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Elizabeth Connell:  The world renowned dramatic soprano talks about the job she loves in an interview with Jim Pritchard (JPr)

Elizabeth Connell - Picture © Clive Barda

South African born Elizabeth Connell has made London her home since she first came to Britain in 1970. Many of a younger generation of operagoers, who will see her portrayal as the put-upon but caring mother, Gertrud, in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at Covent Garden will be unaware of her long career in opera or that she remains one of the world’s leading dramatic sopranos and an outstanding interpreter of roles created by Wagner, Beethoven and Strauss. In a career now verging on being forty years long, she has recently added Turandot to her repertoire and is still is looking for other new roles to sing. I first saw Elizabeth Connell as Amneris and Sieglinde at the London Coliseum in the late 1970s and have seen many subsequent performances from this accomplished artist both in the opera house and on the recital platform. I interviewed her towards the end of the rehearsals for the new production of Hansel and Gretel.

I was fascinated to learn that during the rehearsal time at Covent Garden she has been going backwards and forward to Hamburg to sing Turandot.

It doesn’t happen too often and I wouldn’t want it to do it too often either. It was spaced out nicely and I knew about the Turandot performances before the Gertruds and so I was able to get enough free time. Covent Garden have been very accommodating too so that I didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and fly back here. It’s worked out fine.

Turandot is a recent new role for you. How did this come about?

When I was studying with Otakar Kraus he said, ’never touch Turandot as it is a killer’ and in those days when I was in my early twenties I looked at it and agreed with him. So I always had this in my mind,  but a few years ago I was in Frau ohne Schatten in Frankfurt and it was the uncut version and at the end of Act II you have ‘Barak, ich habe es nicht getan!’ and you are singing on the passagio exactly where Turandot sings and for longer than she does. So I thought, let me have a look at Turandot again because after this it should be a piece of cake. So I did  and it was. I immediately told my agent and said I had changed my mind and would like to sing the role. I got a ‘thank you very much’ and immediately had offers to sing Turandot and now it’s my pension role (laughs). I first did it two years ago in Melbourne and I’m glad I’ve found it because I am not struggling and know exactly what I am doing now.

I reminded Ms Connell of the early mezzo-soprano roles I had seen her in and wanted to know how the move to being a dramatic soprano came about.

That was also advice from my teacher Otakar Kraus. He told me I would eventually be a dramatic soprano. In your early twenties if you want a short sharp career then go for it but fortunately in those days people were prepared to let me come to it in my own good time and in the natural progression of my voice. Sadly this doesn’t happen now. I’d sung Amneris in Australia and at the London Opera Centre before singing it for English National Opera. Then there was Sieglinde which is quite a low role anyway and this was after 3 or 4 years at ENO. Having done it 2 years earlier in Australia they gave me ‘Zwischenfach’ roles (for high mezzos and low sopranos) like Santuzza and then Elvira which is not the highest soprano role you have in Mozart. I went slowly, slowly, slowly and I put my longevity in singing down to not having sung too much that was not right for me too soon.

Was Ms Connell from a musical family and how did she become a singer.

There was music in the family and they played various instruments and sang a bit in choirs but I just had the need inside me to perform. I hadn’t been allowed to sing until I was 17 when I went to University to do a music degree. I did piano, which I had been studying before, and singing – and then after one year it was singing primarily … and still some piano (more laughing). My first role was Ludmila in The Bartered Bride. I was 17 and never had a singing lesson in my life before. I then taught school music, English and Geography for short periods and after that I’d had enough. I thought I’d go and see the world as politics being what they were at that time in South Africa,  there wasn’t much opportunity for a white English-speaking person to sing as a career so I got a scholarship and came to Britain. My professional debut was at the Wexford Festival as Varvara in Janáček’s Katya Kabanova in 1972.  By then I had learnt to speak Italian, French and German – but now had to sing in Czech! I went back there this year to see the new opera house and the wonderful facilities they have now in Wexford.

I had those two years in Australia after that when Edward Downes invited me out there. If I had stayed here I would have done Opera for All, the chorus in Glyndebourne and things like that but by going to Australia I was thrown in at the deep end and learnt my craft far away from anywhere. So  when I came back I had the job to go to at ENO and so that was fine.

I read somewhere that in 1973 Ms Connell had ‘opened the Sydney Opera House’ I assumed that there must be more to it than that surely?

It opened with War and Peace because they could practically use every single person they had and I was in Scene 3 as Princess Marya Bolkonskaya another role I sang at ENO when I came back. War and Peace was in September but the Queen came in October for the official opening. The Queen was told apparently that she couldn’t do the opening and not go to an opera so she attended Act I of The Magic Flute. I believe there are pictures of her getting on her plane in her evening dress because that was her last night in Australia.

What was Ms Connell’s first Wagner role and how did her career in Wagner develop.

I did Venus (Tannhäuser) in concert in London for the Chelsea Opera Group at St John’s, Smith Square, in early 1972 and in Australia. Later I did Elisabeth, then there was Sieglinde and now over my career I have sung almost every female role there is in Wagner for me,  apart from Eva in Die Meistersinger. In the early 1980s I sang for three years in Bayreuth. When I was in Australia there was a wonderful tenor who had given me some coaching, Clemens Kaiser-Breme and he said I should audition at Bayreuth. When I did,  they said they would keep my name on file but I was a bit too young at the time. In 1978 I sang in Parsifal for Edo de Waart at the Holland Festival and the next year he conducted Lohengrin at Bayreuth. In 1980 they wanted a new Ortrud and because he and I had such a good time doing the Parsifal,  he said he wanted me and so I sang there for three years. I remember I did a jump-in of Brangäne and I was also a cover for Kundry in Parsifal.

Actually it was while I was singing one of the rehearsals for Parsifal that I realised that it was a bit too low and I was making false sounds to try and sound mezzoish and it was time to make – as Otakar Kraus called it – the ‘Fachwechsel’ as I was now too obviously a soprano. When I hear any early recordings of mine it is definitely a soprano voice singing mezzo roles with a strong soprano quality. I had to change and thankfully it worked quite easily and soon I was singing some wonderful roles in equally wonderful places and my new career was made.

Of my Wagner roles, Isolde is the most satisfying but I simply adore singing Ortrud because she is such a wonderful baddie. I have sung Elsa in concert but not on stage, I’ve done Elisabeth, I’ve done Venus and once both on the same evening in Munich for one and a half fees and not two … unfortunately (laughs)! I’ve been extremely lucky and have had the chance to do practically every role in the Ring mezzo or soprano!

I remarked that this was not the first time of course she has sung Gertrud in Hansel and Gretel and asked how rehearsals were going.

Yes I first sang it very early in my career when I came back from Australia and the BBC did a studio production in English with Benjamin Luxon as the Father and then again not long ago,  in a semi-staged version at the Proms.

This one is going to be very good and the directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, are just two of the most amusing people around and they are creating a happy atmosphere for all our work. It is somehow quite different from the way some of us had visualised we were going to do it,  but their reasoning is spot on.

This run of performances is double cast and everyone has been working very hard to get us all even time,  but of course there has been illness and we’ve had to chop and change a little bit. There’s been about a month’s rehearsal so far but because they have used the other cast we haven’t been working every day. The production is very true and naturalistic and there are some splendid magical effects. I’ve never sung the Witch but I’ve been watching Anja Silja and thinking that when I’m ready for it I’d love to sing that role.

I wondered whether  if  there had been a time in her career when Ms Connell had had to go on without any rehearsal.

Yes, I once jumped in for a Lady Macbeth in Rome and all there was time for was a costume fitting. I asked about the production and was told not to worry as there would be a spotlight following me. I asked who the Macbeth was and was told it was Renato Bruson so that was alright:  I knew what he did as I had sung with him many times. I met the conductor and he asked me ‘Elisabeth, do you know this opera?’ ‘Sì Maestro,’ I said and he replied ‘So do I!’ He could tell from the moment I started singing what my approach to the role was and it was a musical love affair and a fantastic night. I just had to make sure I didn’t get squashed by some pillars that were moved for some reason. At one point three people came up to me and handed me something. They were probably supposed to be witches’ familiars and I looked in the bag – oh there’s dust in it possibly magic dust and what do I do with it? Well I make a circle with the magic dust and step inside it to sing the cabaletta. So I make it up as I go along and the mind is working overtime but I actually quite like doing things like that. The show must go on and maybe that is what was supposed to happen anyway as why else would they give me some magic dust?

London will be fortunate to hear Ms Connell sing Leonore in Fidelio for London Lyric Opera at the Cadogan Hall in February and I assumed she was looking forward to that.

Yes, it is one of my signature roles which I have done so many times that I cannot remember my first one. Colin Davis is fantastic to work with now again on Hänsel und Gretel and I did it with him conducting here at Covent Garden in the late 1980s. It was the one with the Angels on stilts in the final scene and when people talk about horrible productions they always talk about that one. Its one role I’ve sung virtually everywhere. Hats off to James Hancock and London Lyric Opera! It is a marvellous thing he is trying to do in starting up that new opera company.

I wondered how Ms Connell coped with the travel.

I love the travel. I’ve sung in China in the Beijing Music Festival, in Japan, in Macao, Hong Kong, in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, in Australia of course where I have special relationship with Opera Australia and in all the major opera houses throughout the world including the Met, in San Francisco, Paris, Milan, Salzburg, Vienna, Munich, Berlin and of course here at Covent Garden. I wouldn’t normally have gone to many of these places. When you go backwards and forwards into things of course you just know the route from the airport to the hotel. But sometimes there will be a little time afterwards, for a little holiday to see the country.

I asked what it was like singing in Verona and at the Met.

I sang Norma in Verona and first I sat in the audience to see what the production was like. The acoustics are fine but when on stage you think ‘my voice is not moving at all’ I barely thought it had gone past my teeth. You just have to believe it is going out because you get no bounce back and your ears cannot tell where the sound is going. In ‘Casta Diva’ Norma sings to the new moon but for me there was a full moon and what a fantastic background to a performance that was.

I first went to the Met when James Levine asked me to sing Vitellia in
La clemenza di Tito in 1985. Interestingly, I had been asked before to sing Kundry there but cancelled when I decided to give that role up because I was presenting myself incorrectly. It took a bit of time for them to get over my cancelling before ever getting back to the Met but it all worked out fine in the end. I was never on the stage until the first performance, it is a very deep one and I was singing recitative and worried about  how a I was going to do it. So I really projected and – unlike Verona – heard the voice coming back and knew there would be no problem.

In 2000 Ms Connell sang Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (‘Symphony of a Thousand’) at the Olympic Games and this is another piece of music she has had a long association with.

In Sydney it was with Edo de Waart again and I decided to sing the second soprano because I quite like that part. It was great with the organ being broadcast in from the Sydney Town Hall and when the cymbals crashed there were four instead of one.

One of the last Mahler Eights I sang was in Warsaw and for the last rehearsal the others were either ill or did not want to sing,  so I sang every single female part and had the time of my life (laughs). During my career I have actually sung the three soprano roles and two alto ones. I’ve recorded it with Tennstedt and I believe I have done it with almost everyone who’s ever conducted it.

Song recitals have been another recurring feature in Ms Connell’s career I asked which of these she remembered most.

It was Graham Johnson who introduced me to doing programmes with themes and one our first was a ‘Mother Earth’ one that evolved into the fifth in the series of Schubert recordings for Hyperion. I’ve got a full Spanish one and  a programme that I call ‘Brahms and Liszt and the consequences thereof’ – drinking songs!

Had Ms Connell any opportunity to sing in South Africa recently?

I went back to mark the tenth anniversary of democracy and the end of apartheid in 2004 and sang in Fidelio on Robben Island. Over the years I have done masterclasses and given recitals there too  and I’m glad to say that this was for a bursary that carries my name given by the South African Music Rights Organisation and my former University of Witwatersrand.

I wondered whether there were any roles she has not done that she might have wanted, and how she views the future for herself and the world of opera.

A couple of roles have passed me by like the Marschallin which because of my age I will not now be asked to do,  and I never sang Tosca though I don’t know why. I have more Elektras to do and more Turandots, there is Leonore in February of course and more recitals and I am happy to say I am very, very, busy. I particularly like singing Elektra because you can really let your hair down (laughs) and any issues you had with your mother you can work out on stage … and get paid for it (more laughs). It’s rare that somebody has a job they really can love doing.

As for opera itself,  every generation thinks that it is not the same as it was before and no it isn’t. Like most things it evolves and I think its very elasticity is the beauty of opera; it just fits the new generations how they want it to fit. So it might go in a different direction but that is perfectly valid.

Jim Pritchard

Elizabeth Connell sings in Hänsel und Gretel on 9th, 12th, 14th, 16th, 18th, 21st and 29th December with further Hänsel  und Gretel performances on 11th, 28th, 30th December and 1st January 2009 with another cast. A review by Mark Berry of the performance on December 9th is here.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Hänsel und Gretel on Thursday 16th December at 7.30pm  and BBC 2 TV will show it on Thursday 25th December at 3pm.

Hänsel und Gretel will also be relayed live into cinemas on Thursday 16th December at 7.30pm. For more  information please see

To book online visit The performance by London Lyric Opera of Fidelio with Elizabeth Connell as Leonore is on 17th February 2009 at the Cadogan Hall – box office 020 7730 4500.

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