A grown-up talent

Letting out one of her hearty laughs, Elizabeth Llewellyn compares herself to a plant that has just been given fertiliser. Without that, she says, the plant can survive quite happily and continue growing. But properly nurtured, “the plant flowers better and starts to bear fruit”.

Elizabeth Llewellyn at the Hackney Empire in London

Llewellyn, 39, uses this quaint analogy to express the transformation her career has undergone in the past two years. For a decade, her beautiful soprano lay dormant – unexercised, unnoticed, undeveloped. Then someone heard her sing and suggested she see a voice teacher. Within months she was starring in English National Opera’s La bohème. Earlier this season her Micaela stole the show in the same company’s Carmen. Now she is about to sing the soprano role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra for English Touring Opera.

Few singers make so much progress in so little time, and when they do, they tend to be young, ambitious and prone to early burnout. Llewellyn is no hothouse plant. By the standards of her profession she is hardly young. Although she was talent-spotted as a teenager and had a classic conservatoire training, she spent most of her twenties and thirties as an office worker. Her voice had time to settle, and she had time to mature.

“In one sense I don’t regret being out of music for so long,” she says. “You bring something more to the table by getting some life experience. At college you tend to be painfully aware of what your peers think of you. As you get older, these things matter less. I’m more than happy to look a bit foolish in rehearsal. By daring to make mistakes you have the chance to go to a new place, and as you get older, you learn the value of that.”

Llewellyn’s calmness and common-sense values are unusual in a profession renowned for temperamental excess. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Llewellyn attended a school in south London where the headmistress paid for her to have singing lessons and gave her £50 “to go to as many concerts as I could”. After winning a place at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, all was set fair for a singing career – until Llewellyn discovered she was unable to shake off the common cold. “In a normal job you might take a couple of days off work, but it manifested itself vocally with weeks away from singing.”

Despite encouragement from the Peter Moores Foundation, which had enough faith in her talent to pay for her condition to be investigated, Llewellyn was unable to counteract what her body seemed to be telling her. She handed her scholarship money back. “My teacher told me I’d probably grow out of it – I think she was trying to reassure me it might not be the end. She was right. Your voice and body are always developing, and what it can’t cope with this year, it might next year.”

In Llewellyn’s case, it turned out to be 10 years. She became “a normal commuter working in an office” until she bought a flat in an unfamiliar area of London and realised she needed a social life. She joined the local music club, learned some Mozart arias and sang a handful of concerts. “Eventually the conductor sat me down and said ‘What are you doing?’. He said I ought to be taking it more seriously. That set me thinking.”

After some “brutally honest” assessments from people in the music profession, she undertook a summer opera course in Italy, applied for ENO’s Opera Works training programme and auditioned for the Glyndebourne chorus. “Things began to take shape,” she says. “The right people have come into my life at the right time.”

Does it seem more of a job now than when she sang purely for pleasure? “There can be pressures from outside – ‘what will the critics say?’ – or they can be all in one’s head. Eventually you have to make up your mind: do the best job you can and let others decide whether they like it or not. But if you come off the stage saying ‘I haven’t short-changed the public’, that’s all you can ask of yourself.”

Her Amelia in ETO’s Simon Boccanegra suggests that medium-size Verdi could open up rich seams in her voice. But when I suggest that the logical next step would be to sing the part of Desdemona in Otello, she offers a qualified response. “If we can sort the colour thing ... ”.

Meaning? “Otello is black, everyone else is white. People think vocally first, and Desdemona is a fantastic fit for me, but it doesn’t occur to them that dramatically there’s a problem.”

This is the first time the question of race has surfaced in our conversation, and Llewellyn handles it with characteristic grace – not least when I suggest that opera is colour-blind.

“I guess so. In Così fan tutte I sang Fiordiligi opposite Julia Riley, a blue-eyed blonde, who was playing my sister. That was interesting: an actress friend said the way people understand family connections is not by how you look but how you behave with one another. I suppose we could have been black and white twins of mixed-race parents, but the audience immediately accepted us as sisters. That’s one of the beauties of theatre, the way you can make people suspend disbelief for almost anything – if you do it well. That’s the only caveat.”

Racial stereotyping may no longer be an issue onstage, but opera in the UK continues to be predominantly a white person’s art form, which Llewellyn accepts with a wry smile. “Sometimes you go to a make-up call and they don’t have anything for black skin. I have a running joke with my friends about ‘flesh-coloured tights’. For one show we were given a job-lot, and I was the only one with legs like leprosy, because the tights were not the same colour as my hands and face. It’s a bit of a compliment really: people see me as a singer, not a colour.”

Llewellyn seems in no rush to conquer the world, but she is not devoid of ambition. Having successfully ventured Richard Strauss songs in her Rosenblatt recital two years ago, she has her sights on the Marschallin (Der Rosenkavalier), the title part in Arabella and the Countess in Capriccio – roles to which her command of the stage and creamy lyric soprano would seem ideally suited.

“This is an important year for me,” she says, “and I do want to move things on.”

English Touring Opera’s Simon Boccanegra’,Hackney Empire, London, March 8 www.englishtouringopera.org.uk

Details of ENO’s Opera Works, a professional development course for singers, at www.eno.org/operaworks

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