Many of the world's top opera singers have ended up in the business via an unconventional route, and English soprano Elizabeth Watts is no exception. After being told she was unmusical throughout her childhood she opted to read Archaeology at university, and only subsequently decided to pursue her dream of being an opera singer.
Within a couple of years of retraining, Watts' life had turned around. An apprenticeship at English National Opera's Young Singers programme was followed in quick succession by winning the Kathleen Ferrier Prize (2006), the Outstanding Young Artist Award at the MIDEM Classique Awards (2007) and, most impressively of all, the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2007. Although widely considered to be the 'runner-up' prize at Cardiff, the latter is actually awarded specifically to an artist with a special talent for Lied singing, which is certainly the case with Watts.
A contract as one of the BBC's New Generation Artists, an exclusive contract with Sony Entertainment and engagements as Susanna in high-profile productions of The Marriage of Figaro in Santa Fe and with Welsh National Opera have made Watts amongst the country's most popular young singers, and this month she comes to the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre to perform in a rare staging of Thomas Arne's Artaxerxes. The soprano will perform the role of Mandane, leading a cast of exciting young singers who are all under the direction of Ian Page and his Classical Opera Company.
Artaxerxes, Watts tells me, is 'great, it's fabulous. It's a great piece. I certainly think it's worth doing. It's more akin in the opera repertoire to Handel than Mozart. It isn't classical, but it's not quite baroque either, so it's somewhere in the middle. But the structure is probably more like Handel, though you don't have so many da capo arias. The music is definitely worth reviving. Anyone who's heard "Rule, Britannia!" knows that Arne knows how to write a good tune!'
Why should people come and see it? 'It's spectacular, both visually and vocally. The whole cast is fantastic – my colleagues are just wonderful – and it's an authentic performance, with classical instruments at 430 pitch. The Classical Opera Company specialises in this repertoire, so it's going to be a fabulous show.'
Drama is one of the central attractions to the opera genre for Watts, and she speaks with enthusiasm about her role. 'My character, Mandane, is a princess, and she goes through the ringer in this opera! She's quite feisty in many ways, and she feels a great sense of duty and responsibility so she's torn between that and her love for Arbate.' She adds that 'It's one of the hardest roles for my Fach. It's technically very demanding.'
Watts seems to be enjoying the opportunity of performing in the Linbury, which is a controversial but flexible space. 'We have some fantastic machinery in it – we have what I call a "Rex ex machina", which you'll have to come and see to know what I'm talking about! – and the period costumes are simply, unbelievably fabulous, in the strictest sense of the word. They are amazing. I have never in my life worn such fantastic costumes. The designer happened to have a few antique kimonos in his cupboard and he's used some of those on the fabric. We're wearing big skirts, and it's very, very beautiful.
'What we've done with the space, in fact, which you probably couldn't do so easily in a big theatre, is to have a walkway around the pit. So when we walk around the pit you'll be able to see us close-up, and therefore you'll be able to see all the detail in the costumes. Everything is done to the last detail.
'Also, the pit is going to be lit sometimes, and sometimes it's going to be more open. So the orchestra is part of the feeling of the opera.'
The director, Martin Duncan, is an ideal choice for the piece, according to Watts. 'He said in our initial talk through that in a way, we're doing a world premiere because this opera hasn't been staged for so long, and when doing a world premiere you want to be as true as you can to the text, so that's an indication of his approach.'
As noted above, Elizabeth Watts' climb to the top was a long time coming. Her childhood experiences were far from the typical tale of a young prodigy, and instead she was dissuaded from pursuing music as a career initially. 'I was quite musical, but I was told I wasn't – I was a singer but I was told I wasn't musical. But I was quite into acting, and I was in school plays and things. I always sang, and I always wanted to sing and act. But I was seen either as somebody who could sing or somebody who could act, and it was never perceived that I might possibly be able to do the two!
'So I never studied music really and didn't hit on an instrument that suited me until it was a bit late. That's why I went off and studied archaeology at university.'
Why archaeology? 'It's a very broad, interesting subject. I was not really veering one way between the arts or sciences, so when I applied to university I wanted a degree that I could do in either arts or sciences, and that was archaeology. When I got there, the degree was not at all what I thought it would be. It's not about learning whether something's an Anglo-Saxon brooch or a Roman brooch, but more about learning how to interpret the past and how we look at people.'
Clearly, Watts was hugely successful as an archaeology student. So why did she quit? 'I sang all the way through my degree, and I have to say that I'm more of an armchair archaeologist than a practical one. I'm not very good at digging! But I was good at the theorising aspect of it. I had singing lessons all the way through, and took part in competitions. I remember I had finished my dissertation and was doing a gig with a male voice choir.
'We were in Whitby, and I bought a notebook and sat down on Whitby Steps and made a decision. I'd done very well with my dissertation and could have written it up for publication, and there was the possibility of doing a taught Master's. I had the most wonderful tutors in the department at Sheffield, and could not have hoped for more open-minded people to talk to. I just knew that I was meant to be a singer, so I decided that that's what I was going to do. So I wrote in my notebook what I called "The Whitby Resolutions", which was a list of things I felt I needed to do in order to get into music college, and I spent a year doing some of them. I auditioned for music college and got a scholarship.
'I kind a high-level expectation of what they were looking for, so I took a music theory course, and some piano lessons, and I did a lot of studying and some recitals. I had been teaching even at Sheffield – I taught choristers at Sheffield Cathedral – so that was a part-time job. My other one was in Virgin Megastore, which was a great experience. I was allowed to put on whatever I wanted to listen to, so it was like having a huge library. It meant that I learned a lot of repertoire.'
Watts' time at the Royal College was hugely helpful in developing her skills. 'It turned me from being green to having a reasonable clue about things. I wouldn't say that I was the finished product, but I learned a huge amount in three years – languages, stage work, movement, tons of repertoire, technique – everything. I had very supportive tutors and it was brilliant.'
What she had to do in terms of opera performance was hugely challenging for a young singer with limited operatic experience. 'It was a complete baptism of fire. My first operatic role was Poppea in Argippina. That's quite a steep learning curve. It was a modern production by Chris Cowell, using an English translation that he'd translated – it was the last Handel opera that they did in English – and it had lines in it like "I'm off to wash my hair" and "Don't cry for me, Agrippina". I remember having to paint my toenails during my first aria, which I wasn't quite equipped to deal with in my first opera production, but I think I just about got away with it.
'I did two other Handel operas at college with Lawrence Cummings, and I did Flora in The Turn of the Screw. I'd love to do the Governess at some point – my archaeology studies are probably the reason why I love all those psychological operas. Getting inside people's heads really fascinates me. We also did The Carmelites with Jude Kelly, who was great to work with. I also did two British Youth Opera productions in the summers, too – a hilarious Magic Flute and Semele.'
Watts' time beyond college was full of great opportunities. 'I went to the ENO Young Singers Programme and did some fantastic things there. The first production I did with them was Papagena in Nick Hytner's Magic Flute. It was a fantastic show – I had Andrew Shore as my Papageno. What a treat! He was such a generous colleague to me, and I learned lots from him.
'I also had lots of coaching sessions, and some special experiences like working with Catherine Malfitano. I went over to work with her in New York after that, too, because we got on so well, and she's become a great supporter.
'It's a bit like work experience. You look at these people who are doing the bigger roles and you realise what they're doing. It's a case of absorbing the process.'
Did she think you were going to win the Cardiff competition? 'Well, yes and no. You can't go into a competition not wanting to win it, can you? I thought I could give it my best shot, but I had no idea what the outcome was going to be. Going into that sort of competition is very different to something like the Ferrier, because although you never know if you're going to win unless you're prophetic or extremely arrogant, going into the Ferrier I knew most of the entrants, whereas I knew almost nobody at Cardiff. I didn't know how I fitted into an international level of that sort. I didn't even have enough dresses – I had to use the top of one and the bottom of another for the final of the Song Prize!'
I ask her whether she was disappointed at not winning the overall prize, but Watts' reply is characteristically modest. 'I heard someone say that it's very difficult for someone with a small voice to win that competition. I think that's possibly the case: my voice probably didn't have enough blade in the hall, which isn't a good venue for me. It's the luck of the draw. But having looked at the competition this year, and knowing a lot of them this year, I was very interested by the result. I think they're looking for the "X factor" – and I think Shen Yang had something that stepped him above everyone else.'
One of the best outcomes of winning the Lied Prize at Cardiff was that it gave the soprano the opportunity to become a BBC New Generation Artist, and thereby appear in lots of broadcasts. 'It's been wonderful. One of the reasons I wanted to do Cardiff was that I wanted to become a New Generation Artist, and I knew that there was a good chance I could get it if I won the Song Prize. I'm fanatical about singing songs. It gave me the opportunity to do lots of live recitals, and to record some repertoire that hasn't been broadcast on the BBC since it was premiered – like some Elizabeth Maconchy and Michael Head songs. The experience of doing a lot of recording has been enormously helpful. It meant that when I came to record the Schubert disc, I had already done some recording in the studio.
'Sometimes, what you're doing and what comes across in a hall does not come across through a microphone. It's interesting to note the difference of detail. The sound of your voice is sometimes completely different, depending on who's miked it and where you'd been miked. Trying to get an identity of what your voice is, is difficult. Getting the technician to reproduce the sound that you want can be difficult. Sometimes you listen back and think, this doesn't sound like me! It's interesting to find out which frequencies can help the recording to sound like you.'
A recording contract from Sony BMG followed, and a Schubert disc has been released. 'My agent said to me, what's dearest to you? I knew it wasn't going to be an orchestral album because of the budget, and I've made a name for myself for doing songs. I didn't want to produce a 'Greatest Hits' album for my first recording, which a lot of people do, and it sells. So I asked Roger Vignoles about the idea of doing Schubert, and he thought it was fine. I didn't want to do the Mignon Lieder, but I knew that there were lots of Schubert songs that had hardly been recorded. I didn't listen to the ones written for other voices, but I went through all the rest. If they didn't grab me within the first fifteen seconds of listening, I didn't choose them.
'I knew Schubert was a risky choice and that some people wouldn't think I was ready, but I thought about the fact that Schubert was only 31 when he died and thought that since I'm a similar age, perhaps I have something to say about them. I feel very deeply about these songs.'
Still, considering Watts' bubbly personality, it's surprising that her stage appearances since leaving ENO have been limited mainly to the two Susannas. Does she have ambitions to do more opera? 'It's difficult because I get such great opportunities with the song recitals, but it's difficult to group them together. Then when an opera comes along, it can be hard to slot it in. I was offered something at the last minute for next year but it clashes with concerts that I'm already contracted to do, for instance. It's a shame, but I wouldn't let people down. I do love doing opera, though, and there is some more in the pipeline. I'm doing Zerlina and Marzelline in the future. And we're hoping to take Artaxerxes to Buxton.'
Any ambitions? 'I'm very drawn to bringing what I do to people in an accessible fashion. Because I didn't study music conventionally, I'm not imbued with its academic language. I've really enjoyed bits of presenting I've done. I want to bring music to people. I have some time off next year when I'm going to have a holiday and also pursue various projects.
'Pamina is something I'd like to start looking at. There are other things for ten years in the future – Manon and Violetta. And Blanche in Carmelites would be great. I'd love to do more Susannas, too.
'My thing about singing is that I'd like to help change people's lives. If I can go out there and touch people, and make them examine their lives, that's what I'd like to be remembered for.'
Elizabeth Watts appears in Artaxerxes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 30 October. For more information, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/.
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