Friday, June 17, 2011

Roocroft rides again

My interview with Amanda Roocroft is in The Independent today. In the Royal Opera House's Peter Grimes, opening next week - a revival of Willy Decker's production - she's singing Ellen Orford to Ben Heppner's Grimes, with Andrew Davis conducting. Here's the director's cut, following a spot of Mozart: 'Ah, guarda, sorella' from Cosi fan tutte, with Rosa Mannion and John Eliot Gardiner.

After a long rehearsal for Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, preparing for opening night at the Royal Opera House, AmandaRoocroft seems to have enough energy to start the day all over again. At 45 she is the UK’s top lyric-dramatic soprano; and she’s a sassy northerner at heart, mother of three enthusiastic young football fans. You take her as you find her: with a practical black jacket, killer heels and a crucifix glittering at her throat, all topped with a radiant smile, what you see is what you get. 

Not everything is simple and straightforward where Roocroft is concerned, though. Several years ago, she nearly gave up singing altogether. 

“I wasn’t enjoying it any more,” Roocroft says. “I was too afraid and too self-critical.” She kept going, “because I had to earn money and fulfil contracts,” but at one point her performance as Janacek’s Jenufa at English National Opera looked as if it might be her last role – even though her interpretation won her an Olivier Award. “Being a perfectionist can be a curse,” she admits. “You beat yourself up constantly over the one or two notes you missed and that can wipe out the rewards of the whole evening.” 

Working through some challenging years has left her stronger and happier. “I changed my singing teacher, I sorted my home life out and I believe my baptism was a big part of it,” she says.  “I found a church that offered a loving, safe and accepting environment for me beyond my job, just as a human being who wants to live a good life. And I learned to love difficult times, because you know that you’re going to learn from them.” 

Feeling nurtured and comforted by her faith made all the difference, she says. “It had felt literally as if my voice, my ability to communicate, had been taken away from me. But then, because I felt more relaxed, I could sing – and feeling comfortable with my singing, I started enjoying it again.” Eventually she decided: “I’m lucky! I’m not going to start wishing for what I’ve not got; I’m going to celebrate what I have.”

Roocroft first fell in love with singing and acting when she was a child, growing up in Coppull in Lancashire. “My mum trained as a pianist, then stopped to have her family,” she says. “But in those days everyone sang: there were choirs, competitions and festivals, so she played for them and I always heard her. I learned the piano and the cornet and I played in a brass band.” But it was singing that attracted her most: “I never stopped wanting to do it and it was always classical music – I didn’t want to be the next Britney Spears.” 

She hit the headlines in her early twenties after graduating from the Royal Northern College of Music. She won a slew of important prizes and countless critical plaudits. The Royal Opera House booked her to sing Pamina in Die Zauberflöte when she was only 25 and thereafter engaged her every season for over a decade; and she made a high-profile debut CD with the London Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Möst, released by EMI in 1995. 

Maybe it was almost too much, too young: after the adulation came a backlash. “There was a huge furore those first few years,” Roocroft agrees. “There was this attitude: ‘Who does she think she is, when there are singers around with 20 years more experience?’ I don’t understand the youngsters on The X Factor who want to be famous and want to be in Hello magazine. That wasn’t my intention. I wanted to be respected within my peer group. I didn’t want to be famous, I didn’t want to be rich, I just wanted to sing and I wanted people to think it was great to work with me.”

Last year Roocroft made a triumphant return to ENO, playing the extraordinary role of Emilia Marty in Janácek’s The Makropoulos Case: a heroine who has cheated death for three centuries. “It was great – I got to be bad!” Roocroft grins, with relish. As a blonde lyric soprano, inevitably she used to find herself singing too many “good little girl” heroines. 

Her role as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes is utterly different. The story, based on the poem by George Crabbe and set on the Suffolk coast where Britten lived, describes the hounding to death of a fisherman whom the locals of the Borough suspect of abusing his apprentices – though nothing is proven against him. Ellen befriends him. 

“The opera’s about that mob mentality,” says Roocroft, “showing what the human race is capable of: that blind hatred, that ability to ruin somebody’s life – in this case to cause a man to commit suicide.” Grimes is an ‘outsider’; Ellen, too, is from beyond the Borough and is held at arms’ length by the community: “The ‘Borough’ views her with suspicion – but standing by Grimes, she has chosen this path. I love her because she’s so strong, strong-minded and strong-willed.” She’s sung Ellen before, but this will be the first time at the ROH. And there’s an extra element for her to enjoy: Grimes’s unfortunate apprentice will be played by her youngest son: “He auditioned like everyone else and earned the part himself.” 

A few months ago Roocroft took the apparently modest step – though in classical terms it’s still rather radical – of talking to the audience during her recital at the hallowed Wigmore Hall, bastion of the highest-level chamber music and Lieder. “I was so anxious to do my best,” she says. “I’d done the same recital in Wigan and because they wanted me to talk – it’s a different set-up there – they loved it. I loved it too and I thought: seriously, why should this be different because it’s in London at the Wigmore Hall? Why can’t I talk to the audience?” 

She tried it, and was pleased to find that only critics objected. “I think it puts the audience at ease, and it certainly put me at ease. I think of pop stars: wouldn’t it be fabulous to go on stage knowing people are there to see you, that we’re all friends together and we’re going to have a really good party? That was the attitude I wanted to take out there, but it was something I definitely lost 20 years ago. It’s kind of beaten out of you. It’s nice to come back and say ‘Look! Isn’t this great?’”

Autumn will bring her back to Janácek: Katya Kabanova at Welsh National Opera. There’s a CD ahead, too: Roocroft has woven songs by composers as diverse as Schubert, Schoenberg and Kurt Weill into an operatic-style story for recital purposes and is planning to record it. Meanwhile she’s looking forward to her debut in one of her vocal fach’s pinnacles: the role of the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at ENO. The character is an unhappily married aristocrat who gracefully gives up her much younger lover to a girl his own age – but Roocroft has other ideas. “Maybe at the end she should run off with the guy that cleans the pool!” she laughs. “That’s the Marschallin I see: a feisty woman who likes sex.” 

Finding God certainly hasn’t diminished the twinkle in Roocroft’s eye: “It seems to be in my nature to swim against the tide,” she admits. “But I know that come the revolution I’m going to do the Marschallin in a different way – and I’m going to talk at the Wigmore Hall.”

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 21 June. Box office: 020 7304 4000