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Rhian Lois - from the valleys to the heights

English National Opera's latest Musetta muses on her career

Rhian Lois
© Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

Welsh soprano Rhian Lois, Harewood Artist at English National Opera, sings Musetta in a new production of Puccini's La bohème which opens at the Coliseum this week, She first sang the role in OperaUpClose's Olivier Award-winning production of the same opera when it first opened. So her career has come full circle.

Oh my goodness, do you remember that? I was only 21 years old and I'd just moved to London to do my post-grad studies at the Royal College of Music. It was a wonderful, raw production; I often walk past the Cock Tavern today and think to myself ‘that's where it started'. One evening Jonathan Miller came in and afterwards he came up and spoke to me; then I had a call that he wanted me to come and audition for his new Bohème at ENO. Yet he didn't know a thing about me! So I trotted off to the Coliseum.

At the RCM they weren't so sure it was the right thing for me to do at that point – a theatre that size at that age – but Janis Kelly, who was my teacher, said "go out there and do it".

It was a very strange experience - not scary, because I'd grown up with the Eisteddfod tradition so I was used to being thrown in front of people to sing – but I'd never sung in a theatre before. Obviously I wasn't right for Musetta yet, but John McMurray [ENO's head of casting] saw something in me that he liked and he gave be my very first job, covering Zerlina in Don Giovanni. What an experience! Sarah Tynan was in it, and Iain Paterson, Brindley Sherratt, Rebecca Evans, Matthew Best... the crème de la crème of British singing. And I can honestly say that's where I started learning my craft: knowing how and when to mark, how to carry yourself in a rehearsal... You don't get taught that.

It was one of several controversial productions you've been in at ENO. They've seemed to follow you. How do you feel in rehearsals at such times? Do you just run with it?

You have to. You sometimes question it, but it's part of being an artist. I have to believe what I'm doing, because if I don't believe it how will the audience do so?

Rhian Lois as Adele in Die Fledermaus (ENO)

So how was it singing your first leading role, Adele in Die Fledermaus, in a production that was so widely panned?

That was a huge break for me so it was difficult. You can't help but take it personally. It was my very first big role and perfect for me. And I had had two big showstoppers in it. I remember that vocally I felt completely on top of it; I'd given it my all and I was really happy with the performance I gave. So the next day was really hard. It can be quite upsetting because I was so vulnerable at that age and at that point in my career.

What was upsetting? The sense of a production dying on its feet?

Exactly that. It was a production that started off brilliantly, but as the acts went on you could just sense the goodwill draining away. That feeling of having to work when you know that the audience is against you... you can feel the energy being sucked from you. But it's still a role I want to sing again and again.

You've done a couple of double acts, one with Clare Presland in Carmen and the other as one of the two Nieces in Peter Grimes, partnering Mary Bevan. You practically stole both shows. Were you aware of that?

It helps when you work with very special friends with whom you've really got a connection. And it's wonderful how these productions can bring you together. Mary and I both believed so much in that production of Peter Grimes and we worked so hard at it that we were as one. As for Carmen, it's my favourite production. Clare and I had been on quite a journey because just prior to it we'd been together on Between Worlds [Tansy Davies's 9/11 opera], so we worked solidly together for six months. We bounce off each other; there are no boundaries.

Calixto Bieito's production of Carmen made so much sense to me. And this year, even more than the first time, the cast gelled, The production is so raw, and as I'd done it before I knew I could take it to a new level again. You can bring so much energy to it – and as Frasquita I got to run around onstage with a bottle of Bombay Sapphire!

Let's talk about this new Bohème. A lot of people were surprised that Jonathan Miller's production was ditched after such a short life. Does this one have anything new to say?

I think you might have a few surprises, yes, particularly in act one. I'm smitten by Benedict Andrews's work. He's a wonderful director - his passion and the way he describes everything - he's a genius and you want to give him your all. This Bohème is modern and we're a very young cast so my relationship as Musetta with Duncan Rock's Marcello is relevant and up to date.

Is there any danger that you're becoming institutionalised at ENO?

No, I don't believe so; but I couldn't have wished for a better start. I've learnt how to sing here and I think that having mastered that in this big space I wasn't bothered when it came to singing at the ROH [in Die Zauberflöte] because I've learnt how to do it. I'm going to be doing Zerlina in Santa Fe next summer and that's a 3000 seater.

I feel I've learnt how to sing efficiently here at ENO. You discover that less is more here; you learn to listen to yourself and trust yourself. When I think back to that very first audition I probably thought I had to give it some welly, but when you try and force it here that's when the sound stops! So I've learned how the sound needs to be produced. John McMurray has just been the best support: he's seen things in my voice that I hadn't seen myself. He's the one who's given me all the opportunities; he's shown huge trust and I can't thank him enough. And Sophie Joyce [Harewood Artists manager] and Jane Robinson [head of training] too. Sophie knows my voice so well, and Jane has kept a close watch on me and helped me develop it. Thanks to them I've improved and become my own artist.

What are the roles you want to perform in future?

I want to do more Mozart and I definitely want to sing Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. That's my dream role.

Benedict Andrews's production of La bohème runs in repertoire at the London Coliseum from 16 October until 26 November.