Both of you are about to embark on the prestigious biennial Cardiff Singer of the World competition, what will it mean for you?
Gary Griffiths: I’ve grown up watching the competition and it has always been an ambition to take part in it. I’m very aware of who has over the years – it feels wonderful to be in that line up of people. It’s nice to think I did the competition as part of the development stage of being a young singer.
Susana Gaspar: For me it comes at the right time because I’m finishing the Jette Parker Young Artists at the Royal Opera House so it’s a way of getting into the business to be seen and heard. Of course it’s a competition but it is an amazing platform.
In the main competition you will sing various concert and operatic works accompanied by full orchestra. What sort of repertoire can we expect to hear?
SG: There is always a need to choose contrasting things. I think all the repertoire I have sits in the verismo and romantic genres because it’s what my voice is for. But inside that I have different characters and you have to play with that: so Giulietta couldn’t be more different than Nedda, or even Liu and Mimi – both Puccini but completely different. They are all things that are in there.
I’ll be doing one of Mimi’s arias from La Bohème. I have done it a little bit on stage for BBC Maestro and I’ve covered it twice on stage for The Royal Opera, so I feel that it is a role that I can do. I tried to choose things that I am ready to do now but also things that my voice is going towards. I think it’s important to say, I am this right now, but my voice is going here.
Yes and I see you are singing one of Violetta’s arias from La Traviata which you will be doing with Napier Opera in New Zealand later this year.
SG: Yes that’s one of those bigger roles which I am going towards. I am looking forward to doing Violetta, and I hope to do Mimi many times in the future.
GG: I can see you doing that.
SG: Everything I’m doing for Cardiff I would like to do. I would never put something on the list just because it is a good aria for competition if I wouldn’t want to do the whole role. No one will see me as Tosca! I could sing ‘Vissi d’arte’ but I can’t sing the role – at least not now or in the next 5 years. And it wouldn’t make sense to choose something from Aida say, which I feel that I would never do. If in my head I don’t believe I would sing the whole role at least one day, if not right now, then I don’t think there is any point.
What do you think Gary?
GG: I think it’s difficult because a singer might really be able to nail a certain aria right now although they may not be able to nail the role.
I’m singing an aria of Rodrigo’s from Don Carlo. I think I could now sing Rodrigo but I wouldn’t want to sing it in a big theatre tomorrow – I could do it in a smaller house and develop it. The aria is only 4 minutes from the whole opera so it’s like a little taster of what I hope I might do. At the end of the day it is a competition so the panel are not there to cast you in the role, they are there to see what you can sing in your 18 minutes.
Is the aria new for you?
GG: Yes and I’m glad that I’ve waited until now because now I feel like I can give it what it deserves. It’s a stamina thing, a maturity thing. Just under half of my whole repertoire for both orchestral and song prizes is brand new – for me it keeps things fresh. It means it’s the voice that you have now that you put in to those pieces and they don’t have any old traits.
I’m also doing an aria from Onegin as well as one from Cosi Fan Tutte which I did with WNO.
Is the way you programme your choices also important?
GG: Yes, if I was going to an audition how I programme the arias would matter much less but now we have to put together a programme that has a shape to it and the ideas you have for the programme serve how you are going to impact the audience. How you start and how you finish is in my opinion the most important thing.
SG: And it’s all in 18 minutes which isn’t that much for opera! I had other arias on my list but they wouldn’t fit.
Of course in terms of the operatic repertoire you have both had the benefit of two years on a young artist scheme, Gary with WNO and Susana at ROH. How have they helped you?
SG: You work with the best singers, conductors and directors, in one of the best houses – you can’t ask for more. To be in that environment with amazing singers, like Kauffman just now in Don Carlo – it’s amazing.
We are supported in everything from languages to stagecraft. And you can always go back to the Opera House for help for the rest of your life – you get free coaching! So if I am preparing a role I can still go back and ask for some help on the French or this or that. It doesn’t mean you will necessarily get roles there but you will always be linked – you never leave the house!
GG: It was very exciting to go straight from college to being part of Welsh National Opera and a very exciting time to be there because it was brand new. The whole place is so artistically driven. It’s not so much of an educational thing as they just throw you into it – it’s more like here’s the role of ‘x’ but we will coach you.
It was such a friendly company to work for and with the touring it was really useful to get experience in different theatres around the country.
And you have plans to go further afield with them at the end of this year don’t you?
GG: Yes we are actually going over to Oman to the Royal Opera House in Muscat to do Maria Stuarda over there. It’s opening so many different doors. It’s really good.
As well as the main competition, in which you will sing various concert and operatic works accompanied by full orchestra, you are both also entering the separate Song Prize. Is Lieder something that you would like to pursue alongside opera?
SG: We should do both. Song is very important to me as an artist. I think it is more difficult. I don’t have the make up or the lights; I don’t have an orchestral pit between the audience and me. In recital it’s just you and the piano and you have to create everything and make the audience see what you are seeing. It’s a different approach to a character and to the music but I think it is good training for opera as well because you can bring things from recital work to opera.
GG: I totally agree with you Susana. Song teaches you so much because of how exposed it is and how much more delicate you have to be, not just with your voice, but also with the words. It’s not about wanting to show that you can do both, it’s actually needing to because you enjoy both. I’ve spoken to really prominent singers and they have said that it was the one thing they wish they did more of early in their career but actually there just wasn’t the time. It’s a balancing act.
Unlike other competitions you have done before you will each be representing your country. Will that feel different?
SG: It’s great to represent my country because even though I have lived here for 7 years and am probably more well known over here, I will always be Portuguese! There are a lot of wonderful artists in Portugal who haven’t had the chance to come abroad to study, so I would be happy if I can open the doors for others to come.
And how about you Gary, how will it feel to be the Welsh man at the Cardiff competition..?
GG: Great! Its not a pressure that it’s in Cardiff – I think it’s spurring me on to do my very best. I imagine everyone is feeling the same way; we all know what we’re walking in to!
SG: And you are at home!
GG: Yes – I live 5 minutes from the hall so I can sleep in my own bed!
Of course you were both in the Guildhall Gold Medal final together four years ago. How important is it to do competitions these days?
GG: It’s the modern, age of singers. Back in Pavarotti’s day they didn’t do competitions on a global scale – it was so different back then to get in to the profession. I feel that this is a wave of exposure that we can’t get in any other way.
SG: Yes, it’s like a big audition for the world.