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Susan Bickley discusses Two Boys

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Mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley is one of this country’s most distinguished singing-actresses, whose broad repertoire encompasses everything from Purcell and Monteverdi to Birtwistle, Benjamin and Adès. Equally in demand in the opera house and on the concert platform, nothing seems to faze her as I find out when we sit down at the Coliseum to discuss the world premiere of Nicol Muhly’s Two Boys. Despite being tired – having been in rehearsal all day, and with many more intense sessions to come before the first night on Friday 24 June, she is warm, engaging and more than happy to discuss her wide and varied career.

She has always been a natural actress on the stage, which comes as no surprise as I learn that her original ambition was to be an actress: “I sang in a church choir but I was rejected from Central School, so carried on with the singing but at that time in my life didn’t have any intention of doing opera. I joined the RLPO Choir, then moved down to London. The moment when I thought that I wanted to be a soloist was watching a Proms’ performance of Carmina Burana in which Thomas Allen was taken ill and one of the basses from the choir took over and I thought ‘that’s where I want to be’.”

Susan studied Music in London and as part of her degree course she spent a year at the Guildhall where she had singing lessons with Noel Barker whose interest in contemporary music rubbed off on her. Having won the gold medal at the Guildhall despite having gone in on a part time basis, she ruffled some feathers by deciding to join the Swingle Singers on graduating rather than enrolling for the opera course. “I loved my time with the group, but in the end realised it wasn’t quite enough so joined Opera 80 and did the Early Opera Project with Roger Norrington.”

There have been many highlights so far, throughout what has been a distinguished career but Susan cites the opportunities that Glyndebourne has presented as being particularly memorable: “I started off doing a cover there, then they offered me Florence in Albert Herring and then the Kostelnicka in Jenufa, and I went on to sing Irene in Peter Sellars’ epoch-making production of Handel’s Theordora, so I’ve been very lucky there.”

She is also full of praise for director Richard Jones with whom she first worked at Opera 80 and most recently was reunited with him when she created the role of Vergie in Anna Nicole at Covent Garden. “Working with theatre directors like Richard, Katie Mitchell and now Bartlett Sher is the most fantastic experience as it means I can use the things that I wanted to do as far as acting is concerned, so working with those directors has been career-defining as well.”

Although equally at home in Handel as she is in Birtwistle, Susan has made contemporary music one of her specialities, learning and singing something brand new poses its own challenges: “Firstly you can’t listen to a recording of a brand new piece, so you don’t know how it goes but that can also be an incredibly good thing and secondly contemporary music can be incredibly difficult to learn. People have often said that I’m very quick at learning a new work but that’s absolutely not the case – it’s just hours and hours spent at the piano. I do think that it’s marvellous to do something that nobody has done before – you won’t be compared to anybody, and having the composer around means that the whole process becomes more collaborative.”

This brings us on to discuss Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s first opera in which Susan sings the role of D.I. Anne Strawson. “This piece is not particularly vocally taxing but it’s been quite a difficult piece to learn. It’s often the bits in between when you sing that prove the most difficult as you can learn your lines but because you have nothing to listen to you basically need to know the whole score. But anyone coming to see Two Boys can expect an incredibly interesting story, which is based on a true story. The interesting angle from my point of view and also the director’s point of view because we are of the same generation, almost everyone else in the cast including the composer are all terribly young and we come at it from an analogue point of view, whereas they are ‘digital’.”

“It’s the story of somebody from the analogue generation trying to understand how things could possibly be the way they are in the digital world. I’m fairly computer literate now, but ten years’ ago when this was set I didn’t really understand technology and that’s the mindset of the character I have to play who has got to unravel this extraordinary story.”

Muhly’s music is diverse and promises to be very accessible for the audience. “There is a feel of John Adams about it but Nico is extraordinarily well-versed in every conceivable musical style that he has drawn aspects of all types of music including everything from church music to Britten and Howells. Anybody who’s put off by contemporary opera should certainly give it a go. It’s not long, and that’s always a bonus. The first half is an hour, and the second about forty-five minutes, so you’ll be in the pub by quarter to ten – I think that’s actually important as if you’re trying to draw new blood into opera you can’t hit them with a four-hour epic.”

Talking of epic, Wagner looms large in Susan’s future plans. Having sung a critically-acclaimed Waltraute in Götterdämmerung under Sir Mark Elder and the Halle she returns to sing Fricka in Die Walküre and is looking forward to Brangaene in Tristan und Isolde and Ortrud in Lohengrin with WNO next year. She’s also excited about another contemporary opera which she’s involved in that’s due to be seen in London in 2013, but details have to be kept under wraps for now.

The world premiere of Two Boys takes place at ENO on Friday 24 June, and there are a further 6 performances. www.eno.org.


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