My Opera Experience
Presents Breakfast on Radio 3, and has hosted the world's leading opera singing competition, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, on BBC TV for 20 years.
What was your first opera?
I came to grand opera quite late. I grew up in Cornwall at a time when there was very little opportunity to see opera. There was no theatre in Truro then, although it is now brilliantly served by ETO. The closest I got was seeing Gilbert and Sullivan at school. There was an annual production by the Parents and Teachers’ Association – and I relished the brilliance of Sullivan’s settings of Gilbert’s words. Things that were already good, improved multiple times by being set to music. I went to a big comprehensive school in Helston, which had a great music department, and we had orchestras, choirs, visiting artists playing chamber music – but little in the way of opera. I seem to remember we watched a video of Zeffirelli’s production of La traviata (The Fallen Woman, Verdi, 1853), but that was about as far as it went.
What was the last opera you saw and where?
Street Scene (1947) by Kurt Weill at Opera North in Leeds – a brilliant example of a company full of great singers taking on a work and making it seem like true theatre. A hot summer day in New York unfolded in front of me on a cold Yorkshire February evening.
What is your favourite opera and why?
I have broad tastes, but I think my favourite opera is Peter Grimes (Britten, 1945). The sense of drama, the idea of the outsider, the tightly knit community, the sea – all brilliantly musically evoked by Britten. Billy Budd (Britten, 1951) and Death in Venice (Britten, 1973), would be on my list too. Master-Singer (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, Wagner, 1868). and Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, Strauss, 1911) as well. Such grand operatic riches, with music that thrills – and if done well, real event theatre.
How did you get into opera?
English National Opera. I moved to London when I was 21 and started going to the Coliseum regularly. I loved its repertoire – the idea you could flit from The Magic Flute (Mozart, 1791) to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Shostakovich,1934), La bohème (The Bohemians, Puccini, 1896) to Katya Kabanova (Janáček, 1921). Again, the idea of a strong company kept drawing me back, seeing singers take on different roles. And the sense of theatre that was key to their work made it very open and accessible. I think it is vitally important we have a company that performs the great works in English.
What opera would you recommend to a newcomer and why?
I think La bohème would be a good introduction or Carmen (Bizet, 1875) – both have such a clear narrative and gripping story. If you are trying to convince someone who is already a regular theatre goer and is open minded about music, perhaps one of the Britten masterpieces, or Lady Macbeth.