A mystery illness almost put paid to her promising operatic career before it had started. Now, as the British soprano takes on the title role in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, she tells George Hall about fighting her way back, being in demand at home and across the world, and why she loves performing the Italian composer’s operas
Elizabeth Llewellyn’s career as an opera singer was nearly over before it began. While studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester she came down with a mystery illness. “It was very odd,” the leading British soprano says. “I just seemed unable to shake off a cold. I could not get to the bottom of it. Eventually, I just decided to call it a day – to stop altogether and do something else.” So for the next 10 years, Llewellyn had what she describes as “a normal life” – a succession of jobs in which her talent for organisation came to the fore.
As a way of getting to know people in her area after buying a flat, she became involved with a local chamber-music group and an amateur operatic society, whose members noticed her exceptional vocal quality. She agreed to sing for various professionals, who confirmed her potential, and slowly her ambitions began to revive.
This has proved fortunate for opera. There’s a certain type of voice that has a ‘once-heard, never-forgotten’ quality, and it may belong to a pop singer, a jazz artist or an opera star. Llewellyn, who returns to Opera Holland Park in Kensington next month to open the popular summer opera-in-the-park season, unquestionably has such a voice.
She was born and grew up in south London. At her primary school, she took part in basic musical activities such as recorder groups, but it was her fascination with a second-hand piano her parents bought, initially for her sister, that her love for music really took off.
She started piano lessons when she was 10 and raced through the grades before the age of 16. At secondary school, she added the violin, also singing in various choirs and eventually being allotted solos. Her headmistress was so impressed with her voice that she paid for her singing lessons.
It seemed a natural progression for Llewellyn to move on to study singing at the Royal Northern College of Music; but it was there that the persistent health problem set in that appeared to put an end to an extremely promising career. And for a decade, she was out of the industry, and happy. It was when she started singing with amateur groups that professionals began to take notice.
Around this time she had a conversation with the baritone Donald Maxwell, head of the National Opera Studio. “I told him that I had a full-time job, that I was comfortable, and that I was enjoying what I was doing. At what point should I try to make that leap into the professional world? He told me to give myself some goals and a time limit, and see what happened.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Saturday sales assistant in a clothes shop.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Chorus for Broomhill Opera, Kent.
What is your next job?
The title role in Manon Lescaut at Opera Holland Park and Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Tell yourself every day that you can do more and be better. No one will do that for you.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
What is your best advice for auditions?
Enjoy your 10-minute gala concert – that audience is there to hear all of your greatest hits.
If you hadn’t been an opera singer, what would you have done?
Probably run my own company organising high-end events and conferences.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Nope. I have enough to think about without spooking myself.
She was awarded a place on the English National Opera’s Opera Works course. “That put me into a really good place for getting back into the industry. I needed to know how to do effective auditions and how to be a credible candidate for a particular role.”
At the same time, she auditioned for the National Opera Studio, as well as for English Touring Opera, the Holland Park Chorus and the Glyndebourne Chorus. Eventually, Glyndebourne offered her a place. “That was the moment I made the jump and handed in my notice. I had a five-month contract, and two weeks into that I was accepted by the Opera Studio. Then by Christmas, I’d been offered Mimi at ENO – which was my professional solo debut.”
It is an extraordinary story: few British singers make their debut as a principal in a major role with a major company like ENO; but that’s exactly what Llewellyn did on October 18, 2010. She remembers the dress rehearsal better than the first night. “The curtain came down and I thought: ‘That’s how it goes’.”
Her next memorable ENO first night was almost exactly a year later when she was covering the lead role of the Countess in a new Fiona Shaw production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and was unexpectedly required to go on. When did she know that she had to sing? “The day before. Nina Brazier, the assistant director, received a text from Fiona telling her that Kate Valentine had come down with a throat and chest infection. Nina’s face went white and she said: ‘You’re singing tomorrow.’”
Llewellyn continues: “There was a massive rush to get the costumes and the wigs ready. Fiona took me aside and said: ‘Just play your own version of the Countess.’ On the day of the performance, the cover cast and some of the main cast came in to help me through the blocking of Act IV, which was quite complex, and then we went on.”
Fortunately, she had already sung the role at Holland Park earlier in the year – though in the original Italian rather than in English translation. “Actually, it was a fantastic translation, so everything fell in very quickly memory-wise,” she says.
“I knew the cast had worked so hard, and I didn’t want to mess anything up for them. I remember that there were lots of carafes of water in the Countess’ room, and out of sheer nervousness I basically drank them all, leaving none for Iain Paterson when it came to the stage direction for Figaro to drink.”
After her second ENO success, things began to take off for Llewellyn internationally. “Doors started to open in Germany and Denmark,” she says. “When I went to the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, firstly for Bess in Porgy and Bess, I was offered two Puccini roles – Giorgetta in Il Tabarro and the title role in Suor Angelica. Damiano Michieletto’s production made those two characters into one person, so I was on stage for about an hour and a half. It was quite a marathon.’
It turned out Puccini suits her especially well. Partly this is because her luxurious vocals provide the ideal rich blend for the Italian composer’s sympathetic but complex heroines: she loves performing his operas and has successfully added Tosca, Magda in La Rondine and Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly to an ever-widening repertory.
Hers is a sound built for powerful emotions and pathos. “The conductor Stephen Lord once told me: ‘You’ve got tears in the sound of your voice’,” she says.
Her next project is again Puccini, the title role in Manon Lescaut, which opens the Opera Holland Park season next week. “I can’t wait to play her. She is a young girl who has two men in her life, her father and her brother, who have made all her decisions for her. Perhaps she’s resigned to it, but the point at which she meets Des Grieux is overwhelming. It’s a beautiful moment, ending with Des Grieux saying: ‘We’ve got to go, you’re in danger, your brother’s selling you off to this old man.’ Then that big exit with that wonderful music.”
By the opening of the second act, however, Manon has changed her mind; she has dropped Des Grieux and is living in luxury with her elderly admirer. “She’s wised up to the currency of her looks. She’s a passionate woman, and Des Grieux clearly presses all of her buttons, but he’s poor.” Even by Puccini’s standards, Manon Lescaut provides a rollercoaster of emotions and Llewellyn is clearly determined to give it her all.
With her reputation continuing to grow, Llewellyn has major assignments ahead – the title role in Verdi’s Luisa Miller at ENO next February and before that her debut in October as Gershwin’s Bess at the Metropolitan Opera in New York – a seriously big deal for any artist. “I’m in denial. It doesn’t seem quite real. But my visa application has been approved, so now I have to buy the flights.”
Born: 1973, London
Training: Royal Northern College of Music; ENO Opera Works; National Opera Studio
• La Bohème, ENO (2010)
• Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, Royal Danish Opera (2015)
• Madama Butterfly, Royal Danish Opera (2017)
• Winner of the Voice of Black Opera competition and recipient of the Sir Willard White Award (2009)
Agent: Sue Nicholls, Hazard Chase
Elizabeth Llewellyn opens the 2019 Opera Holland Park season in the title role of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, June 4–22. More details at: operahollandpark.com