Zoë South. "Don’t do this as a job. It’s hard, it’s ungrateful, no one will thank you"

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 2 February 2014 | 3:24:00 pm

Zoë South. Photo: Richard Wiegold
"Zoë South's Brünnhilde would grace many stages far, far larger than this. Her singing was phenomenal and her portrayal of the goddess turned into a fallible, vulnerable woman was captivating, heartbreaking and, when she rose to her full power in Acts II and III, awe-inspiring. She is surely destined for a significant Wagnerian career. This is a name to watch, and when I see her play Brünnhilde in larger venues in years to come, I will be proud to know that I saw her here first". Katie Barnes Wagner News

"Don’t do this as a job. It’s hard, it’s ungrateful, no one will thank you, and you’ll hold yourself up for criticism not just of your musicianship but of yourself every single day of your career. ZS

"There’s no such thing as “difficult” music, just natural likes and dislikes". ZS


In-between rehearsals for Fulham Opera's first entire Ring cycle (two during February and March) we had chance to catch-up with a most extraordinary Brünnhilde, Zoe South. During that time, we discussed her career before opera, who Brünnhilde really is, the difficulties of being an opera performer, TV soaps, Siegmund as teen idol and Poundland! Zoe South is not just any old Brünnhilde and this is not any old interview

TW: I am always interested in a performers background, where they come from, their childhood, the things that make them the people that they are - apart from their musical education, their Wagner interests, etc. And I find it something that interviewers in opera ignore all of the time, or discuss only superficially. With that in mind, could you tell us a little about yourself before opera?


ZS: I come from a music-loving (but not musical) family, and “family” jobs have traditionally been agricultural or numerical, with occasional diversions into rabble-rousing when required! School was the local girls’ grammar (I was the fourth generation of my family to go there), and the arts were NOT encouraged there at all. Alongside the traditional acts of teenage rebellion, all of which I indulged in fully, mine included taking part in every non-academic activity the school had to offer. The most important things in my life in my mid-teens were my flute, my sketchbook, and getting on stage as often as possible. Singing didn’t really feature beyond being able to carry a tune and being able to make myself heard at the back of the hall in the school shows…

TW: Sadly, I find that there are too many schools where the arts, especially music, are very much not encouraged, if not simply ignored. I would suspect your experience, at least in the UK, is not an isolated one. So what form did your musical education take?

ZS: Unconventional to get to where I am now, you might say – I played the flute from a very early age (sadly, it’s contributed to severe joint and tendon issues, which cut my career very short indeed), and had very inspiring teachers and influences. They all came through Marcel Moyse’s French Flute School tradition, which drove home the importance of interpretation, of playing like a singer, and of making “human” sounds through an instrument. All excellent training for a singer without uttering a note! College as an instrumentalist was a revelation – I honestly don’t think I could have hacked it as a singer – and I packed out every second with ensembles, playing endless long notes, studies, scales…looking back, I did too much. I didn’t start singing until MUCH later, and I still like to joke now that I haven’t “trained”, as I’ve only ever studied privately!

TW: Its hard to imagine that you haven't. Maybe, at least for you, have benefited from such an alternative route? I know that I am not the only person that has been more than impressed with your performance. Its one of those strange things that some of the best Wagner performers I have come across have been found away from the "main houses". I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing you again in that little Church in Fulham later this month.


But tell me, why opera?

ZS: Why not? I get to dress up and have a giggle with my mates, which beats working in the City for a living, I can tell you.

TW: Having myself escaped from many years in the City, I know what you mean. Although, performing was not the next path that I took - which if you have ever heard me sing you would be very grateful for.

Who is your "role model" - your greatest influence in the Wagner repertoire?

ZS: I have quite a few! Dame Gwyneth Jones figures highly – I had the great privilege of singing the Immolation Scene to her a few years ago. Others are Birgit Nilsson (of course), Inge Borkh (who taught me that big-voice repertoire can be SUNG, not yelled), and Astrid Varnay.

TW: I know that artists are often asked who influences them vocally but I would like to also discuss who influences your none vocal, dramatic performance? People, with no, to little knowledge of opera or Wagner, often ask me where they should start to investigate either. After the usual discussion of recordings I implore them to investigate a work they find they like either live or at least on DVD – and as soon as possible. This is not purely because of the "atmosphere" - or the acoustic or dramatic differences of live performances - but, as anyone who has been to the opera house knows, it is a visual, dramatic, theatrical medium as much as it is musical - especially Wagner. And an artists physical performance - their ability to "act", to physically embody the role - adds much.

ZS: Funny you should say that – when people ask me what’s a good first opera for them to go and see, I ask what films they like. For example, a Tarantino fan will get a bigger kick out of Elektra than Zauberflote. There’s no such thing as “difficult” music, just natural likes and dislikes. I go to the theatre - a lot - and have quite a few friends and acquaintances who are actors, working in television, theatre and film. I love intense live performances, and actors that take their emotions “onto the breath”, effectively starting their line long before they say the first word, and carrying the thought through after they’ve finished speaking. It’s not Wagner, but when I was preparing Lady Macbeth a few years ago, I went back to Sian Phillips’ Livia in “I Claudius” again and again. What an incredibly well-studied, detailed, powerful performance. I bet that took a while to put away at night when she’d finished filming. We’re lucky in this country – we appreciate good performances, and however much of a hammering the BBC might have taken in recent years, we still produce some of the best television drama in the world. Even our soaps have terrific ensemble casts, for the most part. There’s a real danger of singers only being influenced by other singers. They’re missing out. So if you want to pare that down to bare bones, I’m just as likely to be dramatically influenced by a stunningly truthful performance in EastEnders as a conventional “classical” performance at the Old Vic.


TW: I thought I was alone. I often find some of the actors from our "popular" culture (although not all) sadly maligned or ignored in serious discussion of the "arts" - as indeed are a fair few scripts. But then, we have a history of very fine theatre actors taking TV roles whose career is then destroyed by the terrible snobbery that can exist in the arts - Harry H. Corbett comes to mind. And yes, I can see what you mean about no such thing as "difficult music" I personally find Haydn far, far more "difficult" then Schoenberg. Your approach is very interesting and I would suspect very truthful.

How to you prepare for a role?

ZS: The text first, then the accompanying material, including orchestral colour and texture. Those tell me all I need to know about the character. The vocal line last. That can be a treacherous place to start, especially if you don’t have a good idea of where you’re going to go dramatically already. In terms of making sure the role is bedded in, I tend never to mark in rehearsal (I may duck the odd high B or C before midday…) and sing full out all the time. Certainly for something like Walkure – the most arduous sing of the cycle - I want to know that I could sing the role again immediately if necessary. Or at least after I’d had a cup of tea. I wouldn't need a sit down, as I get to doze for 20 minutes at the end…

TW: What draws you to Wagner? Hardly the easiest music to perform in the repertoire.

ZS: It has balls. And heart. And ultimately, the women are so strong and beautifully-drawn, and complex, and so human. The ultimate message always seems to be “listen to the women” – it doesn’t go well for anyone that doesn’t, does it? I can’t think of any other composer who doesn’t draw “woman as victim”. I’m lucky, I suppose, that this is where my vocal instrument took me. I think I’d always feel slightly uncomfortable being the composer’s punchbag simply by virtue of being female. I don’t do a huge amount of standard repertoire outside of Wagner now, but it’s an interesting point of comparison.

TW: Yes I grow so bored of female characters who simply seem to exist to be, as you put it, "the composer’s punchbag". And its also just so dramatically and narratively "lazy" and trite.

TW: This brings me to my next question: Could you tell me, as you perceive her: who is Brunhilde and what is her relationship to Siegfried , Wotan and "redemption"?
"Unquestionably (for me, anyway), her [Brünnhilde] first love is Siegmund, but it’s the ‘love’ of a teenager for a pop star. And I think she knows Siegfried for who he is instantly. That he’s meant for her, has always been meant for her, and that he’s her destruction and her salvation – isn’t that kind of intense love always like that anyway? She’s as much enslaved by that bloody ring as anyone else – the end is inevitable"
ZS: She’s a spoiled brat who grows a conscience. It’s more complex than that, but not much. She’s very young when we first see her. In my head she’s 16 – right and wrong are black and white, and she’s yet to learn shades of grey. All she knows is collecting dead heroes and flattering her walking ego of a father. The Walsungs – particularly Siegmund’s willing rejection of Valhalla to be with Sieglinde – teach her everything she knows (and everything she needs to know) about love, and ultimately about being human. There’s a lot of anger in her Act III confrontation with Wotan in Walkure. He’s a moral coward, and she knows it. It’s that extraordinary moment of watching her grow up, realising that it’s not easy being an adult, and the bravery of offering the rather cowardly Wotan the option of surrounding her with a ring of fire. Unquestionably (for me, anyway), her first love is Siegmund, but it’s the ‘love’ of a teenager for a pop star. You can imagine her having posters of him all over her wall! And I think she knows Siegfried for who he is instantly. That he’s meant for her, has always been meant for her, and that he’s her destruction and her salvation – isn’t that kind of intense love always like that anyway? She’s as much enslaved by that bloody ring as anyone else – the end is inevitable. She’s a murderer (her weapon of choice is Hagen rather than a knife), and there is no way back for her but to bring the whole web of power crashing down. Probably so gods and mortals can start the whole merry-go-round all over again…

TW: Does that change depending on the production, the director and conductor?

ZS: Good God, yes. Next question.

TW: What can we expect in the future - after this months Fulham Ring?

ZS: The immediate future is a little Wagner-lite. I go on to Fanciulla del West immediately post-Ring (and I do mean immediately – I’ve got 18 days to learn the blocking, and probably, if I’m truthful, memorise it!). Then a study day on Elektra in the pipeline, and later in the year, Les Troyens a Carthage with the wonderful Adrian Brown conducting. I did Cassandre for him last year, and Didon’s the final bit of French repertoire on my immediate wishlist (although if anyone would like to stage an Alceste for me, give me a call...). It’s not entirely Wagner-free, however, with a cheeky Wesendonck Lieder opening the St. Lawrence Jewry Festival in August! After that, who knows? I’ve had a good run. I’m beyond grateful. I’d like to take the leap to the next level, but if it doesn’t happen (and the Elektra study day *does* happen), I’ve sung every role I ever wanted to sing. How many people are lucky enough to say that?

TW: Trust me Zoe, there are more than a few of us that would like to make sure that run continues!

Ok, last question. If you were interviewing yourself, what else would you ask?

ZS: There is are the obvious questions: such as what would you do if you weren’t a singer (I’d be a full-time writer, instead of just dabbling), and what’s your dream role (Brunnhilde), but I think “what advice would you give to young singers” is so bloody important and often skirted over, or dealt with in nicey-nicey vanilla terms.

My flute teacher gave me the most valuable piece of advice I have ever had, or ever will have, when I was 16 – if there is anything else, anything else *at all* you can do and STILL be happy, do it. Don’t do this as a job. It’s hard, it’s ungrateful, no one will thank you, and you’ll hold yourself up for criticism not just of your musicianship but of yourself every single day of your career. Only play (or sing in this case) for a living if you’ll spend every waking moment utterly miserable if you don’t. I’m quite serious. It’s not nice, it’s not glamorous, and most of the time, it’s not even fun. You’ll never be rich, you’ll almost certainly never even be financially secure, your relationships will crumble around you unless you work twice as hard as everyone else to maintain them even half as well, and unless you become a superstar, the only way you’ll ever own a house is if you inherit one. The words “savings” or “pension” will elicit a hollow laugh which gets ever more hollow with every passing birthday, and you can’t remember a time when most of your basic household items didn’t come from the pound shop. And yet you wouldn’t have it any other way. Your colleagues are your friends, and no one will ever understand you like they do because of the experiences you’ve shared, onstage and off. There’s nothing like the camaraderie of an impossible rehearsal schedule. Your job is also your hobby, and taking work home is no hardship. You’ve got a stunning wardrobe of shoes and accessories which have come home with you because costume departments were feeling kind, or looked the other way. You can speak enough of several languages to order a beer in any of them. It could be so much worse.

TW: The wonderful Zoë South - thank you very much.

You can hear and see Zoë as Brunhilde in what is one of the must unique of Ring Cycles, this month and part of next. Click the link below for more details. I implore you, if you get the chance or are in London this month, do go - I don't think you will be disappointed.

For More about Zoe - including audio samples - please visit here: Zoe South
For more on this Month's Ring please visit here: Ring Cycle: Fulham Opera