Emma Bell on Vanessa: 'Everything I have ever sung of Barber’s I have loved'

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Looking forward to her role debut in Vanessa, Emma Bell talks to Kate Harvey about the freedom of a blank canvas

When Glyndebourne unveiled its 2018 Festival lineup, there was great excitement at the prospect of a new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa.

An immediate triumph on its premiere in 1958, the opera won a Pulitzer Prize but, despite its rich orchestration and memorable melodies, it has rarely been seen outside the US. As a result, next summer’s staging will be the first fully-staged, professional production of Vanessa in the UK.

Taking the title role is Kathleen Ferrier Award winner Emma Bell, who began her career in the Glyndebourne Chorus, quickly moving on to principal roles for the Tour (Rodelinda) and Festival (Rodelinda, The Turn of the Screw, The Cunning Little Vixen).

‘I have to confess when I first opened the score and saw on the title page, ‘Vanessa: a beautiful woman in her late 30s’, I was hooked,’ Emma says. ‘I’ve never played a beautiful woman before – it’s something quite new and an hilarious bit of vanity. The family said, “Some might say it would be the biggest challenge yet..!”

‘On a serious note, I was immediately struck by the “time standing still” aspect of the story. Reading the libretto what stuck out most was the line “I have scarcely breathed so that life should not leave its trace, and that nothing must change in me that you loved.” It conjured up so many thoughts. To sing and explore this piece will be hugely rewarding and exciting.’

Emma is making a role debut as Vanessa and has never seen a production of the opera, though she has performed music by Samuel Barber in recital. ‘Everything I have ever sung of Barber’s I have loved – Knoxville being my favourite so far. He always teams, or so it seems to me, with incredible wordsmiths. And wordsmiths of his own time. It’s that same kind of Britten marriage of words and music. The language is so wonderfully evocative of the things they are talking about and the era they are in.’

On the score for Vanessa, Emma says ‘the sound world is really rich. For my money, I’m entering the world of Strauss – these beautiful lines, with an understanding of the voice, rich colours.’

Emma Bell as the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen.

Emma Bell as the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen, Festival 2012. Photo: Bill Cooper

Glyndebourne’s production of Vanessa will be directed by the British director Keith Warner, who says he’s been waiting his entire career for a chance to direct the piece. The darkly psychological plot makes it a deeply theatrical opera, well suited to a singer who is so admired for her acting abilities.

‘We’ve not seen how it will be designed, or what’s in Keith’s mind, yet I’m already in a world of black and white movies. It’s hugely cinematic, conversational, up-close.’

The relative rarity of Vanessa productions means next year’s staging offers something new not just to audiences, but also many of the performing company, which includes Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas as Anatol and French mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez as Erika.

‘It’s basically a blank canvas, which is so exciting – no pre-conceptions from audience or artists,’ Emma explains. ‘I don’t think we have anybody in the cast that has done their role before. Not only are we doing role debuts but we’re doing role debuts where there is no ‘tradition’, if you like – there’s no ‘I’ve seen Don Giovanni a hundred times and now it’s my turn to do my Don Giovanni.’

In recent years Emma has debuted a number of jugendlich-dramatisch (lyric dramatic soprano) roles including Eva (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Elsa (Lohengrin) and Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) moving on from an early career built predominantly on Mozart’s leading ladies.

Her Glyndebourne debut came in 1998, the same year that she joined the Glyndebourne Chorus, when she stepped in to cover for an indisposed Lisa Milne in the title role of Rodelinda during the Glyndebourne Tour.

‘In the first week of being in the Glyndebourne Chorus I won the Kathleen Ferrier Award. The management instantly said, ‘Right, we’ve got a Ferrier winner in the building’ and I was given the cover role of Annina’s Maid in Simon Boccanegra that season. Then they were looking ahead to covers for the Tour – Rodelinda had opened that season in the Festival and I covered Lisa Milne. From that leap of faith – from Annina’s Maid’s one line, to going on as Rodelinda – I was back on the Festival as a soloist the next year. It’s really amazing to me.’

On returning to Glyndebourne next summer for the first time since 2012 (when she played the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen) Emma says: ‘I always love coming to Glyndebourne. Everything is so beautiful and professional, the production values are so high, the musical standards are fantastic, there’s a canteen with good food (call me shallow!) and I know everybody – honestly the list just goes on and on…


Vanessa is part of the 2018 Glyndebourne Festival from 5 – 26 August 2018.

Vanessa will also be screened live in cinemas and for free online on Tuesday 14 August.