Elizabeth Watts is one of this country’s most exciting up and coming sopranos, having won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the world competition in 2007. She has appeared with many of the world’s leading orchestras and opera companies, winning particularly rave reviews for her appearances as Mandane in Arne’s Artaxerxes at the Linbury Studio, Covent Garden last season.
When we meet in her dressing room at The Royal Opera House she has just finished a stage rehearsal of Act One of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and is thrilled to be making her debut on the main stage with the company. Singing, and the joy of performing, is something that has been in Elizabeth’s blood since an early age: “I think it’s an intrinsic thing with me. I’ve always been able to sing, even from when I was very little. I grew up in an amateur musical family – my mother always said that she wanted a family like the Von Trapps, and although there weren’t that many of us, my Mum and my two sisters and myself used to sing in a quartet. When I was six I did my first solo in the village musical so really there was no main influence that made me want to become a singer, it all came from me. It seemed the most natural way for me to express myself.”
Captivated by Callas’ dramatic incisiveness and Gundula Janowitz’s ‘peerless’ recording of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, Elizabeth felt that a singing career was her natural calling but as she points out, given that she didn’t play an instrument or particularly excelled at music theory being a singer wasn’t deemed to be ‘musical’, “and when I was young I didn’t believe that one could be an opera singer, that you could actually do it for a living. As a singer you often find that people say ‘so what’s you day job’, but when I was young becoming a professional singer had never crossed my radar.”
When Elizabeth turned seventeen she went on an Eton choral course, singing Evensong in the college, and it was there that she met David Lowe who said that she should consider going to music college. Her singing teacher at the time Caroline Leeks advised Elizabeth to go and do her degree in archaeology at University, and then consider music college as a post-grad, as although she thought Elizabeth had a great voice, didn’t think she was ready for music college at the age of eighteen.
After she finished her dissertation she found herself singing with a choir in Whitby and realised that she had to decide whether to become an archaeologist or a singer, “so I bought a notepad, sat on the Whitby steps, and wrote down my ‘Whitby resolutions’ which were the actions I thought I needed to take in order to become good enough to pursue a singing career and go to music college, and they included playing the piano, working on my theory so that is when I decided to become a singer – a bit unorthodox perhaps, but it worked for me.”
The Royal College of Music was a wonderful experience for Elizabeth as they turned her from being “completely green and having no idea into being ready to enter the business in three years, which was extraordinary.” She also counts herself fortunate to have had Lillian Watson as her teacher who was a fantastic guide and help and Elizabeth felt that she really fitted in at the College and is full of praise for everyone who made her three years there so enjoyable.
Within a short space of time she had won the Song Prize at Cardiff but as she points out, stardom didn’t happen overnight. “It a much slower burner than you think. You think it’s going to be ‘Wow, you’re launched’, but you still have to prove that you can do it especially as I’m not a dramatic soprano, or a tall soprano and I’m English so you have a lot to prove. People tend to like foreign singers with big voices and who are tall, and if you’re none of those things then I think it’s a harder sell. I mean no one really becomes famous from singing Blonde, they become famous for singing Konstanze.”
She is thrilled to be appearing as Marzelline in The Royal Opera’s revival of Fidelio which she describes as a ‘fantastic experience’. “ It’s amazing to be on the main stage at last. On Monday we had our first stage and piano rehearsal and I couldn’t quite believe that I was actually treading the boards at The Royal Opera House for the first time. It was a thrilling moment.” She is full of praise for her colleagues, especially Nina Stemme who sings Leonora. “ I’m often asked to ‘dish the dirt’ on the world of opera but maybe I’m lucky but I’ve only ever got great things to say about my colleagues. Everyone is really nice, maybe you get the occasional dictator, but not here as everyone’s lovely.”
Looking to the future Elizabeth is very excited about her partnership with the record label Hamonia Mundi, her recording of Bach Cantatas having won many plaudits, and is looking forward to singing Messiah with the Huddersfield Choral Society at the Barbican on 22 April. When I ask her which operatic roles she would like to sing she immediately responds by saying Blanche. “It’s really called to me as a role – we did The Carmelites at College and I sang Constance, but it’s such a great opera and I would love to sing Blanche one day. Further down the line I’d love to sing Manon and then even further on, Violetta.”
Fidelio opens at The Royal Opera on Tuesday 29 March with Elizabeth Watts as Marzelline, Nina Stemme as Leonore and Endrik Wottrich as Florestan. Sir Mark Elder and David Syrus share the conducting duties. www.royalopera.org.uk