Actress Sarah Connolly
PUBLISHED: 18:46 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:33 20 February 2013
Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly has played such wide-ranging dramatic roles as Agrippina and Julius Caeser. But her talent hasn't always been so well received, as she tells Katie Jarvis. Photography by Mark Fairhurst.
"I shall battle through the tempest hoping land will soon be sighted...
"Though my vessel may be battered, my resolve will not be shattered..."
The rich notes of an aria from the opera, Agrippina, are soaring to the ceiling, filling the room with the pure phrases Handel wrote while still in his mid-twenties. As the tones rise and fall, setting the scene for this tale of duplicity and ambition, you begin to understand why the opera world describes the mezzo-soprano, who is currently singing, as flawless; her technique breathtaking.
News has arrived that Agrippina's husband, Claudius, has been lost at sea. With the flick of a switch, this glorious opera baddy is transformed from rapacious wife to schemingly ambitious widow. Her dreadful son, Nero, must inherit the throne.
The dastardly plot begins to weave its spell...
Until a teaspoon clatters and the microwave goes ping. Sarah Connolly, fresh from another triumph at the London Coliseum, is making coffee in her kitchen. She switches from singing to whistling the final few bars as she carries steaming mugs into the stone-flagged living room of her cottage, high on a hill above Stroud.
"Oomph!" she says, collapsing into an armchair, with obvious delight. "I've now got a month off." Instead of arm-waving choreographers, demanding directors, and admiring fans seeking her soul, here, in this sitting room this morning, there's a single silver tabby cat craving attention. From these light, bright windows, there's no audience of expectant faces; the view is of the undemanding green of Stroud's hills. Husband Carl is reading the paper in the kitchen; three-and-a-half-year-old Lily is busy at nursery.
No wonder Sarah Connolly is whistling chirpily.
Not that she doesn't love her job - she's passionate about it. Sarah sings because her heart tells her to; because she has something to say to the many thousands who come to hear her beautiful voice each year - whether it's English National Opera, Glyndebourne, Welsh National - or in Milan, Paris, New York or San Francisco.
But her most recent triumph has been more difficult than anyone could guess.
Relaxing in a chair beside a huge inglenook fireplace, she looks as beautiful as ever - dark hair piled casually on top of her head. But she looks tired, too; slightly drawn; a little pale. The audiences and critics alike loved English National Opera's recent production of Agrippina, with Sarah in the title role: bawdy, debauched and even burlesque. What those appreciative audiences didn't know was that, while Agrippina was struggling to manipulate the court of Rome, Sarah was fighting her own battle on stage for more than three hours each night.
She pulls an expressive face at the memory: "I had a temperature; I had a cold; I had pharyngitis and, in the last two shows, I had a cough. I've never had anything like this before! I've been ill where I've had to cancel a show, and that has been a fait accompli - but on this occasion, it seemed, I could sing.
"I had an announcement made to give myself a security net in case it all fell apart half way through the show, though it never did. The trouble was, members of the ENO management and various members of the audience would come up to me afterwards, saying, 'You sound fine; we don't understand why you had that announcement made!' And I would think: You have no idea what I'm going through in my dressing room!"
To rest, far away from all that pressure, is a blessed relief.
Indeed, it's a welcome change for a singer so in demand she's never at home for more than... How long? She shrugs: "Probably a month and a half at the most. Then I'll have a two-month stretch where I commute. If I'm abroad, it's more difficult."
But here, in the cottage that was once the village post office, Sarah Connolly the opera star is banished to another galaxy. Let's face it - you can't be a star when you're constantly upstaged by someone telling you, "You can stop singing now! It's my turn!"
Sarah laughs. "We've a little mezzanine where Lily puts on music from the film, The Full Monty. She has fantastic rhythm, and completely loves singing, especially the theme from Flashdance: - 'What a feeling... I can't have it all, now I'm dancin' for my life'." (And, it has to be said, Sarah's lovely voice sounds not a mite incongruous, singing this less-than-operatic song).
Sarah's down-to-earth quality isn't just witnessed by Lily and Carl. Most of her fellow mums at school pick-up (where she goes by a different surname) have no idea who she is, and she has no intention of enlightening them: "Oh no!" she shudders, "I hate blowing my own trumpet - I think it's one of the most ugly things to do."
But she doesn't hesitate for a moment to use her talents within the community. Stroud Choral Society was both surprised and thrilled last year when she agreed to become president. Barbara Moinet, one of the members of this 130-strong choir, describes her as charming and approachable. "Not only did she accept this position," she says, "but she made it clear that she would like a hands-on involvement, work-load permitting, in the development of the choir. She attended a rehearsal - sitting anonymously amongst the altos! - and afterwards addressed the choir, telling them of her pleasure at being involved and her commitment to the role."
Perhaps Sarah's keenness to help other musicians stems back to a childhood where, far from marking her out, her talent could be isolating. From the age of seven, Sarah would pick out on the piano pop songs she heard on the radio. This was a child that would even extemporise when playing 'chop-sticks'. Within two years of starting lessons, Sarah got to Grade 6; at 14, she was left with no more exams to take. But rather than being sent to a specialist school, such as Chetham's, where perhaps she'd have discovered kindred spirits, Sarah found herself at the same non-specialist boarding school as her sister.
"To begin with, I was very much teased as a 'muso'. Every year, I'd excel at the school music competition - winning everything in sight - which really didn't go down well with my peers.
"For me, the problem was that my talent was misunderstood, and it wasn't celebrated - by my mother it was, but not by any teacher. And it wasn't just the music that wasn't celebrated - I wasn't celebrated. I was a very spirited child: I liked sport, so that helped me ingratiate myself with other people; but I was of average intelligence, so I didn't particularly excel or fail. And I think that the teachers themselves thought I was a very unremarkable child who could play the piano.
"I wasn't encouraged in any way to flourish - that's an honest appraisal."
At 16, however, her life changed for the better when she got a place at Clarendon College in Nottingham. Though a state college of further education, it nonetheless boasted a superb music department where teachers, such as Douglas Wilkie, Brenda Bloom and Mary Foulds instantly recognised Sarah's outstanding abilities. She blossomed. "When I went for the Royal College of Music entrance exam, it was so facile to me I could have done it in my sleep. I had never ever been put in a situation before where things had been easy for me; I felt I could spread my wings."
Once at the Royal College, she continued to meet mentors who would have a lasting influence. Initially, her main instrument was still the piano; but singing began to assume a greater importance. Sir David Willcocks, who had formerly been director of the choir at King's College, Cambridge, took a special interest in her.
"He picked up very quickly on my musicianship, and would play wrong notes deliberately in rehearsal and look at me to see if I'd got it! But the one thing about Sir David is that he's a big kid at heart, who loves being around young people; he had a chamber choir with wonderful singers, who are still very much my colleagues, and he encouraged us all to be perfectionists with our pitch and rhythm. It's probably because of that I joined the BBC Singers afterwards."
Suddenly, Sarah Connolly the pianist had become Sarah Connolly the singer - and she hasn't looked back. She has appeared at venues from the Salzburg Festival and the Berlin Philharmonie to New York's Weill Hall and the Wigmore in London; worked with conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Colin Davis and Daniel Harding. Her performance as Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito earned her a nomination for an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. In New York - a notoriously hard audience to win over - her debut in the title role of Ariodante was described by the New York Times as 'phenomenal'.
Isn't it extraordinary, therefore, that she's not a household name in the same way as, say, Welsh singer, Katherine Jenkins?
"I don't have a problem with that," she says. "I don't want to go down that route. I can only sing if I've got something I need to communicate, which partly is why I don't do 'pop' concerts, or sing 'You're a pink toothbrush'. It's not that I disrespect other types of music: I just can't do it. I would rather sing Dido's Lament or anything from a Mozart opera; but it's a real struggle because my personal choice is very different from things most people would expect to hear.
"Any dissent, any criticism of the popular classical, is seen as a whinge - and that's not fair. I'm not having a whinge. I'm just saying that serious music-making is falling by the way and is being confused with Russell Watson's kind of singing."
Because of this constant search for truth, Sarah has worked with the best of directors and composers. When she took round Europe Mark-Anthony Turnage's Twice Through the Heart - about a battered wife - she consulted psychiatrists to discover the true picture of abuse; on The Silver Tassie, the whole cast spent time at the Imperial War Museum.
That attention to detail also stands her in good stead when her rich mezzo-soprano vocals - Italian for 'half soprano' - mean she finds herself in a 'breeches' role: male parts played by women. The title role in Handel's Julius Caesar, for example, was written for the castrato, Senesino, a celebrated Italian singer who had been castrated at the age of 13. In the early 18th century in particular, there was a craze for these artificially-preserved voices.
"To be convincing, you really have to play around with your characters," Sarah says. "You have to think about how Julius Caesar might sit in a chair in a Great Coat (David McVicar's production is set at the turn of the 19th/20th century); how he might pick up a drink from a table. The choreographer, Leah Hausmann, pointed out that, when I embraced Cleopatra, I stuck my bum out! She told me guys don't do that.
"And I've noticed you have to be careful of wrists - keep your hand quite straight and don't splay your fingers too much, especially when you've got your hand round the back of a woman.
"As a girl playing Julius Caesar, it has always worried me: How on earth am I going to carry this off? But I had to trust what Handel wrote, and he wrote it for a man singing falsetto."
Her love of Handel has led to her becoming deeply associated with this German-born 18th century composer, who lived most of his adult life in England. "His music is in my blood," she says.
Yet in spite of the accolades she receives for her interpretation of his music, she still worries. "If I could meet him, I'd ask: Am I doing the right thing? It fills me with anxiety sometimes. I just hope that I am not giving too contemporary an account.
"Unlike Bach, Handel was a great romantic, with a great understanding of romanticism - not in the 19th century sense, but more like Jane Austen, with a real comprehension of pain and suffering.
"He is a great dramatist but he also has a wonderful humanity about him; he's one of the people. It seems obvious to me that Handel was at the height of his powers, his peak if you like, when he wrote The Messiah."
It was Handel, she says, who got her through one of the most difficult times of her life - when, in 2002, she opened in the title role of Xerxes, three-and-a-half months' pregnant with Lily, and four days after her own mother's funeral.
Nowadays, the roles are reversed. If she's having a particularly hard time with Handel, it's Lily who gets her through. Even when Sarah's away, the two of them aren't separated for long. Carl, a former mechanic who's settled readily into the role of stay-at-home dad, makes sure they all see each other whenever Sarah's working abroad. As a result, Lily has had her eyes opened to all kinds of different cultures - New York, Paris, Milan last summer.
"I'm very lucky. Carl's a fantastic father, very close to Lily. We don't have an expensive lifestyle, and it works."
But it must be difficult, sometimes, leaving them both at home?
She gives a wry smile in acknowledgement: "I'm trying to paint a practical picture, but the emotional one is more difficult. When I'm going away in the car, I feel wretched beyond belief; but I'm consoled by the fact that Carl tells me Lily is fine, and I know he's telling me the truth. I'm booked roughly up to 2009, but I make sure the work I accept is only one opera job a year abroad.
"Lily's a bit young to come to performances yet, though she came to a rehearsal of David McVicar's Julius Caesar at Glyndebourne and loved it because it's so colourful. She especially enjoyed Andrew George's choreography, which is almost Britney Spears-type dancing - great fun. And it was so visual, with Cleopatra dressed in diamonds and peacock colours and gold lame. It was a bit strange for her to see me as Julius Caesar, but she's getting used to it.
"I just say: Mummy's dressing up!"
- You can hear Sarah Connolly sing in Elgar's The Music Makers with the City of London Sinfonia on May 19 at St Nicolas' Church, Newbury; for tickets, log onto www.newburyspringfestival.org.uk or ring 01635 522733
- She's also performing Elgar's Sea Pictures at Cheltenham Music Festival on July 21; and making two appearances at the Three Choirs Festival, this year in Gloucester: (August 7, The Dream of Gerontius; August 11, Mahler - Symphony no 8).
- Stroud Choral Society's next concert is at St Mary's Church, Painswick, on Saturday May 19 at 7.30pm. Entitled Gloria, the concert features music for brass, organ and choir by Elgar - to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth - Bruckner, Monteverdi, Gabrieli and Rutter (Gloria). The society will be accompanied by Regency Brass, and the organ soloist is Nicholas Chalmers. Tickets from 01453 753398 or firstname.lastname@example.org