December 9, 2011 6:53 pm

Wagner and beyond

Soprano Emma Bell is concerned with emotional truthfulness – but there are limits

If the aim of an opera singer is to fuse maximum vocal beauty with maximum dramatic commitment, then Emma Bell hits the spot. Few singers in recent memory have probed so deeply beneath the skin of their stage characters while singing with such flexibility and colour.

It’s an achievement that has furnished Bell with a dilemma. Should she continue down the road of bel canto, the beautiful singing that has established her as a leading Handel and Mozart soprano on both sides of the Atlantic, or should she head for the dramatic roles to which her voice seems increasingly suited?

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Her role-debut this month as Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at London’s Royal Opera House suggests the latter. It is one of Wagner’s lighter soprano parts but it thrives on a singer of temperament and often serves as a door-opener to the heavier Wagner-Strauss repertoire.

“You like to think you haven’t burned any bridges [by moving into heavier roles],” she muses, in characteristically down-to-earth style, during a rehearsal break at Covent Garden. “But I’m a soprano: you get older and wiser. If the bigger parts come my way, that’s fine. If not, and the pay-off is to continue what I’m singing, I’ll live with it happily.”

Most sopranos are typecast as “lyric” or “dramatic” quite early in their career. Bell, 40, is lucky to have been able to put off the decision for so long. She has an unusually long and rich voice, with a brilliant top and a fine coloratura technique. These qualities have kept her Mozart going, even as she essays the heavier parts. The coming year finds her returning to the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at the Paris Opéra and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, but there is the prospect of another encounter with Wagner early in 2013, when she sings Elsa (Lohengrin) for the first time in a new Welsh National Opera production.

Whatever Bell sings – including the title role of Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune, which she created at the Bregenz festival in July and will reprise at Covent Garden in March – she brings visceral intensity and emotional truthfulness. Beauty of timbre is not her first concern. “If the emotion is honest, I don’t care how thickly it is ladled on,” she says. “If that means sounding more like a screaming banshee, then that’s the way it’s going to come out. I would much rather hear an honest bawl than a cold, musically beautiful but meaningless rendition.”

Born in Warwickshire into a non-musical family, she recalls that “I always wanted to sing but didn’t appreciate until quite late that you could really do it [as a career]”. In her early teens she set her heart on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. “Poor neighbours: I sang it every day, but I probably never will sing it [professionally].”

After six years at the Royal Academy of Music, recognition came quickly. In the space of a few weeks in 1998, she progressed via the Glyndebourne chorus, the Kathleen Ferrier Award and her first covering role (Amelia’s Maidservant in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at Glyndebourne), to the title role in Handel’s Rodelinda for one performance on the Glyndebourne tour. When the production was revived the following summer, the role was hers. She still regards singing the duet with Andreas Scholl at the end of Act Two as the highlight of her career.

Then came marriage to Icelandic tenor Finnur Bjarnason, a sensational London debut in 2005 as Vitellia (La clemenza di Tito) and a string of roles at La Scala, Milan, where “working practices are chaotic. But the chorus is jaw-droppingly wonderful and anyone who coaches you is a mine of information.”

Life since then has not been quite so smooth. Her Violetta in English National Opera’s La traviata sank beneath a poor production – “I’d love to do the role again in Italian” – and her divorce in 2007 left her juggling the responsibilities of a single mother with a burgeoning international career. I ask whether the turmoil in her private life had deepened her understanding of the emotionally wrought characters she portrays. This touches a raw nerve.

“Someone told me, ‘You’ll be a better singer for it.’ So you’re telling me divorce is a good thing because it will make me a better singer? Opera singing is not a reflection of your own life [and] people who bring their own life to the stage are not really acting. It’s a fine line. As an actor you have the entire tool kit from watching and observing. You want to bring something of your own life so that it starts to be true but you can’t afford to let your own feelings take over.”

Bell argues that rather than serving as an outlet for a singer’s fraught emotional life, opera can help to contain and cool it. “Whatever profession you are in, life has stresses and strains. The beautiful thing about opera is that you can escape: the character you are playing isn’t in a mood and hasn’t just stubbed her toe.”

Least of all when she is Wagner’s Eva, the daughter of Nuremberg’s wealthiest burgher and one of Meistersinger’s pivotal characters – simultaneously attracted to the mature cobbler Hans Sachs, wooed by the pedantic town clerk Beckmesser and madly in love with the handsome young knight Walther von Stolzing. Isn’t Eva a rare case of a wishy-washy character in Wagner?

“Absolutely not. She’s too smart to be wishy-washy. She has arrived at a particular point in life – the knife-edge between being innocent and knowing, child and woman. [Falling in love] is a new experience for her and she doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

Bell may be experiencing these emotions in her first professional encounter with Wagner. “To say everything in my life has been a precursor to this makes me sound like a complete tosser but it’s an untapped part of my musical education. There’s a different energy in Wagner’s music, which you get even when watching your colleagues sing. I’m completely hooked.”

‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ opens at the Royal Opera House, London on December 19; www.roh.org.uk

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