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Whether she will make the big splash in 2007 is anyone’s guess, but I’m going to go much further than the next 12 months: I can see Jennifer Johnston making her Bayreuth debut in 10 years’ time, probably as Sieglinde.
Jennifer who? Well yes, you may wonder why I am backing a little-known Liverpudlian mezzo for greatness so far down the line, but real talent is hard to miss when it comes as naturally and eloquently as this.
The events to look out for in the immediate future are a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert at London’s Cadogan Hall on February 3, when Johnston will sing in Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella”, and the revival of Scottish Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” in Glasgow on March 28, in which she will sing Suzuki. Neither is a show-stopping role – but I wouldn’t want a singer of Johnston’s quality to be overreaching herself in the early stages of a career that shows so much long-term potential.
From the moment I heard Johnston sing in Scottish Opera’s “Carmen” last May, when she sang the relatively minor role of Mercedes, I knew this was someone exceptionally gifted – not just vocally but histrionically. Then came her Irene in “Tamerlano” in November, with the same company. From Bizet to Handel, Johnston made the stylistic transition without missing a beat. The voice is not just flexible enough to glide through Handel’s decorative flourishes; it is rich, radiant, big and beautiful, with a top that seems in permanent blossom. That’s why I think she will soon gravitate towards high mezzo or low soprano roles, and why Sieglinde is not too crazy a notion for the longer term. I may be jumping ahead of myself, dreaming of the wonderful parts I want Johnston to fill – first, please, let’s have Sesto or Annio (“La clemenza di Tito”), Charlotte (“Werther”) and Adalgisa (“Norma”).
Johnston, who studied law and practised as a barrister before taking up music professionally, also has fantastic stage presence, which she uses judiciously. That was most obvious in “Tamerlano”: she seemed instinctively to gauge the audience’s reaction, striking a balance between the comic and the serious.
As a recipient of the Susan Chilcott Scholarship Johnston has already caught the attention of people within the profession. It can’t be long before the wider concert- and opera-going public start getting excited too.