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10 Questions for Mezzo-Soprano Alice Coote | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Mezzo-Soprano Alice Coote

10 Questions for Mezzo-Soprano Alice Coote

The singer speaks about opera, loneliness, time machines and her special Brighton Festival event

British opera star Alice Coote

Alice Coote (b.1968) is one of the world’s leading mezzo-sopranos. She grew up in Cheshire, born to two painters, Mark Coote and Mary Moss, and learned her craft at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal Northern College of Music and the National Opera Studio. Her breakthrough came in 2000 when, within the time frame of a fortnight, she sang Ruggiero in Handel’s Alcina at the Edinburgh Festival, and Poppea in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea at the ENO.

Since then she has become a global star of opera, albeit one for whom concert recitals are equally important. She was forced to take a year off in 2003 when she suffered a haemorrhage of the right vocal chord, but came back even stronger. She has appeared to acclaim in roles that range from Dejanira in Handel’s Hercules to Octavian in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, from Prince Charming in Massenet’s Cendrillon to the title role in Carmen, and has performed in the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls, collaborating along the way with conductors including Pierre Boulez, Valery Gergiev and Chistoph von Dohnányi.

Coote is especially renowned for her “trouser” roles, playing men, which she says she has spent 70% of her time onstage doing. She will be exploring ideas about gender within the music of Handel in Being Both, an event especially commissioned by the Brighton Festival that takes place on May 18th

THOMAS H GREEN: Did you know there’s a fan site called Fuck Yeah Alice Coote?

ALICE COOTE: Unfortunately, yes, but I comfort myself knowing that Judi Dench also has one so it can’t be that offensive. I don’t engage in that side of things. I don’t quite know what they’re doing but, if they support the music I try to express and if they love what I’m doing, I can’t complain.

You have performed contemporary pieces, such Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys - what modern music have you responded to lately?

I’m currently preparing - being slightly hysterical at the concept - to sing five brand new songs at Wigmore Hall at the beginning of June, a compostion especially for me by Judith Weir. I’ve done a song cycle of hers before [The Voice of Desire] and these are called Morning to Midnight. I’ve got my head buried in that at the moment, very exciting. It was wonderful to work with Nico Muhly, there’s another project at Wigmore we’re working on. It’s amazing to be the first voice to sing this music. It’s also a big stress. I get more stressed out singing new music than music many other people have sung before because its a responsibility to make it live for the first time. The first time people receive that performance they react to the music partially by how well you’ve performed it. It’s exciting but daunting.

What are your thoughts on Brighton?

It feels like my home town really because I live at the top the South Downs in East Susses so, when I try to calm myself down after travelling abroad, I regularly drive up to Ditchling Beacon and look down over Brighton to the sea. I love the cultural diversity of Brighton and the fact they embrace the forefront of anything cultural going on in this country. It’s exciting to be part of the festival, particularly the way [novelist and Brighton Festival Guest Director] Ali Smith is joining with us to explore gender. It seems a great place to do it.

What can audiences expect from Being Both?

It’s difficult to tell audiences what to expect as what they receive is different for each person. We’re going to be exploring, in music and staging, some of the greatest music Handel ever wrote that could have been sung by a man or a woman. The English Concert Orchestra is one of the greatest in the world, with their incredible soloists and Harry Bicket who is also world-renowned in this repertoire. It’s directed by Susannah Waters who I’ve known for many years, since my days in college.

Can you describe what Susannah Waters is like?

Wonderful. She has a particular interest in this subject herself. We wanted to do something baroque to explore gender because I’ve spent my whole life playing men. She’s been very much drawn to Handel’s explorations of sexuality so it seemed like the perfect project. We’re standing side by side on it. Quite often [with other jobs] I turn up and I’m told what to wear, where to stand, what to do and they don’t particularly engage my brain. What is lovely about Susannah is that when we first came up with the idea of exploring Handel and gender it was a joint project and from that point onward she’s been generous enough to allow me to have input into the structure of the piece, why we’re doing it, some of the staging ideas. She’s an extraordinary lady. She’s a novelist, a director, she has been a singer so she knows this career, singing this particular repertoire around Europe and America.

The album of Handel arias you did with Harry Bicket and the English Concert Orchestra last year was well received.  Have you known him a long time too?

I’ve been working with Harry Bicket since the Nineties. He’s a friend. We’ve grown up together, really, from Opera North in Leeds, I think we did Radamisto together in the late Nineties - I was playing a female role then - right the way through to being at Chicago, being at the Met, all over Europe. The latest project is touring with Alcina all round the world.

Why did you find moving to London for college so unpleasant?

I’m a country girl really. I grew up in the country, had a bash at living in London, then ran away and hid out in Sussex again. It was a few years of having to be there, when I was training, and a National Opera student. It didn’t suit me at all to come straight from the middle of nowhere, near the Delamere Forest in Cheshire, straight down on my own aged 18 having never really left my parents, to be in the middle of the Barbican, underground in concrete. Trying to make music in that environment doesn’t work for me. The poetry I sing and the way I feel about the world isn’t at its most healthy in the middle of a city. Although that’s the place I end up performing, my preparation time needs to be in a quiet place where the only sound I can hear is music I’m preparing. I find my senses sensitive to sound – perhaps that’s why I’ve ended up being a musician - so being in a city constantly bombarded by sounds, noises and awful rumblings through ones being, I get overstimulated. If I’m going to have the nervous energy to perform I need to get away from that.

The other thing that comes across in your interviews is it’s a somewhat lonely life, doing what you do – would that be a fair assessment?

Absolutely. Anybody who does this job knows that. Even if you’re lucky enough to have members of your family or a partner travelling with you, it’s very rare that can continue for many years. I have spent 80% of the last 20 years away from home, alone - it’s quite a thing to sustain yourself. For the majority of that there were no mobile phones, no Skype. It’s slightly less lonely nowadays as younger singers take up with social media and keep in contact with their families. It used to be a much more lonely affair. I’d imagine it was a damn sight more lonely for those people who got on boats many decades ago and it took them five days to get to America. It is really lonely, especially for a lady who hasn’t had children, her family in another country. Maybe if you have a secure home life with a family the back’n’forth might be easier but it’s very difficult to judge. All my colleagues acknowledge it’s the hardest part of the job.

If you had a time machine and could go anywhere in the past for 24 hours, where would you go?

Golly! I wish I’d had more time to think about that one. Only 24 hours? I have consciousness, do I? I wouldn’t mind being in space for 24 hours at the beginning of the universe just to have a good idea of what happened, then I could say I was there.

You have said of opera, “This is not, in any case, a believable art form. Who are we kidding?  But it is one that can move humans in ways that they cannot explain.” Can you even begin to explain?

Not really, no. It’s a combination of something very obvious and something very strange. This pertains to musicals as well. An audience in the West End won’t be surprised to find they’re really moved by great songs. They won’t be astounded that somebody’s singing at them within a story. Within Mamma Mia people don’t gasp when someone breaks into song, but there’s strange attitude to opera. If people singing on stage within a theatre piece is shocking then, yes, opera is shocking, but at the same time no-one can deny what happens when the greatest singers in the world perform. With opera there’s no microphone, just somebody who’s able to fill this big space in the most beautiful athletic way. To see someone who’s the equivalent of an Olympic champion at their height is the most breath-taking thing you can experience and the most emotionally powerful. It’s something to do with the human voice communicating to somebody else right in their solar plexus. When I have experienced that and it’s great, it’s truly extraordinary.

Overleaf: watch Alice Coote perform "Under The Shade" from Handel's Xerxes in rehearsal with the ENO in 2014

With opera, to see someone who’s the equivalent of an Olympic champion at their height is the most breath-taking thing you can experience and the most emotionally powerful

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Alice Coote is a genius. I have read or heard most of the interviews with her and she sounds like a fantastic person. Genuine, intelligent and humorous and what a beautiful voice!

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