Five world-class sopranos appearing at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival
Featuring Susan Bullock, Claire Booth, Erin Wall, Anna Prohaska and Ute Lemper
This article is from 2014.
In August, Edinburgh attracts the cream from every artistic endeavour. Kate Molleson profiles five EIF singers who will be hitting some glorious high notes
It takes a rare kind of mental and physical stamina to tour the globe singing Ring Cycle after Ring Cycle. Maybe it’s pure survival tactics that make Wagnerians some of the most down-to-earth singers in the business and Susan Bullock is no exception. Hands-down one of the world’s great dramatic sopranos, she’s a cheerful, plain-speaking northerner (born and raised in a Cheshire council house) who listens to jazz and Motown on her nights off and describes herself as an actress who sings rather than the reverse.
But don’t for a minute underestimate the potency of her voice. Bullock makes a tremendous sound: huge enough for Wagner and Strauss, with plenty musical pathos for Britten and Janácek. And she has no airs or graces. She’ll happily tell you that she began singing by accident and only really emerged onto the solo stage in her mid-40s. In Edinburgh she appears alongside emerging talent from the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in Benjamin Britten’s late pacifist opera Owen Wingrave.
King’s Theatre, Leven Street, 0131 473 2000, 15, 17 Aug, 7.30pm, £15–£35.
Long-time champion of contemporary music – in particular the works of Oliver Knussen – English soprano Claire Booth is a versatile, fearless and brilliantly unfussy singer. She is captivating in Poulenc’s solo telephone opera La Voix Humaine, seductive and quixotic in the title role of Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Her direct, agile voice can wrap itself around Handel or Kurtág, Mozart, Rossini or Stravinsky, always with a knack of stripping away the guff and exposing the emotional heart of the music.
Two years ago at the EIF she picked up a Herald Angel award for her radiant portrayal of the title role in Craig Armstrong’s The Lady from the Sea. This year she performs in the Opening Concert of the International Festival with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, singing Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, a mystery play by Gabriele d’Annunzio with ecstatic, sumptuous music from Claude Debussy. With her friend Olly Knussen wearing his conducting hat on the podium beside her, Booth should be in her element.
Usher Hall, Lothian Road, 0131 473 2000, 8 Aug, 7.30pm, £12–£46.
Canada’s top soprano is a lovably sassy gal: magnetic stage presence, sumptuous tone, flawless technique and that ability to hold a concert hall rapt for a moment or several; plus she blogs about how to manage a mean balancing act between ‘momma / singer / wife’. She’s on the road the whole time with press photos showing her decked out in evening gown and running shoes. Basically, she’s good fun.
Born to American parents in Calgary, Alberta, she studied piano at the Vancouver Academy of Music and made her professional debut in 2001 as an apprentice at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. She’s in-demand at pretty much all the world’s classiest opera houses: the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, the Vienna Staatskapelle. She sings Mozart gorgeously, Britten poignantly, Mahler and Strauss powerfully. And it’s Strauss that she brings to Edinburgh including the sublime ‘Four Last Songs’, backed by conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Usher Hall, Lothian Road, 0131 473 2000, 21 Aug, 8pm, £12–£44.
She might not be a household name in the UK (yet) but that’s because Anna Prohaska has been busy doing things properly. The hotly tipped Austrian soprano is a product of the central European repertory system, in which budding young singers join the ensemble of an opera house and are put through their paces learning key operatic roles thick and fast. Prohaska is currently ensconced at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin where she’s been impressing German audiences in roles such as Mozart’s Susanna, Strauss’ Sophie, Stravinsky’s Anne Trulove and Handel’s Poppea. Judging by the conductors she’s worked with (Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez and Mariss Jansons for four) her star is thoroughly on the ascendant.
That said, she hasn’t exactly fallen under the radar in the UK either, what with an exclusive record contract with Deutsche Grammophon and recitals at the Wigmore Hall that led one esteemed British critic to remark simply: ‘my goodness, wasn’t it gorgeous?’
Queen’s Hall, Clerk Street, 0131 473 2000, 18 Aug, 11am, £8.50–£30.
Alright, she’s not strictly a soprano, but Ute Lemper is just too good not to mention. There is no finer interpreter of the Weimar Republic’s music than this sultry, seductive German chanteuse. Lemper has been singing the songs of Kurt Weill and his contemporary Hanns Eisler since she was a teenager, and today her husky, coolly serrated, smoky-rich delivery is unmatchable.
She’s also gorgeous in French chanson – try her recordings of Jacques Brel, Boris Vian or Edith Piaf for size – and has inspired the likes of Nick Cave, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits to pen songs for her. As if that wasn’t enough, she also composes her own stuff.
In Edinburgh she sings Weimar songs with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, music that she considers it ‘her mission’ to perform. ‘Honouring these composers – most of whom were Jewish – has been an important dialogue with the history of my country,’ she says. ‘I guess I’ve become an ambassador for this kind of dialogue.’
Usher Hall, Lothian Road, 0131 473 2000, 15 Aug, 7.30pm, £12–£44.