BBC Music Magazine

The BBC Music Magazine Interview


Soprano Louise Alder talks to James Naughtie

‘‘If you know the music as if you were an actor – the stresses and the meaning in the words – you can’t go wrong ’’

With a new album of French romantic song and a turn as Cordelia in Shakespear­e’s King Lear, the British soprano is making the most of lockdown, she tells James Naughtie

Louise Alder has no doubt how best to prepare a song. It is crucial, she says, to say it aloud to yourself before you touch the music. ‘I always start speaking through my texts, no matter what I’m doing,’ Alder says, ‘no matter if it’s a long coloratura section, or if it’s a wordy Schubert song. If I’ve spoken it as me, or as the character, I know then that I’ve started.’

We’re not talking not about Schubert, however, or Strauss lieder, but of a recording she’s made with the pianist Joseph Middleton devoted to French song. And that takes us straight to the voice itself, because of the special demands the language makes.

Those demands are different in the opera house and on the concert platform. As we speak – from her home in Frankfurt

– she’s preparing Massenet’s Manon for the Vienna State Opera. ‘Just purely because of how you have to project the voice over an orchestra, the vowels in French don’t lend themselves to easy projection,’ Alder explains, ‘so you do have to find a way to open the voice in order for it to ring past, probably, quite a full orchestra, given French repertoire in general.’

So, what’s needed in a close-up recital? The recording’s programme, Chère Nuit – featuring songs by Debussy, Poulenc, Satie and more – means those difficult vowels have to work more intimately. ‘I think that for the stage it’s a question of not closing the voice down but finding a way that, while easy in Italian repertoire, isn’t so easy vowel-wise and nasal-wise in French. But when you’re recording, it’s much easier because you can be truer, in the sense of adopting a more “speaking” way of singing, with much more intimate timbres.’

The transition is clearly one she manages easily. Since her operatic career took off less than a decade ago with a string of prizes – including the first Young British Soloist’s Prize at Wigmore Hall and the John Christie Prize at Glyndebour­ne in

the same year – her stage career, which has led her to make her base in Frankfurt, has produced a series of recordings (several with Middleton) that have demonstrat­ed her comfort in repertoire from Handel to the kind of 20th-century material that features on the new disc.

‘I really hoped it would highlight the different elements of what I do profession­ally, because what I love about my career so far has been the breadth of different things that I’ve got to do, from operetta to Handel and Strauss and Mozart and back again.’

There are, for example, the three songs of Ravel’s perfumed Shéhérazad­e ‘which is hard – it’s a beautiful piece, but it’s a big old thing’, and there is a more jazzy feel to some of the songs, too, such as the ones by Satie. She feels at home there. ‘I think there is a little bit of everything within the French language of what I do vocally.’

You can trace Alder’s attraction to some of the repertoire to childhood. The daughter of profession­al musicians, she grew up in a house where there was music all round, all day. It led naturally to life as a young performer, before her music studies took her to Edinburgh University and then the Royal College of Music. ‘I’ve always been deeply in love with musical theatre, cabaret and jazz. I sang as a teenager. I sang with jazz bands and weddings – did many, many gigs as a jazz singer. The jazz concert platform is somewhere I feel very at home because, again, the music is text driven. It’s about finding the human part of your voice. It’s about not putting on any sounds that don’t come naturally.’

Alder returns to where we began – that preoccupat­ion with the ‘natural’ voice, whether it’s in ‘speaking’ a song before beginning to study it in detail or finding the emotional entry point in performanc­e. ‘Female singers use the chest voice. That’s where we speak, and it appeals to me a lot. Of course, we have to then find a different way to use it in classical singing and really blend it into the rest of our voice. But there is something very “us”, very individual to our spoken voices.’

She describes for me precisely how she takes that understand­ing as the starting point for a performanc­e. ‘With my spoken voice, I can obviously work through an incredibly intricate passage. I then have to work vocally on it. But to me, it has to come from this open, almost spoken place. You then have to manage technicall­y what’s being asked. Often on the operatic stage you have to take care and think of how to get across an orchestra. But it all comes from the same place for me. If you know the music as if you were an actor, where the stresses are, where the meaning is in the words, you can’t go wrong. Then you’re not tying your voice in knots.’

The new recording includes pieces by the 19th-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, whose songs have a deep romantic pull. ‘They’re extraordin­ary, aren’t they? And vocally they’re not easy. Hai Luli is basically French coloratura.’ We talk about Viardot’s revival, and her place in history not just as one of the most famous singers of her time, but a composer whose music demands to be heard. As does the music of Cécile Chaminade, three of whose songs Alder has recorded and a female composer

whose music beyond her sumptuous piano works is hardly known.

It’s also a recital with wonderful piano parts that demand a skilled and sensitive pianist. ‘So much of this music is very tender, but Joe Middleton is so creative and imaginativ­e. He’s absolutely not an accompanis­t – he’s a partner and I love that his strength sort of holds me up rather than timidly trying to help! Joe can read me sometimes before can I read myself on the concert platform, and that’s extraordin­ary. He knows my voice so well that he preempts things. We feel musically, we feel phrases and we feel the emotions of a piece incredibly similarly. And I mean, that’s everything in a partnershi­p.

Alder is powering into what is surely the most productive phase of her career, in demand on internatio­nal opera stages with a schedule that, before the pandemic, saw her working intensivel­y in three different time zones in Japan, New York and Europe over just three weeks. For all the horrors that Covid-19 has visited on musicians and on live performanc­es with audiences, it’s given Alder a chance to think about the singer’s life. ‘Drawing back has allowed people to sketch a map of how life works and to wonder, well, do I need to fill every second hour with something?’

Perhaps not. But the opening up, when it comes, will find her in the whirlwind again. One project in the summer brings us back to what has become the theme of our conversati­on – the natural voice. She describes how the actor Fiona Shaw had coached her in stagecraft and voice production at Glyndebour­ne (they were working on a DVD version of Britten’s The

Rape of Lucretia) which leads us on to a production of Shakespear­e’s King Lear in which she’s playing Cordelia at the Grange Festival in Hampshire in the summer.

It’s extraordin­ary because the parts of Lear and Gloucester are being taken by none other than bass Sir John Tomlinson and baritone Sir Thomas Allen. Music has been composed for Keith Warner’s production by Nigel Osborne.

‘We’ve already had some Zoom rehearsals, which actually works very well with spoken text, though we can’t feel the conversati­onal nature of it yet. But going through and getting the rhythms of the text, hearing each other and just really making sense of the play has been invaluable. What’s really interestin­g to me is, having grown up listening to Tom and John singing a lot, their voices, even spoken, are so recognisab­le.’

No doubt, people will be flocking to see it – if they’re allowed – in July. ‘You can tell Tom’s brilliance on the stage just from how he has sung Mozart for so many years. That is straight acting to me. I’ve done the Letter duet [from The Marriage of Figaro] with him. I was just finishing studying and I couldn’t believe how he uses the text, and the economy of his movements in comparison to what he says with his face and his voice. He’s magnetic. It was a Wigmore showcase and I just thought, what a masterclas­s in how to sing Mozart.’

Sometimes singing is acting too, and, as Alder says so often during our conversati­on, it starts with the speaking voice. Always.

‘Chère Nuit’ is available now on Chandos Records; Louise Alder plays Cordelia in King Lear at the Grange Festival in mid-july (dates to be confirmed). Visit thegrangef­ for more info

‘I’ve always been deeply in love with musical theatre, cabaret and jazz’

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 ??  ?? Magical sounds: (right) Louise Alder as Pamina alongside Jonathan Mcgovern as Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Garsington Opera in 2018; (below) composer Cécile Chaminade
Magical sounds: (right) Louise Alder as Pamina alongside Jonathan Mcgovern as Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Garsington Opera in 2018; (below) composer Cécile Chaminade
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Select crowd: Schubert performs in 1827
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 ??  ?? A little knife music: Beverley Klein (left) as the Witch and Alder as Rapunzel in Sondheim’s Into the Woods in Paris, 2014
A little knife music: Beverley Klein (left) as the Witch and Alder as Rapunzel in Sondheim’s Into the Woods in Paris, 2014
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