This country has produced its fair share of internationally acclaimed mezzo-sopranos over the years, and Christine Rice is definitely one of the most exciting to appear in recent years. Equally at home in Monteverdi as she is in Birtwistle, her extraordinarily wide-ranging repertoire and ability to adapt to such a variety of roles have made her indispensible on the operatic circuit.
Probably best known for her trouser roles, she is about to take on another in The Royal Opera’s revival of Hänsel und Gretel so I caught up with her when rehearsals were well under way and began by asking what had prompted her to pursue a career in opera: “I came to it quite late but I fell under the acting spell when I was fifteen and the particular ‘road to Damascus’ moment was when I say Henry V at Stratford with Kenneth Branagh and it was absolutely magical and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the same kind of feeling of not wanting to sit her, but joining in.”
This experience inspired Christine to take some acting lessons and join a youth theatre where she did a lot of plays and although she learned the violin and piano confesses that she was never particularly good at either of them. It wasn’t until she went to Oxford University to study Physics, and began singing in musicals there, that she realised that the rigour of practising was missing so decided to get a singing teacher. “I was absolutely raw and I loved it as it involved working on a text, the music and a character so as I was finding my phD in Physics lonely work I decided to take a year out and rather than go travelling in that time applied to go to music college. I managed to scrape a place at The Royal Northern College of Music, but at that stage was still only intending on doing it for pleasure.”
She counts herself that lucky that she started learning with Robert Alderson as he has great gift for being able to see the potential in a voice, so he gave her plenty of encouragement saying that if she stuck at it she could become a working singer. Christine decided to stay at the Royal Northern and her career began the way of so many British singers by starting off in the Glyndebourne Chorus, and then becoming a principal soloist at the English National Opera.
The contract at ENO came about as the then casting director John Berry came to see the RNCM production of The Rape of Lucretia and in those days when ENO still believed in the validity of an ensemble, Christine was offered the chance to start off with smaller roles and gained valuable experience of working within the company. “I was on contract for four years from 1997 and was very lucky as I was cast in roles such as Olga (Eugene Onegin) and Maddalena (Rigoletto), which are nice roles as they offer something relatively substantial that you can certainly get your teeth into, as they’re not too taxing. I then progressed on to sing Bradamante (Alcina and Musetta in the Leoncavallo La Bohème, and over the next couple of years added more roles to my repertoire. I think the pacing of taking on new roles never meant that I was ever overwhelmed at any point.”
Talk turns to Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, as the composer wrote the role of Ariadne for Christine so I’m keen to hear whether there’s a different approach when it comes to working on a brand new role: “I was very open minded as Harry (Birtwistle) asked me when he was writing the role if I had any requests, but I didn’t really yet when it came round to learning the role I absolutely loved it and we didn’t need to change a note. Of course you don’t have any source material with a brand new role so you can’t just go away and absorb it through someone else’s interpretation. And with something as complicated as The Minotaur the piano reduction doesn’t sound anything like what the full orchestra does in the end. It was an exciting process!”
But now Christine is back in a trouser role, but is playing a boy different to playing a bloke? “I think it’s still a work in progress as I’m not exactly sure I’m where I want to be yet, because as it’s a revival we have to take on board what the previous cast did. When you work on a new production you can allow the glove fit your hand, but with a revival you have to make your hand fit the glove. Often if the original directors are on hand they make changes but as they’re not we have to stick exactly to what happened first time round. What I’m trying to avoid is that the role of Hansel becomes too pantomime-like. Kids are very natural in their body movement, so it’s more a mind set of where their focus is as the one thing kids can’t do is multi-task.”
Looking further ahead Christine is very excited about the prospect of working on The Damnation of Faust with Terry Gilliam at ENO but one composer who is absent from any plans at the moment is Strauss. Given her affinity with trouser roles I suggest that Octavian and the Composer would appear to be natural roles for her. “Yes, Octavian would be nice.” Casting directors take note!
Hänsel und Gretel opens at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 23 December 2010. www.royalopera.org