Stress levels are rising. The countdown to opening night has begun. Expectations are high, all the more so when a significant debut is involved. This is the point at which singers begin to feel nervous – and excited.
Kate Royal knows it. Next month she sings her first Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, a production that will raise the curtain on Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s summer season. Ever since the work was premiered more than a century ago, the role of the Marschallin – an aristocratic field marshall’s wife – has been recognised as one of the plum soprano parts in the repertoire. Some of the finest prima donnas of recent times, including Kiri Te Kanawa, Felicity Lott and Renée Fleming, have made it their own. Now it is Royal’s turn to persuade audiences that she is their natural successor. How is she coping?
For Royal, 35, the days preceding a first night are less to do with stage performance and more to do with stress management. “So much of the equation is about having the right state of mind,” she confides, as we settle into a backstage room lined with reminders of Glyndebourne’s glorious past. “It means avoiding stress as much as possible, because if you don’t, it goes straight to the voice: that’s what ends up taking the toll. Going to rehearsals with half as much sleep as you’d like is not ideal.”
As the London-born daughter of showbiz parents, Royal has greasepaint in her genes. In her mid-twenties, she won the Kathleen Ferrier Award and started guesting at international festivals. She signed a record contract and posed in glamorous adverts. There was no sign of stress then.
But then along came marriage to West End and Broadway star Julian Ovenden, and then motherhood: they now have a four-year-old and a two-year-old. A case of divided loyalties? Royal admits that combining a “proper” family life with a career has not been straightforward.
“It involves compromise,” she sighs. “It’s very easy to become removed from parenting when you’re in and out [of the family home] and I didn’t want to be someone who was in and out. My husband spends a lot of time in the US, and the nature of his work is that some of it is very last-minute. So I’m happy to take my time – to draw a line on negative stresses and find a stillness to work with and from.”
Coming from an opera singer, that’s an uncommonly philosophical line: almost Marschallin-like in its quiet reflectiveness. Royal recognises the parallel. “I don’t want to sound like an old woman but, as the years go by, your attitude changes towards what you want to get out of life.”
This helps to explain the slower pace of Royal’s career over the past couple of years. The emphasis has shifted to concert work, cutting down on long foreign engagements and fancy photo-shoots. She says the first seven years of her career were a “whirlwind”. Then, in 2010, Glyndebourne’s Don Giovanni brought her down to earth.
The reviews of her Donna Elvira were poor. She sounded vocally out of shape. “I should have taken more time off after my first baby,” she confesses. “Physically, I wasn’t quite ready. You live and learn. It’s all in the public eye, which makes it difficult. But I don’t regret anything.”
Far from it. She is toying with her next Mozart role – Fiordiligi in Così fan tuttè – and will return to Glyndebourne in 2015 as Female Chorus in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. She has no doubt that a change of voice teacher a year ago has been hugely beneficial: she now studies with Margreet Honig in Amsterdam.
“I needed new ideas,” says Royal. “The voice is changing all the time; after childbirth it takes years to settle and establish what you have. If I want a long career, I need to place more importance on technique and become stronger physically. Margreet has helped me connect mind and body – how important it is to have the right state of mind for singing.”
Right now, her mind is focused on Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss’s vocal lines soar, float and blend ecstatically, in a way that should suit Royal’s bright lyric soprano, especially in Glyndebourne’s small theatre. And unlike many interpreters who continue singing the Marschallin into their fifties, Royal finds herself at the right time in the life-cycle for a character whom Strauss saw as being in her early thirties.
Royal reckons the vocal challenges are relatively straightforward. Act One is “quite low” for the voice, “almost like singing Lieder – naturally expressive and speech-like”. Act Three has a different tessitura (the general level at which the vocal line is pitched), “with longer phrases, more sustained singing, especially at the end”.
For a part that does not make a single appearance in Act Two, Glyndebourne poses specific problems: the addition of a 90-minute dinner interval means that, “you could watch a movie in that gap. I may have to warm up all over again.”
As for characterisation, Royal finds the field marshall’s wife to be “quite complex”. It’s a fair assessment of a woman who is seen at curtain-up emerging from a passionate sexual encounter with a younger man (Octavian). The Marschallin philosophises on the passage of time, talks of going regularly to church and, in the final scene, watches her lover waltz off with a woman his own age.
“She is not happily married, she’s probably had many affairs,” observes Royal, “but she doesn’t feel it’s wrong – it’s her escape from the life of duty she lives. It’s an interesting combination, not feeling guilt but also having a strong religious faith. She feels protected. But she doesn’t run away with Octavian, she’s not an Anna Karenina. We very rarely see her out of control.”
That is something that Royal seems determined to emulate. The 45 minutes she has allocated for our late-morning interview are over. Her next parcel of time will be strictly devoted to focusing mind and body. The countdown to opening night has begun. Here is one singer whose stress levels should not be rising.
‘Der Rosenkavalier’, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, UK. May 17-July 3, glyndebourne.com