Irish soprano Ailish Tynan is no stranger to the Royal Opera House, having spent two years there as a Young Artist between 2002 and 2004, and when we meet to discuss her latest role - Marzelline in Fidelio, which opens at Covent Garden next Sunday - she's evidently thrilled to be back with the company that fostered her artistic talent.
Apart from anything else, Tynan seems passionately enthusiastic about the role of Marzelline (though it has to be said, she's enthusiastic about most things in life - rarely have I come across a singer bursting with quite so much energy!). 'I've talked to a lot of singers who've done my role before and an awful lot of other sopranos say "I hate the part of Marzelline, it's so thankless". But I love it!' she declares in her broad Irish accent. 'From the very moment I started to learn it I knew I was going to love it. And not only do I love my role, but I love the whole thing. Normally I wouldn't listen much to opera because it's a bit of a busman's holiday, but with Fidelio I find myself recording bits of it on my minidisc, just to listen to it on the train - even parts I'm not in myself, which is very unusual for me! I think it's some of the most amazing music I've ever come across.'
The distribution of Marzelline's music through the opera is rather strange: she is in four of the first five numbers of the work, then only reappears in the two finales. Does Tynan have a problem with that? 'I do the opening duet, which is great fun. The guy playing Jacquino is Robert Murray. I had never met him before, but I have to say he's one of the funniest people I've ever met and is brilliant to work with. This production has been done before at the Met in New York, and when Jürgen Flimm the director came along on the first day and Rob and I started improvising the argument we have in the opening duet, he was amazed and said "We've never had this before!". Rob and I get on so well together, we were able to go hell for leather at each other!.
'Jürgen is a great director and I love the production. You know if you're working with a bad director because you have to go home at night and write every single move into the score. If things don't have any meaning, you have to note them down to remember them. But with Jürgen, he'll tell you something on the first day and you never have to think about it again because it makes so much sense. He directs from the heart and in a very realistic way. We even have real food to eat. It's great - I haven't had to eat lunch all week!'
'It's hard work at the beginning. I do the duet, which is very physical, and then I have the aria, which also has a lot of business going on at the same time as it. Then, I have the quartet, which is in a completely different mood. That's the thing with Beethoven - nearly every single piece of music in this piece is almost in a different style to the others. It starts off very Mozartian in the opening duet, and it's only by the trio that it feels truly Beethovenian. Then there's the quartet ['Mir ist so wunderbar'], which I think is the most beautiful quartet ever written. I open that, which is lovely! Then there's the trio, and basically after that I go off and have a cup of tea and a little chocolate cake! But I do quite a lot in the finales, too.'
Tynan seems genuinely delighted to be back at Covent Garden. 'I can't tell you how great it is to be back. While I was a Young Artist, it became like a family to me. When I come back now, I know everybody from the woman who works in the mail room right up to Tony Pappano. I've worked with some other great opera companies - WNO was wonderful, and Seattle was really lovely - but for me, because I spent two years here, it feels like coming home.'
What does she feel her time as a Young Artist gave her? 'I think it gave me a sense of discipline, and a real polish. To have every single aspect of your singing looked after, from language to vocal production - they even taught us fencing and give people free gym classes now - it's amazing. In other houses, they overuse the young artists, when that time should be for you to discover yourself and focus on developing your talent. Here, they give you the smaller roles so you can see how it all works but you're also working on bigger roles behind the scenes.'
Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera, is also the conductor for this new production of Fidelio and Tynan describes working with him as being like 'Heaven on a stick - I'm lost for words, and this is very unusual for me! I've seldom met people who have more energy than me, yet Tony Pappano seems to top me on the energy stakes. He is so passionate about the music and gives so much attention to detail. I sang three notes the other day and he gave me a comment - and I had to laugh, because only he would do that. I really love that. Tony goes into every single little detail and leaves no stone unturned. It's not because he wants it all to be about him or because he's a control freak. It's because of his passion and his strong ideas - and he has such a great way of doing it. The man's a genius - his dad was a singing teacher and he is such a singer's conductor. When you're on stage, it is like he's singing every single note along with you, as if you have a little Tony sitting on your shoulder, duetting with you! Pam his wife is the coach on it, and she's fabulous too. They're on the same wavelength, and to have them both is wonderful.'
Next year, Tynan is appearing as the Woodbird in the Ring Cycle and is going on to Stockholm, where she has previously appeared with the Nash Ensemble on tour. 'Then I'm off to Houston to do Héro in Béatrice et Bénédict with Joyce DiDonato as Béatrice. A while back, we were both doing recitals at the Wigmore Hall. She was rehearsing on the ground floor while I was on the first floor. I ran into her in the corridor and I think she thought I was someone just working at the Wigmore so I went up to her and said, 'I'm going to be your Héro!' She was lovely and it's going to be a great production.
'But working with Karita [Mattila, the Leonore in this production of Fidelio] - wow! She is so, so lovely. She came up to me the other day and told me she had a bit of hay fever, and I was thinking "Oh, no!". Then she stood up on stage and sang like a goddess, and I thought "Oh my God! If I could sing like that even without hay fever I would be happy!" She's absolutely lovely to me, a very good colleague on stage. She is riveting to watch, a natural stage animal, and she's incredible looking in real life, too. Yesterday I said to her, "If you really were a bloke [in the opera, Leonore dresses up as a man to save her lover], I would be madly in love with you!"'.
Later this year, Tynan has two big new recordings coming out in the shops. One is a disc of songs by Herbert Hughes on the Signum label, which came about after a conversation with her frequent accompanist Iain Burnside, while the other is Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock, which was recorded live last year at the Wigmore Hall. The Hughes seems a project particularly close to the singer's heart, as it consists of arrangements of Irish folk songs. Since winning the BBC Singer of the World Rosenblatt Recital Prize in Cardiff, Tynan has been in particular demand for her performances of Lieder, and is full of praise for Ian Rosenblatt, who both sponsored the prize and invited her to give two concerts in his Rosenblatt Recital series. 'He's an amazing man who's absolutely passionate about opera. I'm doing another Rosenblatt Recital next year, and I've managed to convince him to let me do Shostakovich's Alexander Blok songs, which require a piano trio. He's also kindly paid for the commission of a new fantastic piece by Judith Weir for soprano and cello for the same recital. Ian's a wonderful patron of the arts.'
Beethoven's Fidelio opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 27 May 2007.
Ailish Tynan appears at the Wigmore Hall on 4 February 2008 and at St John's Smith Square as part of the Rosenblatt recital series on 5 March 2008.
She also sings the role of the Woodbird in The Ring at Covent Garden in Autumn 2007.