Casting Festival 2018 – a singer’s perspective

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The casting process is a central part of life as a professional opera singer. To find out more about the experience of being cast and the process of preparing for a role, Kate Harvey, Press Manager, spoke to three artists performing in Festival 2018.

Doris Soffel
Playing the Old Baroness in Vanessa

Headshot of Doris Soffel standing against a pink background

Doris Soffel. Photo: Boris Streubel.

German mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel makes her Glyndebourne debut in the role of the Old Baroness in Vanessa.

During an eminent international career she has performed at the world’s biggest opera houses. How does she decide which roles to accept? ‘If it’s a new role, my key considerations are: is it an interesting one in an interesting opera? Does this particular role match my voice and my personality? Who sang this role in the past?’ says Soffel. ‘Christa Ludwig’s repertoire is often a reference to me, and in this case it’s Regina Resnik, who sang the Old Baroness in the prime of her career.’

Once she has accepted a role, Soffel starts to study the music, reading through the score with a pianist and listening to recordings. ‘If it is possible within my schedule, I really plunge into it… I love to be fully prepared when rehearsals start.’

Having learnt both music and text, her next step is to research the composer and his intentions. ‘Understanding what the world was like at the time of the composition and how this opera, this role, could be interpreted and understood today – all this is discussed and examined more closely together with the creative team during the working process. It’s fun to analyse and consider how one should add one’s own personality as a dimension to the role. Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is a masterpiece. The music is so expressive, the plot is very interesting. This solitary and mysterious personality of the Old Baroness is fascinating and challenging. She is a character who is not easy to define. I look forward to working on that with Keith Warner (director).’

Christina Gansch
Playing Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande

Headshot of Christina Gansch

Christina Gansch. Photo: Kartal Karagedik.

Also making her Glyndebourne debut this summer is up-and-coming Austrian soprano Christina Gansch. The Kathleen Ferrier Award-winner will sing the role of Mélisande in a new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. ‘The casting process for this part went through various stages,’ she remembers. ‘I first got an invitation from Glyndebourne in 2015 to come to one of their general auditions. After that, a few weeks passed before I heard back – Glyndebourne was interested in hearing me in another audition for Mélisande in 2018.’

To grasp the opportunity, Gansch had to prepare carefully. ‘I had to be honest with myself, I didn’t know the opera very well and had never looked at the role of Mélisande. It meant I had to spend extra time preparing before the audition. At the time I was part of the young artists’ programme at the Hamburg State Opera where, as luck would have it, I was working on another opera project with Stefan Herheim [the director of Pelléas et Mélisande]. After auditioning for Mélisande for Robin Ticciati, and getting to know the director, the offer came in a few months later.’

After studying the opera, Gansch has come to love the role. ‘What I find interesting about Mélisande is that you can’t easily “get” her,’ she says. ‘Usually when I learn a role the characters are quite understandable – a person and a character that I can usually identify with at some level and then try to get into that character. With Mélisande it is very different. Sometimes when I think I have her character, she suddenly does something I do not understand. I find this fascinating on so many levels and I think it’ll make the work on this new production even more interesting.’

As well as learning the music, Gansch has been working with French language coaches and is currently looking for a house to rent for the summer. Her expectations of working at Glyndebourne are very high. ‘Every colleague who has worked at Glyndebourne praises it and tells me how lucky I am,’ she says. ‘It has such a good reputation artistically, for its backstage work and for the organisational aspects of the Festival. Plus there is a long rehearsal period, which is a luxury!’

Brindley Sherratt
Playing Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier and Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande

Brindley Sherratt and Jacques Imbrailo in Billy Budd.

Brindley Sherratt (left) and Jacques Imbrailo (right) in Billy Budd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.

Our third singer needs little introduction to Glyndebourne audiences. British bass Brindley Sherratt has performed regularly for the company since 2002, most recently in the role of Claggart in Billy Budd in 2013.

Next summer he appears in two productions – Pelléas et Mélisande (as Arkel) and Der Rosenkavalier, in which he performs the role of Baron Ochs. This role is a new one for him, performing it for the first time in 2017 in four performances for Welsh National Opera.

‘For many years people said to me, ‘you’d really enjoy doing Ochs’, he remembers. ‘I wasn’t entirely sure at first because I thought, how does anybody ever sing it or learn it, if you’ve not done it before? I came to see Der Rosenkavalier in 2014 when it was new and thought, I’d love to do it now. A little while later my agent said to me, “I’ve put you forward”. It took ages to confirm but eventually it came through and I heard in October 2015, relatively late for a large role.

At that time I downloaded several recordings and went to Vienna to see it. I bought a brand new score and thought, right I’m starting now – I didn’t want to get caught out. It took me a year and a half to learn it.’

In the meantime the opportunity arose to perform the role in WNO’s production in summer 2017. ‘There were only four performances tragically but I have done it now and it’s under my belt so now I’m really looking forward to this year.’

How does the lengthy build-up for Baron Ochs compare to preparing for a role that you’ve performed before, such as Arkel? ‘If I’m doing performances of one piece, while preparing for another – performing Rosenkavalier while we’re rehearsing Pelléas – I will probably sing the next role through a few times in between performances, just to start thinking about it,’ Sherratt explains. ‘I’ve done Arkel twice now and because there’s plenty of rehearsal time, and I did it fairly recently in Frankfurt, I probably won’t have the energy or the time to do much study before I start.’

His preparations for a new role include researching the work and composer. ‘I like to do my own study,’ he confirms. ‘I need to look at the context, study who the character is, try to work out, how would I do this role? I have to find my own way of doing it.’

Sherratt was in his mid-30s before he launched a career as an opera singer. He built a name quickly so the casting experience now involves far fewer auditions. ‘My last audition was about five years ago,’ he explains. ‘There’s a general feeling as a singer that the more you go on, the harder auditions get. When you’re young and you’re starting out, auditions are what you do. You get geared up for it and you accept that you have to do this in order to get on the ladder. But if you’ve had years of experience on stage at a high level, working with really great singers, conductors, directors, and then someone says to you, ‘Can we hear you do so-and-so?’, and suddenly you’re on stage with an upright piano – it’s really strange. It’s like going back to interview for something that you did ten years ago.’

Having an established reputation has also influenced how he decides which roles to accept. ‘There was a time when I would want to have a completely full diary and as a freelance, self-employed person, there’s still a part of you that thinks like that. I’m 55 so as a bass I’m in the purple patch for a lot of roles and I’m interested in something that really gets me excited, I like trying new stuff out, even now at my grand old age!’