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Labor of Love

A career in opera has let Christine Rice, actress-turned-physicist-turned-singer, do the thing she loves best. 
By Fred Cohn 

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As Lucretia in Glyndebourne’s Rape of Lucretia, 2015
© Robbie Jack/Glyndebourne Productions Ltd/ArenaPAL

THE ANCHOR OF FIONA SHAW'S production of The Rape of Lucretia is its title character. Christine Rice’s Lucretia, in the video of that 2015 Glyndebourne mounting, is a beacon of morality. The probity that she projects makes the opera’s sexual violence all the more shocking: we are witnessing the defilement of virtue itself. The English mezzo-soprano achieves her effects without histrionics, through the nobility of her carriage, the expressivity of her liquid hazel eyes and her warm, beautiful voice, fastidiously deployed. 

Considering how thoroughly Rice makes music and drama cohere, it comes as no surprise that her entrée into opera was through acting. She was a teenager when she saw Kenneth Branagh in Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon and got“struck down, literally overnight, with the acting bug.” At Oxford, she acted in plays and musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof and Hair, in which she and the rest of the cast took off all their clothes. Inspired by a classically trained castmate, she started taking singing lessons and immediately warmed to the idea of preparing arias. “I thought, ‘This is brilliant!’” she says. “‘I’m used to dealing with words and emotions and play-acting.’ I never thought, ‘I want to be an opera singer.’ I thought, ‘This is going to give me pleasure through my whole life. If I turn into an accountant or a lawyer—whatever—I will still be able to go into a practice room and sing.’”

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As Carmen at Covent Garden, 2015
© Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

Rice realized that she didn’t have the fortitude to enter the intensely competitive world of English theater and instead spent a year doing postgraduate research in atmospheric physics. “The work was quite lonely—just me and my computer,” she says. Feeling “a bit panicky,” she decided to take a year off. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to hop on a jet plane and backpack around the world, so I’ll apply to music school. By the end of the year, I’ll be better at the thing that I like doing in the practice room.’” But at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, her teacher (then and now), Robert Alderson, gave her a fateful assessment: “I think if you stick with this you could be a working singer.” Rice decided not to pursue her physics doctorate but to wrap up her master’s program and go back to music. “And I never looked back,” she says.

Rice’s fall calendar takes her to Wigmore Hall for a recital of German lieder, and to Boston for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. An album of Berlioz songs is also in the works.

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As Blanca Delgado in The Exterminating Angel at the Met, 2017, with Sally Mathews (Silvia De Ávila)
© Beatriz Schiller

In person, Rice is as warm and sensible as her Lucretia, with a ready laugh and a sharp eye for the world around her. In the American premiere of Thomas Adès’s Exterminating Angel at the Met, she played Blanca Delgado, whose Act I aria “Over the sea” provided a rare lyric interlude within the formidably dense score. She had been part of the opera’s cast since its 2016 Salzburg Festival premiere, continuing a connection to the composer that dates back to 2004, when she was the original Miranda in the Covent Garden world premiere of The Tempest. 

Though Rice was used to Adès’s complex writing, the Exterminating Angel score posed notable challenges. “He invented a time signature, 2/6, with a little note in the score describing what ‘2/6’ means,” she told opera news during the Met run. “And then sometimes across a 2/6 bar, you get a triplet. Well you’ve gone down a rabbit hole there. I know a lot of us felt it was going to be impossible. On the first day of music rehearsals, suddenly you’re in a position to hear what’s in the score. It became much, much easier from that point on.” 

The work’s April 2017 Covent Garden mounting kept the premiere cast virtually intact, and nine of those principals reprised their roles at the Met. The end of the year-and-a-half-long process carried a trace of melancholy. “This has been without a doubt one of the highlights of my career,” said Rice. “It’s so rare to get the same group of people together to do something like this.”

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As Donna Elvira at ENO, 2016
© Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images

That family feeling is important to Rice. She and her husband, Crispin Woodhead—the CEO of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment—are raising four children, between the ages of eight and seventeen, in the London suburb of Buckinghamshire. “I’ve literally taken every and any job that comes in from London, because that’s my priority,” she says. When a job calls her away from England, she keeps in touch via Skype and WhatsApp, but much of the contact happens on the fly. “If you bother them too much, because you’re lonely and in New York, then you’re interrupting their lives,” Rice says. 

“Singers have a hard lifestyle,” she adds. “We do it because we love it. Otherwise, we’d be completely nuts!” spacer 



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