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Singing in the Moment

Alice Coote made a hit when she last sang Sesto in Giulio Cesare in New York, in 2007. This season, the English mezzo returns to the role of the vengeful patrician in the Met premiere of David McVicar's high-octane staging of Handel's opera. WILLIAM R. BRAUN talks to Coote about how her take on the role — and on others that she sings — has changed and developed.

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Portrait photographed by Benjamin Ealovega at Bermondsey Studio, London
Makeup and hair by Gemma Aldous
© Benjamin Ealovega 2013
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© Benjamin Ealovega 2013
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As Sesto in John Copley's Metropolitan Opera staging of Giulio Cesare, 2007
© Beth Bergman 2013

Last summer, at the BBC Proms in London, Alice Coote sang Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer. It was a performance of startling intimacy, the sort of event that makes listeners realize that they may have known the cycle for thirty years, but they still haven't gotten to the bottom of it. This past November, as Coote was settling into a hotel room in Chicago before a run of performances of the Berlioz cycle Les Nuits d'Été, and as we were getting acquainted, I told her of the devastating effect her interpretation of the piece had on me. When I mentioned that, while I as a pianist could still perform the cycle while crying, she as a singer obviously couldn't do so, there was an unexpected reaction: Alice Coote was laughing at me.

"I'm sorry," she giggled. "It's just that I was at dinner only the other night in London with one of my two main coaches, a lady called Dinah Harris. She's got me through various crises in my career, some really serious ones. Five or six years ago I had some hemorrhages on my right vocal cord, one after the other over a series of years. And I got terribly criticized for canceling a lot in that period, but I didn't really go out and go public about what was going on, and I battled through. But she was laughing when we had dinner, and she said, 'Alice, you're the only singer I know who can sing and cry at the same time.'" Sensing my bewilderment, Coote helpfully added, "She says it's quite a rare talent!" 

The story pretty much sums up the presence of Alice Coote. Onstage, the overwhelming impression she gives is one of integrity. There is such an unremitting seriousness of purpose, in fact, that one is genuinely surprised to discover how full of humor she is offstage. In either sphere, she is suffused with honesty, which makes the vehicle of her return to the Met this month, the heart-on-sleeve Sesto in Handel's Giulio Cesare, a fine choice for her. "He is one of the great characters. He seems to be simple, but I don't think that his 'journey,' in inverted commas, is simple. He seems to be one thing in the beginning — an unsullied soul, and one of the people that have got the potential to be marvelous in the world. Then he is damaged by everyone around him and what they are doing, and you think that his ship will go down because of the corruption around him. And even though he ends up committing murder to avenge the murder of his father, and evil upon evil isn't good, somehow you feel in the resonance of something in the music that his soul will be all right in the end. He will be changed, he won't just leave that behind, but it's all there in the score that the journey he goes through is not a glib one. And it's really very moving."

When Coote sang Sesto at the Met in 2007, the unassailable rightness of her performance made it seem as if she could sing the music no other way. This turns out not to be the case, and the experience of singing the role elsewhere with period instruments was formative. "I've sung Sesto with Christophe Rousset in Paris with an entirely Baroque orchestra. There's a specific joy in doing that. It somehow feels sparse and more raw. But of course I was brought up with the lush 1970s recordings — Raymond Leppard and Janet Baker. And I just feel the music is good enough to cope with either route and everything in between. That's why different sorts of voices can sing it, and that's why you want to hear many different voices sing this music, and why you never tire of it. It takes many colors, many levels of insight, many levels of meaning. When I first sang Sesto with Christophe, maybe I had more courage to sing as quietly as possible and perhaps explore the extraordinary changes of rhythm that Handel writes, particularly in one lament that I sing, 'Cara speme.' I don't think that, if I hadn't had this very intimate rehearsal period and worked with these Baroque soloists, that I would have had the time and the courage to explore the actual workings of the structure of the music in quite that way, and then carry forth that inner knowledge, that knowledge of the risks you can take, into larger spaces like the Met. As a musician that's wonderful, to have those sorts of experiences, to try and keep both truths going wherever you are, that you're not diluting that."

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As Charlotte in Werther at San Francisco Opera, 2010, with Ramón Vargas (Werther)
© Cory Weaver 2013

Coote is speaking specifically about the da capo aria, which can be a constricting convention in some hands, but which she sees as a reason that Handel's operas have been able to sustain a resurgence in popularity in the last thirty years. "There's something about the way his music is somehow between Bach and Mozart — the very phrases that he writes, the da capo sections — that allows us to connect. I think we crave connection probably more than ever. We just don't get enough time to express to each other what we're feeling in modern life, to collectively share that time when we're allowed to be in the moment with the character and share very much what they're feeling to the nth degree. And that's a limitless thing, really, because of our ability in the modern world, that we don't have to necessarily produce these operas in historic terms. We can set them in any time in history, any social context, and yet there still are these moments, which aren't necessarily in any other composer's music, when we enter into an extended time psychologically or emotionally. We perhaps crave that somehow, on some deep level."

Anyone who has heard Coote's "Cara speme" will not be surprised at that statement. What is unexpected is the way she is able to find those moments when she sings Humperdinck's Hansel or Mozart's Cherubino. Her Met debut in the latter role came mid-run in a revival of Le Nozze di Figaro in 2006, but Coote nonetheless provided a unique interpretation. It's hard to think of another Cherubino who showed such a sense of the pride that is one element of the character. Coote is a highly individual artist, yet she didn't feel any restrictions about plugging her interpretation into a revival. "I think it's entirely up to you, really. Obviously it depends on the bare bones of what happens in the plot, and quite often the director has decided a few things about the character." But the Met is known for legions of assistant directors charged with enforcing the original concept of a production. "Oh, that's just geography," she scoffs. "Emotionally, as an actor, you could do anything. You could still play it, if you chose to, a completely different way and illuminate something entirely different from what happened in a previous showing by another artist. What you're actually feeling is entirely up to you, and how you get that through your voice into the bigger ether. The rest is just location, really."

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As Humperdinck's Hansel at the Met, with Philip Langridge (The Witch), 2007
© Beth Bergman 2013

Coote's Met Hansel was seen in a Live in HD broadcast in 2008. ("I had tremendous reaction from lots of children wanting to be my friend on Facebook, all over the world, just from that broadcast," she says.) Hansel has become a special role for her, but she admits that she wouldn't have been inclined to take the role to heart if it hadn't been for Richard Jones's production. "Something about Richard took me to another level with that piece. Just because of who he is, his honesty, his lack of schmaltz, he made me understand the internal darkness of the piece, which fascinated me." Told that some of us who spend time sitting in professional orchestras find Hänsel und Gretel to be the best-orchestrated opera in the repertoire, she goes one better: "It's some of the most thrilling music you can hear in a theater." She seized the opportunity to play a real character, not a stereotypical hands-on-hips stage boy. A veteran of at least eleven male roles onstage, she says that she doesn't make a conscious effort to mimic real boys. "My experience is probably more from being a bit of a tomboy myself. I had a brother who was near my age, and we used to knock about in the garden and play football and have pretend fights and poke around in the local forest and be very naughty. And I think it's more me as a person who is quite visual anyway as a performer. Even before I became a singer, when I used to watch Hollywood movies or musicals, I was always as excited by what somebody was doing physically as what they were singing or acting. So I very much as an actor, when I got the opportunity to play a male part, which was very early on, as mezzos do, wanted to take that on fully."

At this point Coote can give the artistic impression of enacting a male persona even in a concert work such as Songs of a Wayfarer, when she herself didn't consciously realize she was doing it. Her performances, whether in something as complex as Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben or something as light as the Cecil Armstrong Gibbs novelty "Hypochondriacus,"give the impression that she has thought hard and deeply about the music and is singing it the only way it possibly could go. But this turns out to be true only up to a point when Coote explains her work with the coach David Harper. "Like a horse to water, I sort of didn't 'drink' from him for a few years. I kept coming down and trying him and bursting into tears because what he was saying was so radical, and then going off on the train again, and then having another go and then bursting into tears again. And then we eventually worked together a lot, and I think he changed my life vocally. In the period when I was at college, singing was very much based on flowery language, imagery, feelings, ideas. There wasn't anything based on the true physical function of what actually is happening in your larynx. With David it was pretty scary at first, because I couldn't do it, or it felt vulnerable to do it, to start again with him, because he's so exacting every single second we are working on the actual mechanism, linked to the language. His big mission is 'I want you to be able to choose whatever you want to do. That's my mission, Alice, to choose what you want to do artistically in the moment and be able to do it.' And he's pretty much done that."

As a result, Coote says, "I feel in a very good place with my voice right now, and I don't think I've very often been able to say that." The challenges lie elsewhere. She has taken on Schubert's song cycle Winterreise. (Asked if she as a woman has encountered resistance from concert promoters, she says no. "They say, 'Oh, do sing this, because we're always having men.' It's my only chance to use my sexuality as a selling point, if I'm a novelty act.") And she is confronting two of the major works written for Janet Baker, Britten's Phaedra and Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.The Baker legacy can be something of a burden to British mezzos, who often have a multi-layered response to it, but Coote is clear-eyed about it. "I think Janet Baker's recordings will stand against any great musician's recordings, not just as a voice or a voice type or a singer. This was a period of time when people recorded all their repertoire, and they recorded perhaps in circumstances where there was more money and more time, and there was great artistic achievement in recording, which is much more difficult to achieve now, with time constraints and budgets. I see her as a great bastion of the past, but also as a constant inspiration to me that you can go for the highest possible standards. And perhaps it's quite a hard journey, but you have to keep trying and not to give up."

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As the Prince in Cendrillon at Covent Garden, 2011
© Bill Cooper 2013

Indeed, at one point Coote mentions in passing that she doesn't run her career. "It runs me." Asked later what that really means, she plunges in. "Oh, a million things. It has dictated where I've lived. I'm on the road for ninety percent of the year. It's dictated where I am in the world, where I am in relation to my family, who the people I spend time with are, my personality, my activities, my mood, my survival. It's a fight for survival against the practicalities of the career, on one's emotions, one's life trajectory. I don't want to complain about it at all, because I absolutely love what I do. And I feel like this year I'm more in love with my job and being an artist than I ever have been. But you can't be living any other life than you are living when you're on the road, doing what you are doing." But Coote grew up with two artists for parents. Surely they warned her about the life? "Oh, they didn't have any idea, at all. They didn't know when I started learning to sing that they would be bereaved of a daughter. But you have to keep going. And that takes a toll on you as a person, in very deep ways, and on your family, the people around you. And you're having to harden yourself up in a way you wouldn't have to with another lifestyle.

"I never had an idea of the life ahead for me, or how it would be, or what it would look like. But I did sit in a BBC Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall in the mid-'80s, and I heard Mahler's Lied von der Erde. It was Simon Rattle conducting, Jon Vickers and Jessye Norman singing. And it was that poetry, sitting in that poetry and listening to that music, that made me say, 'This is what I have to do — I have to sing that music.' And lo and behold, this year I recorded it, can you believe it? 

"In a hotel in Amsterdam, earlier this year, I came back after the second day of recording, and we'd just done 'Abschied.' And I was on my own in this hotel room in Amsterdam, and I thought, 'Well, I'm not married, I've not got children' — things that I really did want in life — and I sort of sat there, but I still felt ecstatic. And I had to say almost out loud, 'My God, I've just recorded The Song of the Earth. You've done it.' And I was quite proud of myself, because I sort of knew how to do it. I could respond to that music in the moment and use my voice with that orchestra and do something that I'd aspired to do all my life. It shows what you can do if you keep going." spacer

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3