Irish soprano Giselle Allen has been captivating UK audiences with her searing portrayals of some of the operatic canon’s most complex roles. Rusalka, Ellen Orford, Jenufa, and Tosca have all been brought to life by this vivid singing-actress who never fails to give 100% both vocally and dramatically in everything she undertakes. Much of her most important work has taken place in Leeds for Opera North, but this month she takes on one of her biggest challenges for ENO when she performs the role of Marta, an inmate in Auschwitz, in the belated UK premiere of Weinberg’s opera The Passenger. I caught up with her a few days before opening night but before talk turned to Marta, we discussed how she caught the ‘operatic bug’.
“I was always involved in music. We had a couple of teachers who were really musical in my primary school, so I started off playing the violin and the recorder and I was quite good at it so my teacher suggested I audition for the music school in Belfast – I auditioned, got in, playing in recorder ensembles and sang in the choir.” This was all at the tender of age of twelve and on reaching Grammar School, Giselle took it up another level and began to learn the oboe which then became her main instrument. “From the oboe playing my breathing really improved so I would sing the occasional solo at school, and although I took up singing lessons I was really bad as I never practised.”
For her audition to read Music at Cardiff University she played the oboe and sang and was offered a place. When it came to choosing her main ‘instrument’ Giselle decided to give singing a go, “as I loved acting and drama. I had a really good teacher, my singing improved and I loved combining the singing and the acting.” On graduating from Cardiff, Giselle was accepted into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to do a Postgrad and after that got into the Opera School at the Royal Academy of Music.
On leaving the Royal Academy Giselle’s first big break was with Opera North, understudying four big roles. “I’ve done a lot of work with Opera North over the last ten years and I understudied Tatyana (Eugene Onegin), Kata (Kata Kabanova) Marenka (The Bartered Bride) and Genoveva , an opera by Schumann. I did the cover run of Onegin and the director, Dalia Ibelhauptaite really loved what I did and said that when the production came back she wanted me to sing Tatyana in all the performances. I’d done roles at Opera Holland Park, but singing Tatyana for me was a milestone in my career.”
After that Giselle was invited back to Opera North every year, often singing a couple of roles each season. “I was lucky, as I did so many big roles with them, and I also worked in Berlin and Brussels – I did La Bohème with Pappano there, which was fantastic. I also loved doing Jenufa, which I performed with Opera North and Glyndebourne and most recently I have added Tosca to my repertoire.” Giselle found a great affinity with Tosca and having sung it, discovered that when she returned to her teacher that her voice had changed again. “I have just turned forty-one which is around when the voice settles down and can start changing again. It’s exciting as it offers up a whole other field of roles.”
One of those roles is Marta in Weinberg’s The Passenger, receiving its belated staging in Britain some forty years after it was first written. David Pountney’s production was first seen in Bregenz last year, so what’s in store for the ENO’s audience? “It’s going to be an amazing night in the theatre. Some of the music is incredible and really moving, others might find it difficult on a first hearing, but let’s face it – a lot of contemporary music is like that. It is more accessible than a lot of operas that have been written recently and Weinberg’s musical idiom is very much influenced by Shostakovich and some of the writing is very Britten-esque. You can hear the influence of Berg but a lot of it is very melodic. I just think it’s incredible. The staging is amazing, the set is stunning and just from a visual point of view we have the railway tracks in Auschwitz, and above the beautiful white ship. The contrast between the two works really well.” Weinberg also uses jazz influences in the score and whilst there’s a juxtaposition of many different styles, overall it gels into a unified whole.
“It is a bit scary being up there on the stage, as you look at it and think, ‘this really happened’. I mean, you’re telling someone’s story who is still alive – that’s what’s incredible to me, that I’m playing a character that’s based on a real person and that carries a great sense of responsibility.”
Given that Giselle’s voice has been growing, it comes as no surprise that she has her sights set of some exciting Wagner roles. She sang Freia to huge acclaim in Opera North’s recent semi-staging of Das Rheingold, and is about to sing Sieglinde in concert. She certainly has one of the best tutors in the business as she has been working with the great Wagnerian soprano Dame Anne Evans on this and other roles. “She is amazing and is such a lovely woman, and thinks that Wagner is a direction I can definitely go in. She never pushed her voice and always sang Wagner lyrically. I would never be a Brünnhilde but I am singing Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, and she is going to coach me – and I am very excited about that!”
Giselle Allen sings the role of Marta in The Passenger at ENO. www.eno.org until October 25.