Sarah Tynan: a diva double at ENO next season

The celebrated soprano will sing a comedy and a tragedy for English National Opera

Sarah Tynan
Sarah Tynan
© Chris Gloag

Ahead of English National Opera's new season launch, WhatsOnStage met soprano Sarah Tynan at the London Coliseum to discuss her roles.

By coincidence one of Sarah's former colleagues, Michael Ball, was busy elsewhere in the building preparing to play the lead in Chess. Sarah and Michael co-starred there in a notorious ENO production of Kismet 11 years ago.

Not being pigeon-holed is what's kept me interested and helped me grow

"I grew up in the East End listening to Michael and to musical theatre generally – originally that was what I wanted to do – so when I first met him I was starstruck. 'Argh, it's Michael Ball!' And he was a great colleague. I know the production was critically slated but it was a really happy time.

"I've been lucky that I've been able to work in so many different styles: musical theatre and Gilbert and Sullivan as well as opera. Not being pigeon-holed is what's kept me interested and helped me grow."

When Tynan sang Adina in Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, also at ENO, she channelled Marilyn Monroe. How did she decide on her physicality for that role?

"It came from the style of Jonathan Miller's production. The designer had a specific idea for it, and although I'm not Marilyn-shaped she was very clever in the way she designed the dresses. And shoes too: as soon as I've got the right pair I can find the walk. I spent ages looking for Adina's shoes, and when I had them I rehearsed in them as much as I could and it informed the way I moved. And Jonathan was so enabling, always finding little things that worked for me.

"I love the physical side of my work. As I've got older it's what's kept me going and kept people interested in what I do. I grew up listening to Madonna and she was always reinventing herself. You don't have to be the same thing all the time, so when you do something different why not go for it? Most of the time opera singers perform in such big spaces and the audience sees us from such a distance, so the more you can inhabit your physicality the more people will read into your performance."

Morgan Pearse as Figaro and Sarah Tynan as Rosina in The Barber of Seville (ENO 2017)
Morgan Pearse as Figaro and Sarah Tynan as Rosina in The Barber of Seville (ENO 2017)
© Robbie Jack

Britten's song cycle Les Illuminations is a tough piece to sing at the best of times, but when Tynan performed a staged version at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2016 she had to be an all-round circus artist as well.

I found I could balance on the trapeze but not sing at the same time

"Oh my goodness, I think that was the most rewarding piece of work I've ever done. I've known the choreographer, Struan Leslie, since my very first job, and I guess he liked my willingness to try new things. We had workshops to experiment with what I could and couldn't do. I found I could balance on the trapeze but not sing at the same time, yet singing while walking across a row of human hands posed no problem at all.

"Once I've got the vocal side of things sorted out I can concentrate on the physical stuff and then marry the two together in performance. But I couldn't do it if I didn't feel completely prepared musically and vocally."

Is she prepared musically and vocally for Lucia di Lammermoor and The Merry Widow?

"Yes, I think so. We've been talking about Lucia for a long time, and last year was a big year for me so I felt ready. I've been working on it a lot, building up slowly, and now seems a good time. I've known the director David Alden for a long time and we trust each other, so I know we'll have good fun with the production. And I was really lucky with The Barber of Seville that I had such a great chemistry with Eleazar Rodriguez, who sang Almaviva, and we're going to be working together again on Lucia so it will be interesting to see his dark side."

And The Merry Widow? People think they know it because Léhar's tunes are so famous, yet nowadays it is seldom staged.

I'm very interested in Hanna Glawari because she wears the trousers

"I saw the last ENO production with Amanda Roocroft, a singer I found really inspiring, but yes, that was a few years back. It's a great fun piece with a strong woman leading. She's in charge! I'm very interested in her because she wears the trousers and she knows what she wants."

Before next season's ENO double, Tynan will be in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Opera Holland Park, though not as the principal soprano Fiordiligi but as Despina, the comic relief. Why so?

"She's a really interesting character! I've never felt the urge to be a Mozart heroine even though I love the music. They're not me and other people sing those roles better. Besides, last year was a big one for me in terms of repertory, and with all the things coming up I needed time to get back onto the front foot – and Despina seemed exactly the right thing. It's a great part and OHP is a lovely company where I've got some great friends, so why not? She's fun!"