Interview: Janice Watson sings the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at ENO

'She's quite a tragic character in a way: she's got everything – the looks, beautiful costumes, a wonderful palace, plenty of people to be with – but she hasn't got a husband who loves her.'

15 May 2008

Janice WatsonAs part of the company's expansion of its core repertoire, next week sees a new production of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier at English National Opera. David McVicar will direct an all-star cast headed by Sir John Tomlinson, Sarah Connolly, and Janice Watson as the Marschallin, one of Strauss' most beautifully written but taxing roles.

For Watson, one of the country's most distinguished opera singers and a Grammy Award-winning soprano, it represents a return to a favourite part by a composer whose music she perhaps enjoys singing more than any other. And, as I discover when I meet up with her to discuss the new production, the character of the Marschallin is one with which she has come to feel increasing empathy.

'She's a great lady,' she tells me. 'She's quite a tragic character in a way: she's got everything – the looks (possibly!), beautiful costumes, a wonderful palace, plenty of people to be with – but she hasn't got a husband who loves her. She has got a husband, but he's off hunting all the way through the opera, so that's no good! Therefore, she's always looking for a young man to satisfy her needs. That's very, very sad, and during the course of the opera she starts to realise that she needs to grow up.'

I ask Watson how old she thinks the Marschallin is, since it's a part that is often played by singers of various ages. 'I think if you were to put her in today's terms, she's about forty-five. In terms of when it was written, I would say she's about thirty-five. So she's too old to have children – just – but young enough to want to still have fun.' Do you have to be young to want to have fun? 'Well, no. I mean she still wants to have physical fun and to try new things and enjoy life. That makes me sound very staid, doesn't it?'

Is Watson not going to want to have sex in thirty years' time, I jest? 'Well yes, I probably will, but I think with the Marschallin, she doesn't have any fun but she needs to because she's still quite young. She's young in her mind, as well. And she's also young in her moral perception of things. So if you like, she's quite a Women's Libber.'

Janice Watson as the Marchallin in the 2002-3 revival of Der Rosenkavalier in the old Jonathan Miller production at ENOIt's nice to have someone young playing her, because very often divas hang onto it until the bitter end, I comment. 'Well you don't know how old I am, do you!' she laughs. 'I'm certainly not sixty-five – I'm at least twenty years younger than that. But I do think that it's a difficult part because lots of it needs weight in the middle of the voice, and that often comes with experience and age. But you also need to be able to centre your tone and make the fast-moving passages very clean so that they can be heard. For me, I sang it about six years ago and it was fine, but I prefer singing it now. On the other hand, the high things are harder in it, and I don't prefer that. The more you weight the middle of your voice to sing the fast patter passages and the arias, the harder the quiet high stuff becomes, but that's the way things go with the muscles whilst singing. I'm doing slightly heavier parts nowadays so it works well for me now, though.'

The Marschallin doesn't sing at all during Act II of Der Rosenkavalier and only reappears in the middle of Act III. Watson describes how the distribution of the character's music across the opera affects the way she paces herself through it. 'If you think about it, look at Salome – it's only an hour and three quarters long. The first act of Rosenkavalier is an hour and ten minutes long, so it's a very big section. I'm quite happy to have the second act off; it's hard to re-energise yourself for the last act, but you don't actually have that much to do at the end. There's always a lot of focus on the big trio, of course, but the bits before it don't involve a huge amount of singing. So you only have to keep back a little energy for the end. The whole story works because of the trio. But it's a strange distribution of material in some ways and I keep waiting for a director to turn round and say "You're in the second act, too" and have her knitting at the back of the stage or something!'

Does Rosenkavalier represent a retrograde step into nineteenth-century romanticism for Strauss after the modernism of Salome and Elektra? 'Not at all. If you're talking about the musicality, the musical structure, the way the orchestral parts are written, it's very modern. It moves so quickly through keys. It's like modern jazz, almost – you move so quickly through lots of keys. The story is very romantic, of course – historical and normal.'

Janice Watson as the Marchallin in the 2002-3 revival of Der Rosenkavalier in the old Jonathan Miller production at ENOBut the Marschallin and Octavian are in bed together at the beginning, I point out. 'They are indeed, and the prelude to the opera is obviously a very physical, sexual piece of music, which is fabulous, but you don't really see anything. I've heard of early stagings in England where they had the two of them stand by the side of the bed rather than in it; you can do what you like with it. But I think Strauss did the right thing in writing something so incredibly voluptuous at the beginning, and then it moves on from that. The music is a lot more descriptive than anything anyone could do onstage in that situation. That part of the piece is particularly fabulous, I think.

'I remember getting terrible cramp in my foot while kneeling on the bed last time we did it here. The wonderful Jonathan Miller production [pictured right] had a very large bed and I didn't know what I could do about this pain in the arch of my foot. I just had to tell myself to keep breathing and eventually it did subside, but it was a tricky one. This new production is a little more relaxed sexually: they are in bed, I'm dressed in a sheet, but it's not crude in any way because Strauss is just not crude. He could never be crude.'

Watson is hugely enthusiastic about the new production. 'It's very sympathetic to the libretto. There isn't a single thing in it that's wrong. David McVicar's direction is fantastic. It's so accurate, and he really does know how to work it to draw out of it what's needed for the best. Rosenkavalier can become quite boring if you're not careful – heavy, overlong, patches where you keep waiting for the next scene to come – but David's done a fantastic job with it. It's alive and I think the audience will love it.' Watson's co-stars, too, come in for praise from the soprano. 'Sarah Connolly is fantastic. She's very strong as a person – she's stronger than me, I have to say. She's someone for whom I have great admiration: she knows herself, and if she has any self-doubt, we never see any of it. She's a wonderful artist and actor. Doing the part at the beginning with her is not yucky or anything – it's just acting and we go through with it. It's just quite close and nice. We've worked together before, so we know each other and it was easy. Then we have Sir John Tomlinson, who is lovely. I don't know where he gets his energy from: he's phenomenal. I find when I'm rehearsing, I can't put 100% of my energy in for six hours a day; it's too difficult physically, mentally and vocally. So I tend to mark here and there, both vocally and emotionally, and I might not do certain things that I will put in the performance. I just can't do it. But Sir John seems to be able to put 100% in, 100% of the time. I love working with him, he's amazing.'

Janice Watson has just sung the role of Fiordiligi in a new recording of Così fan tutte on the Chandos label, and she explains that it was a return to a part she's known well for years. 'I first sang it in about 1989, a long time ago, at Welsh National Opera. I used the 'Come scoglio' aria for many auditions when I was first starting out. Sir Charles Mackerras decided first of all to do a highlights recording, but because we were so quick we recorded extra, then eventually it became a full-length recording. That was very good, because although there are so many recordings, it's lovely to have something that's so complete by Sir Charles at this point, with one of his favourite librettos. He's used an old translation by a man called Marmaduke Browne, which is a bit quaint but it works well with the piece.'

Does she mind singing foreign-language operas in English? 'It's tricky. I find I'm always in it as it is; I try not to harp back to something else that's happened. So for instance, I used to do Micaela in both French and English, and it doesn't bother me that much. There are pros to the English, for instance you know that the audience can hear and understand what you're saying at the point you say it and you know the jokes will work, rather than have them laugh at jokes in advance of them being sung because of the surtitles. I always try to just deal with what I've got at that point. So for Chandos and ENO, I'm very happy to sing in English, but I love to sing in the original language as well. As of yet, I haven't performed the Marschallin in German, which probably makes it a bit easier for me to do this Rosenkavalier in English.'

Janice Watson as Ellen Orford with Ben Heppner as Grimes at Covent Garden in 2003But she agrees that the Hofmannsthal is very beautiful in the original German. 'Oh, stunning, I love Hofmannsthal. All of his operas have such incredible depth and character, and fun, and sorrow. He was such an amazing writer. I'm so glad that Strauss and Hofmannsthal got on well and that the relationship developed in the way it did because we would be so lacking in good librettos for Strauss otherwise! I don't think I've ever had any doubt about it, whether I've sung it in English or German. It's all so perfect.'

Arabella is another of Janice Watson's great Strauss roles. 'The first time I did it was in San Francisco, then in Santa Fe and later in Munich. I haven't done it for a couple of years, but I'd love to do it again; these things go in waves, where you do a role several times, then you don't do it again for several years. I remember a terrible thing happened in the Munich production. There's a point where Arabella's given a glass of champagne to drink. Usually it's a plastic glass and someone puts a bit of fizzy lemonade or Shloer or something in it. In rehearsal, we'd never had any fluid in it, so I'd pretend to down it and then carry on rehearsing. But at the first performance, the man came along and filled it right to the top and I only had half a bar in which to drink it! So I had to gulp it all down in one go and my cheeks were full of this Shloer, and some of it got into my windpipe and I started coughing and was in a terrible state! I did recover but the first half of the next phrase was a bit tricky,' she laughs.

Janice Watson as Katya Kabanova at Covent Garden in 2007'But yes, I think Arabella is a fantastic opera. It's not so real as Rosenkavalier, because it's further away from our time: a young girl being dressed up as a boy because they couldn't afford to have two daughters. It's real, but it takes more believing with the three men all coming in and wooing Arabella, and then she meets the strange man, Mandryka, on the street corner. It seems slightly hard to reach in a truthful way, but perhaps it's partly to do with my age. And of course, Rosenkavalier has more of a Viennese influence, lots of waltzing in the background, and it very much suits the Ochs character – the red-faced man who thinks he's in control of everything, very thick-skinned. Arabella just doesn't have that character, so it's not so extreme in a way. But I still feel more distant from Arabella than I do from the Marschallin because I'm getting older and I keep thinking "Look at those wrinkles!"', she jokes.

Next year, Watson will sing Elisabetta in Don Carlos at Opera North for the first time. 'It's not that I haven't wanted to venture into Verdi,' she explains. 'It's more that I've been very busy and so many things have come up that I've had to pick the right ones. I don't really have a hefty voice and singing Salome took me to 99.8% - it was such a difficult role to do. You need to know yourself very well and know how far you can push yourself physically, mentally and vocally. You need to have a very good conductor who understands Strauss when doing Salome. I felt that Elisabetta and the Verdi roles were something to keep a little bit longer. There's no rush. I want to do Simon Boccanegra, and like any soprano I'd love to do Otello. There have been a few offers but things haven't fitted into my diary. I've really taken the first thing that's come along that I can fit into my diary, and I'm delighted to make my first trip to Opera North.

Janice Watson as Butterfly at ENO in 2006'Although I do work abroad a lot, I'm trying to work more at home because I have a little girl and a husband and a house. I love performing abroad but for instance in America it's not so viable because the exchange rate is so bad at the moment and I don't tend to go there quite so much. Then in Europe, some of the German houses aren't thorough enough and I like to get to know my colleagues a little better and have a few weeks' rehearsal. Unless it's a new production, I tend to take other things that make me feel more comfortable, such as this Rosenkavalier where we've had a few weeks to get into it. I enjoy performing more as a result of it. I remember once doing a production in Germany and we'd had only four days' rehearsal. Half the time the other characters weren't there and by the time we went onstage, each cast member was performing his or her own version of things. For me, it didn't work. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate working there, but it's a different way of working. The Met's wonderful, too, and I love working there, but you don't get a lot of rehearsal if it's a revival particularly. So I pick very carefully what's going to suit me and what I'm going to get the best result from, and my agents at Askonas Holt have been so clever at picking carefully and helping me to have the confidence to wait for the right circumstances if I'm not going to be comfortable. That's why when I did Salome for the first time, I made sure it was going to be in a place I knew I would be relaxed, and I ensured I knew it well enough before I went. Being a mum, you have to be a bit more organised.

'But yes, Don Carlos is quite a big step for me, and I'm looking forward to it. I've listened to it several times and I've started working on it already.'

Watson has also recently done Alice Ford in Falstaff at Welsh National Opera. 'Alice is different, though; that's more of an ensemble piece. I used to come off the stage and think 'I wish I had an aria!'. But there are lots of little ariettes, and with Verdi it's more the spin in the voice that you have to work on, so that you can cut through the orchestra. Strauss is very different: you sit on the orchestra and float above them. But I'm looking forward to this Don Carlos a lot. Years ago I was offered Jerusalem, the French version of I Lombardi, with Zubin Mehta at the Vienna State Opera, but it was a huge part with only four days' rehearsal, so I decided it wasn't right for me. I've also ventured into Wagner a little bit, with Elsa in Lohengrin, and I'm going to China to do Sieglinde in Die Walküre. And next year, we're recording Ivanhoe. Something I've missed out on is operetta, which is something I used to enjoy. I always wanted to play The Merry Widow, but although I can still do it, I think with the way my voice is going it would have to be cast carefully with other people; however, it's looking good with Ivanhoe.'

When did she first hear music? 'I know that my mother and father said that I used to stand in front of the telly and sing to everyone when I was three. I have photos of me doing it! But I think all children do that, to be honest. My first real enjoyment of music came with a record that my brother and I had of The Carousel Waltz on an old 78 record. Then came Cliff Richard, and then came Donny Osmond. I used to sound just like Donny Osmond – I crooned just like him! Then I sang in school choirs and learnt to play the recorder. I used to suck my finger, quite badly, all the time, and I had a sock that I used to roll up under my teeth as my comforter. My teeth are pretty mucked up but I wanted to play an instrument, so I had to play the flute rather than the clarinet because my teeth weren't straight enough. I have such an ear for music that I learnt everything by memory just by listening to it. I learned the Brandenburg Concertos a tone too high because it was going round too fast on the record – I knew them all by memory from the records by the age of 11. Then I joined a local music group called the Harrow School of Young Musicians, which is still going strong. I ended up doing that for a few years, and I got to be with musical people and found that I felt most comfortable with them. Then I went through high school and eventually auditioned with the flute at music college.'

Janice Watson as Alice Ford opposite Bryn Terfel's Falstaff at WNO in 2008When did she decide to become a singer? 'I had a boyfriend whose father is an opera singer. The father's name was Philip Langridge, Ann Murray is his wife and Stephen Langridge, my boyfriend, is Philip's son. They said they thought I could sing but that I needed some lessons, so I got some. When I came to audition at the Guildhall, I played my flute solos and got taken on as a No. 4 flute out of two hundred, so I had a place, which is pretty good. I was never a good sight-reader, though, because I learnt everything by memory and I have quite bad astigmatism in my eyes, so sharing music parts with someone else and reading them from a distance can be quite tricky. So I started to think more about singing, and Stephen told me I should audition at college for it, which I did, and I got a singing place as well. I decided to take the singing place because I was No. 4 on the flute at the Guildhall, so I was always going to be playing Second Flute and would probably end up as a peripatetic teacher. I could have done it, but it wasn't what I wanted; I wanted to perform, so I took singing.

'The first couple of years were very hard, technically. During the middle of the second year, someone came up to me and said "You're a flute player, we need you!" but I told them they didn't want me. I knew I couldn't sight-read well enough. In the end, they made me do it and when I sat down, the score in front of me was a Tippett symphony. I opened the score, which was hand-written, and the leger lines were through the roof with endless sharps and naturals, and I knew I couldn't do it. I looked up, and – Tippett was conducting! It was my wake-up call: I can handle pressure, but not that type of pressure, so I knew the flute should go on the back-burner. I didn't play a note – I was too scared to play!'

After winning the Kathleen Ferrier Competition, Janice Watson's career blossomed, and she hasn't looked back since. But, she says, it was partly a matter of good fortune. 'I was very lucky: I've always had work. Part of it was that when I left college, I decided I had to get my face known and there had to be a way of doing it that was easy. I didn't have much money but I was living with my parents so I had support in that respect. I went in for various competitions, and I was very lucky. If I had done the Kathleen Ferrier Competition the same year as Bryn Terfel, I wouldn't have won and I might not have got an agent and things might have been different. It just depends; it's the luck of the draw. It seems such a long time ago now, 1987. I did the Royal Overseas League and I think I came second in something. What that did for me was to give me exposition to all these people, allowed me to do auditions and gave me an agent – that's one of the hard things. The agent got me work doing Musetta at WNO, and I'd done a season at Glyndebourne in the chorus. So it just picked up from then on, and I've never had a big break in my work at all. I've never had a holiday either, and I need one now after twenty years! I think the biggest gap I've had was five or six weeks.'

Janice Watson as Salome in Santa FeWatson speaks with the warmth of someone who has valued every engagement she's ever had, but she does pick out a few high points in her already long and varied career. 'I won a Grammy for a recording of Peter Grimes with Philip Langridge. That was a big highlight for me, because he was the person who put me onto this career. Singing at the Metropolitan Opera was a highlight, and so was Covent Garden. One of the biggest things was singing Daphne at Santa Fe [the open-air opera house in New Mexico]. Not many people do the role; she's a young girl in the woods who eventually turns into a tree. It was 1996 and the first time I'd performed there. I was just blown away by the beauty of the area. You have to be a part of nature there: it rains, you get wet, who cares? You dry off again in minutes. The food, the light, everything was magical. Also, the production was more choreographed, more danced, than staged. So it became easy to be fluid. I remember standing at the end, when she turns into a tree: I had to run, then stop suddenly because I couldn't move any more, and I'd look down and see my feet growing into roots. I was wearing a white chiffon dress, and when Daphne says 'Wind, spiele mit mir' (Wind, play with me), the wind started blowing my skirt around, which was perfect. But then I suddenly became aware that I was absolutely covered in bugs, large flies, from head to toe. They were crawling up my ears, and I'm not very good with bugs! I had to keep saying to myself, "I'm a tree, I'm a tree, bugs like trees, trees like bugs, I'm growing and the bugs are eating my leaves and I'm very happy with that!" It was quite a scary experience! Covent Garden is another place I've loved performing. I loved singing Katya Kabanova there – it went very well for me and I got great reviews.'

I mention seeing her play Ellen Orford in the Willy Decker production of Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in 2004. 'I'm so pleased to have been part of that production. It's one of those experiences – like this Rosenkavalier – that has a sort of inner strength. It was very cleverly staged, and it had an enormous rake so it threw the action right out into the audience. And I love the piece. Every opera is different, but so many of them are incredible. I'm so glad I ended up in opera. I love the turbulence of the music in Grimes, then that amazing stillness of the water – it's just like Aldeburgh. I'm amazed a composer can put that down on paper and it be real, as far as I'm concerned. I think that's something that came across particularly in that production. And also the nastiness of humanity. It's sad: we try not to be nasty, and that's what the Bible's about, but it's part of our nature to be bad because of natural competition.

'I've also loved working at ENO. The last time I did the Marschallin here, in the Jonathan Miller production (pictured above), was one of my favourites, too. But everything I've done I feel something strong from.'

Last year at the Proms, Janice Watson memorably took over from an ailing Emma Bell at a performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater with barely four hours' notice. Things were exceptionally tight, but in the end the performance, which featured Antonio Pappano and his Rome orchestra, was one of the highlights of the season. 'That was very strange!' she says. 'I was phoned up at three in the afternoon and I hadn't sung it for two or three years. I'd moved house and the score was in a box in the loft. My agent told me to go and see if I could find it, but I couldn't find it for half an hour. I took a look at it and thought, I can't sing it now, I need half a day at least. I phoned them back and said I really couldn't do it, but it turned out that I had to because there weren't many people around that day who could.

'But then they told me also that the last movement was being sung a cappella. I'd never sung it because it's normally done as a choral piece. It's all chromatic and very difficult and I was literally sight-reading it on television, which was quite scary! But I didn't make a single mistake, so I was very proud. Antonio Pappano gave me a bottle of vintage champagne to thank me, which was very kind of him.'

Janice Watson as Ariadne at WNO in 2004With a repertoire stretching from Mozart to Janacek, one might think that Watson had already done it all. Any further ambitions? 'Like any singer, I want to stay in work and keep enjoying things as I am now. I want to be able to be at home sometimes. I'm a mum and a wife, very much, as well as a singer, and I have ambitions with both things. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile the two. But in singing, I really want to play Desdemona. I would also love to sing the Marschallin in German, and Chrysothemis. I'd like to do Salome in a British theatre. The first time I sang it, it ruled me and I was really uncomfortable with it. But the second time, I decided that this piece was not going to get the better of me, and I made it work for me. During the last aria with the head, I felt totally in control of it and I could have done anything I liked,' she says with relish. 'It's partly because we had a great conductor, Philippe Jordan, conducting. He's very kind and a very good Strauss conductor. That's one of my big ambitions. I'd like to do the whole of Die Walküre, and Rusalka and Capriccio would also be great. Mimi is something else I've never done but would love to. And one day, I'm going to move into the heavier Wagner roles if my voice holds up. I learned Rienzi at one point, but it was pulled out of my diary – I can do that role at the moment. I could also do The Flying Dutchman in a few years. I did Tannhäuser last year, and that's a case in point: it's not a huge sing, but it's weighty. When you have weight in what you're singing, it's very hard to go back and sing some light coloratura piece. It's much better to pace what you're doing very carefully so that it doesn't get too heavy. I'd like to do Madama Butterfly in Italian, too. I did it here, with poor Anthony Minghella. I thought it was the most fantastic production: simple and to the point.'

What would she like to be remembered for? 'Singing Strauss. It's difficult, yet such fun to sing. It's a bit like having children: it's worth as much as it is difficult. I'd love to be remembered as the Marschallin, or Arabella, or as Salome. I can sing the pants off the role and it's something I'd love to record one day.'

By Dominic McHugh

Janice Watson stars as the Feldmarschallin in English National Opera's new production of Der Rosenkavalier from next week. Other forthcoming roles include Elisabeth in Verdi's Don Carlos at Opera North in 2009, Ellen Orford in Naples and her first Leonora in Fidelio. Her new recording of Cosi fan tutte, is out now on Chandos.

Recent reviews involving Janice Watson:

Katya Kabanova at Covent Garden
Falstaff at WNO

Other interviews with artists involved in this production of Der Rosenkavalier:

Sarah Tynan on Sophie
Andrew Shore on Faninal

Photos 2 and 3 are of the previous, Jonathan Miller production at ENO in the 2002/3 revival starring Janice Watson: © Bill Rafferty / ENO 2002/03