As some welcome light relief after a month's worth of contemporary operas by Birtwistle and Neuwirth, English National Opera will open a new production of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow on 26 April. A perennial favourite with audiences, the operetta brings together veteran director John Copley with an all-star cast headed by soprano Amanda Roocroft as Hanna, and tenors John Graham Hall and Alfie Boe as Danilo and Camille de Rossillon, respectively. Completing the cast are popular actor Roy Hudd as Njegus, ENO favourite Richard Suart as Baron Zeta and mezzo-soprano Fiona Murphy as Valencienne. I caught up with Amanda Roocroft, one of Britain's best-loved opera singers, to ask her about her approach to the piece, her forthcoming engagements and her career to date.
Roocroft is well known for her assumptions of roles such as Tchaikovsky's Tatyana, Mozart's Fiordiligi and Verdi's Desdemona – the cornerstones of the soprano repertoire. So why The Merry Widow? 'Because they asked me!' she laughs. 'And I said yes. It seemed like a great idea. I did find it tricky finding the right piece to do at ENO in English, and I thought this would be great fun. It's so not what I've done before and I like a challenge.' Is she going to do more? 'I don't know, depends if I'm asked,' she answers candidly. 'Maybe I could do Rosalinde in Fledermaus. But let's see how successful I am in Merry Widow first!'
What does she think of her character? 'She's wonderful. She's down-to-earth, normal, natural. She's come into money – no disrespect to Essex ladies, but she's not an Essex girl, she's not nouveau riche. She's from Coppull [the Lancashire village where Roocroft was born]! She has airs and graces, but she's not above herself. She's a lovely, fun, friendly, open-hearted person who's desperately in love with Count Danilo.' Does she associate with Hanna as a person, then? 'I do, actually. Well, I can't say I'm lovely, it's not British! But yes – she likes to have a party, and she likes to chat, she likes to have friends, she likes to include people, she's interested in people. But she's in love with this one person and she's got great determination – she means to get him. I think we all know from the word go that the two of them love each other – they know it too; it's just a question of who's going to say it first. And I'm certain it's not going to be me because that's not polite – the man's got to do it!'
The Merry Widow is sometimes used as a vehicle for sopranos at the end of their careers, but ENO seems to have gone for a more youthful – and therefore credible – piece of casting in this production. 'Well yes, she is meant to be young,' Roocroft answers. 'Sometimes you find older sopranos doing these grande dame kinds of role. But no: the story is that she is a young farmer's daughter, she fell in love with Danilo, then she went off and married this seventy year old man and during the honeymoon he died!' The soprano finds it hard to suppress her laughter. 'It says a lot for her, doesn't it? So she's got to be young. And the whole story takes place during quite a short period: the time between Hanna and Danilo separating and her becoming a widow is quite short.'
Does she find the music easier to sing than one of her standard soprano roles? 'It's not to be taken lightly; you mustn't just throw it off. It's valid music and it has its moments. What I do find a challenge is speaking and then singing. My speaking voice is quite low and then I have to sing in a different vocal position. I'm trying to balance the two and lift my speaking voice so that there's not so big a gap.'
What's the production going to be like? 'Lovely!' she exclaims. 'And beautiful. And it's as lavish as ENO will allow. John [Copley, the director] has a fabulous designer and the costumes are divine. The set is beautiful and I'm sure the lighting will be too.'
When I ask Roocroft about the tone of the production, she answers: 'You mustn't take it too seriously, but it's definitely a story of Hanna and Danilo coming together. It's a love story, and we have the other peripheral stories going on around us. Because they love each other and have both been hurt, it's very heart-warming when they come together. They're dealing with their pain in different ways. He went off and slept around and wasted his money; she went off and married a seventy year old and killed him on their honeymoon! There is this poignancy in their yearning for each other, to break down the walls that have been built up between them.'
She has nothing but praise for her co-stars. 'They're all gorgeous, without exception. Johnny and I have worked together before, and his character was really nasty to mine – we did Peter Grimes and he was Bob Boles, and he was screaming at me all the time – but now we're making love and it's fun! It's a real diversion for both of us. We're finding our way together. Alfie Boe I know because he's from our neck of the woods – in fact he lived in my house with us for a while when he was doing Boheme at Glyndebourne. So I know him. I didn't know Fiona before but she's great fun. The conductor's a lovely guy, too – very accommodating and gentle.'
What's her relationship with ENO like? 'I hadn't worked with them for fourteen years until I did Jenufa a year and a half ago. But I really can't fault them; they were absolutely fantastic. They looked after us, the crew was very professional and the backstage, wardrobe and make-up people were stunning, so I have no complaints. And I was in a fabulous production that won prizes.'
And she did too, I remind her gently. She blushes and looks shy, burying her head in the salad she's eating for lunch. How did she feel about winning the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for her appearance in Jenufa? 'Absolutely gob-smacked. I've had a strange relationship with the press. The audience were gorgeous and really friendly, and they loved the show, which was good. But then it's different if the press like you. To get that positive response from them, and then to vote for me, was absolutely gob-smacking. I was thrilled, totally thrilled. And you think gosh, this is why you continue to work: to get that kind of recognition from the press. Then you also have to be careful not to take it too seriously because if you take the good seriously, you also have to take the bad seriously, so there's a balance. But it was lovely to have worked hard, to be appreciated and then to be recognised.'
Roocroft explains that music was part of her life from the very beginning. When I ask her when she first heard music, she answers: 'In my mummy's tummy. She's a pianist and she taught piano. After my brother was born she chose not to take the platform and she taught. Then she would play for the local singers in concerts. I decided that's what I wanted to do, though I also played the piano and in a brass band. My brother played first and I decided that what he could do, I could do. And we all joined in: my mum conducted, my dad played, my brother played. It was a real family affair. But singing was always what I enjoyed the most – the opportunity to be someone else. You're allowed to show off as somebody else! That's where my love of singing came from, and I've never really deviated.'
So she never considered doing anything else. 'Both my parents were teachers, and I was so incredibly proud that they were. I love singing myself: there's something in me that has that nature, so I thought I might teach. When I was eight I announced I was going to be an opera singer, and I didn't deviate from that. Then when I got into the Royal Northern College of Music, I never really imagined I was actually going to be an opera singer. I thought well, I'm not bright enough to do an academic degree, so I'll go to music college to stay out of the workforce for a little longer! And I thought that after four years, when I'd finished I would set up a music school with my mum. We could both teach brass and I could teach singing and she could teach piano. But fate dictated otherwise.'
But surely she doesn't regret her career? 'I wouldn't change anything. Not even the bad things. You can't, because then you wouldn't have the good bits. I had it pretty easy to begin with, which is partly why I think the press decided to knock me down. And now, I think they had cause for some of it. I think sometimes it was unfair and it became very personal, and you've no way of answering back. But at the same time, I can see why they might ask why this twenty-four year old would make her Covent Garden debut when there are thirty-four year olds who are equally as good. But you have to say that time will tell: I'm still here, thankfully, enjoying it more than ever, and so I wouldn't change anything.'
Whilst at the RNCM, Amanda Roocroft received rave reviews in the national press, who hailed her as an important new talent – an almost unprecedented gesture. How did she feel about the positive reaction to her at such an early age? 'Well, I didn't expect anything to be said. So it was surprising. And therefore I thought I could be one of those flash in the pans – a three-minute wonder – and then it'll be somebody else. But it did disturb me; I wasn't banking on that kind of attention, and it took time to get used to people asking me what I have for breakfast and what I keep in my handbag! It's taken me twenty years.'
Happily, British audiences have plenty of opportunities to experience Roocroft's talent in the coming months, including visits to ENO. 'I'm coming back twice. I'm doing Jenufa again, which I'm excited about. It's a completely different cast, which is slightly disturbing because everybody in that production without exception was good. So now we've got to rebuild from scratch, which could go one way or the other, but I can't wait. And I'm doing Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes with the guy who did Laca with me in Jenufa, so we already have a bond and I think he's going to be great. I've only sung Ellen once before but I enjoyed it. She's very restrained but very strong. She keeps that strength throughout: she's Peter's rock. She desperately wants to save him and have children and have a normal life. And she's slightly on the outside also. She's not like the rest of them. When you stand out from your peers, there's that desire to want to be like them, and at the same time an understanding that you can never possibly be like them.' Jenufa is another character with whom she closely identifies. 'She's fabulous. I love her. She's a great character: very rounded. You go on a journey with her. She's put upon and yet she's got this inner steel through her: everything's thrown at her but she bounces back and manages to find her way. And so it's a happier end than it might have been, so yes, I like her.'
She's also doing another Janacek piece, the rarely-heard Osud, at the Proms this summer. 'I've listened to it and I die in the second act. That's as much as I know at the moment! It's lovely to be doing Janacek again, though, and it's lovely to be doing it with Jiri Belohlavek. We did Jenufa together at Glyndebourne and I adore him. It was one of my happiest times. He has no ego, he loves the music, he loves music making, he listens, he's respectful. And everything he says is valid and encouraging. He's not a bully: he's a perfect gentleman.'
Another highlight of the 2008-09 season for Roocroft is the opportunity to play Desdemona in a new production of Otello at WNO, opposite Dennis O'Neill. It's one of the soprano's favourite parts. 'Well she's a bit of a pawn, as many Verdi females are. She facilitates the men. She's central to it, but she's pushed around from man to man to create the story. I think that's why he likes her. Gilda is the same, or Elisabetta or Violetta. Their actions dictate the men's actions, whereas the Puccini heroines dictate their own destinies. She's moved, and that means that the man moves this way, the course of action goes that way. Violetta decides that she's going to let Alfredo go, then the whole story is shifted. The same with Desdemona. But with Butterfly, she decides she's going to stay so the whole story goes that way; Mimi knocks on the door, she determines her fate. Desdemona's a great character though: she's so open-hearted and trusting, and gentle. She can't understand how this could happen. And the music of course is wonderful.' Does she find it satisfying to sing, even though it's not the biggest role in the repertoire? 'Yes, because she's got a good bit waiting for her at the end!' Of Butterfly at WNO, she says 'I'm really happy to do that; I love her. It's one of my most favourite parts to sing and it seemed to go down really well both at Covent Garden and at the Welsh.'
When I ask her if there are any new parts she'd really like to do, Roocroft's answer is refreshingly level-headed, in contrast to the ambitiousness of some young singers. 'I'm very happy with the way things are going at the moment for me, vocally and personally. I feel like I've turned another corner and I'd like to do all the same roles again, but do them better. I'm different technically and I've got a different outlook on life in general. I'd love to have ago at Rusalka. And Manon Lescaut. That's a great piece – my third child, Matthew, was born while I was listening to the duet from it. I'd love to play Violetta but I think it's one of those roles where you have to tell yourself it's not really suitable. I'd like to do all the Mozart roles again – the Countess, Elvira, Fiordiligi – I can't think of any reason why I shouldn't do them. There's a danger with some things that you think, well, I'd like to play the part, like I'd love to be Violetta, but I know I wouldn't be able to sing it as well as I'd like to. I'd love to play the part of Carmen, but that's not going to happen! There's a difference between wanting to play the role and knowing your limitations. You have to try and bear in mind that you might sing something better later on when you're more secure vocally. And it's a two-way thing. The management shouldn't offer you the wrong role, and then at the same time you have to be able to say you're not ready for it yet. Although I was criticised at the beginning of my career, the stuff I did was all within my reach, on the whole. My debut was Pamina, which was right at the age of twenty-four. I also did Handel. And I think on the whole that the management was very responsible, particularly at Covent Garden where Peter Katona nurtured me through. I sang there annually for sixteen years and I think he did a fabulous job, I'm very grateful.' But she's nothing coming up there in the future? 'No, but I haven't got time to be honest! I'm doing other stuff, which is nice.'
Roocroft is also preparing to take the role of Countess Madeleine in a new production of Richard Strauss' Capriccio for Opera North. Any more Strauss on the horizon? 'It's a bit like The Merry Widow: I've made the decision to try it and I'll have to see where it takes me. But I'm happier doing the Countess than the Marschallin. There aren't so many people doing Capriccio so there are fewer expectations than there would be if I were to do Rosenkavalier. People expect more mature ladies in big dresses and I don't see her that way. So I either have to be very brave and play her as a thirty-three year old, or wait until I'm fifty.
'I'd love to do Arabella, though. I could still play her as a youngish person. But the opportunities to do it are rare. I was asked to do it at Covent Garden at twenty-nine with Bryn [Terfel] – there's a fabulous couple! – and we both had to pull out. He wasn't prepared for it vocally, and I'd just had a baby and there was no way I was fit enough to do it. It was a chance missed, really. I'd love to do it.'
Roocroft recently became Professor of Vocal Studies at the Royal College of Music. 'I find it really enjoyable. I worry that because I'm working so much, I can't give a regular time, and that bothers me. I know how it would have affected me as a student. But I find it really absorbing. It's a real challenge: you're up against people who think they know it all already and you have to persuade them that while they know an awful lot, there are maybe other things they could learn. You can't just tell them to do it your way or leave; you've got to think of an encouraging and persuasive way of doing it. Or sometimes you have to tell them something they simply do not understand and you have to find a way of saying it that inspires them to do it for themselves. I love it, and eventually I'd like to do a lot more. I've also done some masterclasses, which are great fun.'
Just before Christmas, Roocroft released a new CD on the Onyx Classics label – her first solo disc for many years. The critics lavished praise upon it, with more than one awarding it five stars out of five. 'I chose the repertoire because I like it and I'm comfortable with – it was my first recital disc so that was important. Malcolm and I know each other really well so we know we can make it up and it'll be different every time.' When I tell her how much I enjoyed the Tchaikovsky tracks on the disc, she replies: 'Yes, I love the language – the Slavic languages seem to suit me.' The CD has a family connection, too: her brother Anthony designed the album cover. 'I'm very proud of him. He did a fantastic job: I hate having my photograph taken. I'd rather strip naked and run down Oxford Street than have my photograph taken. It's so painful. For a long time, he'd said that my publicity shots were rubbish and that I should let him take some. So when this project came about, he said he knew a good photographer and that he'd direct me. He brought my sister-in-law along, who's like my sister, and that made me relaxed. So there were more good shots than bad ones, which is unheard of! I don't photograph well.' Any more in the pipeline? 'There's talk of an English disc. That would be nice – it's not what you hear me do. And I am British, so it would be good.'
Any other ambitions? 'I try not to plan too far ahead: I deal with what I've got and I'm grateful for that. You can end up wishing life away, and I've got to a stage now where I'm halfway through it so it's a case of putting the brakes on a bit! In truth, if I could stay as happy as I am now, that would be my ambition. There are small things, of course. I'd like to travel without having to sing, but we all have that.'
I push her and ask if there are really no other ambitions she has professionally. 'I'd be very nervous about doing La Scala. I'd quite like to go back to the Met. When the boys are grown up, I'd like to go to America and work there. But I can't do that at the moment, even if they wanted me. I'd be away from them too long. There's also Vienna, for instance – I know these are all places I should sing in. But in a way, I'm not too bothered: I'm very competitive with myself, so wherever I am it has to be the best I can do, even if it's just the church concert. I don't collect houses or awards, it's not what I'm interested in.'
As my conversation with Roocroft – who has been charming, witty and down-to-earth throughout – comes to an end, I ask her what she would like to be remembered for. The answer is typically straighforward. 'Being a good mum and a good daughter. And a nice friend.'
Amanda Roocroft sings Hanna in The Merry Widow with English National Opera from 26 April. She returns as Jenufa and Ellen Orford next season, and will appear at the Proms in Osud and at WNO as Desdemona in September 2008.