Despite having sung the long and arduous title role in the Royal Opera’s new production of Baroque rarity Niobe, Regina di Tebe (Niobe, Queen of Thebes) by Steffani at the general rehearsal in the morning, glamorous French soprano Véronique Gens is more than happy to chat with me, indeed she keeps apologising for “talking too much” about her rich and varied career and the challenges that Niobe presents.
As is the case for most singers who are currently riding the crest of the wave, singing was not a profession that she considered when she was younger: “ I never decided to become an opera singer. In my family nobody was talking about a professional career as a singer. I mean, this is not a real job...”, yet from a very early age she was singing in choirs, but it was not until she met William Christie, at the tender of age of eighteen, that the prospect of a singing career became a reality.
“He was looking for young singers, my voice was young and I was ready to learn anything he wanted to teach me and it was at this time, 1986, that he conducted Atys by Lully, which was a complete revelation in Baroque music.” At the same time she was still studying at university where she got a diploma in foreign languages and once she graduated “my mother said, ‘Now you have this diploma you can try to sing’”.
Despite the fact she has been in demand in all the main houses in Europe, she still admits to finding the profession difficult at times, “Yesterday I was so tired I thought I don’t want to do this anymore as it is too difficult – but what else could I do as I only know how to sing?” Like many singers she finds spending time away from her family hard, but as she is quick to admit, “You are rewarded. I’m sure on Thursday night (the first night of Niobe) I will feel really happy but for the moment I am really exhausted.”
Most people associate Véronique Gens with the Baroque repertoire, but she is a far more versatile singer than that, and as conversation turns to her rich and varied career she is quick to point out that one of her biggest career defining moments took place at the Liceu in Barcelona last year when to everyone’s surprise, including her own, she sang Eva in a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
“I have sung many times at the Liceu and I love it there and one day my agent called to say that Joan Matabosch (the Liceu’s casting director) had been in touch and that he was offering me the role of Eva in Meistersinger. I just said ‘No, this cannot be – he’s thinking of someone else. He’s confused’, but my agent said ‘No, no, no he’s insisting that he wants you for this.’” On the advice of her agent she bought the score and began looking at the role, and then thought to herself “Why not? What Eva has to sing is very lyrical - it could be Mozart and the tessitura is perfect for me, so I said ‘Yes’!” She then embarked on two long years of preparation as she was not used to singing in German and was going to sing the role in a big house and although she confesses to being scared, it went very well.
In addition to Eva, and her many Baroque roles, she also relishes the opportunity to sing Mozart and the roles of the Countess (Le Nozze di Figaro) and Fiordiligi (Cosi fan tutte) have been her calling cards at many opera houses over the years – and she’s recorded both roles to huge critical acclaim under René Jacobs.
Following her critically-acclaimed appearances in La Calisto at The Royal Opera a couple of seasons ago, she is about to return in a real rarity, Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe and I’m keen to know what we might expect and how these performances came about. “Well I’ve known Thomas Hengelbrock for many years and he asked if I’d like to sing Niobe at Covent Garden, and although I didn’t know the role or the opera I had sung some Steffani in the past – some sacred songs. He gave me the score, I had a look at it and it’s just perfect for me.”
Trying to pinpoint Steffani’s style proves difficult as my thoughts that it might be ‘like Handel’ are soon dashed. “It is so strange. Suddenly it’s Bach, then Lully, then Monteverdi. It comes from everywhere – it really is very interesting. There are plenty of recitatives but the arias are really incredible, and the production is wonderful too.”
As our conversation draws to a close I’m keen to find out if there are any new roles she’d like to tackle and although she’s returning to many of her tried, tested and acclaimed roles in the next couple of seasons she does mention that she’d like to sing Elsa in Lohengrin - casting directors take note!
Véronique Gens sings the title role in Steffani’s Niobe Regina di Tebe which opens at the Royal Opera House on Thursday 23 September. www.royalopera.org.