Classical: Rachel Nicholls
A Wagner year needs Wagner voices. So step up the latest addition to the elite crew capable of these superhuman roles. Rachel Nicholls will sing the gruelling role of Brünnhilde in the UK’s only complete Ring Cycle taking place during the Wagner bicentenary celebrations: at the little Longborough Festival in Gloucestershire in June and July.
These performances, alongside Nicholls’s first Senta in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (at Scottish Opera in April), mark a huge leap for the Bedford-born soprano, who had been more associated with lighter fare such as Bach or Handel. “I’ve always had a big voice,” Nicholls says, “and I’ve reined it in to sing Baroque music. So letting it out is free and fun.”
This is the first time Nicholls will sing all three of the Ring operas in which Brünnhilde appears, after the singer’s triumphant appearances at Longborough in the final part of the cycle,Götterdämmerung last summer. “So I’ve broken the back of it already — there’s more singing inGötterdämmerung than in the other two operas put together.”
Nicholls is also lucky to have the retired soprano Dame Anne Evans, once a formidable Brünnhilde herself, on hand for intensive Wagner study. “You don’t get better than her,” Nicholls says. “She’s very keen that Wagner should be sung like Mozart — you don’t just hurl it out the whole time.”
Nicholls had a dream start to her career: fresh out of the Royal College of Music, she was scooped up by the Royal Opera House and given a variety of small supporting roles. “That was absolutely amazing, and absolutely terrifying. You’d go to rehearsals and meet all these famous people, and then suddenly you realise: ‘Oh, I’m on stage with Plácido Domingo at Covent Garden.’ It’s mind-blowing, but it was the best possible training.”
Not everything has gone to plan since then: for some years opera took a back seat to concert rep, partly because Nicholls knew her voice was outgrowing its old limits but hadn’t yet settled into its new character. “It’s taken me until I’m 36, so I wouldn’t say it’s been plain sailing. But now I’m just getting to the stage in my career where I can choose what I want to do.”