Opera in Times of COVID: Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, Puccini & Verdi Specialist

By David Salazar
(Credit: Frances Marshall)
“Opera in the Times of COVID” is an interview series in collaboration with photographer Frances Marshall of Marshall Light Studio. We talk to notable figures from around the opera world to get their perspective on how they feel these challenging times may change opera’s present and future.
Over the last decade, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn has grown into one of the leading spinto sopranos of our time, specializing in the operas of Verdi and Puccini to tremendous renown. In 2013, Llewellyn was nominated for “Singer of the Year 2013” in OpernWelt for her performance in “Simon Boccanegra.”
In this interview with Llewellyn, the soprano delved into how she’s using this time to expand her repertory, her dance routine, her views on streaming in the opera world, and what she believes will be the legacy of COVID-19.

OperaWire: What have you done during this time to keep yourself positive and productive?

Elizabeth Llewellyn: Pretty much, I am doing what I have always done – redeeming the time by using it profitably. I have had such an incredibly busy few years and already a busy season, so I value the opportunity to stop and take stock.

I love working on my singing technique, slowly and carefully – my schedule has simply not allowed for this luxury! Also, my audition repertoire has changed over the last few years, but I have not had time until now to think about what those changes might be, and to work on my “new” arias.

I wanted to learn a few roles too, so I am memorizing Verdi’s “Luisa Miller: in Italian (I have just sung the role in English at English National Opera), and learning two other Verdi roles which interest me, and which I think will be useful to me in the future: Desdemona and Elisabetta di Valois. I am also working on Ellen Orford, as I will be singing the role in 2021. I find the longer a role is in my body and my voice, the better.

As part of all of this I am reading a lot, translating every word of vocal scores, and walking a great deal (I live in the countryside in the UK). I have also started a new hashtag on Instagram – #DancingDiva – where I poll my followers and learn a new dance-routine every week, then post the results in a video every Monday. I’m not a dancer, but I love to dance and to be active – it makes me laugh, it’s a huge release, and helps me feel good about myself and my body. It also helps to increase my fitness and coordination.

OW: What do you feel will be the greatest impacts of COVID-19 on the opera world moving forward? What are some new developments that you feel are here to stay?

EL: I think the “force majeure” clause in contracts for all the performing arts will be scrutinized moving forward, as well as how (or if) principal singers are paid during a rehearsal period. So many performers have been left financially stranded after some companies announced that they would not pay them, even expenses incurred up to the point of cancellation. I think some sort of financial security for performers will be mandatory from now on.

I’m aware of many more performers making efforts to connect with their audiences, giving them behind-the-scenes glimpses of whatever they are working on, or performing sections of work they have prepared. Members of one opera orchestra in Germany even “phoned” individual audience members to serenade them. I think this intimate interaction will increase, and become the mainstay of how the opera / classical music industry communicates with their audiences.

Also, on a very basic level, I think much more attention will be paid to personal hygiene and levels of cleanliness in rehearsal and performance venues.

OW: One of the major developments of this time are the emergence of streaming and connecting with fans and followers more directly via social media. How has this impacted your time in quarantine? What is an outcome of it that you didn’t expect?

EL: I didn’t expect to be connecting with dancers and fitness instructors, but through #DancingDiva on Instagram, I am. Also, because of my efforts to increase my fitness and spread a bit of joy and entertainment, lots of folk from many strands of my life have become more invested in my life and interests.

OW: What do you enjoy most about this development and interconnectivity?

EL: I guess the sense of connectivity. We are all in the same boat, and some are coping better with this time than others. Because I live on the edge of a National Park, I enjoy much more freedom to move about as I will meet very few people in the day. I am something of an introvert, and I love this sense of isolation and being able to concentrate in peaceful surroundings. This is largely a creative and positive time for me, so it is nice to be able to share it with others…remotely!

OW: How can opera companies and artists around the world learn from it moving forward and should it become a bigger part of the opera season experience moving forward?

EL: Whilst I understand the need for companies to stay in people’s hearts and minds whilst theatres are dark, I am alarmed that everything is being streamed for free, which seems to mean that the artists involved both remain unpaid for work which has been cancelled, and are unpaid for the work being showcased. The fact that audiences are tuning in means that there is a hunger for it, so even a nominal pay-per-view fee or small donation would not be inappropriate, especially given that some companies are reporting a financial loss.

Going forward, we know that all theatres/venues have a finite number of seats – streaming would be a great way of reaching out to those who could not get tickets to a limited or sold-out run of performances, to those who are house-bound, or more pointedly to raise the profile of the theatre amongst various demographics, or to highlight a particular social/moral issue, not just to those who are curious about the art-form.

OW: What are you most excited about doing once the quarantine officially comes to an end and we are allowed to resume a “normal” life?

EL: I am looking forward to exploring more of Yorkshire (where I live in the UK). It is a very beautiful – and very large – county, and I would love to feel free and safe enough to jump on a bus or train, and go roaming further afield. I have been away so much with my work since I moved here four years ago that I feel that there is still so much to discover and enjoy.

OW: Most people in quarantine are actively engaging with the arts via either music, TV, film, reading, literature. Etc. What have you been watching or reading during this time?

EL: I have two books on the go – one for work, and the other for pleasure: plays by Friedrich Schiller – “Don Carlos” and “Mary Stuart;” and “Adam Bede” by George Elliot. I have just finished “A Paris Wife” which is an historical fiction novel by Paula McLain – it is a fictionaliszd account of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to the first of his four wives, Hadley Richardson.

I am also trying to catch up on some films which I missed in the cinema, like “Judy (which was devastating!)” and “The Greatest Showman,” and I am really enjoying picking up where I left off with excellent drama series like “Call Of Duty” and “Homeland.” It was really interesting to watch “Self Made” too, with the amazing Octavia Spencer.

OW: Speaking more globally about the pandemic, what can the world learn about this experience? What do hope to see from our leaders (political or even industry) in order to build a better future that enables us to better manage any similar type of situation?

EL: I think, globally, we have proved the truth of the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention”! When we have less access to “stuff”, we learn to make do and sometimes produce something better, be it in cooking, work, leisure-time, looking after our homes or each other. I hope that when Brexit hits the UK next year and supply-chains are changed or disrupted, we will remember what is possible.

Also, a crisis reveals either the real leaders, and/or reveals a leadership vacuum. I think we need to hold our leaders to account now regarding their handling of this pandemic, and make certain that we appoint “grown-up” leaders in the future who will act decisively and in an informed way. It is interesting that the most effective leaders at this time are women!