Her Madam Butterfly for ENO was interrupted in March, but the award-winning, Swansea-born soprano is poised to continue her ascension when venues reopen. She tells George Hall why she’s not wasting any time in lockdown
Rising star British soprano Natalya Romaniw, unquestionably one of the most exciting voices to come to prominence in the UK in recent years, is – like most performing artists currently – at home.
Her debut run of Madam Butterfly at English National Opera was cut short in March, and her next job – the title role in Dvorak’s Rusalka – has been cancelled altogether, along with the rest of the season at Garsington Opera. How is she coping at this difficult time?
“I’m up and down. I’m alone, so I miss seeing people – even just physically. I have my little routine, as I’m sure most people do. Most of the time I keep busy doing exercises or yoga, and I’m still going ahead with learning everything I was supposed to learn, just to give myself a sense of purpose.”
This won’t be wasted time, as Rusalka is a role Romaniw is likely to be asked to do again. She had also been learning another Puccini role for this year’s BBC Proms, though it now turns out that won’t happen either.
Some of her fees have been paid in full, others as a percentage, “so I am not empty-handed”. Indeed, she regards herself as lucky, “because when our Butterfly was interrupted, we were halfway through the run. There were many shows that never even saw the stage.”
Despite her surname, which comes from her Ukrainian grandfather, who settled in the UK during the Second World War, Natalya hails from Swansea, where she was brought up by her single mother.
“My grandfather was the musical influence in the family. He was a Cossack dancer and taught himself to play the accordion. He would take us to a Ukrainian club in Morriston, and as a little girl I’d have a fun time – we’d always sing and dance; that’s where it began for me.”
Later on, her mother used to play her videos of musicals such as Calamity Jane, Meet Me in St Louis and West Side Story, “so I grew up watching those and joining in, dancing about in the living room. I knew all the words”.
It was also her mother who realised that Natalya not only had a voice but also a passion for singing. “So, when I was 12, she sent me for lessons. I loved it. I started to progress in my grades, and that’s how I got to sing a little bit of classical music.”
Another singing teacher auditioned her for the music colleges and she eventually chose Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying there for four years as an undergraduate, and then for two years on the opera course.
‘I’m still learning all I was supposed to. It gives me a sense of purpose’
Before she went to Guildhall, she had never seen an opera: her own previous stage experience was confined to a couple of amateur musicals. The first time she sang in an opera was for Welsh National Youth Opera in 2006, when she was given the leading role of Anne Trulove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Meanwhile at Guildhall, she sang the title roles of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, Almeida’s La Spinalba, and Blanche in Poulenc’s The Carmelites.
After Guildhall, Romaniw was offered places on young artist schemes run by the Royal Opera, Houston Grand Opera and the Metropolitan in New York; she eventually opted for Houston, “because I felt that it offered me the most comprehensive map: they were able to pinpoint exactly where they saw me going”.
Romaniw’s professional debut was as the wayward Maliella in Wolf-Ferrari’s The Jewels of the Madonna at Opera Holland Park in 2013, and she has gone on to enjoy a long and mutually rewarding relationship with the popular Kensington festival.
“Opera Holland Park was the one company unafraid to take a chance on me. They took a massive risk giving me a role like Maliella when I was 25, but ever since I won the Ferrier Competition, [OHP’s director of opera] James Clutton had persisted in trying to get me to come.”
“Both he and [OHP’s outgoing general director] Mike Volpe have always wanted to see me develop at Holland Park. They’ve given me roles that have challenged me, as well as roles I particularly wanted to do, like Iolanta. Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades I did find challenging, but I’m glad I did it there first, because they are a wonderful company, and really like a kind of family.”
That same year – 2016 – was when the soprano moved into the top league as one of the outstanding British singers of her generation. “It began when I sang the Foreign Princess in Rusalka for Scottish Opera, and then I went on to sing Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at Garsington.” Her relationships with both companies have continued to thrive.
“Scottish Opera has been keen to give me roles in a nurturing manner, so I started with the Foreign Princess, but I’ve also done Tatyana, as well as Suzel in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz in its Sunday concert series. My most recent role there was Tosca.”
Her relationship with ENO began when Michelle Williams moved down south from Scottish Opera as head of casting. She and ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins offered Romaniw Mimì in La Bohème, then Butterfly, and she’s hoping to sing Tosca there in the future.
Now approaching the beginning of her full maturity as a soprano, Romaniw’s repertoire currently concentrates on two areas: Italian operas by Puccini and his contemporaries, and Slavic operas by such composers as Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek – all of which suit her well.
“I have found the Puccini roles probably the most challenging, especially Butterfly, because the orchestra can be overwhelming; you have to trust that you are making enough sound and know how to pace yourself.
“With the Slavic roles, Tatyana is at the easier end of the Tchaikovsky spectrum and has very much become a part of me. Lisa is the biggest Slavic heroine I have tackled so far – and again there’s an overwhelming amount of orchestra.”
She adds: “All of these women are very emotional characters, but for me it helps to get the emotion out in the rehearsal process, so that if there are any tears to be shed, you’ve done it in the rehearsal room.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
At 14, I was a Saturday girl at Gershwin’s Coffee House, Swansea, then a ‘food guru’ at M&S Simply Foods, Pontarddulais.
What was your first theatrical job?
I played Eve in Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden for my local drama school, Class Act Theatre School, in Swansea Grand Theatre and in Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It wouldn’t have fallen on the right ears at that early stage, but: this career is hard, and it’ll have its ups and downs.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
My late Ukrainian grandfather, affectionately known as Dido. He taught himself to dance and play the accordion, and always had the biggest zest for life and music.
What is your audition advice?
It doesn’t get easier as you get older. Just focus on the music, present yourself well, and do what you’re there to do.
If you hadn’t been a singer, what would you have done?
I liked languages in college but I’m pretty certain I’d have ended up in the arts.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, but I always like to be at the theatre at least a couple of hours before the show.
Of the directors she’s worked with, she singles out for praise Martin Lloyd-Evans, her mentor at Guildhall, who also directed her at Holland Park in The Jewels of the Madonna and Montemezzi’s L’Amore Dei Tre Re.
She also enjoyed working with Paul Curran at Garsington on Smetana’s comedy The Bartered Bride. “It was so much fun, but there was hard work going on behind the scenes. I’m very proud to have been part of that.”
What roles are she currently looking at? “I’ve been listening to Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. It was one of the first operas I was involved in as a chorus member, so I know it very well, and one day I’d like to sing Santuzza. Another role I’m interested in is Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and later on Verdi’s Aida. The farthest I’d stretch to is Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre.”
Romaniw’s voice is undoubtedly world-class, with a depth of bright, clear and empowered tone that sets the spine tingling: it can be heard clearly on her first album, Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul, a collection of Russian and Czech songs just released.
The UK’s opera houses are currently silent, but when they resume operations so too will Romaniw. As the conversation closes, I ask at what point she decided to pursue a career in singing. “I don’t think I ever really made a decision,” she replies. “I just knew that was what I was meant to do.”
Born: Morriston, Swansea, 1987
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama (2005-11); Houston Grand Opera Studio (2012-14)
• Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, Garsington Opera (2016)
• Lisa, The Queen of Spades, Opera Holland Park (2016)
• Mimì, La Bohème, English National Opera (2018)
• Tosca, Scottish Opera (2019)
• Madam Butterfly, English National Opera (2020)
• London Welsh Singer (2007)
• Young Welsh Singer (2008)
• Kathleen Ferrier Award and Loveday Song Prize (2012)
Agent: Isla Mundell-Perkins, Intermusica