Any regular operagoer in the UK over the last five years will have noticed the further ascent of that rare commodity - an English star soprano able to hold her own in almost any major role and in any major international company. Claire Rutter, now in the prime of her singing life (she is in her early forties) has garnered rave reviews for roles as diverse as Fiordiligi (at Dallas Opera, a string of performances that earned her a nomination for the Maria Callas Award), Norma (at Grange Park, the stand-out performance in the 2009 season) and Lucrezia Borgia (at ENO last year, where one critic for a national daily said simply “her singing blew me away” and another described her as “the most underrated opera singer on the British scene today”). So it comes as a welcome surprise, catching her for a few minutes in the idyllic surroundings of the Grange at Northington, where this year’s Grange Park opera festival is about to begin, to find a calm, funny, bubbly and down to earth singer who in real life is about as far removed from some of the divas she plays onstage as it is possible to get.
I started by asking her to tell me about preparing for the role of Cio Cio San – Puccini’s young, vulnerable, innocent heroine so cruelly deceived by the US Navy lieutenant who weds her, beds her and then leaves her to her own devices until the shattering denouement of the piece in Act Three. How has Rutter approached the challenge? “Well, I started my preparations a couple of months ago, fully aware and regularly reminded by my coach that the role is very different to Tosca” (which Rutter sang with huge success at Grange Park in 2010). “The first thing to do with the voice was to clean it all up, to start with the simple, innocent sound that a very young person would produce. Mind you – just as an aside – Puccini actually wrote the role for a big voice and although it is not that demanding technically, it calls for big reserves of stamina and, just like Verdi’s Gilda, the ability to sing clearly over a big orchestra!” Nobody who has heard Rutter in the theatre recently would doubt her ability to do just that, but how does she create both the purity of line and sound that Cio Cio San should have and the vocal sound that can cut through Puccini’s exotic orchestration? “Ah, you didn’t allow me to finish the answer! So I start with the cleanest, clearest vocal production that I can achieve, and then gradually I start to put in some richness, a bit more portamento, the light and shade – in the voice – that the role requires. I am lucky to have a conductor who is brilliant at working with his singers, and who is in sympathy with what I am trying to achieve”. The conductor in question, Gianluca Marciano, has proved his credentials at Grange Park already (I praised his fine, idiomatic conducting of Tosca in 2010 and he went on to conduct it at sister venue Nevill Holt last year) and his reading of Madama Butterfly is certain to be of interest. So far, so promising.
But what about the move away from the bel canto of Bellini, for which Rutter is justly admired, to the verismo of Puccini, which must surely call for something different in the voice? Rutter’s answer surprises me. “You know what, I would say there is actually more bel canto in the part of Cio Cio San than what I would call big verismo. When you look at what Puccini has actually written for Cio Cio San to sing, and when you research the singers he wrote it for, you make some surprising discoveries. I’ve gone back to the English soprano Florence Easton, who was one of the first ever to sing the role, and she was a big lyric, dramatic soprano who sang everything from Wagner to Verdi to all the bel canto roles. Puccini actually wrote the part of Lauretta for her, in Gianni Schicci, and I think she was the second Cio Cio San at the Met, taking over just after the premiere”. In fact Easton went on to sing Madama Butterfly more than 300 times, whilst singing Wagner in Berlin and being taught the role of Elektra by no less a mentor than Richard Strauss for the work’s English premiere in 1910! So huge vocal versatility there.
And Rutter expands. “To produce beautiful vocal sound, or bel canto, you basically use the same technique, whatever the role. What is different between Puccini and Bellini, say, is that in Puccini you sing the emotion of the character through the voice whereas in Bellini you concentrate on singing the line and making the sound, overlaying the characterization on top of it. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but that is what I do”. In fact it makes perfect sense, and underlines one of the reasons that Rutter is such an exciting singer: she thinks clearly about what she wants to try to achieve in a role, before going onstage and delivering. As we discuss this, she thinks of a further point – the physical preparation for her role as Cio Cio San, the expression through body language and movement of the character she is trying to portray. “I should have mentioned this earlier, but I find the approach taken by the director, John Doyle, very rewarding. It is simple story-telling, with slow moves and everything coordinated. I am really enjoying the whole experience”.
A singer’s career is constantly in a state of development, of course, and I ask Rutter about her voice in general. Is it changing? “Of course – it changes all the time, and you have to be aware of that, and work at what is happening. Not long ago I wanted to look at the bottom of my voice, so I went back to Laura Sarti” (the distinguished mezzo soprano who has taught for many years at the Guildhall, where Rutter studied before her year at the National Opera School at the outset of her professional career). “She advised me incidentally not to use any chest voice for Cio Cio San. Anyway, in line with the way my voice is developing, I have had a preliminary look at Brunnhilde and I am actually going to sing my first Sieglinde in France, in Rennes next season. But I am not giving up on what has been working quite well for me – and there is I Puritani to look forward to at Grange Park next year”. Indeed there is – and all those who saw Rutter’s Norma in the same house will be there in some number for another feast of Bellini bel canto at its finest. But the move into Wagnerian roles will be quite a step – starting with the language. Rutter is unfazed: “Actually I do have some German ancestry, and I did German at A level, so I look forward to the challenge, and to the new repertoire. It’ll be new for me, but very exciting”.
There is another aspect of her career that I want to explore with Rutter – the pitfalls of two operatic careers in the same household, for she is married to the baritone Stephen Gadd and, together with their young children, they live in Winchester – slightly more than a stone’s throw from the Grange. How on earth do they manage to work things out in the classical music business, notorious for planning schedules many years in advance. Rutter laughs again. “Well, obviously something has to give. In my case, it’s the house! The children are an absolute priority of course, so we make sure that we always have excellent childcare, but the house can be a bit of a tip!” What about enticing propositions from promoters – who gets first pick? More laughter. “It’s the first actual contract that takes priority. Of course, it’s a dream situation for us here at Grange Park, because we are both in the production (Gadd is singing Sharpless) and we are so close to home. But generally speaking it all seems to work out”.
For someone within hours of assuming one of opera’s iconic roles, with all the emotional and ambientismo challenges and subtleties to portrayal of a tragic heroine under half her age, Rutter comes across as calm, determined, clear-minded and raring to go. She is singing the role in a house that loves her, and in an acoustic that will allow her gorgeously full and sumptuous voice to bloom. Grange Park is fortunate in its choice of lead soprano and audiences for the eight remaining performances are clearly in for a treat.
Madama Butterfly premiered on 31 May and runs on at the Grange Park Festival on 8, 10, 15, 17, 19, 23, 27 and 29 June 2012
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