It was just one step in the South African soprano’s rapid rise to fame. She has been a big fish in a relatively small pond for a number of years now; she’s about to become a big fish in a much bigger one. Her impressive debut season for English National Opera begins next week, when the new production of Turandot in which she plays Liù, opens. It will be followed later in the season with the title role in a new Tosca.
Her uplift into the big time may be happening with dizzying speed now but it’s not an overnight success story. Echalaz has paid her dues, spending two years doing chorus work at Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne and then touring with English Touring Opera. She has also become a firm favourite in the Holland Park Summer festival in recent years, with performances in Manon Lescaut, Tosca and the Montemezzi rarity L’Amore dei tre Re, as well as this year’s Ballo, that have had critics grasping for superlatives.
She is enjoying working with theatre whizz-kid Rupert Goold on the new Turandot. “It’s going to be a fresh take, very exciting and visually very stimulating,” she tells me, “it’s certainly not traditional but a new take. Rupert has a very strong concept. It’s hard to guess how audiences will react to it. It may not be for purists but I think it’ll be a wonderful night out for most people coming.”
“It’s good to be challenged and stretched a bit, taken out of your comfort zone,” she says, “although the production’s not at all gimmicky.” We talk about her character, the slave girl Liù who gives up her life to protect the man she loves, although he scarcely notices her existence. She recently returned to her native South Africa (she grew up in Durban) to play Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly and I ask her if this concept of a passive oriental woman, as seen in both of Puccini’s operas, is just a sentimental Western view.
“Maybe, but I don’t see her as weak,” she insists, “she’s very strong in her adherence to what she believes. It’s a loyalty that goes beyond life.” I ask her if the idea of obsessive romantic love is actually a form of mental illness. “That’s an idea we’ve actually explored quite a lot,” she says, “It’s something Rupert was very keen on.” She’s reluctant to give too much away about how they are treating the character in the production but says that the obsessive aspect of her behaviour is important to the interpretation.
Liù is a contrasting character to some of the feisty women Echalaz has played to date. It’s inevitable we get on to Tosca, as it’s a role that’s playing such a key part in her progression to star player. “The Covent Garden performance was high drama,” she laughs, “Gheorghiu went ill and I got the call at 24 hours notice. It was incredibly exciting and a joy to be on stage with Bryn Terfel. Everyone was really helpful.”
By then, she had already been cast in the forthcoming new production at the Coliseum, which will be directed by the veteran soprano Catherine Malfitano in May of next year. Before then, she’ll be playing the part again in Salzburg, so it’s fast becoming a signature role at this stage of her career. Audiences in Richmond were treated to this world-class performance recently, when Opera Holland Park’s production toured there for a short run.
Her Royal Opera debut came last year with the creation of the bloodcurdling Keres in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, a screeching demon feasting on the livers of butchered innocents. “That was amazing,” she says, “working with Pappano and Birtwistle himself. Really challenging. I’d love to do more of his work.” It’s her only foray into the contemporary field so far.
Echalaz has been in the UK since the age of 18, at which time she took up training with the singer/tutor Neil Howlett. I ask who are the singers she admires or looks to for inspiration and she runs off a list of older performers – Eleanor Steber, Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel. Anyone not dead? “Of course,” she laughs, “I greatly admire Christine Brewer. She’s amazing and I grab every chance to hear her.”
Roles she aspires to are Elsa in Lohengrin, Elisabetta in Don Carlos, Strauss’ Ariadne and more Janacek (she has played Jenufa for ETO and covered Katya at Covent Garden). In the meantime, the diary is filling up. Beyond the Salzburg Tosca she has a Turn of the Screw in Madrid, Andrea Chenier in Bregenz and, maybe most ambitiously, Salome at La Monnaie in Brussels.
By the time she’s had all this international exposure, she’s sure to be recognised as the major talent she undoubtedly is. Catch her now on the verge of a meteoric rise in what is sure to be a fascinating new Turandot.
English National Opera’s production of Puccini’s Turandot opens at the London Coliseum on 8 October and runs for 14 performances through to 12 December. Tickets are available on 0871 911 0200 or online at www.eno.org. Tosca opens on 18 May 2010.
- Simon Thomas