Interview: Felicity Palmer on returning to ENO for a new Peter Grimes

'it leaves you with all sorts of questions about how a crowd can whip up that sort of fury at somebody. It's very pertinent for today's world.'

1 May 2009

Felicity Palmer

One of the highlights of the opera calendar in London this May is English National Opera's new production of Britten's Peter Grimes. Considered by many to be the finest English-language opera of all time, it's the company's first new production of the piece in nearly two decades and brings together an all-star cast including Stuart Skelton, Amanda Roocroft and Gerald Finley under ENO Music Director Edward Gardner.

Such is the nature of this ensemble that even the smaller roles are cast with outstanding actors, prime amongst whom is mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer. A favourite with British and international audiences for over three decades, Palmer returns to ENO as Mrs Sedley, the village busybody. It's a part that Palmer first sang in New York last year, and one she's looking forward to – though she admits, as we meet, that 'I'm pretty tired. I've been working hard, and I'm ready for a rest. I'm no spring chicken, you know! This pace of work is catching me up, but I'm really enjoying Peter Grimes.'

What appeals to her about Mrs Sedley? 'Mezzos so often have to play witches and bitches. I've not been acquainted with Mrs Sedley all that long – I did it at the Met last year for the first time – but I love the opera. I was surprised, when I really went into it, by how little she has to sing. But I think she's a character who cuts a lot of ice. She's the nosey parker of the village. Those sorts of people are great fun to play. I know quite a lot of people who I could probably put into her shoes – not exactly, of course. We know she's on laudanum, and that's probably being taken to extremes in this production. She's not a bad character, but nosey parkers are a lot more fun to play than the 'goodies'.

'What's fascinating is that if you put it end to end, she only has odd lines to sing. I prefer to have a run at things, so that's a challenge. But what she does have to say is interesting and pertinent to the situation. The village would probably have accepted Peter Grimes had it not been for her coming in with all her Miss Marple business – taking notes and snooping about. She's got this fantasy that he's the murderer, and that whips them all up again. She has a Miss Marple quality to her, except that she's not outwardly as pleasant, because she's a troublemaker. If you take my analogy to its conclusion though, she would not be a popular figure in the village, because people would know that she's up to no good and thinking ill of people, whereas Miss Marple was out for the common good. Mrs Sedley is a disapproving person. I don't always like doing that, and I don't like some of the people I've played, but it can be quite fun.'

Is she not the comic relief of the piece, though? 'Yes, she is in a way, but I think that's the problem: an awful lot of the characters I've played over the years are seen either to be unredeemingly bad or a laugh a minute, neither of which is entirely true. I think people are multifaceted, and of course she's the comic relief in some ways, but in the end she's quite a sad little old lady because all she does is to snoop round, making trouble. She's invented her story. As so often with those kind of characters, she's pieced together something that isn't true, from her fantasy, presumably because she's got nothing better to do. People don't snoop around if they've got full lives.'

I comment that Palmer seems to take her very seriously. 'Well, I don't, but I'm very interested in the character. It's a bit like how people always say that Klytämnestra is a nasty woman. She is a murderess, but there's always a reason behind it, and there's always a facet that we haven't considered. I'm always interested in trying to get some sympathy for a baddie, or some seriousness for a comic character.'

Though Britten's operas are now pretty well established in the repertoires of opera houses, especially in this country, it's also true that Grimes remains by far his most popular, even though it was amongst his earliest works. Palmer agrees that the work's power remains special. 'I've just done Albert Herring, which I also love,' she admits. 'But I've been to lots of performances of Grimes over the years, and I've always adored it. I think it's a great, great work, there's no question about it. It's got the huge ensemble pieces and this welter of sound from the chorus, and it leaves you with all sorts of questions about how a crowd can whip up that sort of fury at somebody, and that it is just crowd mania. It's very pertinent for today's world.

'We sat down in America and just discussed it one day. We were asked to consider the scenario: you're sitting in a pub, with a storm raging, and you think that a murderer has just walked in. How would that make you feel? It's a very interesting question. And then we were asked how many of us thought he was a murderer, or suspected he might be. Those questions are never answered completely; people come to their own conclusions. In a funny way, Grimes is the wronged one in the piece, and we're the ones who see to it that he's the one who dies in the end.'

Palmer says that all of this is the focus of David Alden's new production, 'but taken to extremes, in my view. We are clearly the baddies. We're responsible. We whip up a storm the like of which you've never seen – I mean really, really violent stuff. Peter's left squeaky clean. Ellen is the villain. With this wonderful chorus at ENO, there's a crowd fury you wouldn't want to be part of. It's pretty scary.'

In the next few months, Palmer will appear as the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe in San Francisco and as Lady Jane in Patience at the Proms with Sir Charles Mackerras. I ask why she's so fascinated with Glibert and Sullivan, but the answer comes as a surprise. 'That's an interesting one,' she says. 'To be honest, I don't like G&S very much. My parents were part of a G&S society years ago, and I think it's very dated. I think it's very clever, too, but I loathe what Gilbert has done to the mezzos in all the pieces. I find it offensive, actually. He cruelly ridicules women of a certain age, and I don't think that's on. I think the Queen of the Fairies, barring the odd line or two, is one of the less offensive ones, and it's really quite fun. She has some interesting dialogue. Apparently they love G&S in America. Patience is one I don't know so well at the moment: I'm swallowing hard because we've got to memorise it, but I love the Proms and I'm very fond of Charles Mackerras. Gilbert and Sullivan is very difficult to perform well: it needs very good singing, which quite often it doesn't get, but I think it will get it both at the Proms and in San Francisco, which is a city I love.'

Next season, Palmer will repeat one of her great role portrayals, Klytämnestra in Strauss' Elektra, with the London Symphony Orchestra and at the Met. 'I'm absolutely thrilled to be doing the piece again', she enthuses. 'I don't think the character is just a crazy woman: I think she's driven to that craziness. Curiously, it's like when I did Sweeney Todd and someone said to me, "You really love this woman, don't you!" And I do – I know she's a baddie, but she's endearing. I don't think Klytämnestra is endearing, but if you go back to what happened to her, she has been ghastly, but Agamemnon murdered their daughter, and played around. OK, she married Aegisthus, and he's a drip, and God knows why she did that.

Felicity Palmer'But her daughter has been murdered by her then-husband. I'm not saying it's a "murder for a murder", but by the time we see her in the opera, she's paid for her crime in terms of what it's done to her and the sacrifices she's made. She's a pathetic figure: she's still got this venom in her, of course, and has been foul to Elektra, but I try to get this worn-out woman who's taken her punishment. I don't think, in other words, that we're in a world where people are demonised. You look at what's going on behind the scenes: they're loners, they've been let down by society. Something has gone awry. For me, that's not explored enough.'

Another date in Palmer's season for 2010 is Madame de Croissy in Dialogues des Carmelites at the Bayerische Staatsoper. 'I'm thrilled to be going back to Munich, because I was a student there years ago,' she enthuses. 'I adore the city and it's a beautiful opera house. I'm very pleased that Susan Gritton is going to be Blanche: it's a lovely opportunity. I adore the role, and it is one of those that you can go on doing into your dotage, though my personal opinion is that it's hard enough to sing and I don't want to do it when I feel that I've just got to cook it. I love it too much for that. It's quite hard. Although she's so ill and old that famous people have done it when they were really in their dotage, I'm not sure that's for me. I've even got it booked in 2013 at the Met. I love their production. I think that if I make it to 2013, it will be my absolute swansong, but it would be a lovely swansong to have.

'She's a fascinating woman. When we did it at the Met, we had a very good staff producer who said "You are able to confront the public with their own fear of death". She admits that thirty years as a nun haven't prepared her one wit, even though that's what they're working towards: death is the entry to what they've been praying for all their lives. That presents the non-religious human being with a lot to think about. I did become a Roman Catholic years ago, and although I slightly veered off it, it was very important to me.

'The text for the opera is wonderful to discuss: why did she take Blanche on? Why is she so tough with her? And then when she hands on the baton to Blanche, it completes her journey. I find that sort of thing fascinating. Each time I come back to it, even though I've pulled it apart and discussed it in great detail, I find a phrase where I haven't quite achieved what I want. There are phrases in it which would be Desert Island Disc material for me. There's a scene with Blanche and her brother which I think is one of the most sublime pieces of music that Poulenc ever wrote. And it was key to Poulenc's own religious journey at the time.'

Any other operas planned for the future? 'I might be doing a revival of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met with Simon Rattle. It's a divine piece. I know a lot of people find it boring, but I think it's the most amazing piece.'

I ask about Palmer's recent desire to return to the recital stage, with several dates in her calendar with the acclaimed young pianist Simon Lepper. 'I met him quite by chance,' she explains. 'I did a fundraising event for the Kathleen Ferrier Aware, and to my total surprise – he could be my grandson – he rather enjoyed it, and asked me to do several things which I wasn't able to do. Then we went to Ischia and did a hugely enjoyable recital, and then another one in Richmond. Then he came up with this programme called "Women on the Edge", which interested me, of course! We were going to do it at the Wigmore, but it was to a large extent a new programme which would have taken months to prepare, and there was no way I would have had the time to prepare it, sadly. To get a recital to the point where it's on autopilot and you can begin to enjoy it involves a terrifying amount of work.'

Last time I interviewed Palmer, in January 2007, she talked of her hopes to create a one-woman show. But that's off the cards now, it seems. 'I think 'Women on the Edge' is the nearest we're going to get. We're doing it in Norwich in September, and in Glasgow. Simon said to me that at this stage of the game, it's the sheer joy of the singer getting back to the pianist they trust, and it's almost more about he and I enjoying it than anything else. The problem with a one-woman show is that it's never going to earn you a living, and getting it off the ground is at least a year's work. So it's got to be for fun. I hope that 'Women on the Edge' will be the fulfilment of that.'

Music goes back right to Palmer's childhood. 'My father was a musician and so there was always music in the house. He taught at Stanford School, where Malcolm Sargent had been, and there was a performance of Dido and Aeneas to which I was taken as a small child. I sang along to Dido! There was church music, and of course the G&S. My mother produced plays and my father would do the music for that. So we were surrounded by it.'

Something that Palmer's long been critical of is her training in the conservatoire system. 'I think it impeded my career to a large degree. I sang without a lesson at fifteen with my father at school, and there are tapes of them somewhere to prove that at fifteen I was singing better than at twenty-one when I had done a three-year course at the Guildhall. It made me think that singing was hard and undid what I naturally had. I think many of my colleagues would back me up on this: the journey from college was a question of unravelling a lot of what had been taught. The thing that finally taught me was stopping for a while and teaching myself. I now violently disagree with what is generally taught. I genuinely think that it causes more problems than it solves. That doesn't mean to say that there aren't many, many people who sing extremely well that way, but I still think they might sing better if they undid some of this ridiculous jargon that's bandied about.'

Having just reached the age of sixty-five, Palmer is still going strong. But it's clear from various comments made throughout our conversation that her career is not going to continue forever. How easily will she find it to give up? 'I think it's not going to be easy at all. But I see it as a process. I didn't expect to be doing this level of work at this age. There was a time when I started teaching when I gave up eight months' work and really rather enjoyed being at home, and as I heard Christa Ludwig once say, being a normal human being. One is ruled by this thing called the voice. It's like a separate entity: it's part of me, but it's separate too. And whether we like it or not, we are ruled by it. The day is a glum one if the voice isn't working and an elated one if it is. I'm very lucky that I can still sing.

'But I find rehearsals rather boring to a large extent. I don't like six hours a day of rehearsals, and I find it physically tiring. I spoke to Janet Baker not long ago and she said to me that it's the body that will go first. And I think she's right: it's the body that will say "You don't really like doing this any more". I love the camaraderie, I love creating something, and I love the feeling that I can still sing. But I don't want to become one of those singers of whom people say, "God, I wish this woman would give up!" But I think it will leave a huge hole. To my horror the other day, I was playing some old tapes of something I did with Britten and realised it was nearly forty years ago. I was amazed at what I'd done. If that's been part of your life for forty years, that's not easily given up. It's not like being a secretary: it's part of your life. But I'm beginning to see very clearly that there's a time when enough is enough.'

By Dominic McHugh

Britten's Peter Grimes opens at English National Opera on 9 May 2009. Visit www.eno.org for more details.

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