Q & A: Mezzo-Soprano Katie Coventry on ‘Elektra’ in Salzburg, Her Inspirations, Being a Modern Opera Singer

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
(Credit: Doris Wild)

Scottish mezzo-soprano Katie Coventry was facing what a lot of singers in the opera world have endured throughout 2020.

As she sat in her apartment on lockdown waiting for some good news, she saw all of her professional engagements slowly disappear as the threat of COVID-19 continued to loom large.

And then she got the call from the Salzburg Festival. They wanted her to b a part of the company’s upcoming production of “Elektra,” taking on the role of one of the maids.

Coventry, who had started her international career in Salzburg with the Young Singers’ Project in 2018, was ecstatic.

“It was really an overwhelming and emotional moment to be receiving a call from the festival. I was also happy to go visit Salzburg since this is a city I have lived in and fell in love with,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview in which she discussed her education, inspiring singers in the international community of opera, and how meditation helps her during auditions.

OperaWire: How are you during all the performances of “Elektra?”

Katie Coventry: Obviously there was a lot of working going into the premiere of this opera, filled with anticipation and stress. Other performances feel really differently, especially them being not recorded.  I feel now a bit more relaxed.

OW: How did you become a part of this production?

KC: I wasn‘t originally cast to be singing in “Elektra.” I was in my home, having all of my projects canceled from April through September. It was really an overwhelming and emotional moment to be receiving a call from the festival. I was also happy to go visit Salzburg since this is a city I have lived in and fell in love with.

Then in two weeks, I had to figure out how to get myself here, organize accommodation and testing. The virus felt like a real threat since Scotland was still in lockdown when I left for Austria, where life was back up and running. It was quite a roller-coaster, but I am happy to be a part of it.

OW: What is your relationship with the culture in Salzburg?

KC: I came here in the year 2018 for the young singers’ project. This was a big step for me professionally since it was the first step outside of the UK. It was nice to get to know the festival then and I met a lot of people and later on, I stayed for a year in the state theater.

In that way, I have seen the buzz that this city has during the summer and the calm atmosphere throughout the rest of the year. It is cozy as a small town and quite traditional in ways people approach the culture here. It is exciting to sing in the city of Mozart especially with the Mozarteum’s orchestra. It is also a really international place, situated very close to other big cultural cities.

OW: How could you describe the rehearsing process?

KC: From the very beginning we felt safe and secure here, with all the safety requirements – testing, distancing, masks, etc. The first week was a little strange, I realized how not used to being around people I was after the quarantine. But soon the focus came towards the piece and you forget about all the other problems. I think the rehearsal process itself was very well managed and it didn‘t felt being shorter than usual. Everything felt normal for a while.

The maids have an ensemble scene, so the focus is on our relationship with each other and other characters. Especially after the quarantine, it was great to have an on-stage connection and interaction with other singers and the audience. We, the ensemble members, didn’t know each other before this project, but I think the atmosphere was comfortable and relaxed – that helped everyone to get along and enjoy the work process. I really admire all my colleagues and the job they did with this production. Choreographer Claud was very involved with us and he wanted us to portray the characters realistically, bringing out real emotions. I truly enjoyed the process.

OW: How did you approach your character?

KC: Krzysztof Warlikowski and Claude Bardouil were keen to create real characters in this production, focusing on their past stories and relationship with Elektra. As an inspiration, I used my own life experiences. I also find the entire opera inspiring – so blood-curdling one minute, and tender the next. I love listening to the dramatic scenes between the two sisters and learning from Aušrinė and Asmik how they create this moving bond and expression on stage. Elektra always leaves me in total awe.

OW: I have read that to sing the music of R. Strauss was always a dream of yours. How did you connect with the music of “Elektra?”

KC: It was incredible! I was looking into music of Strauss for a while, learning “Der Rosenkavalier” and other pieces. The experience of hearing a full-size Vienna Philharmonic playing it live on stage, so passionately and dramatically, was definitely very emotional for me.

When the curtain fell, I had tears streaming down my face. The music of R. Strauss never goes where you predict it should go. The sound, color, and lyrics form something deeply symbiotic. I have not done a lot of German operatic repertoire yet in my career, so this element was new for me.

Work with the conductor Franz Welser-Möst was focused on details – we discussed and tried to really color every phrase and every word. I have only a few lines in the opera, so I felt that it was really important for me to know how you want each word to sound and what you want it to mean.

OW: How did you become the singer you are today?

KC: I always loved music and theater. As a child, I was constantly singing, playing dancing, and acting. I started singing lessons when I was the age of seven and I started to take singing seriously at the age of 16, taking classes with Allison Cook. She opened my eyes to a lot of methods of learning – I started to really use my body when singing. I started making more conscious repertoire choices.

Later on, during my postgraduate studies, I studied with Tim Evan-Jones and realized how dedicated he is to his students and how he evolves his teaching to follow the individual singer.

Later I met my third teacher Jane Robinson – she knows my voice very well, and she gives great advice not only about singing, but also auditions, repertoire, career choices, etc. She kept me grounded and told me not to take much too soon.

I had to become comfortable within my voice without trying to be someone else. Every teacher I had brought something different in me as a singer and their teaching complements each other. It is nice to have such respectful people in your corner.

OW: What is your preparation process before going on stage?

KC: I find meditation and yoga the most helpful for any role or performance. It has a very relaxing and focusing effect on the entire body as well as the mind – it gets me really ready to perform.

Also, I look through the score and check the important moments. Even though you usually get into makeup only in the late afternoon, for me it takes the whole day to prepare. The whole anticipation can also feel scary, but once I get on stage, I feel completely relaxed.

I just really love singing, having an audience, and colleagues. I love the whole interaction of emotion that happens in the hall. I also use meditation for auditions. It is hard to separate between being a character and being myself since in an audition you have to quickly go from one character to another. Meditation and mindfulness help me to be present, focus on the moment, and switch off and on between different characters.

OW: You mentioned that different singers also inspire you greatly. What do you learn from them?

KC: I listen to a lot of different kinds of music – pop, jazz, classical. It can be a way of switching off. Since I am also very nostalgic, many songs my parents used to listen to or I heard when I was a child, really resonate and comfort me, bringing out old memories.

I also admire a lot of academic singers. For instance, several times I had an opportunity to work with mezzo-soprano Ann Murray and I find the way she knows and uses her voice simply fantastic. I love to share the stage with more experienced singers and learn from them, get inspired by them. I put many coworkers on a pedestal, I guess. They motivate me to work hard and get better at my work. I aspire to be where they are.

OW: Did you notice any differences in this year’s Salzburg Festival?

KC: It is a very special festival since it is its 100th anniversary and the situation is different because of the pandemic. The atmosphere in the hall is unusual and it is special to have a broadcast that had so many people pay attention to this performance. The atmosphere between the soloists is also different; there is a lot of appreciation, enjoyment, and presence in this experience. I am so happy to be here and trying to make the most of this feeling.

OW: How would you describe the lifestyle of opera singer today?

KC: I am still working on it. There is a lot of traveling and I do contracts away from home, which makes me miss a lot of family events, such as weddings, occasions, etc. But I am happy to have a family and friends who understand and support me through that. For me, the profession of an opera singer is the only job I ever wanted to do and I see myself as lucky being able to do that as a career. It opens my eyes to a lot of new cultures and experiences.


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