Unsung Heroine: Scottish soprano Janis Kelly makes her Royal Opera debut

'I've always wanted to be here, but it's not like I've been sitting at home twiddling my thumbs!'

16 October 2009

Janis Kelly

It's been said numerous times in the national press that an opera singer's journey down the road from the Coliseum to the Royal Opera House can be impossibly long. Rupert Christiansen of The Daily Telegraph in particular has often been quick to point out that some of English National Opera's most beloved singers never make their Royal Opera debuts, in spite of being embraced elsewhere.

On the other hand, history shows that some artists are able and happy to embrace both companies, most notably Sir John Tomlinson, who appeared as Baron Ochs in ENO's Rosenkavalier and as Wotan in the ROH's Ring Cycle within the space of a few months. This season, Sir Charles Mackerras will conduct The Turn of the Screw at the Coliseum and The Cunning Little Vixen at Covent Garden, continuing a long-standing association with both companies, and Sarah Connolly's recent Royal Opera debut in Dido and Aeneas was a welcome acceptance of one of ENO's leading singers into the UK's premier opera house.

The trend continues this week, as Scottish soprano Janis Kelly finally treads the boards of the Covent Garden stage after more than two decades of playing lead roles in all the other British houses. She was notable for her Violetta and Magda at Opera North, for her Handel and Mozart roles at the Coliseum, and for a strikingly diverse repertoire – including Falstaff, Rusalka and The Enchantress – at Grange Park. Kelly's wide range of other activities include playing musical theatre roles (most famously Magnolia in Opera North's famous production of Showboat), and appearing in the soundtracks to Barrington Pheloung's scores for the ITV Inspector Morse series.

This year saw another enormous coup for her, as she appeared in the world premiere of Prima Donna, the first opera to be written by American singer-song writer Rufus Wainwright. The work, which was given in Manchester in association with Opera North after it was rejected by the Metropolitan Opera for not being written in English, will tour to London in the Spring of 2010, again with Kelly in the lead role.

With all this to discuss, I caught up with Kelly on the eve of her ROH debut, in which she'll appear as Nella in Richard Jones' production of Gianni Schicchi. There's not a hint of resentment about her delayed debut, about which she says she's 'Very excited of course. It's never too late! In some ways I feel I'm in a different phase of performing and roles at the moment, and I'm very excited. I've always wanted to be here, but it's not like I've been sitting at home twiddling my thumbs – I've had lots of fantastic experiences.'

Nor is Kelly too upset that she's not appearing in one of her signature roles – the Marschallin or Violetta, for instance – though she admits that 'Obviously, the more exposure you get, the more demanding the role. But it's a fantastic production. I know the piece well because I did Lauretta at college. I think it's a true masterpiece!'

The all-star cast includes Sir Thomas Allen in his first British Gianni Schicchi, and Kelly will be reunited with two old friends. 'Marie [McLaughlin] and Alan [Oke] and I were all at college together at the Royal Scottish Academy, so we've known each other for a very long time! I've sung with Alan numerous times since then, including La rondine, but it's the first time Marie and I have worked together. And I have to confess, we're a bit like two Glaswegian schoolgirls when we get together!'

Returning to conduct this production is Antonio Pappano, who led the original Gianni Schicchi/L'Heure espagnole pairing in 2007. It's the first time that Kelly has worked with him, and to say she's enjoying the experience would be an understatement. 'Now you're going to hear me gush' she laughs. 'In the whole of my career, I've never come across such an inspiring conductor. Of course, he has the musicality and all the technical things a conductor needs, but more than that, he's a real singer's conductor. When he works with the orchestra, he sets the scene first of all by explaining the atmosphere and the feelings going on in the drama, and then gets the most wonderful colours out of the musicians. He's truly fantastic.'

Another massive development in Kelly's career is her forthcoming Met debut, in which she'll appear as Mrs Nixon in John Adams' Nixon in China. 'It's like my debut at the Garden,' she says. 'It's something I've always wanted to do, so I'm pleased to be doing it at last. And I feel really lucky, because it's an American role and I'm sure that there are lots of other people who would love to have done it. I have a good relationship with Peter Sellars, but I did have to audition. Peter Gelb was a very generous auditioner, though, so it was a good experience, and I got to meet John Adams for the very first time – I'd never met him, even though I've played this role before. That was an added bonus, because he was very charming and encouraging and helpful. So spending a few snowy days in New York in January was well worth it!'

Janis KellyParticipating in the premiere of Prima Donna was a special experience, and not one that Kelly had expected to happen when she first heard about it. 'Opera North got involved after it was dropped by the Met, and I've always had a great relationship with them. Vocally, the role is quite demanding, and it covers both the mezzo and soprano ranges. But I'm always game for things! And I very much related to this woman, even though I've never had a vocal crisis or anything like that. So I auditioned for Rufus. The management came out to Grange Park where I was doing the Foreign Princess in Rusalka, and they said they were happy.

'But two years before that, I had read that Rufus was composing an opera and I tried to get in touch with him. It's not that I thought I would be in it, I just wanted to offer him my support and say how enthusiastic I was about it. So I sent him a message via the box office where he was meant to be appearing next, but he never got it. I never dreamed I'd be in the opera though – I just wanted to support his effort.'

Wainwright's international prominence, plus the fuss made in the newspapers about the Met having dropped the piece after originally commissioning it, meant that the world's press descended on Manchester for the premiere, and it attracted the attention of both pop and classical music journalists. But Kelly doesn't seem to have been too nervous about the situation. 'I always had confidence in the piece,' she says quite genuinely. 'It's a young work – it's obviously something that could have been developed in various ways. The opera is very close to Rufus' heart. Sometimes, it was a bit difficult in that respect when those of us who'd worked all our lives in opera could see that little things would be difficult to do, but in the end he did compromise very well. To achieve what he's achieved is fantastic – I'm so full of admiration for him. And I can't deny that it's a fantastic role for me too.

'I have to say that Daniel Kramer, the director, played a huge part in it: he multi-layered the libretto with flashbacks and helped with things like ordering the scenes. I threw my heart and soul into it as well – we all did – so I'm glad it all worked out well.'

The production's coming to London's Sadler's Wells next year. Will changes be made to it in the interim, based on the initial critical reception of the piece? 'Nothing's ever set in stone, and there's going to be a rehearsal process of course, so there could be some small changes,' Kelly says, 'but it would cost too much to make big ones. Just think, though: West End shows often have several weeks of previews, whereas we only had one dress rehearsal.' Prima Donna is also going to Toronto and Melbourne, and Kelly is playing the part throughout the tour.

There's no looking back for the soprano: her future plans are typically varied. 'I'm going back to ENO in January to do Satyagraha again – it's a wonderful piece. The production is really amazing, and I loved working with Improbable Theatre and the director, Phelim McDermott. It was magical: they created puppets from paper on the stage, right in front of you.

Janis Kelly'I also have lots of concerts, for instance Elijah at St James' Islington on 28 November. Then in the New Year, my daughter's making her debut at the Chatelet in Paris in a production of A Little Night Music with Kristin Scott Thomas and Leslie Caron. So I'll be playing her chaperone for a couple of weeks!

'I'm booked into 2012 – I'm going back to Grange Park for the Foreign Princess again, and I'm back at the Garden for a part Adriana Lecouvreur. I also teach at the Royal College of Music, where I have eight or nine students, and I have triplets, so I'm kept busy!'

I ask her more about her teaching, since not all singers of Kelly's profile would dedicate so much time and effort on regular students. 'It is a big commitment,' she admits. 'I'm in my third year of doing it now. I started with four and got more and more. I worked mainly with Elisabeth Grümmer after leaving college – for about three years, I would go over for a couple of weeks and have a lesson with her every other day. So when I started to teach, I began to look again at what I'd learnt, and did lots of research. As I got more into it, I started to reflect both on what I do myself and on what I was teaching, and the one fed the other.

'I love the teaching. One of my students won the Kathleen Ferrier Award this year. The Royal College is a very friendly place, and I feel completely at home there. Hopefully, I can teach my students certain things when they're young that it took me much longer to find out – not just technique but physical and mental things.

'In fact, I've made a DVD on the history of vocal teaching, and it's being launched next week (21 October) at the Royal College. It's good to get people talking about singing. When I was growing up, many people kept their methods to themselves. But I want to get it all out into the open.'

Kelly's CD The Moment is available exclusively from Dress Circle in Covent Garden.  'It's a compilation of arias I've done with orchestra. Some of them are ones I've done with Barrington Pheloung, who wrote the Inspector Morse soundtracks. I appeared on many of them. I went and did an album of music for him, and he gave me a few tracks as a present, and I combined them with a few other things I had. Originally, I released it as a charity CD for the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre, which is an organisation that works with disabled children.'

Amongst such a varied career, it's clearly difficult to have an overall highlight, but I ask Kelly what she's most enjoyed so far. 'I loved doing the Marschallin, and I'd love to do her again, especially in German. Traviata for me is really special, and Rondine. To the people who claim that La rondine is an operetta or musical, all I can say is that it doesn't feel like a musical when you're doing it!

'At the Coliseum, Alcina and Xerxes stand out. But I've also had some fantastic concert work, like the Four Last Songs. When I did Street Scene, I remember thinking that if I never sing again, this was the closest to heaven I'd come to on the stage. Dramatically it gave me a lot to act with. I'd done a lot of soubrette and light things until then, but this was grittier, and I loved the pathos of the role – in general, I like things that mix lightness and pathos!'

Any ambitions? 'Patrick Doyle, a great friend of mine from Scotland who wrote the soundtracks to Kenneth Branagh's films, has been talking about doing an opera with me. I am dying for him to do it! He's a great vocal composer. One of my all-time highlights was the charity concert he did at the Royal Albert Hall, with excerpts from his film scores played live with the actors speaking their lines on top of it. It was a wonderful experience.

'I'd love to work more with Daniel Kramer, too: he's demanding but he's generous and encouraging. Naturally, I'd love to work more at the Met, Covent Garden and ENO, and I'm hoping to make a CD of Scottish songs, either unaccompanied or with traditional instruments.

'But most of all, I want my teenagers to have as much of me as they need. I think they need you more as they get older and start to travel the world – I'd like to do some of that with them. I realise now, looking back, that I was tremendously lucky to be able to work at ENO and Grange Park so much when they were growing up – so many singers are forced to be parted from their families at that crucial time, but I could stay at home.'

By Dominic McHugh

Janis Kelly appears in Gianni Schicchi at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 17 October. For more information, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/.

Photo of Gianni Schicchi: Marie McLaughlin (left) and Janis Kelly (right). Credit: Johan Persson.

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Opera Review: Verdi's Don Carlo at La Scala
Opera Review: Verdi's Don Carlo at Opera North


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