Soraya Mafi and David Webb: fair days will shine

Meet the young stars of ENO’s ”The Pirates of Penzance”

[Opera editor's note: This is a true and faithful account of the day WhatsOnStage met the young stars of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, which opens this week at the London Coliseum. A few small redactions were necessary as their enthusiasm spilled over along with rather too many beans. In publishing this interview we are respecting a few embargoes.]

You've both reached an interesting point in your careers.

David Webb: It feels amazing at the moment. Not just in this production but at ENO. It's the start for both of us of doing some bigger roles here and we're really enjoying what the Harewood Artists programme has to offer. Personally I was in the wilderness before.

I was on housing benefits, had nothing at all, was holding down four jobs, singing in a restaurant at night, getting up at 4 am. And these ENO guys listened to me, said "let's have him for six months and see what we think about him". They watched me for a year, and then after I'd covered for The Mikado they invited me onto the scheme. It's changed my life. From your first week here they look out for you. There's such a support network. And it's even more fun being with Soraya.

Soraya Mafi: [laughs] It was very different for me. I had a lot of problems with my voice early on and I took some time out before I took my Masters. But when I came down to London everything happened at once. I got signed to an agent and I got to work at Grange Park. When somebody said to me "You should go and see Figaro at the Coli" I didn't even know that was the nickname for the Coliseum. Since then it's been a big crescendo. I sang Edith in this production last time, but I covered Mabel. Mike Leigh saw something in me he really liked. He's from Manchester, like me, and said I've got a great face for comedy. Well, thanks! And then I had Papagena [in The Magic Flute], then Karolka [in Jenůfa], then this.

Let's talk about the production. Has Mike Leigh been back to direct it?

Soraya Mafi
Soraya Mafi

SM: No, he's working on a film. It's been very different this time, because with Mike we had an eight-week rehearsal process. We started with improvisation, which is a style he always uses, and there was constant repetition. This time it's been such a short period that we've had to focus on the geography. But Sarah Tipple [the revival director] has been very faithful to what Mike wants. He doesn't like any playing to the comedy. He likes you to deliver the text straight.

Do you feel that Sarah has had the freedom to direct you in her own way?

SM: I think that having new cast members has been a freedom for her. Take me: even though I was in the cast last time I'm very different physically from Claudia Boyle, who sang Mabel then. I'm a small, buzzy woman whereas she's tall and graceful. It's the same with David: he's taller than Rob [Robert Murray, who played Frederic in 2015], so there's this massive height difference between us which wasn't there last time.

DW: And it's nice to embrace that. It could have felt awkward, but it's very sweet.

SM: It adds a new dimension to the relationship.

DW: Sarah's definitely understood what Mike Leigh wants, and having revived it around Europe she knows what is acceptable and what he would like. But she doesn't hamper us from following our instincts. She'll always say "Give it a go". And Mike's idea that you play the situation, you don't play for laughs, works for us.

Being near Sir John Tomlinson [who plays the Police Sergeant this time] has been amazing. Even at the model showing he was asking such incredible questions and posing so many things for us to think about. He first did this 51 years ago as a cover, and here he is doing it again now.

SM: He spoke to me after a run-through and he said "Do mind if I give you some advice? Two things. One, you have to sing this bel canto, as if you're singing Bellini, and two, don't feel you need to act any of it. The thing that's most endearing is when you are just yourself, singing beautifully". And that was exactly the advice I needed.

David Webb
David Webb
© Leo Holden

DW: I had a chest infection for the first two weeks of rehearsals and the first time I really sang was the Sitzprobe. It's been really tough wanting to sing but not being able to. And people like Andrew Shore and Lucy Schaufer took me aside and had a few words for me. That's what is so good about this Harewood Artist thing. People really care about each other and look out for each other.

SM: It's what I love about this company.

DW: I don't think that gets spoken about enough.

SM: I am passionate about this. What an audience loves is knowing the talent on the stage and connecting with the people. Look at the golden age of opera singers, like John Tomlinson, like my teachers, Janis Kelly and Sandra Dugdale: people wanted to go and see them, to see how they'd developed. 'I'd love to see Sandra in Semele.' 'I'd love to see Janis sing Pat Nixon, she'll be fab in that'. As Harewood artists we're in a very privileged position to be given this profile and for people to come on a journey with us.

You've just nailed one of the big issues ENO has had these past seven or eight years: the ability to identify with its singers. What does the future hold for you both?

SM: There's been a lot of change here, but we've still got Jane Robinson [ENO's head of training] who looks after the Harewood Artists…

DW: …and Jane sees you three times a week, she knows your sound, she knows what your teacher is doing, She's not someone who just turns up for a masterclass; she is there with you from the start…

SM: …and she can tell as soon as you walk in how you're feeling. She knows us as people and she really cares about our whole life. She's more than a teacher, she's a mentor and a friend.

DW: Last year I covered a role in [redacted — he names a famous British opera] at [redacted — he names a famous UK company] and there was a lead soprano who got rave reviews from the critics, but I could not understand a word she sang. That would never happen here.

What's it been like for you both doing the lovey stuff?

SM: There have been times we've wanted to do something and been told 'No, it's not Victorian'.

DW: In some ways Soraya is similar to Mabel. She's a firecracker. She's got energy and excitement, and when you're with her it feels fantastic. That's how it is when she sings 'Poor Wand'ring One': in rehearsals I find it hard not to be smiling too. Her voice invokes that. Whereas Frederic is so different from me, though he does get some beautiful things to sing.

What are you doing next?

SM: We were due to be doing The Mikado in Blackpool together, but that's gone now. But we're both going to be in [redacted] next year here.

DW: And from what I know of the cast that's going to be fantastic. [He pours out a list of bright young names.] I was going to be in another thing too, but that fell through, so as a sweetener they've given me a role in [redacted]. I'm also waiting on something that will be amazing if it happens.

SM: I'll be making my debut with Classical Opera, and then I go to Seattle to do semi-staged production of L'Enfant et les sortilèges. If they let me in, that is, because I'm dual nationality Iranian.

The Pirates of Penzance opens at the London Coliseum on 9 February and runs in ENO's repertory until 25 March.