With her gift for expressing emotion, and her ripe, strong voice, Nicholls is an ideal Isolde.
Rachel Nicholls sang the role of Isolde at Longborough in 2015 and will be returning to Grange Park Opera at West Horsley Place in 2017 to sing Sieglinde in a new production of Wagner's Die Walkure. She is a relatively slight figure with a bright, focussed and dynamic voice which does not so much ride the orchestra as cut through it. Not since Gwynneth Jones (whom I heard in the role at Covent Garden in 1982) have I heard a performance which brought out Isolde's anger in Act One. Nicholls was every inch the princess, completely commanding and positively quivering with rage at what was happening making her curse quite thrilling. At the end of the opera, Nicholls crowned things with a rapturous account of the Liebestod her voice cutting effortlessly through the orchestra, bringing a sense of vibrancy to the vocal line and an intensity to her performance. Throughout the evening there was an incredible sense of the presence of Nicholls' Isolde, this was an engrossing performance vividly projected.
A worthy replacement for Anja Kampe as Isolde, the British dramatic soprano Rachel Nicholls was utterly fearless; she was a restless, inflamed presence on the stage and her bright, cutting soprano never seemed to tire. Such laser precision in a small theatre left eardrums ringing, and it was almost a relief when the orchestra underpinned her with a wash of rapturous sound. Nicholls, who studied with the great Wagnerian Anne Evans, has already sung Brünnhilde in Ring cycles for Longborough Opera.
Rachel Nicholls was only brought in as a late replacement when Emily Magee withdrew after three weeks of rehearsal. You’d never know it. She and Heldentenor Torsten Kerl complement each other with unforced vocal beauty: they sing the score with a complete absence of excess baggage. There is no squall or big vibrato or weighty ‘monster’ singing, just unflagging power and, where needed, reserves of volume produced with astonishing clarity. Christian Thielemann recently described Wagner’s characters as “a crazy couple hovering on the verge of what is humanly possible”, but these two take it in their stride.
Kerl, despite a tendency to screw his eyes into a snarl during the big moments, brings lyrical sweetness and pathos to his role; Nicholls marks her ascent to the Wagnerian top table with singing of a limpid ecstasy that recalls Margaret Price in the Carlos Kleiber recording (although Isolde was a role Price never dared assume in live performance). Their erotic duet in the second act is ineffably moving – a highlight of the year in music.
Rachel Nicholls, who replaced the announced Emily Magee as Isolde in the course of the rehearsals, made a strong impression on the Parisian audience with singing that was fearless and generous and a youthful, engaging characterization. Act 2 brought renewed energy, fire and sensuality and she concluded with a superb Liebestod.
The women had the advantage of an astonishing female lead to rally around in the form of Rachel Nicholls’s Senta who was by a long distance the best voice on the stage. Miss Nicholls had drama, passion and a kind of manic determination to find her true love that made one sure that this flying Scotswoman was going to be the equal of anything the sea blew in and more. Her singing of the ballad of the Flying Dutchman (Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an) was riveting. Indeed it was worth seeing the whole show for. There was a crazed intensity about her voice which was perfect for the piece.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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 "vocalversatility" 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.
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).
Rachel Nicholls, striking and vulnerable, was his Sieglinde. Her husband, Hunding, was Andrew Slater. Or rather, her husband Andrew Slater was Hunding. In life, too, they are married, as are Bullock and Berkeley-Steele. An entire new prayer book may be required to sort that lot out.