Rachel Nicholls: "No-one ever tells you you're ready to sing Wagner - you have to dare to try for yourself.”

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 25 July 2012 | 11:47:00 pm

“No-one ever tells you you're ready to sing Wagner - you have to dare to try for yourself.” Rachel Nicholls
A new Brunnhilde only comes along infrequently. This is in part because of the relatively small number of Ring Cycle performances. Equally, the shear cost of staging any part of the Ring means that opera companies are most likely to chose “big names”- dramatic sopranos that can draw in large crowds simply by their presence on the stage. But perhaps most importantly it is the difficulty that houses have in finding a performer who can meet the long list of requirements to “pull off” a successful performance of Brunnhilde: technical skill, experience, vocal quality, acting skills, intelligence, presence (this is after all the women who will redeem the world in Wagner’s vision) and, let us be honest, the stamina and vocal power, to perform one of the most demanding roles in opera.

With this in mind, I was very grateful to have the opportunity talk with a performer described less than two years ago by the Times as a “future Brunnhilde” and recently announced as Longborough Festival Opera’s Brunnhilde of 2012 During our discussion, she discussed her move from Bach to Wagner, her time working with some of the world’s leading conductors, training with one of Britain’s most famous Wagnerians and much more. But before that, a little detail on the career so far of the rather amazing Rachel Nicholls

Rachel Nicholls: Liebestod 

Born in Bedford, Rachel was awarded Second Prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Competition. Her repertoire ranges from J. S. Bach and Handel to Schoenberg and Errollyn Wallen. She made her début at the ROH as Third Flowermaiden in Parsifal, returning as Pepik The Cunning Little Vixen, EchoAriadne auf Naxos and Prilepa The Queen of Spades and other operatic engagements have included Marzelline Fidelio for London Lyric Opera, Joan For You for Music Theatre Wales, Wendy Peter Pan (Bernstein) at the Festival Rota dos Monumentos, and on it goes. However, she is probably best known for her well regarded baroque performances where she has worked with some of the greatest names in that very specialised field. For example, she made her international début singing Messiah under the direction of Sir David Willcocks in Halle and recent concert highlights have included Jauchzet Gott and Haydn Il ritorno di Tobia with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London and Minneapolis, Bach B Minor Mass with Bach Collegium Japan at Carnegie Hall, Judas Maccabaeus at the Gdansk Music Festival, Szymanowski Stabat Mater for Huddersfield Choral Society, an Opera Gala with the Mikkeli City Orchestra and La Folle Journée in Tokyo. Other concert appearances include performances with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, the Britten Sinfonia, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Darmstadt Hofkapelle, Florilegium, the Hanover Band, the London Handel Players, the London Mozart Players, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of St John’s, Le Parlement de Musique, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, as well as at the Brighton, Chelsea, Fishguard, London Handel and Three Choirs Festivals.

Conductors with whom she has worked in opera and concert include Martyn Brabbins, Stephen Cleobury, Thomas Dausgaard, Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Colin Davis, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Valery Gergiev, Martin Gester, Richard Hickox, Adrian Leaper, Sir Roger Norrington (she was featured soloist for his 75th Birthday Concert with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at London’s Royal Festival Hall), Sir Simon Rattle, Steven Sloane and Masaaki Suzuki.

Currently studying with Dame Anne Evans, she was highly praised for her debut as Helmwige in Die Walküre at Longborough Festival and singled out for praise by the Observer for her début this year as Sieglinde at the St Endellion Festival with Susan Bullock conducted by Martyn Brabbins. And now of course she is about to début as Brünnhilde under Anthony Negus at Longborough Festival Opera.

TW: Rachel, I have described above s just a sample of a very busy schedule. Given this, first of all let me thank you very much for taking the time to discuss your journey from Bach to Wagner. But first, a confession: my knowledge of the Baroque repertoire is as extensive as my knowledge of the music of “Lady Ga Ga – in other words virtually none existent. So, with that in mind, should I ask any foolish questions with might display my ignorance, or worse, my ill conceived assumptions about performing music from this period I apologise in advance. And with that disclaimer out of the way:

I think, as I have described, it would be more than fair to say that while your repertoire is certainly diverse (a quick scan alone finds Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky and Britten) until recently, you have concentrated - and have had a highly successful career in - prominently Baroque performance. Indeed, you have recorded and worked with some of greats in this field. Even, I (with my limited knowledge of anything outside of the Romantics and 20th century) own a few of Suzuki's Bach Cantata recordings).


 So tell us how and why did you find yourself concentrating on the baroque repertoire? Was it a natural progression, an area that you wanted to concentrate in or were there other factors?

RN: I began my postgraduate study at the Royal College of Music when I was just 22. While many of my fellow students were encouraged to sing later repertoire, they were in the main a little older than me, and my singing teacher was very much of the opinion I should concentrate on Mozart and earlier repertoire alongside more contemporary composers, missing out the Romantic period entirely.
At that time I had a reasonable stylistic awareness of baroque music from my time at York University (although I was studying in the linguistics department, I spent most of my time in the music department and singing in Peter Seymour's wonderful Yorkshire Bach Choir) but my voice was large and quite wayward. I aspired to make the controlled sound that I'd heard from baroque specialists such as Emma Kirkby and Nancy Argenta. I love the complexity of JS Bach and the more expansive, emotional music of Handel and I made it a mission to be able to sing it in a stylistically appropriate way, taking much of the natural vibrato out of my sound and learning to sing more lightly. I soon began to pick up professional singing work using this baroque sound and even when I made my ROH debut in Parsifal, Sir Simon Rattle asked me to sing in a very controlled way without much vibrato, as did Antonio Pappano when I returned there to sing Echo in Ariadne auf Naxos.

I have loved my time in baroque repertoire, but as I get older, it becomes harder to reign in my sound. Many of the conductors are happy for me to let my voice out a little more now - I think the fashion for tiny voices in early music is perhaps waning a little. For many years I've specialised in concert singing and I auditioned for the role of Helmwige in Longborough's 2010 production of Walküre because I wanted to get back into opera. I felt very apprehensive taking the plunge because after holding my voice back deliberately for so many years it was quite an emotional experience letting it flow. No-one ever tells you you're ready to sing Wagner - you have to dare to try for yourself. Now I've had the experience of singing Helmwige and Sieglinde I'm really excited about this change of direction. If just feels so fantastic to sing this music.

Kirsten Flagstad
TW: Your reply in part, reminded of something Flagstad said in 1950 when she recorded something called “I am not a teacher" (you can find it here) It was designed to provide advice to the many young singers who wrote to her asking how best to start singing Wagner. Her advice was "Don't do it! She went on to say that Wagner is something that should only be attempted at the "end" of a sopranos career (by "end" we find that she was 32!). Her advice was that a singer should begin with lighter roles and that they should develop naturally into Wagner – learning to control their voices first and develop control and their overall technique. This she saw as a natural progression. To emphasis this she said that she had three teachers and that she never had to unlearn anything.

From what you have said it seems you have followed this path closely , albeit developing with Baroque rather than "light" and dramatic Italian ones


With that in mind, how has what you have learned, while singing Bach and Handel, etc, prepared you for singing Wagner? Have you had to "unlearn" anything?

RN: My own theory is that there is an essential similarity about my two styles of singing.  In order to carry over a Wagnerian orchestra it is essential to sing with a huge amount of blade. This blade is also a huge part of my early music sound, but with most of the warmth, depth and vibrato taken out as I aim for a transparent, ethereal quality. I could bore you technically with how it's done but I won't. Suffice to say that I use all of the control and resonance that I learned for my Bach in my Wagner. The main thing I've had to "unlearn" is that I am used to switching on my vibrato as a colour for early music, whereas it's important to keep it spinning the whole time when I'm singing Wagner.


Rachel Nicholls

TW: I see. So in many ways, this is the natural progression as suggested by Flagstad. Still, can I then ask why you have you gone virtually straight from Baroque to Wagner soprano roles? Despite what you have said, which make much sense, did you not consider the other traditional” dramatic soprano roles first - especially those from the romantic period- Aida, Turandot, etc? All demanding roles of course but still perhaps less so than the "beasts" of Isolde or Brunnhilde and traditionally – with a very few exceptions – the accepted route to Wagner? Do you feel you have missed anything by not having sung these roles or will your extensive career in Handel and Bach - for example - bring something that the likes of even Flagstad would not have had?

RN: I know it is a huge leap from Bach and Handel to Wagner. I have done a large variety of vocal repertoire in between the two, but it has mainly been contemporary opera and concert repertoire. I have found during my time in the profession that it is immensely important to specialise - there are thousands of sopranos. I'm lucky enough to have perfect pitch and I have always enjoyed the challenge of working on demanding new music. In the UK we're good at nurturing our contemporary opera and quite a lot of it gets put on. I've also always enjoyed singing in concerts and my career has naturally led me in that direction up to now. I would say over the last couple of years my focus has been changing from my favourite concert repertoire being Bach and Handel to now being Beethoven 9 and the Verdi Requiem. I'm currently on a tour of Bach concerts with Masaaki Suzuki though and loving every minute of it. 

As a singer it's important to have the biggest range of colours possible in your palette. I used some of my lightest for Sieglinde and have already found places in Götterdämmerung which need the same clarity and where the scoring is so sensitive, the smallest sound will work. I sincerely hope that the dramatic and musical demands of some of the contemporary opera I've done and the attention to detail and study of the music in its purest form from my concert career will inform my singing of Wagner. I'd dearly love to bring something special to these roles. Recently working with Sir John Tomlinson, Susan Bullock and Richard Berkeley-Steele was possibly the most moving performance of my career. I aspire to being able to communicate as clearly the emotion behind the music and the text and inhabit the roles in the same way as these wonderful performers and I hope some aspects of my background will help me on my journey.


Florence Easton
TW: That is very refreshing to hear. There can be a tendency in performers new to Wagner (and sometimes alas, not so new) to miss the lyricism, the “lightness” and “delicacy” that is not just so clearly there but is needed. Recognising this in the Wagner seems to have been more common in previous generations of Wagner sopranos but has become less common as time progresses: Florence Easton and Frida Leider are perfect examples of performers who found just that subtlety and lyricism in Wagner (Easton even called herself a "lyric dramatic soprano" after all)



Frida Leider: Walkure 1927

Having considered what you have said, I wonder why, given the complexities of Baroque performance and the shear variety of ”tonal colour and depth" within that repertoire, more performers with the vocal "heft and staying power" to surmount a Wagnerian orchestra - and with a background such as yourself - have not attempted Wagnerian roles. From what you have said, Baroque would seem a perfect place to develop the prerequisite skills (perhaps more so than Boehme, and perhaps even the dramatic soprano roles in the romantic repertoire?). One assumes - perhaps you could deny or confirm - that in some instances it is simply that most artists simply prefer the Baroque over the romantic?


RN: I think that is very true - certainly in my own case. But I would also say that my own experience of the profession in the current climate is that it simply isn't possible to have a free choice of the repertoire one will sing unless one is immediately "world class". As a young singer starting out it's important to say yes to all offers of work. Some of these naturally seem to lead to more offers in the same genre. However, that said, my feeling for baroque music has, I am sure, to some extent aided my success in this area. I have found personally that there is more in common between early music singing and the heavier German repertoire than there is between baroque and Italian repertoire of the Romantic period. The range certainly is more similar (I am not a stratospheric soprano who is comfortable at the tessitura of many of the bel canto roles). My favourite Handel roles (Armida in Rinaldo and Medea in Teseo) certainly require both power and stamina. 

Rachel Nicholls: Sei Lob und Preis and the final Alleluia from J. S. Bach's Cantata No. 51 "Jauchzet Gott."


TW: I have had the fortune to listen to  a wide variety of your performances now  - from Bach, to Handel, to Wagner - and I am, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, struck by the both the level of your "vocal  versatility" and the ease at which you are able to change your "vocal texture" between them.

As far as vocal versatility in concerned, I would hope that I am always music-led. If I were playing my violin I wouldn't play Bach in the same way as I would play Bruch. Obviously instrumentalists have a choice over whether to perform on authentic instruments or not. I like to think my voice is a modern instrument which is used in a stylistically appropriate way though. Versatility is something I have always aimed for in my performing. It doesn't always go down well with casting directors and agents (my wonderful agent James is the exception) who prefer to put singers in neat little boxes according to "fach", but it does tend to sit well with conductors and it has meant that I've rarely had to turn down a job. I hope though that in Wagner, if all goes well, I will find a niche for myself which is musically fulfilling and vocally suitable. I have plans to settle here certainly for a while if this proves to be the case. 


TW: I can assure you that I and others that have heard you in Walkure are more than pleased that you have decided to take the “leap” into Wagner. While on the subject of the voice, Wagner, and extending your repertoire; I believe you are studying with Dame Anne Evans - well known to anyone with even a passing interest in Wagner. Could you tell us about this?

RN: When I was working on the Longborough Walküre last year, I was very much impressed with Alwyn Mellor's singing. It seemed to be hugely sensitive, warm and sensual as well as being incredibly powerful.  I knew she had been studying with Dame Anne Evans. When I was booked to play Sieglinde at St Endellion, I felt I really needed some expert coaching. My agent contacted Dame Anne for me and asked if she would be willing to hear me and give me some advice. I have been very lucky that she has agreed to teach me. She is a wonderful teacher. Very supportive but very exacting. She knows this repertoire so completely that she is able to speak with absolute conviction about every single word and every single bar. I am hugely grateful to her and to the Mastersingers who have given me a grant towards my study with her while I work on Brünnhilde.


Dame Anne Evans

TW: Rachel, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us during what is a very busy time (Rachel was performing Bach with Suzuki in Japan during this interview). I can assure you that we are all eagerly awaiting your Brunnhilde at LFO in 2012.



More at Rachel Nicholls' Offical Website 



More about LFO's complete Ring Cycle at LFO