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Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam
24 May 2018

The Moderate Soprano : Q&A with Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam

Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam play Audrey Mildmay and John Christie in David Hare’s play The Moderate Soprano which is currently at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London.

The Moderate Soprano : Q&A with Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam

An interview by Mahima Luna

Above: Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam


What interested you about the play and taking on the role?

RA : In the first version of the play when John Christie comes on he’s described as short, fat, bald and wearing lederhosen and I thought, ‘That’s the part for me, I have to play that role’. So there’s that kind of infantile appeal of dressing up and changing one’s appearance as you can see [he says this while having his bald cap put on], that has always been an element of the appeal of acting to me. Maybe after this I’m giving it a break though [laughs]. But actually, it was getting to know the story both through the play and reading a biography of John Christie which was something I knew nothing about at all. I didn’t know how it was founded, I certainly knew nothing about how they kind of lucked out completely when the three probably best people in the world were escaping Nazi Germany, and came to work at Glyndebourne. And for me it became very clear that there was a real thing about standards, they really built and maintained standards. Whatever you feel about the ‘snobs on the lawn’ aspect of it, they raised the bar, I think, for everyone else.

NC : For me, it was telling a story about a woman who pushed her husband forward and just got on with it and even Gus Christie who currently runs the festival knows very little about his grandmother. She died in 1952 before he was born and all the stories are about his grandfather but very little is known about her. And indeed, for me as an actress to play a part that skips between 1934 and 1952 when that person was in two very, very different states is a fantastic acting challenge and that’s what interested me. And also, as a post-Brexit story the fact that this quintessentially English treasure was actually set up by two extraordinary Germans and an Austrian – as a message to the leaders of Brexit, I think it’s quite an important one…

So there’s the story of Glyndebourne as an institution…

RA : And I was also drawn in by John Christie as a character, he was the most extraordinary man. Deeply and naturally eccentric but also someone who wanted to do good, you know. I mean, in 1911 when he was 29 he had a car – when there weren’t that many cars on the road – a Daimler, and he took a trip to Bayreuth and he took two friends, two Eton schoolmasters, with him and there were no car ferries then of course, so the car was put on a barge and the barge was towed by a ferry and the three men sat in the car on the barge going across the channel and then drove to Bayreuth. I mean, it’s just rather wonderful. And he had a building company, he had an organ company, he installed electricity in Glyndebourne…

NC : I think he had an entrepreneurial, scientific mind and although he believed in hierarchy in so many ways, he also did extraordinary things, like he created a library for his staff at Glyndebourne because he believed that information and education should be for everybody…

Yes, his idea of opera as public service is an interesting one.

NC : But then it was always… in Italy, in Germany – it was popular music. It’s only in this country that we’ve created this sort of… it’s like Shakespeare really… you know it sometimes seems to before the educated and higher classes, which is nonsense. Shakespeare, although he was middleclass, was an actor working in theatres, in London, around the country, and they were playing to people, to every single class, it’s how it should be. It’s beautiful music – why should it be for one set of people and not another?

Nancy-Carroll-and-Roger-Allam-at-Glyndebourne-©-Piers-Foley.pngNancy Carroll and Roger Allam at Glyndebourne [Photo © Piers Foley]

You visited the Glyndebourne archive when preparing for the role. What was interesting about that, what did you uncover?

NC : It was interesting to see lots of photographs of them, between 1934 and 1952 and the difference in her physicality, because she was in so much pain by then. But the photographs that I found fascinating were the 1934 ones when they were completely in their element and the kids were small – and when she was pregnant with their second child, they looked idyllically happy. And then 1952 he was still thriving and she was obviously much more sort of, held, and then 1962 when he was very ill he grew a big beard because he couldn’t shave any more…

RA : Also the difference in the building, the expanding opera house, so that every year from 1934 you look at the photographs, something has been added so that by the 1960’s they’d done lots of extensions, put in many rehearsal and dressing rooms, they put a gallery in the theatre… I think it ended up seating about 800 and started off at around 300. And the current building was built in the 90’s…

NC : The thing I loved in the second rehearsal period is that we were visited by John Cox who had assisted Carl Ebert and who was able to give us first hand knowledge of what it was like in its heyday. He said it was incredibly moving how committed everybody was and what an extraordinary ethos they had, which was very much the work of John Christie, of the two of them really -the family had an incredible ethos of creating a safe haven for singers, where they had these long rehearsal periods, and people were invited to stay in the family home and were treated as family. Everybody who was there felt incredibly loyal to the place, and John Christie had this incredible loyalty to people. So, he couldn’t have experienced that without going there and seeing this…. It was incredibly moving. And I think this is what the place inspires, it’s what the dream inspires.

Did you get to hear Audrey Mildmay singing?

NC : I heard Audrey Mildmay singing and that was just beautiful and it was really lovely to read some of her reviews from 1934, 1935, 1936 and everybody would always comment on the delicate honesty of her voice which in the play Rudolf Bing describes as Ausstrahlung, which is this essence, something about her which radiated, something from deep inside her that came out in her voice – but it didn’t have the power to fill a bigger space which is why Christie refers to her as a moderate soprano. There was this lack of power but actually the quality of the voice was very, very beautiful, and it was lovely to hear that. And one of the things I loved was seeing her travelling with her trunk when she was touring with the Carl Rosa company before she married John. There’s something about playing somebody who existed like that…

You mentioned you heard recordings of John Christie too…

RA : Yes, it was very useful to hear his voice but I can’t represent it accurately on stage because it would be too slow, as he was much older then, so I have to kind of invent something, but I invented it with the knowledge of what his voice sounded like when he was older which was great. And it was also great to be in Glyndebourne to soak up the atmosphere of the place.

So overall, a story worth telling?

NC: I think the main thing is it’s a fantastic story and so unexpected. The way that David [Hare] has written it… I think it comes to the audience almost like a stream of consciousness. Bob Crowley calls it a memory play but that suggests a gentleness and it’s not a gentle story. It’s robust and it’s about people passionately trying to make art. And I think that’s what interested David as well, as somebody who from a very young age worked against the odds to tell stories that he felt needed to be told and show the other side of the argument. It’s a beautiful thing and it comes at an audience from so many different angles so that at the end of two hours you’ve formed a picture, but it’s not a linear one – and that’s what makes it so interesting.

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