Amongst the country's operatic elite, Rosalind Plowright is known for her intelligent musicianship, versatile acting ability and compelling stage presence. Having conquered most of the leading soprano roles in Italian opera in the 1980s, she overcame a vocal crisis and gravitated towards the dramatic mezzo-soprano repertoire, in which she similarly excels. Earlier this year, she was awarded the OBE by the Queen. She has appeared with many of the major singers of the last thirty years, including the late Luciano Pavarotti, with whom she sang Aida at Covent Garden; she describes the experience as 'one of the best performances of my career' and led The Royal Opera's tributes to the great tenor's life on various television news bulletins last week.
Now she's back at Covent Garden to reprise the role of Fricka in Keith Warner's production of the Ring Cycle, which is being performed in complete cycles for the first time this October. We meet to discuss her approach to the role, as well as an in-depth look at her career and future ambitions.
Fricka is Wotan's wife in the Ring and has several important appearances in both Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. How would Plowright describe her function in the cycle? 'I wish Wagner had given her a bit more to sing, because she's quite important. If she hadn't interfered, who knows what might have happened? She changes the whole course of events by insisting that Siegmund is killed, and the rest is history! Wotan begins to crumble because of her hold over him. He does exactly what she asks of him, and as a result his power begins to weaken. I love my scene; I just wish I could come on again and say something, maybe in Götterdämmerung! They burn effigies of the gods in Valhalla at the very end and I'm referred to a lot throughout Act Two. I should have been given a duet of victory with Hunding! She's a very important person and she has a great scene of hell and fury when she gets what she wants and walks off. Keith Warner does bring me on again at the end of Act Two of Die Walküre to pat Wotan on the back, when he's begun to realise the error of his ways.
'I love Keith's characterisation of Fricka. I like doing that sort of role - I like being strong onstage because I'm not strong offstage. I'm a bit of a big softie and people tend to trample all over me! I'm exaggerating, but it's a sort of escapism for me to do these roles. I wish I could do more of them. Fricka has to be strong and assertive.' So does Plowright feel that because she's not like Fricka in real life, she finds it difficult to relate to her? 'No, not really, because I'm an actress. Acting is fantasy; you just do what the character demands of you. To work with Keith, you have to act. He's hand-picked the cast and I wouldn't be here if it weren't for him. We did Tosca together years ago, and although it wasn't a very happy experience for me because my voice was going through hell, what he gave me as a character was always strong. He gives you wonderful pictures to help. For instance, he told me that he walked into a room recently with Uma Thurman and the entire room gazed in wonder; that's what he wanted my entrance to be like as Tosca. That's just one of a million wonderful ideas that he gives you to think about as an actor. He's very clever - he never ceases to amaze me with what he comes up with.'
How does Plowright find the role vocally? 'When you've sung the sort of roles I sang twenty years ago - soprano Verdi parts, sitting on that high line - and then doing Amneris more recently, Fricka is not so challenging (compared with some of the things I've done in the past, at least). It would be challenging for some mezzos, maybe, but coming from the soprano area it's not so bad. It's a Zwischenfach role, for high mezzos and low sopranos, and I find it sits in a good part of my voice. I find the Rheingold Fricka a bit fragmented - it's hard every time I have to fire out the odd line because it sits on the passaggio [the break in a singer's voice between the 'chest voice' and the 'head voice']. You have to be ready to go!
'Coming back to the role of Fricka, I feel very different every time I do it. I think it's grown each time. I hope I can convey all that I feel about it - I'm really at home with it. I'd love to sing it at Bayreuth, and indeed everywhere. The problem is that I'm not as young as I used to be - not that that's affecting me, it's helping me! - but there's so much competition in the world of opera. It's a funny old industry. There are lots of mezzos out there, all vying for the same roles, and I'm lucky to be where I am. But it's so hard for up-and-coming young singers to try and get into that niche. And likewise it's hard for the older singers like myself. Another role I loved singing is Kostelnicka. I think I was put on Earth to sing this role at this point in my career, and I've done it at the Met and the Chatelet. I've been up to do it in many other places, but I always have to bow down to certain older singers. Opera houses want an older-looking woman - maybe I should let some grey hair shine through!' she laughs.
'But I do have some great things coming up. I'm singing Klytaemnestra in Seattle, a role which I know already because I was meant to be in a production this summer that was cancelled. I'm very excited about doing it, and if Fricka comes up again I'd love that too.'
Bryn Terfel's highly-publicised departure from the production of the Ring has resulted in Sir John Tomlinson taking over the role of Wotan for all three cycles. Of working with Tomlinson, Plowright says 'It's a sheer joy. He's a real Wotan; he brings to the role a wealth of experience. It's an utter privilege to perform the Ring with him and I've told him so myself.'
When the Ring operas were unveiled individually in Keith Warner's production the reviews in the press were decidedly mixed. Does Plowright think that people will appreciate it more now that it's being performed as a complete cycle? 'I have to say that a lot of the general public that I spoke to loved the production as a whole, even if they had misgivings about small aspects of it. It's just the critics who didn't love it! As it progressed, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung came off a little better in the press. I came to see those two parts even though I'm not in them, and I was dreading Siegfried because although I love the music, I had been bored out of my skull by two previous productions I'd seen. Wonderful singers, but nothing seemed to happen! But I was completely drawn in by Keith's production, and the opera went by in a flash. Keith brings you into the experience. He's changed one or two things because he didn't quite like the way they were before, but he didn't do it for the critics, and I can't really speculate how they'll react!
'I think John [Tomlinson] is part of the reason why it's so powerful. We were in the same year at college (though he's a bit older than me!). I have a wonderful recording of us doing Così fan tutte together - I'm Fiordiligi, Ann Murray is Dorabella and John is Alfonso. In the case of John and I, our voices are a bit rough round the edges; Ann's voice was lighter then and it grew in power over time (though it was always beautiful and technically perfect), and mine was in three bits - contralto at the bottom, mezzo in the middle and soprano at the top. I hadn't learnt how to use it then because I was only 21! John was this huge, booming bass, a little uncouth in parts but the potential is all there.
'My biggest regret is that John and I never worked together, apart from in Mary Stuart at ENO in 1982 (which is now available on DVD) and a few concerts. We've never worked like this in big roles together before. I'm thrilled to bits! Even when he was doing just one cycle I was thrilled, and now that he's doing them all I'm even more thrilled. I just hope he's OK; it's such a demanding role. But he said [she mimics his Lancastrian accent]: 'Oh that's nothing. In Bayreuth I did all three roles back to back on consecutive nights! As long as I stay well I'll be alright.' I think he'll be fine - us northerners are tough! I love all my colleagues in the production - for instance, we have a new Donner in Peter Coleman-Wright, and he's fabulous, too.'
Although Antonio Pappano has worked on several Ring Cycles before, this is his first time of conducting a complete new production. Plowright is full of admiration for him. 'He's a real singer's man. He has real authority. If a singer has a slight weakness or any trouble, he'll immediately help them overcome whatever it is. I was pulling back at one point without realising it, and he kept everything going. I respect him enormously. I worked with him before the Ring and I'm delighted that it's him - he's young and dynamic. He's also a workaholic - he never stops and is very intense. But he loves singers and is always with us.'
Although Rosalind Plowright has been one of the world's leading opera singers for decades now and continues to be an important figure, her first musical experiences as a child were very different. 'My father was very musical. He had a natural gift, though he wasn't trained. He played the double bass, both classically and in jazz; he loved Oscar Peterson. When I was quite young he took me to a performance of The Mikado, which he was playing in the orchestra. I knew nothing about opera, and I thought that was opera. Of course it wasn't, but the singing was operatic and the voice of Katisha particularly impressed me - a huge contralto voice. Until then I had sung like a little girl, but when I started to imitate the voice of Katisha a different sound came out. My father was so surprised that he nearly drove into the ditch! Immediately, they sent me for singing lessons. Had he not taken me to see that I don't know what would have happened, because I found my voice through imitating Katisha!'
Plowright then joined the local amateur dramatic society in Chorley, near Wigan in Lancashire, when she was living in the village of Coppull (from where, co-incidentally, soprano Amanda Roocroft comes). She then studied at the Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music). Did it give her the preparation she needed for a major international opera career? 'Yes, from the point of view that you sing operas at college, and likewise at the London Opera Centre, where I also trained. But it doesn't give you a taste of what the profession is really like. I think it was different when I began many years ago. Nowadays it seems to be tougher and more demanding. There seem to be more singers around, with nowhere to go. Directors and conductors have their own favourites, which makes it hard. If you can't get into those circles you have to take a back seat all the time. It wasn't like that when I started. Or it may have been, but because I was in demand at that time, everyone wanted me. I loved working with Jonathan Miller. I worked with him three times and each one was fabulous. I feel bitter about certain other directors, because some of the opera houses want me to do some roles but the directors overrule them. Young singers have to deal with that, too, and I have to stick to the directors that like me such as Keith, with whom I'm working again in the future. I'm not complaining really, because I'm very lucky, but you have to turn a blind eye and keep focussed on the positive.'
Many of Plowright's early successes were at English National Opera, with whom she debuted as Rossweisse in The Rheingold while still studying at the London Opera Centre in the 1970s. She went on to cover the role of the Countess in Figaro, and got to go on one night when Valerie Masterson cancelled, though her official debut was as the Page in Salome. Did she feel like she had 'arrived' when she had started to sing at ENO? 'Not at all. I just treated it as a step forward. I don't think I truly arrived until I did the Desdemona in 1981. Before that, I'd done The Turn of the Screw with Jonathan Miller. But that first night of Otello was like my real London debut. People kept asking where I'd come from, but I'd been around for years! The beginning of the 1980s was my heyday - the first five years. Then I had my kids towards the end of the decade and things began to change.'
Plowright started having difficulties with her voice in the late 1980s and struggled with some of the roles in which she had previously excelled; a major recording project was abandoned. How crushing was this major blow to her career? 'Well it didn't happen all at once. It was an ongoing thing. Some performances were agony. When you know you're not singing well, it affects the way you act. But I kept fighting it because I knew it must end, and I kept trying to find different teachers. Eventually I did find somebody in 1994. She was an old friend. She repaired my voice; she couldn't put it back the way it was before, but it certainly needed repairing because I'd had some very bad advice from other teachers. I had tension which caused a blood blister on my vocal cords. Ultimately, that took away the high float that you have to have to sing the high Verdi roles. You have to be able to sit on the A and B flat very effortlessly. I never really got that back, though occasionally I can do it on my own in private. But when your confidence has been so badly hit, you can't do it in public any more. So I went for the other roles that don't require you to do that. Then I was doing Il tabarro at ENO in 1998, and Richard Armstrong heard me and offered me Amneris with Scottish Opera. I was very excited about that prospect.
'The other thing about going from being a soprano to a mezzo is that you always dread what people will say. "Oh, she's just a soprano without a top", that sort of thing. But having had a lot of mezzo in my roots, I didn't worry about it after a while. Once I'd done Amneris, I realised it didn't matter. When you listen to dramatic mezzos and dramatic sopranos in that repertory - and even some Wagner roles like Ortrud and Fricka - there's a similarity. Listen to Lisa Gasteen; she's got an incredibly rich, fruity middle. I can still go up, and I love going down - you should hear my Klytaemnestra! I've always had that chest register; I can sing a C below middle C. In a free voice, even a light soprano should be able to go down.
'The crisis knocked my confidence terribly, of course. I always kept going. I'm a fighter. I've had knocks. I still do. But you just have to rise above it and carry on.'
A different aspect of Plowright's career has been as a television and theatre actress, with a particularly prominent appearance in the BBC drama The House of Elliott. Is this something she'd like to return to? 'I would love to. I would love to act more. My passion is the theatre. I go a lot - I'm going to see Nicholas Nickleby and we go to Stratford six or seven times a year. Willard White got to do Othello. I'd love to do Lady Macbeth or Goneril. The theatre is very much in my blood and I think somewhere down the line I'm related to Joan Plowright! For me, the voice was just a way of getting on the stage. Sometimes I envy actors because they can just go on and talk. And I'd love to present in front of the camera - it would be great to interview singers on the television or something like that.' She also loves giving vocal masterclasses. 'I get a buzz out of being in front of an audience. I'm not frightened by an audience; I like to bring them in.'
Finally, what would she like to do in the future? 'I would love to sing Amneris again. I'd love to do it here at Covent Garden - it would be wonderful. The depth of that music is extraordinary. I'd also love to do Ortrud and more Frickas; and it would be great to do the Principessa in Adriana Lecouvreur again. I did it at Opera Holland Park. The foremost role I'd like to play is Kostelnicka, as well as Kabanicha; those are the two main ones. The Countess in The Queen of Spades would also be good. Singers of my age have to be patient; the time will come.'
Rosalind Plowright OBE appears in The Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House in October 2007. Her website is available at www.rosalindplowright.co.uk.
Read other recent interviews with singers such as Susan Graham, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.