Although we couldn't know it at the time, only 48 hours after I spoke by phone to Rachel Nicholls she would be opening in the most talked-about opera production of the year. English National Opera's revival of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) has earned a storm of praise and a slew of five-star reviews, including one from WhatsOnStage. Not bad for a near-six-hour comic opera.
I had assumed that the soprano, who plays the pivotal role of Eva, would be resting at home to gather her forces, but not a bit of it. "I'm in Huddersfield. I've been examining all day at the university so it was a bit difficult to fit this interview in."
That was a shock. How does Nicholls cope with the pressure of teaching alongside sustaining a professional career in some of the most demanding roles in opera? "I just have to be very organised about when I do it. I've always believed that my teaching informs my performing and vice versa, so I work out the 22 occasions during the year when I can be available to the university and I try and make the most of that time. My husband [the bass-baritone Andrew Slater] also teaches here so we cover for each other."
Nicholls has made an extraordinary progression over the past 15 years, moving from baroque and Mozart into the heaviest repertoire of all. "I developed a reputation for singing baroque music, originally because I was very interested in historical performance. It's good for young singers to sing baroque and, well, I just kept on doing it. But at the same time I was developing my voice, albeit not in a public arena. I was working on the bigger repertoire and eventually I had to make a decision, and as my voice became heavier and heavier I took a lot of advice. People seemed to be keen on hearing me in the bigger stuff, and I was approaching my late thirties, so it became sensible to start dipping my toe in the water. On the advice of Dame Anne Evans, with whom I was very lucky to be studying, I gave up singing baroque altogether because she thought it was pushing my technique back. Every time I sang a long tour of the St Matthew Passion or Messiah I was using much less vibrato and various other things to do with whitening the sound, and it wasn't doing my voice any good. So I plumped for Wagner."
It didn't take her long to reach the dizzy heights of Brünnhilde. "No. That was scary: the first major thing I worked on was Götterdämmerung! It's not as big a role as Isolde but it is an absolutely enormous undertaking. Perhaps it wasn't the most sensible one to start with... but the opportunity was there. Longborough Festival needed a Brünnhilde and I persuaded them to let me do it. They gave me a great opportunity and there was a huge amount of trust, both from the conductor Anthony Negus and from Alan Privett, the director, because I hadn't previously carried a dramatic role for that long. I'm so grateful to them for having confidence in me. I worked very hard with Anne Evans to get it up to scratch, and now I've sung more Wagner rep I'd like to visit it again."
"Richard Jones is a genius"
Nicholls will be back at Longborough this year to sing Isolde in Tristan und Isolde, a role she covered alongside the great Nina Stemme at Covent Garden late last year. "Stemme's amazing – vocally tireless, and she makes this gleaming sound through all of her voice. But she's also a wonderful actress: she really inhabits the role and she's a massive role model for me. I learnt so much from watching her. I didn't get to go on as Isolde but I was very much involved with the project: I studied the role with David Syrus [Head of Music at the Royal Opera] and sang in an insight evening with Antonio Pappano. I didn't feel as though I was on the periphery. On the contrary, it was a fabulous opportunity to have before I get to sing it myself in the summer." And so to Mastersingers. It's is a huge opera, but it's massively dominated by male voices. "I only get to sing for 45 minutes. And Eva may not have that much to do but she's at the centre of the whole plot because she's at the heart of Sachs and Walther's voyages of self-discovery. I think if Walther had not come along she'd definitely have married Sachs, and that has been interesting to explore. Richard Jones [the director] has been absolutely fantastic – a genius. He goes into such detail: we'll work all day on something that feels as though it's a very long scene and then we'll run it and it's ten minutes! Then he'll get home and send an email saying ‘when you do it next time, can you do this, this, this and this differently'.
"There was no sense that he was reviving an old production because he likes to work with the people in the current cast. He doesn't want to recreate the last lot, he wants to use your own character and aspects of your own personality. So it's been very rewarding, even though it's a revival. It's a superb production and I'm so proud to be in it."
The name of legendary Wagner soprano Dame Anne Evans has cropped up several times in our conversation. "She's been the most generous and helpful mentor I could have wished for. I was very lucky that she agreed to take me on as a pupil; she put her heart and soul into helping me with my career. She didn't have to do that. Anne has totally changed the way I approach a role, because she is somebody who thinks that the drama and the colours in the text are of primary importance as well as that wonderful vocal line that she could produce so effortlessly and which she is trying to teach me to do. She's probably the most musical singer I've ever heard, but it's the inhabiting of the text and the way that you think as you sing it, as though it's for the first time, that's so important."
Before Nicholls went back to teach I asked her about future projects. "There are lots of things in the pipeline but not all of them have been announced yet. I'm returning to the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, although I can't yet tell you what for. But I am doing an opera gala for Welsh National Opera at the Millennium Centre with Bryn Terfel that includes Act 3 of Die Walküre".