'Now nothing too intelligent, OK?', says Ann Murray when I walk into her dressing room backstage at ENO to interview her. One of the most distinguished singers of her generation, Murray has had a long career built on roles by Mozart (Cherubino), Handel (Ariodante and Xerxes), Rossini (Cenerentola) and Richard Strauss (Octavian). She was made an honorary DBE in 2002 for her services to music and has received numerous awards over the years.
After a hiatus of a few years, Ann Murray is a regular fixture once more at ENO. She starred in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers earlier in the year and is now back to play Mrs Grose in David McVicar's hotly-anticipated new production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw. With a cast of extraordinary talent - including the Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans, soprano Cheryl Barker and tenor Timothy Robinson - it promises to be an exceptional experience that ought to have opera lovers descending on the box office to snap up remaining tickets (there are only six performances).
In spite of asking for simple questions, Murray turns out to be an erudite and inspirational interviewee. When I ask her about the main themes of The Turn of the Screw she says, 'Well, I would think unfortunately, and selfishly, I look at it from my perspective. I suppose that makes sense, because each person who goes into a situation looks at it from their own perspective. This opera is such a conundrum and such a puzzler that even Hercule Poirot couldn't work it out!
'I've been working on the piece for months. For instance, I've read the book and I've tried to understand it; I've come away from it thinking I know nothing and come back to it thinking I know everything! However, it seems to me to be a very dark and disturbing journey. It's like nothing I've done in my career before. This one is like a little burr in your skin - it's niggling away at you and you can't get away from it, particularly in this production.'
The opera revolves around the experiences of a Governess who comes to look after two children and observes with horror as their souls are corrupted by two ghostly figures, Miss Jessel - the Governess' predecessor - and her lover Peter Quint. She doesn't understand what is going on until it is too late and the boy has died. Murray explains her part in the story: 'My character, Mrs Grose, is tormented and ashamed of not having intervened in the goings on of the household. In the beginning when the Governess says that she has seen a strange man, Mrs Grose knows immediately who he is [i.e. Quint]. She relates the whole story of what happened, and then goes on to talk about Miss Jessel and various situations, then doesn't say anything all the way along - although one knows already, the Governess doesn't know - then she says, "I don't understand how you saw him - he's dead".'
Murray is clearly riveted by performing the work. 'It's very easy, it's beautifully written, and every day I've got another way of wanting to interpret it depending on how I receive the words or reactions from Rebecca [Evans] as the Governess. So I think in the end Mrs Grose takes the same journey as the Governess. She's frightened of what happens to Flora when Miss Jessel comes back and almost inhabits her being - she certainly manipulates her emotions. In the end, poor Mrs Grose is totally ashamed and crushed and she almost loses her reason through a sense of guilt, loss and failure. At the same time, there's an ambiguity about it - Mrs Grose sees something happening to the Governess - or is it her dream? You could go on perpetually asking yourself these questions.'
Of her evolving reading of the piece, Murray says: 'You have your own interpretation; these sorts of ghost stories really inhabit a world in your imagination and brain, and each one of us seems to have a different reading on a day to day basis.'
Nevertheless, Murray has a firm understanding of her own character. 'Mrs Grose is supposed to be the Governess' mainstay - and the mainstay of the family. She runs the house. She has been put in charge of all household duties and taken over the care of the children since the previous governess disappeared. So she's dependable and solid, and that's why I think it makes her shame so poignant: she realises she could have done something if she hadn't been so terrified of the manipulative powers of Mr Quint. There are people like that who come into your house and they fit in so well that you wonder if you own it any more - you end up the chatelaine and they end up the owner.
'Mrs Grose is looked upon for dependability, she's stable, she runs a good house. Yet there's that flaw in Mr Quint's character that she couldn't stand up to. Maybe she was threatened by him - he had his way with everybody and maybe she was prettier when she was younger, we just don't know. In the book, you hear about him dressing up in the master's clothes and there's nobody to challenge him. If you let something like that slide at the very beginning, you never regain your authority. So she's ashamed and angry with herself for not standing her ground at the very beginning and stamping this out. But of course, who could she tell about it?
'So in my opinion, she's the hub of activity. She's like the kitchen of a house where everything happens, and everything else comes around her. I think the character has great substance, and when you read the book and hear and see the colours with which she's depicted, you really feel the anguishes, anxieties, love and devotion of Mrs Grose. She's a very honest character, and that's the thing that worries her like an itch all the way through: she's ashamed of not doing her duty.'
Murray particularly loves Britten's score for Turn of the Screw. 'It's hauntingly eerie. The whole thing is like walking on broken glass and egg shells. It's got such a jaggedness and delicacy to it. It can do you great damage - it's got great strength to it, like barbed wire. When I was at college, the singers were down one end of the hall and the 'musicians' were down the other, so I'm only speaking from what it says to me. But I think the marriage of the libretto and the music is extraordinary.'
David McVicar has become one of the most important opera directors in the world during recent years, and Ann Murray's experience of him has been as inspirational as his reputation suggests. 'He is allowing us to discover our view and our version of the characters. I've never worked with him before, but he's an absolute genius. He has such great experience - such an eye for the theatre - and he knows the piece so well. Sometimes when I'm in productions I like to have a laugh in the breaks in rehearsals, but there's been none of that at all - not from a discipline point of view, but because he has encouraged and thrillingly ignited such an interest in the piece that we go off and carry on talking about it! With his choreographer Andrew George, he's made an amazingly real view of the piece. It seems to me, rather like he did with Figaro, that he's taken out the 'fourth wall'. We're not looking at a spectacle - we're always like a voyeur. I feel like I'm drawn into what I'm seeing even in the rehearsal room. He's certainly been very true to the story and the continuity of the piece.'
It's with evident sincerity that she describes Rebecca Evans, the Governess for this production, as 'just amazing. I don't know whether it's a Celtic thing - there are a lot of Celts in it, with the two of us, the conductor and the producer. I have most to do with Rebecca and the children, though I've seen the meeting of Jessel and Quint and it was amazing. The children have been lovely. It's been a very interesting and short but intense rehearsal period. But Rebecca is remarkable, absolutely remarkable - heartbreaking at the end.'
She also speaks warmly of conductor Garry Walker. 'I had the great pleasure of singing in the first concert at the Perth Concert Hall a few years ago and we worked together then. He knows the score backwards; he's so diligent and has been at every rehearsal to have his input. He's been tremendously helpful because it's not an easy score. Not only is it rhythmically tricky, but when you're so engaged with the action you tend to trip up with the music. Mozart drives you along like you're on an ice rink; you go in a forward direction. But this Britten piece is very helter-skelter, a rollercoaster ride which takes you in all directions. To keep that equilibrium of intelligence when you're doing the acting, emotion and counting of the beats is not easy, and he's been very patient about all that. The orchestra loves him, too - I did a concert with the leader of the orchestra the other day, and she said that they all enjoy the time they spend with him. It's amazing how so few instruments [it's scored for a chamber orchestra] can be so important and have such a huge sound. It's a little bit like the Prologue to Ariadne, where you think that there must be a hundred people in the orchestra but there are only a handful. Because it's so wonderfully written, they each cover perhaps four desks.'
The subject of ENO's recent grilling in the press brings out a passionate response from Murray. 'I'm not a great review or press reader, so I can only comment on my own experience. From what I hear, attendance is enormous and it's hugely popular. The choices that have been made may be controversial, to a degree, with the conservative element of the attendance here, but business is business and they don't go out of their way to do something bad. If only the press would just give people a bit of an easier time of it - the houses are struggling and they need enthusiasm otherwise the Arts will die altogether. If a piece doesn't appeal to a critic, instead of saying 'this was a heap of rubbish' when people have been working hard for six weeks and singing their guts out to do their very best, why not say 'I hated it, I detested the production, but I am speaking for myself and on this occasion that the audience was with me and the artists were booed roundly' or 'the audience was not with me and they thought it was wonderful'. At least that would be a balanced way of putting it, and I think that's fairer.
'I haven't worked here so very much over the last few years, but I was lucky enough to be invited to do The Gondoliers, which is slightly out of my vocal range but it was a great exercise for me and I really loved it. It was a fabulous, wonderful production - such fun. Beautiful singing from the Young Artists of the house. Really stunning, fabulous playing. Wonderful conductor. Lots of people at the performances. And the sets were great - it had a big story book as the set. It was intended to be witty and charming, and I thought Martin [Duncan, the director] ticked all those boxes. It had such a good feeling about it. I don't know what the press didn't like!
'You can't please everyone all of the time, of course. But Covent Garden had a period of this sort of thing - when Peter Jonas was here, if I remember correctly - and I find it's either one house or the other getting all the bad reviews. I think the house wants to get a new audience - we need new people to come - and opera's not just for the minority end of the market. It's like watching Eastenders to music - a lot of operas are domestic situations. Each opera doesn't happen at The Old Vic, but it can easily be brought to mind. It may take a little longer than saying "Oi, wotcha!" or whatever it is, but it's still a human story!'
Her eyes light up at the mention of David McVicar's Royal Opera House production of Le nozze di Figaro, in which she'll play Marcellina with Sir Charles Mackerras in the pit next June. 'I've just done my first Marcellina, so it'll be fun to do another production. It's another interesting character. I like to think that that opera's called The Marriage of the Son of Marcellina! One has to have a reason for singing a role and that's my reason!'
Looking back to her childhood it's clear who brought Ann Murray to music. 'My mother. She was an amateur singer and had little opportunity to go further with it, though she had lots of amateur dramatic opportunities in Ireland. She married rather late in life and she married a widower - so on the day she got married, she had two children already, a husband, and her brother lived with us until he died, too. That was very much par for the course in those days in Ireland, where communities together. It was part of our culture to be part of these Eisteddfod-like music festivals, and you'd have a hundred children singing 'The Happy Wanderer' or 'In my Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown' and there'd be an adjudicator and would go on all day! I did lots of those things. Then at school, singing was important, and I belonged to a group called 'The Young Dublin Singers'. We used to sing in festivals. Then when I came back from school, I did some more competitions and a singing teacher from England heard me and suggested I should come here.'
After that, Murray went to the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the RNCM). 'It was wonderful. There are so many wonderful singers who have been through Manchester. I did Cosė fan tutte with Rosalind Plowright and John Tomlinson. I went to see them in the last performance of Rheingold, actually, and John said [she adopts a Northern accent] "Oh, we should've been doin' Cosė fan tutte." Rosalind told me she has a tape of it - that must be thirty-eight years ago. I came to England in 1968. We did Cosė in those first two years.'
When I ask her about her career highlights, the response is typically enthusiastic: 'Gosh, they're all highlights. A highlight is just the miracle of getting through a performance!' But she does single some out. 'Spectacular evenings, perhaps - I wouldn't call them highlights - were three debuts. My debut at La Scala singing La Cenerentola for the first time in Italian with no orchestral rehearsal - I met Mr Abbado for a piano rehearsal, then he cancelled, and a replacement came along who I'd never met before nor seen since. I was in the second cast and only did a few performances. I got to walk around the stage a little and worked with the tenor on the duet, but that was it. It was quite an event! Similarly, though I did have more rehearsal but no orchestral rehearsal, was my debut in Munich singing Cherubino with Margaret Price, Lucia Popp, Hermann Prey, Wolfgang Brendel and Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting. My debut at the Met was also amazing. I was singing Annio in La clemenza di Tito in October. In November or December, I was to sing Sesto in the second cast with Carol Vaness. The first cast was Renata Scotto and Tatiana Troyanos. At 4pm on the day of the first performance [of the first cast], I was sitting watching I Love Lucy in my apartment and the phone rang. It was the head of the Metropolitan Opera and he said that Tatiana Troyanos had cancelled and I was on that night as Sesto! It was the opening night of a new production and my Met debut. I'd had no rehearsal for that role because I'd been doing Annio, but Mr Ponnelle came in at six o'clock and found two new people in his cast!
'Those are three memorable experiences. The Met was a particular highlight. But there have been many of them, and sometimes singing one song in a recital really well can be like a little pearl you can put on a string of experiences.'
And as for posterity?
'I'd like to be remembered for being a good colleague more than anything.'
Ann Murray appears in Britten's The Turn of the Screw at the London Coliseum from 26 November to 8 December 2007.
Read other recent interviews with singers such as Rosalind Plowright, Claire Rutter, John Hudson, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.