Coming Home

25th March, 2015

Mezzo soprano Leah-Marian, before becoming a freelance singer, was a company principal at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for eight years where she sang over thirty roles. She has subsequently sung for the major British opera houses and in May, she returns to Welsh National Opera to sing the role of Genevieve in Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande. Carys Davies, newsletter editor spoke to Leah-Marian ahead of her appearance with WNO.

How did you first discover operatic singing?
All I ever wanted to do was sing. So my dear old singing teacher told me at the age of 12 that I should go to a singing college. I didn't realise that there was such a thing. I started listening to classical music instead of The Bay City Rollers and David Soul..and the rest is history.

You were a Company Principal at the Royal Opera house, Covent Garden for eight years where you sang over 30 roles. Which roles are closest to your heart?
It was the best time of my life; singing alongside truly great singers and conductors. Whilst on contract I would sing around 50 or more shows a year. It was hard work as you could be rehearsing an Italian Rossini opera in the morning or afternoon and then in the evening you'd have a complete different style to sing on stage maybe a Janacek opera.

However, there are a few shows that spring to mind as memorable. Singing Emilia in Othello with so many great Tenors namely Placido Domingo, Jose Cura and Dennis O'Neill. I also loved playing comedy. I had fun especially with the ugly sister in La Cenerentola, as I was given quite a free rein to do what I liked, within reason.

You made your Welsh National Opera debut in 1990 and have been a frequent guest with Welsh National Opera over the years. What’s so special about working with the company?
I couldn't believe it when WNO first employed me to sing Maddalena on their Piano tour. I think we went to every theatre in Wales. I can't remember how many performances we did but I knew everyone’s role by the end.

I have returned to Cardiff quite a few times over the past few years. They’re such a friendly company; it's a real privilege to sing with them. It really doesn't feel like work. It’s just wonderful to stroll around the bay in your lunch break, breathe in the sea air.

For those of us who haven’t seen Pelleas et Meilsande before, what can you tell us about Genevieve’s character and her role in the opera?
She is the mother of the half-brothers Goloud and Pelleas. I feel she is quite a positive person and looks on the bright side of life. She only appears at the beginning of the opera. However, but like many small roles, she plays an important part in the opera.

Pelleas et Melisande received its first performance at the Opera-Comique in Paris on 30 April 1902 with Andre Messager conducting. Critical reaction was mixed – some accused the music of being “sickly and practically lifeless” whilst others considered the work to be an outstanding achievement in French musical history. What is your opinion of the opera?
There are no arias, no blood and thunder as you might get in Verdi. Debussy uses the natural rhythm of speech in his setting of the music. None of it is very loud so you feel your entering a dream - like world. I believe he said he didn't want it 'sung' too much.

I didn't think I'd like it but I'm pleasantly surprised by the emotion some of the unusual harmonies evokes in me. It's very moody and symbolic.

How will you prepare for the role? Will you listen to old recordings?
The first step for me on learning this role is to sort out the pronunciation, to make sure the subtleties of the vowels are accurate, especially in French, as this will save time when we get into production.

Yes, I always listen to old recordings, pre 1960s usually. I will try to listen to a native in the language and not worry too much about the sound they make. This gives me more reassurance that my language is accurate. I will also have some coaching on the music to make sure I've learnt it correctly. It's quite important when you arrive on the first day of rehearsal feeling confident that you’re well prepared.

Some singers told us that they try to avoid listening to old recordings as they fear that it may influence their way of singing and that they may start to unconsciously imitate someone else on the stage. What is your opinion on this?
I know what they mean because you don't realise you are imitating.

However, it's not always possible to knuckle down to learning the notes so to be able to listen to the music and get a taste of the style I think is a good thing to do.

What aspects of the role are you most looking forward to? Are there any interpretive challenges in portraying Genevieve?
This role is set very low in the voice. There aren't a lot of places to "show off " shall we say. So it is crucial that I have the rhythm of the language correct.

Do you get nervous before performances?
Yes, always. I sometimes wish I didn't but the nerves surprisingly focus the mind.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals? If so, what are they?
No I've always tried not to do this in case there would be an instance where it wasn't possible to do it. I do, however, try to eat a good meal at lunch time so that I don't eat too much food before a show. I also chew chewing gum to keep my mouth moist and try not to shout at anybody on a show day.

I know a lot of singers have a nap before a show, but I can't seem to do this.

How do you wind down after a performance?
If I'm staying near the theatre, watching TV is my favourite way to wind down.

If I have a long journey after a show, then the journey calms me down and brings me back to reality.

Your homeland, Wales, is known as ‘the land of song’. What influence did this have on your decision to become a professional singer?
I think I was very fortunate to be born in Wales and have the ability to sing, as singing is such a big part of our culture. Maybe if I had wanted to play the flute, shall we say, it wouldn't have been so easy.

Growing up in Wales where singing is second nature to the Welsh there was never any prejudice against me, for example singing in school assembly, or just singing in public.  I hear stories of some of my friends born in England that they were called all sorts of names just because they would stand up and sing or play an instrument. I think that is the greatest gift we have as a nation is that we are not prejudice, we don't think of singing or horse riding or such like things as elitist.

What I suppose I'm trying to saying is that it was a natural progression from singing in church and Eisteddfodau to go on to be a singer. I can't say that it was a painstaking decision.

Who or what have been the most important influences on you during your years of training/performing?
You realise in life that there are only a handful of people that have been key in your career choice. I've been very fortunate to have singing teachers that believed in me, which then gives you the confidence to succeed.

If you weren’t singing opera, what do you think you’d be doing now?
As a child all I ever knew was singing and horse riding, but my father said I shouldn't become a jockey as it was dangerous and expensive.

So I suppose, if I had the interests I have now, then, I'd probably have been a gardener, but I don't know if I'd have gone to my career officer in school and said I'd like to become a gardener that he would have taken me seriously.

Any advice for promising, ambitious singers?
I don't think that there's a formula that will guarantee success. It's being in the right place at the right time, with the goods they are looking for. There's a lot of luck involved.

I think if it's your dream to sing you mustn't be put off by negative people, and there are a lot of them around. Also if conductors like you, they are very likely to use you.

The production opens on Friday 29 May at 19:15 at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, with subsequent performances on June 4, 6 in Cardiff and June 13 at the Birmingham Hippodrome.