August 4, 2008

The Merry Widows

By Susan Mansfield

WE DEBATED for days about the best place to meet Kate Valentine and Jane Irwin, the two female leads in Scottish Opera's The Two Widows. But we end up (at their request) in a pub in Glasgow's Merchant City, because - stereotypes be damned! - these are opera singers who like their real ales.

Pints in hand, Valentine (soprano) and Irwin (mezzo soprano) begin to wind down after a long day in the rehearsal room. Directors Tobias Hoheisel and Imogen Kogge, they tell me, were introducing one of the dance sequences. "We're exhausted!" says Valentine, cheerfully. "Singers and dancing is always quite an iffy combination. It's like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time; as soon as you concentrate on one, the other goes completely pear-shaped."

Friends for nearly a decade, Valentine and Irwin laugh a lot and talk about their profession with down-to-earth frankness, in between yakking about shopping and wondering how they've managed to turn up wearing the same colour of top. But then what did I expect? Two overweight prima donnas with egos the size of their waistlines? Stereotypes have a lot to answer for.

In Smetana's comic opera, based on a French farce, they play close friends, both long widowed. But while Karolina (Valentine) is enjoying her freedom, Anezka (Irwin) remains in mourning, less for her husband than the love of her life, Ladislav (David Pomeroy) whom she renounced because she was married. When Ladislav reappears on her country estate, Karolina embarks on a series of farcical plots to bring the couple together. "It winds Karolina up something chronic that Anezka is still going about dressed in black," says Valentine. "She's trying every desperate measure she can to make her a human being again. I'm finding it really fun to be playing a strong character that isn't anything to do with a man for once. Often with my voice type, I play romantic leads, or people who've got some personal trauma going on."

Irwin, by contrast, is enjoying a rare chance at the romantic lead. "Mezzos normally don't do that. As a mezzo you either are the man (so-called "trouser roles") or you're the maid. I'm the miserable one in a comic opera, so it's harder to keep the energy up, that's the biggest challenge."

Both agree that comedy is harder than tragedy, particularly when the libretto is as witty and fast-paced as this one, though, thankfully, it's being sung in English, not the original Czech.

"You need a lot of energy, timing and concentration, and you have to be willing to look like an ass and put yourself out there," says Valentine. "You can't afford to stop and think, 'Oh no, I don't want to do this because I might look a bit silly.' You just have to leave all your dignity at the door and just go for it."

There's no doubt that Valentine is the more bubbly of the two, Irwin the more sardonic. So are they anything like their fictional characters? "I would say we are quite," says Valentine, thoughtfully.

"I think, like Anezka, I'm quite a stubborn, principled person," says Irwin. Valentine bursts out laughing. "You are stubborn!" Irwin snorts: "Thanks!" Valentine continues: "For me it's nice to play someone who's bubbly and smiley. There are definite moments where I'm just playing myself." Irwin adds: "There have been a few moments when we've been performing, but laughing and just being ourselves, and it has worked really well."

They met eight years ago, when Valentine went to Irwin for singing lessons. "I had done my undergraduate degree and had stopped singing for a while. I wasn't even sure if I was going to go back into it, and a friend suggested I went and had singing lessons with Jane.

"Then a combination of Jane and my husband convinced me to go back and do postgraduate studies."

Since completing her studies she has sung in a variety of touring productions, understudied at Glynebourne and taken part in Scottish Opera Five:15 project. The Two Widows is her first main-stage principal role. "I have to say you'd never know," says Irwin, ignoring Valentine's attempts to shush her. "She comes across so professionally, she's more confident than I am!" ("No I'm not!""You are!")

Irwin has been singing professionally for 13 years (she sang the title role in Scottish Opera's Dido and Aeneas at last year's Edinburgh International Festival) and has taught at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama for almost a decade. "I've always wondered if one day I would end up singing professionally with a student. It's really thrilling. To have played a small part in Kate's career is very gratifying."

Both said that being friends with your co-star is a big advantage. "It has actually made our job a whole lot easier," says Valentine. "Usually when you start a rehearsal period, you have to get to know all the personalities involved. It's like being back at school, people are sizing each other up."

Once the ice is broken, however, there can be a lot of laughter behind the scenes. With another round of beers on the way, the stories are starting to flow: a Scottish Opera tour to Orkney where the bottom fell out of the piano in the middle of Act 2 of Die Fledermaus; another visit to a Scottish island where a power-cut plunged the venue into darkness five minutes before the end and the opera was finished by the light of the audience's mobile phones; a production of The Magic Flute in Malaysia where the lighting technician was so drunk he missed all his cues.

And then there are the dangers of impractical costumes and raked stages, and the (allegedly common) practice of "coking" a stage with a particularly steep rake; mopping it with Coca-Cola before a performance to make it sticky. "Otherwise gravity always wins," giggles Valentine.

She recalls a costume challenge she faced when she understudied the part of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne and had to go on stage in a dress with panniers as wide as a doorway. "Because I was the understudy, I didn't get to practise with the costume. Honestly, I was more worried about the dress than I was about any of the music. It was so wide, you had to use your arms to steer yourself because if you took a wrong turn you could bring the whole set down with you." ("Did you try going to the lavatory?" pipes in Irwin. "Yes, it took about six people!")

And so we arrive neatly at the subject of "corpsing" - bursting out laughing on stage, Valentine says she nearly lost her composure in Scottish Opera's tour of Die Fledermaus when the male lead made an impromptu decision to put on a Scottish accent. "He did a whole scene like that. No one could actually believe he was doing it. I couldn't look at him for almost a whole act. There were tears running down the orchestra's faces. The whole thing was absolute carnage.

"The thing is because we're always dealing with heightened emotions and you're always on that edge of adrenalin, if something genuinely funny happens, it's so difficult to hold it in."

You need the lighter moments, because however sublime it sounds, opera is hard work.

"Being a singer has some wonderful, really fulfilling moments," says Irwin. "If it didn't, we wouldn't do it because we really do put ourselves under so much pressure. It's multi-tasking of the highest order."

More than ever, the pressure is on singers to look good as well as sing, dance and act. Gone are the days when a frail young consumptive could be played by a gargantuan middle-aged soprano. This hit the headlines in 2004 when American soprano Deborah Voigt was sacked from the role of Ariadne at the Royal Opera because she was too overweight. She is back in the role this summer, nine stones lighter. The trend towards film directors directing operas has further enhanced the importance of the visual.

Valentine says: "I'm not sure if I really want to say this, but in a way (the focus on looks) is a good thing. One of the reasons people are put off opera is because they have this old cliche of some fat woman warbling in the middle of the stage. And nowadays you just don't get away with that. You have to be a very good actor, you have to be proficient at the languages you're working in, and you have to look good - or reasonable at least."

"But it is a very fattist profession," says Irwin. "You're either the wrong height, or the wrong shape, or your boobs are too big. The very obvious example at the moment is Danielle de Niese [the stunning 29-year-old soprano currently singing Poppea at Glyndebourne]. She looks amazing, she can move, she can sing as well, she's the whole package, which is why she's a revelation."

"People are calling her the opera world's Halle Berry," says Valentine. "She's a beautiful, beautiful woman, but it's quite a pressure for the rest of us mere mortals, especially when you've spent all these years training to be a singer and you might not get a job because you don't look right."

Both Valentine and Irwin are acutely aware of the strangeness of their lives, one day, baring their souls on stage to fill immense auditoriums with music, the next at home doing the dishes.

But both say the biggest luxuries in their lives are the ordinary things: a night in your own bed, a meal cooked in your own kitchen, time spent with family and friends.

"I do often think how strange it must be for them, people who know me as me, to then come and see me on stage," says Valentine.

"But thank God for those people in our lives," says Irwin.

"Oh yeah," grins Valentine. "Singers are basket cases. If we didn't have that we'd all be off the Richter scale."

The Two Widows is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 9, 11 and 12 August.

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