that, because it's so athletic and physical. While people are still employing me for these parts, why not sing them?

Rosemary Joshua'And there are still a lot of grown-up Handel parts I want to do – I've never done Romilda in Xerxes and I want to do Ginevra in Ariodante again – and I'd like to do more Rossini. I did Tancredi with René Jacobs and it was wonderful. I really like to run around – the top of my voice is very light, and it gets tired if I put too much pressure on it. Rossini is perfect for that, because it's very frilly. There's The Italian Girl in Algiers, Signor Bruschino and even Rosina, though it's a bit low. I'd even love to do a staging of Menotti's The Telephone, and Bellini's Giulietta in I Capuleti. I have my first Titania next year, with David Daniels as Oberon, and I'd love to do the Governess in Turn of the Screw. It's nice to have so much variety.'

Joshua explains that her family wasn't particularly musical, but there was plenty of music in her early life. 'There was always a great love of music of all kinds at home, but I was mainly encouraged in music making at my school in Cardiff, Herbert Thompson. There was an incredibly forward-thinking headmaster who brought in instruments and hired a lot of young teachers to play. I opted to learn the violin, and we had choirs and an orchestra. That started a precedent for me. I remember at the age of ten, when we had a wet day at school I would put on a show with a group of friends. So I always had that urge to perform.

'I thought I would go into a West End musical or something like that, but I was given a scholarship to study Voice seriously at the Welsh College of Music and Drama when I was fifteen, and it all went from there. I never thought I would land myself in opera, but being in Cardiff, I used to visit Welsh National Opera a lot and got incredibly inspired by it.

'I've never really considered doing anything else. I had a stint at the Welsh Office as a civil servant for two years, because I needed to earn money in order to fund my studies in London. I found a fantastic teacher in April Cantelo and thought I would study with her privately for a couple of years, so I worked behind a computer for a couple of years, and I did really well – I got promoted quite quickly! It was a really good thing to do because it made me appreciate what I had a lot more, so when I came to London and got a scholarship at the Royal College, I made the most of all the facilities. I was in from nine in the morning to seven at night. I'd been working for two years, so I knew what it was like to have a proper job and to get a bad back from sitting at a computer. I thought, these students don't know what they're missing!

'I also made a lot of connections at ENO because there were coaches from the Royal College working here, so I came and made my debut doing lots of tiny inconsequential parts. It was a great experience and it all snowballed from there. My debut was as the First Graduate in Street Scene. I had a couple of bars to sing and a lot of dancing to do, so it was great fun. Then I did Flora in The Turn of the Screw – would you believe?! And I did Barbarina in Figaro, with Valerie Masterson as the Countess and Lesley Garrett as Susanna.'

Joshua says that she was 'incredibly fortunate in getting a great agent straight away. And although I wasn't on contract, I had all these small parts at ENO, so it was a nice easy way in. I was asked to go and audition for some Handel at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, and got the part simply because Lynne Dawson, who was supposed to sing Angelica in Orlando, became pregnant. It's always the same – you get your break from somebody else! So I took this part, and that was the start of my association with Handel. I went to Cologne and sang Poppea in Agrippina, Cleopatra in Florida and Miami, and so on. So it really did happen very easily.

'I've had a very strong relationship with René Jacobs for a long time. He was one of the first people to hear me and take me under his wing. I have a great deal of respect for him: he's an astounding musician, extremely well prepared. He has so much to teach and pass on that there's a lot to learn and it's always on a high level. Charles Mackerras is like that, too. I did Orlando with him at Covent Garden and Belshazzar at the Proms this year. He sends all of his ornamentation a year in advance, because he's so well prepared. And you think, here we are, an old veteran like that, but he still wants that kind of attention to detail. You're in no doubt what he expects of him. To work with him on Handel is a joy. He can hear everything – one wrong note or ornament and he can hear it immediately.'

The soprano's future plans are typically varied. 'I'm doing Despina in Cosi at Covent Garden in 2011, but before that there are a lot of concerts and operas elsewhere. There's an Israel in Egypt coming up, and Messiah at Christmas. I'm doing a concert tour with Philippe Herreweghe, whom I haven't worked with before, so I'm really looking forward to that. There's a lot of concert work with the Champs-Elysées orchestra, who are fabulous – I'm doing a Mahler 4 recording with them. I'm doing The Creation at the Proms next year with Paul McCreesh, but I think the rest of my work is abroad – The Rake's Progress at La Monnaie next September, Titania at La Scala, Messiah at Carnegie Hall.'

Does she feel there's a bias against hiring British singers to perform in this country? 'It's certainly not my choice not to sing here. I would be up for almost anything in London, because I'm wanting to use my apartment here and catch up with my friends – and London's a great place to be. I haven't been at ENO for something like nine years, which is sad. The acoustic is excellent, from the artists' point of view at least. So it's an enjoyable place to sing, and we've had a luxurious rehearsal period. I wasn't happy with the rehearsal venue, I have to say, and I became ill immediately. It's a depressing place in which to feel creative, and I found it very difficult. This is a major company, and I really wish they had a better space. But apart from that, I've loved being back here. It's an incredibly friendly, positive company, and everybody's very professional. The orchestra are on form – the new leader has a lot of personality and strength.

Rosemary Joshua'And I love Covent Garden, too. Maybe the problem is that my diary's booked up such a long way in advance that it's hard to find spaces in it. I don't really know.'

A prolific recording artist, whose recent releases include Semele on Chandos and Esther on the Somm label, Joshua has more in the pipeline. 'Next year, I'm recording a disc with Sarah Connolly [whom we interviewed earlier in the week here] of Handel duets. They won't just be the mainstream ones, they'll be interesting ones. That's taking place in July, and we're doing a few promotional concerts, including one at the Wigmore. Then towards the end of the year I'm recording Flavio.'

What ambitions does she have? 'It's funny, because obviously I'm ambitious – you have to be in this business – but I think my main ambition is to continue doing everything at a high level. All the work I do now is interesting and with great colleagues. I'm not somebody who looks around and thinks "Why am I not doing this, this and this?" My ambition is to always be the best that I can be, wherever I am. That sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't. I'm the mother of two young children and to try to combine the career with motherhood is difficult. For the last seven weeks, I've only had Sundays to be with them properly. It's hard to keep all the balls in the air, but I'm lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband. And if I only had my career, I think I would be unhappy. I just want to carry on as long as I can, at the best level. I don't want to be one of those singers that carry on past their best. Trying to keep this momentum is hard, but I'm prepared to do it and that's my main ambition.'

By Dominic McHugh

There are further performances of Handel's Partenope at the London Coliseum on 18, 24 and 31 October, and 2, 7 and 12 November.

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