Interview: Jennifer Davis
How did you start singing? I hear you come from a musical family!
Yes, everyone in my family is musical, my Mam in particular as she is a singer and teacher and so I grew up hearing her giving singing lessons; singing was always in the house. My siblings and I were encouraged to sing and learn instruments as children and we went to music school at the weekends and were involved in musicals. I also joined a church choir when I was quite young and did my chorister awards, but I guess I always thought in a way that singing was really Mam’s thing. I studied English literature at UCD in Dublin, and so I was in my 20s before I really took singing seriously. I completed my Masters at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama in Dublin and then went on to the National Opera Studio, London, in 2013. It took me a little while to find my way.
And then the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme – a huge opportunity for anyone but one you seem particularly to have got a lot out of.
Oh for sure, the Jette Parker has changed my trajectory completely. Without it I may not have had quite the same training and exposure I have been lucky to enjoy. It has given me so many performing and learning opportunities.Towards the end of my time on the programme I got to jump in and sing Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore a few times [while covering the role for the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak]. It was so exciting, getting to sing a lead role in that house. I had been on that stage a lot during my time there but up til that point nothing of that size or importance. It was a little tricky because I was rehearsing another show, Mitridate, during the day then singing Adina at night, which was quite the learning curve. Although it was a bit tiring, it was an incredible experience. An opportunity like that really lets you discover what you can do and whether or not you can handle stressful situations.
Having said that, there are a vast number of routes for people to take. The Jette Parker is not the only one, but it was definitely the right one for me.
And have you kept in touch with your fellow young artists since you left?
Absolutely, you’re often bumping into ex-young artists who trained there, whether it’s in other houses or back at the ROH. I’m still friendly with everyone who was in the programme during my time there and it’s so lovely to see them all singing well and having wonderful careers.
You were back at the Royal Opera last summer to sing Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin. It’s a big, demanding role and one in which you were confirmed quite close to the performances. Did it feel like a sudden step up?
Lohengrin is the biggest thing I’ve ever done, no doubt about it, and I am eternally grateful that the Royal Opera gave me that opportunity and trusted me with it. Agreeing to cover something and actually doing all the rehearsals and performances are two very different things.
I think it probably appeared like a very last minute choice in terms of me taking over the role, but I personally had been living with Elsa for a long time and the decision for me to step in wasn’t made quickly or lightly by anyone, especially me. I was still a young artist when Peter Katona [the Royal Opera’s Director of Casting] first approached me about it. My initial reaction was “God no! I’m far too young, I should wait,” but Peter has such a wealth of experience that I felt if he thought I had it in me I should at least look at the score and really think about it. I was still singing Adina and preparing various things, the young artists programme is quite intense and you’re extraordinarily busy, so altogether it took me nearly four months to decide whether I should cover it or not, and Peter and the ROH gave me that space. So by the time the production began rehearsing I’d been looking at the score and singing it in slowly for about a year and a half.
Although Elsa is very much a lyric soprano role it is Wagner. Do you see Wagnerian singing as something you might grow into vocally, or do you think Elsa’s as far as you’ll go?
Wagner is thrilling to sing and I love singing Elsa, but other than that role, and possibly Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, everything else is too heavy for me vocally at the moment. I’m only 32 so I’m not thinking about many other Wagner roles just yet, but maybe Elisabeth in Tannhäuser might one day be a possibility. It’s really hard to tell because you can’t predict how your voice will develop. This might be it! If my voice doesn’t get any bigger I’d be ok with that; I’m a lyric soprano, there’s so much for me to sing, and so many exciting roles I haven’t performed yet. I adore Wagner, so if my voice eventually takes that turn I’d be delighted, but I’m happy to take my time and enjoy what I’m capable of now.
And lots of new places to sing in! Where have you travelled to recently?
I recently did a couple of jump-ins for Elsa in Lohengrin, going to Theater Stuttgart and to Opera Vlaanderen in Antwerp, both very last minute. They were so wonderful. Even though both situations had a certain stress attached (jumping into a role that long is quite an experience), I was treated with so much care. It’s so lovely going to different houses and meeting everyone there, I had a wonderful time in both places even though my time there was so brief! I adore travelling, and am very much looking forward to spending extended periods of time in some of the world’s most beautiful cities.How do you maintain your training, do you still go for lessons, still get coaching?I do, it’s really vital to keep up your work with trusted coaches and your teacher. The human voice has always fascinated me and I love to play around and explore new sensations and sounds and see what’s possible. As an ex-young artist I’m very lucky that I still get training at the opera house which is a godsend as I can go back to the coaches I've worked with for the past few years.
I feel incredibly fortunate that performing in Lohengrin has launched me into a new sphere and lots of doors have opened to me. For me, this means I have to knuckle down and work harder than I’ve ever done before, to continue to raise my standard further still, because the opportunities that are coming my way are in glorious houses with exalted histories and reputations, and I get to work alongside the best of the best in my field. It’s especially important for me to see a singing teacher regularly and make sure that everything’s ticking over. My voice has grown in the past year so I’m examining that, making sure nothing crazy starts happening vocally.
What can you tell us about what you’ve got coming up? I know a lot is still under wraps….
I’m into rehearsals for my first Gretel in a new production of Hänsel und Gretel (at the Royal Opera House) – it’s such a beautiful role and has its tricky moments so I’ve been studying that intensively for the past few months. I’m also singing Pamina for the first time back home in Ireland next summer which I’m looking forward to, and making my company debut with Welsh National Opera as First Lady in The Magic Flute.Other than that I’m afraid I don’t know how much I can say because things haven’t been announced – I can only say that some exciting things are coming my way and I feel very lucky!
Helen Cocks is a freelance arts writer who has contributed to Classical Music, TES, The Quietus and Choir & Organ among others.