In bocca al lupo to Christine Rice who stars in a new production of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto for Welsh National Opera, opening on Friday night in Cardiff, before touring the UK. She will then combine these performances with a tour of Handel’s Alcina with Harry Bicket where she will sing the role of Bradamante. Performances start at the Barbican Centre on 10 October and then tour to Oviedo, Madrid and Paris, before ending at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 26 October. Christine’s wonderful season then continues as she makes her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as Hansel in Humperdinck’s magical opera and Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The rest of 2015 will include Mahagonny at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; her first Mélisande in concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Esa Pekka Salonen before culminating with Britten’s Lucretia for Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Ahead of the opening of Mosè in Egitto at the WNO, Christine spoke to Nina Large about her epic season…
2014 has been a very busy year for you and there is still lots more to come. You’re currently in Cardiff performing in Moses In Egypt for Welsh National Opera, which is a new role for you. How’s it going?
It’s quite challenging as a role and I’ve been working hard at it. It lies as a soprano role really so I’ve been taking my voice up, if you like. You tend to lose a bit on the chest voice so it all shifts up and I can place the voice a bit higher.
The opera is a bit of a rarity but it is really worth hearing and there is a lot of really beautiful music in it. Rossini imposed a love story on the drama so it oscillates between the romantic story and the biblical story. As a production it’s very stylised and all the costumes are incredibly colourful and mixed period. It will be visually very stunning.
You’ve also got an international tour of Handel’s Alcina coming up with the English Concert…
Yes, as it happens I haven’t done a Handel opera role for quite some time. I have been doing weightier roles like Carmen and beyond, and perhaps people then stop thinking about you for Handel, so I was really pleased to be asked. I’ve always believed it is very good for your voice to sing Handel. I would say he uses the voice in the most compassionate way: it’s all connected up and it uses all of the voice, he makes it work through its paces with the runs particularly. I always find that when I come back to Handel I get the measure of where I am up to vocally.
This is a big contrast to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel which you will be performing this Christmas in New York, making your Met debut.
Yes, it’s going to be great, it’s the most wonderful opera. The music is gorgeous, every single bar of it! I find the character of Hansel delightful – a cheeky, hungry, naughty little boy! I did it for the Royal Opera House a few years ago but my love affair with the piece was actually ignited when I covered it for the English National Opera while I was still at music college. I never actually went on but it was the most amazing production and I have absolutely adored it ever since.
What will it mean to be performing at the Met?
Obviously it’s an amazing company with an amazing reputation, so it’s going to be a real privilege to go and sing there. Being at the Met is really a landmark in your career, it definitely counts as one of those badges of honour for a singer.
And quite some badge because after your debut you are staying on to immediately go on to play Giulietta in Les contes d’Hoffmann…
Yes it’s rather fortuitous – two operas for the price of one trip! But it will be great. It’s a company that I always hear really good things about backstage, in that it has a real family feel. The singers feel well looked after when they are there.
Is that important for you?
Well I think you do your best work when you are made to feel welcome and part of something bigger. It will be rather unique for us as a family because the kids will all come out for 3 weeks and we’ll have Christmas together in New York, I’ll actually be away for all of December and January with one small trip home for a few days between performances in January.
You’ve got four children aged 13, 9, 6 and 4 – that makes for an incredibly busy life! How do you find trying to balance the family with all of your travelling?
I think I probably enjoyed the travel more when they were little because they were able to come with me all the time – as long as you found a supermarket and maybe a play area they were ok. But in the last two years that has changed because my elder daughter has started senior school. I leave acres of pencilled schedules for my husband and my parents who help me and I’m in contact with them all the time. I’m the one who even from a distance will be dealing with all the letters from school and making sure the kids have all the right equipment on the right days. I am home as much as possible, since I’ve been in Cardiff if I’ve had a morning off I have still gone home just for a short time.
That’s an awful lot to have to fit into your head, how do you keep your sanity?!
It can be a lot but I am fairly well practised at it now! I do it for my family, but I guess mostly I do it for me. I don’t want to be disconnected because it’s where my heart is and it’s the most important thing really. I always find that the effort I make in coming home is rewarded and even if I’m charging about after the kids in that time, I’m more relaxed by it because I’m in my life.
I’m a great list-maker, the side in the kitchen is filled with them. I empty my brain on to lists. That said what’s nice is when you unexpectedly find one of your old lists at the bottom of a handbag and you look at the things you didn’t get round to and realise they didn’t really count anyway and nobody died because you didn’t do them, which is very therapeutic!
When did you find music?
My route into music was through drama really. When I was a teenager I learnt the piano and violin but I didn’t sing in any choirs or anything.
Did you not realise you could sing?
Well it’s funny but it was a friend of mine at school who was the girl who sang the lead in everything. She was the singer, so I was the actress – it never occurred to me to try singing. I was in Manchester Youth Theatre and as a teenager my dream was to go to drama school. The more serious I got about drama the more I realised you had to be able to dance and sing as well to be as flexible as possible as an actor, so that’s when I started to explore it and I went to the Royal Northern College. I was very green!
How did you find that, compared to others who might have been singing or playing instruments for years?
I had hardly had any lessons and in my first year I was aware of star singers who were getting all the parts. So I went away and had a think because it wasn’t always that they had the best voices. What they all had was confidence and people were responding to that confidence, so I decided, I don’t have the confidence but if I can fake it then I might get offered the singing. It absolutely worked and once I had been offered the singing the confidence grew! I had a wonderful singing teacher, Robert Alderson. He is still a friend and I still go to him: I simply wouldn’t be a singer without him. He was a great visionary for hearing raw voices and knowing that he could make something out of them.
What makes a great singer then?
Many talented people do not end up with careers – there is quite a combination of aspects about a personality that lead to you being successful or not. It’s not just whether you’ve got the vocal equipment. You need to be organised, dedicated to routine of practise and learning roles, a good colleague, able to get on with other people and respect other peoples work, and you need to be able to swallow rejection too. I have an acceptance that we are human and not perfect. You have to try your hardest with the equipment you’ve got and hope people like it, really.
You certainly had a very difficult time last year when you were bed bound for several long months with whooping cough and chest infections and ended up having to have an operation to remove a polyp on your vocal chords
I had had a lot of ill health, maybe from overdoing it, but it was also just bad luck. I’d never really been unwell for long, so it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be ill for months.
You must have been in a dark place at times
I felt sort of cheated. I normally listen to BBC Radio 3 as I drive around but I found that really difficult. I felt like when I couldn’t do it and I didn’t know how it was going to pan out for me, it was something I almost couldn’t bear to hear. It was incredibly tough and traumatic of course, but you do have to put it in a context. I wasn’t actually dying of anything. Once I realised I would be OK there was actually a real peace in just having to be being at home.
Did it clarify what you wanted to do?
When I finally came back to it after the operation, I was sitting at the piano one day and looking at a shelf of music and thinking I know what I have and haven’t enjoyed in my career and I decided I would concentrate on what I felt most at home with. I never felt that I was a recitalist, I never really felt lieder was for me, it wasn’t there in my solar plexus. So I made the decision that I wanted to be on the opera stage as much as possible. I’m sure the drama background is why I feel most at home in opera – the process of rehearsing and inhabiting a character is what I love.
Music is an extraordinary thing; it connects all aspects of the human being. You have a physical response to it, it can make you dance, you have an emotional response to it, it sets mood sometimes even without noticing it. It can tell us where we are supposed to be in our emotional temperature. I can’t think of other art forms that do all of that.
Is there any particular music you yearn to sing?
I wouldn’t want to sink into the stultifying thing of only doing five roles and I have got various new roles coming up, including Mélisande with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I’m also looking forward to doing Lucretia at Glyndebourne next summer. Having sung in the chorus there in the early days it will be wonderful to make my debut at the festival.
But quite early on I realised that you can’t predict what sort of jobs you will enjoy most and which roles are the most satisfying. Years ago I did the famous Graham Vick production of Madam Butterfly and it was the most heart-breakingly wonderful experience to be part of that. It was a real genius of a production and I was able to engage with that and feel really satisfied without being the lead role.
I like being surprised by my work, rather than being too rigid and charting a career path that has all the ‘right’ elements in it. I take it a day at a time. I am very blessed to be singing again.