5 questions with Alice Coote
“Janet Baker has always been an incredibly generous support to me for more than 30 years and so I thought I would ask her what ‘Ben’ said to her about Phaedra. Funnily enough it seems he trusted her just to use what he wrote in the score and her own imagination…”
Can you describe your interpretive work with this piece? How deep do you go into the text; do you study French tragedy, or go back to the Greek myth, or do you just stick to what’s on the page and shape the character from there?
I try to find he human behind the story, the reality behind the myths. I find out what I can about a character or a real historical figure and its context, but I try to live more presently in the mind and heart of the human I am giving voice to, or the ideas and feelings the composer or poet felt compelled to communicate. Phaedra is a figure upon whom many stories are pinned but Britten just shows her to be the passionate, fearful, lonely, courageous human being we are capable of being.
You come from an artistic family. When and how did you start to sing, and did you know straight away that this would be your career?
Music was always around and playing night and day before I even left the womb! I am sure the Mahler vinyl LPs that my father used to play to my mother in the 1950s, when they first met, went into my DNA somehow. I sang in many choirs in school while also playing the oboe in the Cheshire Youth Orchestra. Despite shyness I felt envious of pupils chosen to sing solo in school concerts and even though it terrified me I felt compelled to try. I felt a voice in my body that I needed to use. When I was 17 my parents took me to the BBC Proms where I heard the great Jessye Norman sing the last song of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde… and I knew I had to try and do that.
Phaedra was written for Janet Baker, who was a support and inspiration to you. Did she have any words of advice on this work? What is your history with it?
It’s very unusual, strange and a huge privilege to be able to ask a performer for whom the work was written what the composer said to them. Janet Baker has always been an incredibly generous support to me for more than 30 years and so I thought I would ask her what “Ben” said to her about Phaedra. Funnily enough it seems he trusted her just to use what he wrote in the score and her own imagination…
What are some of the challenges presented by this piece for you as a performer?
Phaedra is hugely challenging as a musician and as a performer. Britten makes a vocal line that is often completely at odds harmonically and rhythmically with the orchestra. Phaedra’s own lines of music shift key and sense of gravity or balance almost every musical bar of the work. Technically, and emotionally, this is an intense, rewarding, profoundly affecting challenge.
You’ve described being a singer as “the most vulnerable thing that you can do”. What do you mean by that?
As infants most of us cry (and laugh) freely, conveying our needs, our unhappiness and our vulnerability. It’s our elemental method of connection. Singers just carry on doing that. There is little more expressive of our collective frailties and needs than the human voice. I try to stay true to my own real voice. I feel singing should never just be sound – beautiful or otherwise. There is something to be said to each other, and for us all.
Upcoming online concerts
Santtu-Matias Rouvali – conductor
Pekka Kuusisto – violin
- Sibelius Violin Concerto
- Beethoven Symphony No. 6, Pastoral
Booking for Friends of the Philharmonia opens at 10am on Thursday, 1 July. General booking opens Thursday, 8 July.