They’re young, talented and they didn’t grow up listening to Puccini. Sarah Freeman meets the three singers taking a lead in Opera North’s new season who hope to make opera more accessible.
Kate Valentine, Sandra Piques Eddy and Hye-Youn Lee hail from three different continents, yet they have a few things in common.
For a start, they have all found themselves in Leeds having been cast as the main female roles in Opera North’s latest season of productions and all three admit that growing up the works of Verdi, Puccini and Monteverdi didn’t figure much on their radar.
In Korea, where Hye-Youn was born, opera is still seen as very much a western form of entertainment and both Sandra and Kate, whose families weren’t particularly musical, both admit that for a while they reckoned soaring arias and three-hour long epic productions weren’t made for people like them.
“There was always music playing at home, but it definitely wasn’t opera,” says Sandra, who still lives in her home town of Boston with her husband and young son. “My family are Portuguese so I did listen to a lot of Fado music which has some similarities to opera in that it’s quite emotional, but I never had any ambition to become an opera singer. It just wasn’t part of my world.”
At college, Sandra studied music education, with the aim of being a teacher, but when one of her own tutors spotted her potential it set her off on a different track.
“I remember being played a recording of Janet Baker singing Dido’s Lament. That really changed everything. I listened to it a dozen times. It was so incredibly moving that I thought, ‘If this is what opera is about, then I want to be a part of it’. The fire was lit. I did end up teaching for a while, but I have no regrets that I didn’t start earlier. In fact I think it made me a better singer. It not only taught me to prepare well, but being stood in front of a class is also a performance, one you have to do seven times a day. Children can be quite an unforgiving audiences, so it means you become quite adept at thinking on your feet.”
Describe by her hometown paper The Boston Globe as “a charismatic mezzo with future star written all over her”, she made her debut at New York’s renowned Met Opera and has since worked around the world.
However, since becoming a mother, Sandra has made a conscious decision to work as much as possible in Boston and tries to only be away from home for one project a year. It means she can do the school run and spend time with daughter Beatrice. However, having starred in Opera North’s production of Carmen three years ago, she says she couldn’t resist the chance to return to Leeds.
This time she’s singing the lead in The Coronation of Poppea. Claudio Monteverdi’s piece, set in 1st century Rome, charts the all-consuming obsession of Emperor Nero for the beautiful Poppea Sabina.
It’s a first for Opera North, but Sandra was already familiar with it.
“When I was a student out in Boston I did a course in Baroque music and I fell in love with Nero and Poppea’s final duet.
“As soon as I heard it, I thought, ‘one day I want to be able to sing that’ and so it’s complete privilege to be here right now.
“Of course there’s always a danger that when your expectations are so high and you invest so much into a work that it ends up being an anti-climax, but we staged it for the first time yesterday and what can I say, except it’s even more intense, more emotional than I imagined it would be.”
Directed by Tim Albery, The Coronation of Poppea promises to be a lavish production, reeking of ancient world glamour.
“Yep, it’s fair to say that this is a season of contrasts, I definitely don’t get to look like that,” says Kate, pointing to one of the publicity posters for Poppea. The Scottish soprano plays Marenka in the revival of the company’s 1998 production of The Bartered Bride by its original director Daniel Slater. The mid-19th century comic opera has been translated to 1970s Czechoslovakia and the costumes are, well, a little basic.
“In my career, I’ve got to wear some absolutely amazing outfits, but this probably ranks among the worst,” she says reaching for her phone to show me a photograph she took at a recent fitting. She’s right. Even Kate Moss would struggle to pull off the red shirt/blue waistcoat combination. “The only consolation is that everyone looks equally hideous and you know what it works, it really fits the piece.”
Like Sandra, Kate is the first person in her family to sing professionally and also like Sandra she says it was one teacher – Fran McKenzie – who gave her the confidence and belief that she could enter the hallowed world of opera.
“She was amazing, I can’t thank her enough. Having not come from an operatic background I guess I needed someone who could spot that I had some raw talent and that’s what she did. I remember her lending me a video of Francesco Rosi’s Carmen starring Julia Migenes and Placido Domingo. I was captivated by it. It was filmed in location in Seville and it just felt like this great big spectacle. I must have been 16 or 17 at the time and I had never experienced anything like it. Afterwards I remember telling my parents, ‘I’m going to be an opera singer’. I’m not sure they believed me, but for me that was it, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Kate trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and later at the National Opera Studio, but she didn’t see her first live opera until she was stood on stage at Glyndebourne as part of the chorus for Carmen.
“It was my first job and I will never forget those goosebumps. Carmen had been the production which had started it all off and there I was doing it for real.”
She now lives in Sussex with her husband, who is a GP, and while she gets home as often as possible as newcomer to Opera North she says she welcomes the family atmosphere of the company.
“It is hard being away from home, although it has become a little easier in recent years thanks to technology. I know this sounds a little odd, but quite often my husband and I will get together on Skype and watch a film. It just means that we can chat as we would if we were at home together. It’s not quite the same as being in the same room, but it’s better than nothing. Ten or 15 years ago it must have been quite a lonely life being an opera singer.”
A few years ago whenever Hye-Youn arrived in a new city she would try to make the most of her days off, seeing the sights and exploring the surrounding area. These days she tends not to venture too far from her accommodation.
“It sounds overly cautious but it’s so easy to pick up a bug on public transport so I now don’t do as much as I once did. I like to focus on my role and I don’t like to have too many distractions.”
We meet in her dressing room ahead of a rehearsal of La Traviata, which completes Opera North’s trio of autumn productions. Verdi’s tragic love story is the most performed opera in the world and for any soprano, doomed courtesan Violetta is a plum role.
“Technically it’s very challenging, emotionally it’s demanding, but it’s also beautiful,” says Hye-Youn, who moved to London where she lives with her husband and three-year-old son. “From the first act to the last you go through the whole gamut of emotions. I first auditioned for Opera North last year and then was called back another two times. That’s quite unusual, but I understand why. They have to get it right.
“When I found out they had cast Ji-Min Park as Alfredo I thought, ‘Ah well, never mind, it’s probably not going to work out for me this time’, as it is quite unusual to have two Oriental leads, but the call came, and what can I say, I was delighted.
“Of course there is pressure on my shoulders, partly because it’s such an iconic role, but also because this is my company debut. I tend to be quite serious in rehearsals, but this time the rest of the company have really helped lighten the mood and I think that is good for me.
“When you get it right, opera has a real emotional connection with an audience which you don’t get anywhere else and for me, however hard the rehearsals are and however nervous you are on first night, that will always be thrilling.”
• For more information about Opera North’s autumn season call 0113 223 3700 or online at www.operanorth.co.uk