Henrietta Bredin talks to Sally Burgess about taking on the role of Carmen
Just as dancers are fortunate if they have especially long legs and strong, flexible feet, there are all sorts of different physical attributes that can help a singer to produce a good sound. But there’s a particular facial, or cranial, disposition which certain singers share and which is to do with high cheekbones and a generously sized mouth indicating a large, resonant cavity within. Renée Fleming has it and so does Sally Burgess, who uses it to produce not only a luscious singing tone but also a fabulously abandoned, down-and-dirty laugh. It’s a laugh that certainly featured in her performances of Bizet’s Carmen, back in the late Eighties at English National Opera, and may well have been employed on numerous occasions since then, as she went on to sing the role in opera houses worldwide.
Actors can and do perform the same role more than once during the course of their careers but singers do so with more frequency. Indeed 50 or more years ago, most singers would only ever perform a tiny handful of operatic roles, refining and deepening their interpretation with every repetition.
‘That doesn’t really happen any more, thank heavens — it would be so boring! But there’s something incredibly rewarding about singing a role lots of times, if you’re good at it, because you get better each time. You’re always learning.’
Was that ENO Carmen her first?
‘Yes, it was, and it was a fantastic grounding for all the other Carmens I did afterwards. It was in English, of course, which was wonderful because it meant that I really understood everything that was sung, and got the meaning under my skin from the start. Mind you, it was a version by Anthony Burgess and a lot of it was completely unsingable so we had to change it. That’s a really interesting process in itself, though, working in detail on the text with a director and conductor and, ideally, the translator, to make sure that it’s good to sing and also that it’s as close to the original meaning as possible.
‘The other thing that was great about that production was that I was able to be extremely physical. I’m not a trained dancer but I do like moving a lot and I discovered that it actually helps me to sing. I did a production with a ballet company once, with the choreographer Michael Corder, of Duparc’s L’Invitation au voyage. I remember him saying in rehearsal, “It would be wonderful if you could run across the stage before you sing that phrase,” and I said, “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that, I’d be out of breath.” He looked a bit disappointed but gave in so easily that I thought, “How pathetic — let me try it.” So I did and it was fantastic, I sang much better.’
Burgess’s unfettered, loosely natural style of movement was a notable feature of her interpretation of Carmen, pounced upon with glee by director David Pountney, who suggested that she take a course of flamenco lessons. ‘I really enjoyed that but trying to play the castanets at the same time was a complete nightmare. In the end we worked out a way for me to produce the sound and rhythm with my feet instead. Quite late on in rehearsals I was doing my bit and was just thinking I’d managed it really well when Mark Elder, who was conducting, looked up and said, “Do you really have to do all that stamping?” I remember striding down to the front of the stage and saying, “Look, I’ve been working on this for months and I’m not going to cut it now.” The stamping stayed in, as did a lot of rolling around on the bonnets of cars, and a memorably wanton way with foodstuffs, which even got picked up by the tabloids. I think it was in the Mirror, they had a huge photograph of me and the headline was “Crisp-eating temptress”. What a laugh! I loved that.’
The production, which was originally intended as a one-off, throwaway show, with a brilliant design by Maria Bjørnson consisting of heaps of rubbish, wrecked cars and sleazy peeling advertising hoardings, turned out to be a considerable success and was revived a number of times. Burgess became a Carmen in demand. ‘I sang it at Opera North next, in French, with an amazing language coach from Leeds University who went over and over the dialogue — we did all of it, reams of the stuff — and wouldn’t let us get away with the slightest mispronounciation. Then there was a massive out door production in Bregenz, on the lake stage. That was extraordinary, with multiple casts. There were four Carmens, can you imagine? It was all very jolly at the start but then, when it came to the crunch, people became quite competitive. One of the singers was rather grand and stately and she got a bit hysterical about all the livestock in the show — goats with jangling bells and horses rattling their harnesses.’
Burgess clearly relishes working on a role in the context of a new production but how different an experience has it been when she has had to fit into a revival of an existing production, originally created around another singer? ‘The circumstances can differ enormously. I sang Carmen in Portland, Oregon, in a production by Keith Warner that he originally did in Omaha. That was a really good experience because he was there to direct it himself. But it’s disappointing when you turn up somewhere like Munich, for example, when — if it’s a revival rather than a new production — you get three days’ rehearsal. There’s no time to develop anything or get to know your colleagues; you just have to get on and do your act. If your fellow singers are good actors you can work up some sort of frisson but it’s difficult. You can be up against a Don José who just doesn’t react in the way you expect him to so after a while you start reacting to what you think he ought to be doing and hope for the best. That doesn’t necessarily work if you come across a singer who’s doing the same thing. Jacque Trussel, an American tenor, is a brilliant actor and we coincided once for two performances in Berlin. We were both trying to do so much dramatically that it was complete overkill. Instead of question and answer we were just doing question question question. Exhausting!’
In Bregenz, Burgess had to contend with goats and horses, muggy temperatures and hungry mosquitoes; in Auckland, New Zealand, she rehearsed for three weeks during which it rained every day before one night’s performance on a football field which, thankfully, turned out dry. ‘I had three microphone packs taped to my back, with a feed into one ear so that I could hear the orchestra. We were like rutting deer, with these microphones sticking out, and if we got too close to each other or went in for a kiss we’d get tangled up. It was very funny.’
The Burgess sense of humour would appear to be something of a godsend but I suspect her tolerance was stretched to the limit by Joseph Volpe, ex-director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. After her first performance there he sent a note via a staff director — in future could she please make sure not to sit with her legs apart. How did she react? ‘Well, I thought about it but, frankly, a Carmen with her legs together is hardly Carmen.’ Quite.
Sally Burgess is singing Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff in a new Scottish Opera production opening at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 13 May.