Celebrated mezzo Rosalind Plowright shows no sign of slowing down as she prepares to mark her 70th birthday with back-to-back roles. She tells George Hall how an enforced switch from soprano extended her career
Mezzo Rosalind Plowright turns 70 next month, the day after opening at the Royal Opera House as the Countess of Coigny in Umberto Giordano’s French Revolution drama, Andrea Chénier. At the same time she will be rehearsing a second role, that of the sorcerer Madame Arvidson in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) at Opera Holland Park.
Plowright has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, though one that had – as she is the first to admit – an extremely difficult patch along the way. In fact, one could view her trajectory as three careers: the first as a rising and then fully international soprano, while her second as a mezzo-soprano eventually moved into her current specialism in character roles.
The singer’s father was an amateur musician who loved music and played both classical and jazz double bass. “He had this music going all the time on the record player, things like the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, which were very popular at the time, and I would just sing along.”
She continues: “I didn’t know what opera was. My mother, who could hear something in my voice, eventually bought me three long-playing records – one of Maria Callas, one of Renata Tebaldi and one of Joan Sutherland – and that was my inspiration.”
Plowright started singing lessons when she was 13 or 14, then moved on to what was then the Royal Manchester College of Music. “My teacher Freddy Cox wanted me to start as soon as I could with part-time training on voice, movement, language and drama,” she says. Eventually she did five years at the college. “I did competitions and I won scholarships that financed me. I got a place at the London Opera Centre and in the Glyndebourne Chorus.”
Some who heard Plowright at this stage thought she was a mezzo-soprano, but she had no doubt that hers was a soprano voice, and it was as a soprano that she won an important competition in Sofia in 1979, the year her nascent career took a major step forward with the role of Miss Jessel in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in the Jonathan Miller production for the English National Opera.
When she returned in triumph from Sofia, the ENO’s managing director Lord Harewood wanted her to become a member of the company, “but because I was suddenly getting offers from Switzerland and Germany I decided that I wanted to go and build my repertory, which I did in Berne and Frankfurt with Ariadne and Aida and Alceste and these operas that were my calling cards back then.”
But Harewood didn’t hold it against her. “He gave me wonderful roles such as Helene in The Sicilian Vespers and of course Elizabeth I in Maria Stuarda alongside Janet Baker”. Elsewhere she was singing Norma, Maddalena di Coigny and all the big Verdi roles. These were the glory years of Plowright’s major international soprano career, when she was performing at all the best venues with the best conductors and the best fellow principals. How did that feel? “Well, on the one hand it was very exciting and on the other absolutely terrifying. Inside this little shy, retiring, nervous person, I was vulnerable. You’re suddenly confronted with people who you’d idolised from afar like Plácido Domingo and Carlo Maria Giulini and you’re recording Il Trovatore with them.”
Highlights of that period for Plowright included that Trovatore recording, “but before that I was singing Aida in Frankfurt and Donna Anna in Munich”. Her La Scala debut came in 1983. “Another was doing my dream role of Desdemona in Otello at ENO in 1981 with Jonathan Miller directing and Charlie Craig singing Otello. It fitted me like a glove. When Elizabeth I in Mary Stuart came along, that was slightly more challenging technically, but I threw myself into it and enjoyed it.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Shoe shop assistant in Wigan and cinema usherette, both in 1965.
What was your first professional theatre job?
My first paid job was in the Glyndebourne Chorus in 1973. My first solo role was Agathe in Der Freischutz for Glyndebourne Touring Opera.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Watch out for conductors – they can be totally ruthless…
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I was blown away by the voice of Maria Callas on a record of arias my mother bought me in 1964.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Imagine you are doing your production on a postage stamp. Prepare an aria that totally suits your voice and shows it off to its best.
If you hadn’t been an opera singer, what would you have been?
I have never considered doing anything else.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’ve tried a few over the years but the only things that work consistently are breathing, doing exercises and being prepared.
After some years at the peak of her profession, however, Plowright began to experience vocal problems that seriously compromised her performances. What had gone wrong? “My vocal support failed me, so I ended up singing on the throat. I had a teacher that died and I could never find another that could help me through this difficult period.” Matters came to a head in 1989 when she returned to Covent Garden for Il Trovatore and Medea and the reviews were scathing.
How did it feel when she knew that she wasn’t performing at her best? “Terrible. There were times when I thought: ‘This is the end’.” Nevertheless she carried on, but realised in her heart of hearts that her soprano days were numbered. What eventually enabled her to put both her voice and career back on course was a change from soprano to mezzo. But it was not her decision: “I fought it.” A crucial moment was accepting an offer from Scottish Opera’s music director Richard Armstrong for her to take on the mezzo assignment of Amneris in Aida, rather than the soprano title role she had previously sung.
“Amneris is still a huge dramatic role, but what was wonderful for me was not having to lead, not having to sit on the top of the ensembles with everything depending on me.”
When that project turned out well other people started expressing interest. “The next thing I was offered was Kostelnicka in Janacek’s Jenufa, who’s really a soprano but who has some mezzo demands.” After that the Royal Opera came up with the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, Fricka in Wagner’s Ring and Herodias in Strauss’ Salome.
Plowright’s switch in vocal category significantly extended her international career, which continues right up to the present, though these days she mainly concentrates on character roles.
“Again I didn’t choose it: it’s just something that progressed organically with my age, my voice and my physicality. I don’t want to glamorise myself; I love putting on a grey wig and moving around as I did as the Countess in The Queen of Spades at Holland Park, like some sort of tarantula or a praying mantis. The director, Rodula Gaitanou, just gave me two sticks and said: ‘Create something with these.’”
The dramatic side of opera has always been important to Plowright, who as a young singer admits to being less than happy with herself as a person but discovered that “these characters enabled me to escape into someone else”. Together with the impact of the mature actors she admires in the theatre and on film, and her work with directors such as Keith Warner, Christof Loy and David McVicar, this desire to become another human being still fires her enthusiasm for the stage.
Whereas she formerly sang the lead role of Maddalena opposite Jose Carreras as Andrea Chénier at the Royal Opera House, in McVicar’s production she now takes the cameo role of the Countess of Coigny. Next up is a sizeable mezzo role in Un Ballo in Maschera at Holland Park, where she sings Ulrica, known as Madame Arvidson if – as in rising star director Gaitanou’s production – the piece is performed in its alternative Swedish setting.
Plowright is looking forward to doing the piece again. “I have this one huge, meaty scene. The way I look at it is I’m going back to my roots. I have Verdi in my system, and he will carry me through as he did before. I don’t know what Rodula has got lined up for me, but she’s brilliant. She’s so clever and so detailed and so young.”
Born: Worksop, 1949
Training: Royal Manchester College of Music (now Royal Northern College of Music) 1967–72; London Opera Centre 1973-75
As a soprano:
• The Turn of the Screw, ENO (1979)
• Otello, ENO (1981)
• Suor Angelica, La Scala, Milan (1983)
• Alceste, La Scala (1987)
• Norma, Paris Opera (1987)
As a mezzo-soprano:
• Hansel and Gretel, the Metropolitan Opera, New York (2007)
• Vanessa, Glyndebourne Festival Opera (2018)
• SWET (now Olivier) Award for Outstanding First Achievement of the Year in Opera (1980)
• Academie Nationale du Disque Lyrique – Prix Fondation Fanny Heldy for Il Trovatore recording – 1st prize and medal (1985)
• OBE for services to Music (2007)
Agent: James Black Management jamesblackmanagement.com
Andrea Chénier runs at the Royal Opera House from May 20-June 9, roh.org; Un ballo in Maschera is at Opera Holland Park from June 8-29, operahollandpark.com