The Sunday Telegraph
With women finding their voices off-stage, 80-year-old Dame Josephine Barstow has no plans to stop singing. By
I‘Sometimes, in productions today, it becomes all about the director’s ideas. Why?’
f the soprano Dame Josephine Barstow has one regret, it’s that she felt unable to speak out as a young opera singer in the late 1960s and early 1970s when sexual harassment within the industry was not unusual. “I won’t give any names,” she says, on the phone from Leeds where she is rehearsing A Little Night Music for Opera North. “But I certainly had quite specific and surprising experiences, particularly early on in my career. There was one planned approach in particular which I was able to escape because I wasn’t interested. It happened a lot. It was more than mere groping, too. It would make me extremely angry. I’d ring my husband and say, ‘Guess what!’ And he would shriek and I would shriek and that would be that. It was never talked about, it was never a big thing. Things were different then.”
In 2019 the opera industry was rocked to the core when 20 women came forward to accuse the legendary tenor Plácido Domingo of sexual harassment. Barstow, now 80, is at pains to stress she never experienced anything inappropriate from Domingo. “Plácido was always a sweetheart,” she says. “But I admire hugely the women who are speaking out today. We’ve had this process of women going from not having the vote to the status they have now, and it’s wonderful. Opera is in a bit of turmoil at the moment, but I can see where people are trying to get to, and I hope they get there.”
Barstow is one of our best loved sopranos, known in a career stretching across more than 50 years for her outsized, strikingly dramatic interpretation of roles that have included Violetta, Salome and Lady Macbeth, and, perhaps most famously, Britten’s Gloriana, which
The Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen described as “unforgettable”. Unusually for a soprano, her voice hasn’t dropped with age, which poses a bit of a challenge when it comes to Madame Armfeldt, the ageing courtesan in Stephen Sondheim’s elegiac musical A Little Night Music. “The score is so bloody low I’ve had to manufacture my voice to sing it at all,” she says. “When I first saw it, I noticed Sondheim had written it in the treble clef, which I thought wouldn’t be so bad. But then you see this little mark from him saying it has to sound an octave lower. It’s quite a shock. At home I’ll spend half an hour struggling with the bass clef. And then I’ll sing ‘Queen of the Night’ [from Mozart’s The Magic Flute] to feel better.”
A Little Night Music is her second Sondheim in four years: in 2017 she starred in the National Theatre’s much-raved-about production of Follies. The British love the American composer’s tricksy melodic game play, yet does she think a certain snobbery exists towards him within opera circles?
“Well, Sondheim writes against the operatic, of course. He doesn’t do the full-throttle emotion the way Verdi or Puccini does, it all boils away inside instead. But you can never be too popular as a composer. Anyway, the psychological structures in A Little Night Music are incredibly complex.
“Madame Armfeldt is a badtempered old bag, but she’s starting to wonder whether she has lived a worthwhile kind of life. Which is an enormous question as you are preparing for death. I’ve tried to find a resolution for her. I hope the audience will see she is accepting death calmly.
“Of course, I’m 80 myself. I’m closer to death too. Although one doesn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about it because one is too busy living.”
Barstow is certainly busy. She recently bought a farm in Sussex where she breeds Arabian horses, and is itching to get back to it: it’s calving season. And I doubt she is ever plagued, like Madame Armfeldt, by worries over whether she has lived a worthwhile life. Born in Sheffield in 1940, she knew at 17 that she wanted to be an opera singer after seeing a production of The Barber of Seville. Her father, who worked for a weighing machines company, and her mother, a housewife, were supportive, but insisted she got a degree first.
After graduating from Birmingham, she won a scholarship to the London Opera Centre where she met her second husband, the opera director Andre A Anderson (she was briefly married to the theatre director Terry Hands in her twenties). Soon began what would become a lauded career with the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, later known as the ENO, and today she credits her scrupulous interpretation of character to the “traditional” approach of directors she encountered at the time, such as John Copley and Luchino Visconti.
“Back then a character’s train of thought was considered paramount, which was very useful for me,” she says. “When I did Traviata with John Copley [at the ENO in 1973], we sat down and worked out what Violetta was thinking all the way through the piece. It’s easy to splurge out emotion but it’s much more important to think. Productions such as Visconti’s Don Carlos at the Royal Opera House: they were straightforward, beautiful statements about the piece from the point of view of the composer.”
What does she think of the style of opera today? “Sometimes the statement now is all about the director. Sometimes you think: why? OK, so there is some director’s idea about the piece, but everything tends to get subordinated to that.”
Her high-voltage theatrical style has seen her perform in opera houses across the world, including Salzburg where in 1989 she performed with Luciano Pavarotti in Herbert von
Karajan’s Tosca. “Pavarotti wasn’t the world’s best actor,” she says with a laugh. “But he knew that. And he also knew what was important about the score and how to bring it out.”
She describes the rise of the Three Tenors during the 1990s as hugely beneficial for the industry, but celebrity was never a path she wanted. “In the late 1970s I had just signed to the Met, and was told I needed to get a publicity agent. But I never wanted people to know who I was, particularly when I popped into Sainsbury’s. I never wanted my personal life hauled over the coals.”
She credits her own longevity with her “one-track mind” approach to her career, and an absolute love for the art form that shows no sign of dimming. “I’ve no idea how much work there is for an 80-year-old opera singer,” she says. “But I mean to go on singing for as long as I can.”