Jonathan Miller directs a new production of Donizetti’s timeless comedy The Elixir of Love, at the English National Opera. The production opens on the 12th of February with Sarah Tynan singing the role of Adina and John Tessier as Nemorino. I caught up with Sarah Tynan recently in rehearsal and asked her a few questions about her career, her relationship with ENO and what it is like to perform in Donizetti’s evergreen comedic masterpiece.
As a former member of the ENO Young Artists Programme, can you tell me a little about how it helped in shaping your career?
"The impact proved to be quite considerable as I joined it almost straight out of college. Working in London in a big opera house was a real eye opener for me, as well as being an amazing experience. One of the biggest benefits was that I got to perform a lot of roles, gaining a considerable amount of stage time. I would say it was more like an apprenticeship, rather than a hands-off programme where all you learn is theory. In my first season I sang Papagena and Tytania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I then went on to sing in Xerxes and The Dialogue of the Carmelites. I gained experience across a wide repertoire, which gave me an important grounding for my eventual operatic career. The roles of course varied in size, with some being bigger than others, but for me it was such an extraordinary time. One of the biggest plus points was that by having the luxury of receiving a regular wage each month, as well as all the guidance and advice which would come my way, I was never in the position of having to make difficult decisions about what I would have to sing in order to get by. The programme left me feeling very secure in so many different ways, which certainly helped with my personal development.
To a certain extent you cannot really opt for classroom theorising over actual experience, you just have to get on and do it. This is perhaps true of any job, so programmes like this one at the ENO teach you an awful lot about how to get prepared for a life on the operatic stage and what skills need to be developed. Getting out there on the stage really is the best way to learn. I found that even when I was singing a secondary soprano role like Atlanta in Xerxes, there was still something like five arias to sing, so my stage time was beginning to build up and up. Even if you are not in a lead role, there is still plenty to do and learn."
Can you tell me a little about the structure of this programme?
"The basic structure of the week was rather simple, in that you would have a singing lesson followed by coaching. It was quite sparse because most of the time you were in productions, either in it or preparing for it. The year was largely based around the productions which were lined up, so this dictated the structure of the programme. I joined the programme in 2003 and eventually went on to become a company principal for a couple of years. Since then I have become freelance, but I regularly return to sing at the ENO. One real and often overlooked benefit of a programme like this is the value of actually getting to know the people with whom you work, whether this is the chorus, other singers or technical staff. Whenever I come back it is such luxury to be able to fit back in. Normally in this job it can be rather anonymous, you end up meeting people once, and never, or rarely ever, see them again. For the young aspiring singer, the protectiveness and family-like atmosphere of a young artists scheme, can really help with their development."
Did your pre-conceptions about the sort of repertoire you thought you would sing change as a result of being on the programme?
"It didn’t really change as such, because when you are learning about your voice, you have an understanding about where you think your voice will go. I was instead more surprised by the breadth of repertoire which I ended up singing, as well as the amount, as I never expected to be able to sing so much and so often. I suppose I was part of a lucky few, as most people just don’t get these opportunities."
Looking at the performances you have done already, your repertoire encompasses quite a few different composers and styles, from Britten, Mozart and Handel, to Strauss and Donizetti, the latter of which you are about to sing in his L’elisir d’amore. I understand you have other bel canto roles in preparation, including Lucia, Amina and Marie. Have you therefore found an affinity with the bel canto repertoire?
"Oh absolutely, as it is something I have been hoping to do for a while. As I have gotten older I have realised that it was a case of being ready for the right roles, at the right time in my career. I feel that I am definitely ready for it now, as I find the music just so satisfying to sing. There are so many great characters, such extraordinary and wonderful music, fantastic tunes and an awful lot of fun to be had as an actress. This genre also has so many of the dream operatic roles which go and embed themselves directly into your subconscious, leading you to think that, one day, perhaps.... Adina is my first bel canto role on stage, although I did record Elvira (Italian Girl in Algiers) on a highlights disc for Chandos."
Adina is quite a fascinating character, part minx, part shrew. How is the role developing for you?
"It is quite a challenge in terms of the actual singing, but it is also very difficult when you are trying to strike the right balance between the fun elements of her character, and that part of her which makes her seem like a bit of a cow! It’s not easy, I can tell you."
A lot of bel canto opera provides almost unlimited opportunities for ornamentation. I believe that Maria Malibran went one further than mere ornamentation (on the basis that the role wasn't big or demanding enough) and so had an insertion aria composed for her by her husband Charles de Bériot, called “Nel dolce incanto”, a frothy waltz-like construction that caps the opera with a glittering high E Flat. Are there any plans to do likewise, or to ornament the role in any way?
"Oh no, it’s going to be performed largely as written. It’s such a luxurious score anyway, so there’s no real need to alter or enhance it."
L’elisir d’amore is an ideal introductory opera for those yet to experience the art form, what do you think is the eternal appeal of this piece, especially when one considers that even during the century or so of neglect that most of Donizetti’s oeuvre was consigned to, L’elisir was just one of a handful of his operas that survived to be performed in the general repertory?
"First and foremost it’s such great fun, and it has good tune after good tune packed into the score. It also has universal appeal as it is a love story, complete with comic intrigue and mad antics. There are so many twists and turns in the plot that you can’t fail to be engaged. You can also imagine the characters as your friends and think, how would they react in such circumstances? It’s straight forward human nature, a great story and fabulous tunes. Kelley Rourke has also provided a wonderful translation in English, which makes it even more accessible for people coming to opera for the very first time."
I’m quite fascinated by what I know so far about this production and although you can’t give away too much, I understand it has come to us from the New York City Opera via the Royal Swedish Opera, and is inspired by the work of the American realist painter, Edward Hopper. How does the concept of Hopper's infatuation with urban life, isolation, loneliness and ennui in everyday America, translate to Donizetti’s fizzy, frothy comedy?
"I try not to think of it in those terms whenever possible. I was presented with this imaginary world of what we are and what we are doing. When I approach it, I try to not intellectualise it too much. My way into the character is to be very simple, to ask where are we, what are we trying to say, where do I begin, where do we finish, how do I fit it all together? Sometimes we can lose something of the piece by being too analytical."
Is the setting based on, or inspired by his 1942 painting Nighthawks, with the central focus being a diner?
"It is set in Adina’s diner, an archetypal 1950s American diner. It’s every diner you’ve ever seen, our version of a greasy spoon. Everyone is going about their business in the same old way, just as they have always done, until Dulcamara comes along and throws a spanner in the works. There’s a wonderful 1950s till on the set, which really catches the eye, but the designs (Isabella Bywater) are really amazing throughout."
That’s rather fascinating, as I believe Hopper eventually visualised Nighthawks as being less about loneliness and more to do with the predatory nature of certain individuals. Dulcamara’s upsetting of the metaphorical apple cart fits this description well. Naturally it is the director's role to bring together the meaning and interpetation of this work, rather than the singer. What has it been like to work with Jonathan Miller?
"Well it’s not just a case of him being one of the great directors, but also one of the great men of today. He has done so much and has led such an incredible life, with so many varied experiences. He is a really interesting and exciting man to be around. The way he understands humour is also very special, as you will see from this production. His approach is to be very collaborative, although he definitely steers the boat! He’s very interested in seeing what we can bring to the production as a whole and to our roles. Although the production is exactly the same as it was at New York City Opera, we have brought different things to it, so there will be a few changes."
So where do you see yourself in five years time?
"This is a difficult question to answer fully, as I suppose if I were to ask myself have I achieved what I set out to achieve five years ago, I would say yes, but predicting the future and what my expectations will be is a bit more difficult. I suppose I would say that I am now where I had hoped I would be. I try not to look too far forward, as life is full of surprises, for example you may find yourself doing a role that you assumed previously you would never consider. Maybe the production is so exciting you end up re-thinking your possibilities. Who can say what might happen. There is of course a whole list of things I would like to do in the future. I would love to sing Pamina, the Vixen, more bel canto, especially Norina and maybe Lucia one day. I think I will be led by the repertoire rather than anything else. I’m going to be singing Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo soon at the ENO. Looking not so far ahead, there are a few more operas I have lined up, but I need to wait for the opera companies to announce their seasons first. There’s a lot of concert work as well, plus I will be singing Berlioz’s Les nuits d'été soon, about which I am really excited."
The Sacrifice by James MacMillan on Chandos has just been released, in which you sing the role of Megan. Can you tell me a little about the piece and your role?
"Well we premiered it at the Welsh National Opera back in 2007, and the performance which has been issued by Chandos was a live broadcast. It’s a fantastic piece, with great music and a great story. The story is taken from an old Celtic myth, The Mabinogion. My character was autistic, which was a huge challenge for me. Traditionally Megan was a fool-like character, but the director Katie Mitchell was keen to find a modern way of interpreting this traditional collection of tales, and so Megan became autistic. James wrote it into the music that some things had to be said over and over again. Instead of relating to people, I was completely in my own world. It was strange, but you learn an awful lot about how far you can take things, and how much you can do to make a character round and full. It’s a wonderful piece, which should be heard. It was also a very happy time for me personally as I just got married to my husband Leigh Melrose, who was also in The Sacrifice, playing Evan. I’m very fond of the piece, especially one particularly beautiful duet which my husband would sing with Lisa Milne who sang Sian. It was a really wonderful and moving experience for me."
L’elisir d’amore opens at the English National Opera on the 12th of February 2010. Click here to be re-directed to the ENO website for further information.
To read Dominic Wells’ review of MacMillan’s The Sacrifice, which features Sarah Tynan, then please click here.