31 Jan 2011

Elisabeth Meister — An Interview

British soprano, Elisabeth Meister, is a rare combination of pragmatism, serious intent, personal warmth and infectious energy.

Both level-head and fun-loving, committed to hard work but spontaneous and imaginative, it’s easy to see why recent performances have brought her to the attention of the opera-going public, and won impressive acclaim from the critics: she has “a very special voice” but “is not just a prodigious voice, she is also an excellent communicator of the text and a vivid personality to boot” … “a future star”, “a name to watch”. As she prepares to sing the role of the First Lady in David McVicar’s oft-revived production of The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, she generously gave of her time to meet me and discuss the joys and demands of an opera-singer’s career.

Meister joined the Jette Parker Young Artist programme in September 2009, making her debut as the Pale Lady in Prokofiev’s The Gambler. This is her first Magic Flute, in a solo role, although she has a couple of Mozart roles under her belt, including the Countess (for Amici Opera) and Fiordiligi (for English Touring Opera). The latter is a role she would love to revisit and along with other strong Mozart heroines such as Elektra (Idomeneo). Mozart is “very good for the voice … [he] knows exactly how the voice works, he doesn’t make you sing too loudly, or sing too softly” and there is always a perfect balance between voice and orchestra. Meister identifies the main challenge of the role of First Lady as the “fairly high tessitura”, but she welcomes the support of Second and Third Ladies (Kai Rüütel, also a Jette Parker Young Artist, and Gaynor Keeble respectively) “which makes my job much easier and we work very much as a unit. One of the greatest pleasures of doing a piece like this is that you have such strong camaraderie.”

This is a theme that recurs during our discussion, for Meister relishes the comradeship and friendships which form during rehearsals and performances. “It’s an odd job. There’s a lot of solitary time for a solo singer, particularly if you are a concert artist, travelling from country to country; and you might not see your family for weeks on end. So it’s great to forge these friendships. … The great thing about the programme is that we are all so incredibly supportive of each other.“

Meister did not follow a straight path to her current position as a rising star. She describes it as a “fantastical journey”. There was music ‘in the blood’ though: her father was a self-taught organist and her mother played the piano. At the prodigiously early age of five, she learnt to read music and started singing in her father’s choir at eight-years-old, subsequently studying trumpet and piano. A musical career must have always seemed a likely future, but for a combination of reasons and circumstances, Meister did not complete her undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy, and worked for a time in business and administration. However, she continued to sing continued during this time, and gradually the lure of the stage became impossible to ignore. “I decided to give singing another try”. In 2002 she entered the Guildhall, and the following year surprised herself — “a rank outsider” — by winning second prize in the Kathleen Ferrier prize. A role in the chorus at Glyndebourne followed, and indeed The Magic Flute was the first choral role that she performed there. One senses that Meister was a quick learner, and that her perspective from the ranks of the chorus sharpened her insight and her ambition. “I was always watching from the sides and seeing what the principals did and following their stagecraft, and I took that with me to English Touring Opera the following year [where she sang Fiordiligi] and then to Welsh National Opera [where she was an extra chorus member].

At this point, Meister found herself at a crossroads. She had completed a highly enjoyable and successful year with the WNO chorus when a full-time vacancy arose. But, at the same time she sang for renowned tenor, Dennis O’Neill, and on the spot was offered a place at O’Neill’s International Academy of Voice at Cardiff. “I had very little time to decide whether I was going to sit back and have a nice comfortable career, nicely salaried and good pension etc., or whether I was going to put all my eggs in one basket. And I thought, I can give it my all for just one year [it’s a one-year programme] and if I succeed it will be because I’ve given it one hundred per cent.” Meister learned an enormous amount during that year, in terms of technique and stamina, and relished the ‘family feel’ of the programme, and at the end of the year she successfully auditioned for the Jette Parker Young Artist scheme.

So, when there are so many talented young singers, what is it that enables an individual to step out of the chorus and be successful under the glare of the spotlight? What distinguishes a chorus member from a leading lady? “It’s so many things. It’s a combination of ambition, a desire to show-off — above the rest of your colleagues! It’s jolly hard work, make no bones about that. Many in the chorus have the talent to step into leading roles but for whatever circumstances — family commitments or a desire for a more nine-to-five job, they are happier in the chorus … it’s a tricky beast managing a solo career.”

Meister feels that she has got the balance about right. She lives close to her family, and a commutable distance from the Royal Opera House. She is totally focused on the programme which she praises effusively. “It couldn’t be better! You have exactly as much coaching as you want, or desire or need; you have help with languages, interpretation, stage craft, stage fighting; there is a personal trainer on the programme who we see once a fortnight; you have access to an osteopath —everything that a singer needs to function as well as they possibly can. Aside from the stage opportunities you get to sing in small roles, like the First Lady, and cover larger roles, like Anna Nicole …”

Meister’s success is obviously a combination of long-term planning, intensive hard work and training, great stamina, accompanied by the ability to adapt, be spontaneous and make the most of any opportunities that arise. Covering the role of the Fox in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, she had only 24 hours’ notice that she would have to step into the indisposed Emma Bell‘s shoes: “It was just about the right length of time, not enough time to start panicking, but just enough time to prepare.” It was an important, if unexpected, debut and won her much praise for her “bright, laser-like soprano” and her dramatic gifts: “Elisabeth Meister was full of manly swagger”, “her boyish vitality put the rest of the cast to shame”, “Her tom-boyish Fox bristled with energy … she is a natural stage animal.”

Her confidence on stage extends to her assuredness with languages, which she puts down to solid preparation and practice. “When I pick up a new piece of music, whatever language it’s in, the first thing I do is I translate it absolutely word for word, even if the word order doesn’t make any sense at that stage. And then translate it again into an idiomatic form, so that you don’t just have the ‘gist’ of the meaning, you know absolutely what you’re saying; and you know that, for example, Mozart has chosen to put a particular word on the highest note of the phrase, and you find the reason for why he has done that.” Meister doesn’t have strong opinions about whether one should always sing in original language, and while she herself prefers to do so, she recognises that it can be “great for communication” to sing in English. In this regard, she tells a typically mischievous anecdote: “I remember going to Turandot, and there was an elderly lady sitting next to me who was not enjoying the opera, and who complained, ‘I hate this opera and I can’t stand Puccini, it’s so vulgar … I went to see it in Italy last year where at least you have the advantage of not understanding what they’re saying …”

A glance at her performance history reveals a wide range of roles; while she is still exploring the operatic repertory, Meister particularly enjoys the “heavier repertoire … I adore German repertoire, especially Strauss heroines” — and is eager to try early Wagner. “It’s good to sing anything that you can sing and not to push too far outside the boundaries”. Having embraced a wide range of styles and periods, I ask whether there is any repertoire that she feels is not right for her voice. “It’s really to do with the ‘taste of the time’. There are particular tastes and sounds, say for Baroque music, which my voice wouldn’t fit into right now; but perhaps in the future that might change and my voice would be ideal for it. So you go with what’s current, what suits you and what you find not too challenging. If you’re expected to hold onto a top C for a minute and a half perhaps that’s not the repertoire that you want to go into!”

Coming up are an Aida — “one of my dream roles” — in 2011 for Santiago Opera and Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) in Chile in 2012. She covered Aida last year so when the Jette Parker programme ends in July, she will have a couple of months to “sing that back in”. She relishes such “fantasy roles … because they are not based on any real people, you can use your imagination a great deal”, and loves Verdi for he “absolutely knows the requirements and the capabilities of the soprano voice”. Meister also sustains a busy recital schedule but prefers to perform music by similar composers on the operatic stage and in the concert hall, at any one time. “The ‘mind set’ and the different demands that composers make on a voice are wonderful in their own different ways but sometimes incompatible.” On her future ‘wish-list’ are Turandot (“to show-off!”) and “for my vocal health”, more Verdi and early Wagner.

Meister also finds the prospect of creating new roles an exciting one. “With works such as The Magic Flute which are well known and well established you essentially step into someone else’s shoes, but once the basic stage business is clear you start to make it your own and put your own intention into it. If you’re creating a role for the first time you get a lot more input from the outset, because the rehearsal period is going to that much longer.” She is covering the role of Anna Nicole in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera, which opens at the ROH on 17 February: “It’s a great role for exploration. I love real characters — perhaps with difficult backgrounds, difficult situations.”

With a full performance diary ahead, there’s not much time for relaxation and rest — or to fit in the indoor climbing that she enjoys! But, it’s clear that Meister made the right decision in switching secretarial duties for the operatic stage. “Having not been one for taking risks in the past, this was a big risk … but if it doesn’t work out I want to be able to say that it wasn’t because I didn’t try.” Recent successes suggest that she won’t regret her decision. She comments that, “It’s strange to go from relative obscurity to everyone knowing your name”. And, she’s definitely a name to watch.

The Magic Flute will be performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on February 1, 3, 7, 9, 11, 16, 19, 22, 24 at 19.30pm; and on February 26 at 12.30pm.

Claire Seymour