Q & A: Soprano Marie Lys On Her Background, Singing Competitions, ‘Argippo’ & Future Plans

By Alan Neilson

In 2016, while still studying at the Royal College of Music in London, Swiss soprano Marie Lys was offered the role of Asteria in Buxton Festival’s production of “Tamerlano.” Although it was her first professional stage performance she gave a noteworthy presentation, with critics applauding her “impressive range,” “sweet singing” and “appealing, flexible tone.”

Since then her career has been on a continuous upward trajectory; a career in which she has won numerous competitions, most notably the 2017 Concours International de Belcanto Vincenzo Bellini and the 2018 Baroque Opera Cesti Competition, and has performed at many prestigious venues including Buckingham Palace. She has also appeared on a number of commercial recordings, most recently as Osira in Vivaldi’s pasticcio “Argippo” for the Vivaldi Edition. Indeed, it is in the baroque repertoire in which Lys is currently gaining the most acclaim, with impressive performances at Innsbruck’s Early Music Festival and the International Handel Festspiele Göttingen. She is, however, by no means restricted to the baroque. Her repertoire includes roles from a diverse range of composers such as Rossini, Verdi, Debussy, and Bernstein.

Although she is an artist who is very much in demand with a very busy schedule, Lys was more than happy to take time out for an interview with OperaWire.

OperaWire: What was your pathway to becoming an opera singer?

Marie Lys: I was brought up in a very small Swiss village with only 25 inhabitants. My family was very musical: both my parents are flautists, both teach and perform, and my mother plays in the Orchestre de Chambre de Fribourg. As a child I was always singing, it was just a way of being. Most of my parents’ friends were musicians, and I associated every person with the instrument they played. I remember asking my parents what instrument did my godmother play, and they told me she didn’t play any instrument and I was so shocked, I felt an emptiness inside me, it was as if they had told me she didn’t have a soul. So music has always been something I considered a natural part of a person’s life, although at the time I didn’t consider it something I would do as a job.

Before I started singing lessons I studied the violin for nine years, but it was a frustrating experience as I could not express myself in the way I wanted: it was not direct enough. I started singing in children’s choirs and I enjoyed it much more than the violin. As soon as I was old enough, I quit the violin and started singing lessons. I had a great teacher who encouraged me to sing very naturally so there was no damage done to my voice.

I actually made my singing stage debut when I was ten years old,  taking part in a show for children, and we also recorded a CD where I had a few solos to sing; it was all very exciting! My first experience of opera was singing the young shepherd in “Tosca” in Geneva. I wouldn’t say this made me want to become an opera singer, I thought that the people backstage seemed very tense, and it all seemed like such a weird, artificial experience.

After finishing high school I went to the Music University in Lausanne to study professional singing. I was very young, only 18, and I didn’t really like it. I was quite shocked by the competitive and unfriendly attitude of some fellow students and decided that this was not a world I wanted to work in, so I stopped my singing studies and decided to try other things. Eventually, however, I had to return as I missed music too much. I was very kindly given a position as a chorister in Michel Corboz’ choir, Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne, with whom I did many tours across Europe and even Japan.

I realized that I loved this traveling life as it allowed me to discover so many countries and cultures, and I was paid to do what I loved most in the world! So I decided to continue my studies and become a professional singer. I finished my undergraduate course at the Music University in Fribourg and then went to London to study at the Royal College of Music. I was there for four years, first for a Master of Performance and then at the International Opera School for an Artist Diploma in Opera. It was amazing to have the opportunity to have great opera singers, such as Sally Burgess and Amanda Roocroft, as teachers.

It took me many years of studying voice before I even considered the idea of becoming an opera singer, it wasn’t something I especially liked at the beginning, as I thought it was quite artificial, and I didn’t feel confident acting on stage. In fact, my aim when I started studying was to become a concert and oratorio singer. It was only when I had the chance to perform opera scenes during my Master’s studies at the RCM that I realized that opera singing was a real option.

OW: Why have you focused on the baroque repertory?

ML: I think it is partly due to the fact that I started my career as a very young singer and the most suitable music for a fresh young voice is early music; I have done so many concerts and sung a lot of pieces from that repertoire, and I think that my name became associated with it. So although I was not forced down this path, I wouldn’t say I actively chose it. If I had taken deliberate, longer-term decisions then maybe my career path would have been slightly different. But I am very glad that I didn’t, because I am very happy with where I am now: life has been very generous to me and I keep meeting absolutely wonderful people. Also, I never get bored with baroque music.

OW: What is your approach to presenting an aria?

ML: I try to put myself into the shoes of the character and imagine how they would feel, based on my past experiences, and I let the emotions come. Sometimes when practicing, it can be too much and I become very emotional and can even start crying, either from sadness or from joy, then I know I need to find something less intense for the performance. On some occasions the director will demand certain ways of performance, maybe they don’t want me to show any emotions, or to use baroque gestures, and then, of course, I need to find another process to get into character.

But my main goal when singing in opera or in concerts is always to produce an emotional response in the audience, to open a door and invite them in.

OW: You have won a number of competitions, including the 2018 Cesti competition. Are competitions something you enjoy and what do you gain from them?

ML: A lot depends on the competition and on my state of mind. I really enjoyed the Cesti competition: the atmosphere was very friendly, the rehearsing and performing conditions were extremely good and Innsbruck is such a wonderful city.

Occasionally, it has happened that I have felt uncomfortable with the atmosphere and the conditions of competition; sometimes other candidates aren’t very friendly, or the competition is badly organized and this can make me tense. However, this can also be good training, because you are going to have to deal with poor conditions at some point in your professional career. Ultimately, however, it is mainly your own attitude that determines whether you have a good or a bad experience. I don’t think it is healthy to go to a competition with a win-at-all-costs attitude. For me, it is important to enjoy it for what it is, to perform new repertoire, meet potential colleagues, discover new places and, of course, to enjoy the beautiful music. Like most other singers, I don’t always win a prize, but what I usually do find are new friendships, and most are long-lasting!

People often ask me whether I got a lot of work from winning competitions, and it is not an easy question to answer. I cannot state for certain what the effect of winning competitions has had on my career because people who hire you hardly ever say they are doing it because you won a competition. I know I am becoming more successful now, but there are so many factors involved in this, for example, I have a new agent, Paolo Monacchi from Allegorica Management, and a lot is down to him, as he has provided me with many opportunities. But then again, competition prizes appear on your CV, and without them maybe I would find it more difficult to get work.

Whatever the effects competitions may have had on my career, I am certain that they have provided me with an amazing opportunity to practice repertoire, to learn to deal with stage-fright, to receive feedback from professionals, and to meet amazing people.

OW: You have recently recorded the role of Osira in Vivaldi’s “Argippo” with Fabio Biondi. You stepped into the role at two weeks’ notice. What were the challenges of the role and were you happy with it?

ML: I was extremely happy to be offered this role, even though it was a bit stressful to have to learn it so quickly, while having other projects to do at the same time, including preparing twelve arias for another recording with my own ensemble in the same month. But fortunately, Osira’s arias are not very difficult so there was no problem in learning them at such short notice, despite there being such a large quantity of music. I started by practicing the faster sections—the coloraturas—to get the muscles working. I also paid particular attention to preparing the recitatives: it is important to understand clearly what is happening and what is being said if you are going to perform them well!

It was a big honor for me to have the opportunity to sing with Europa Galante, one of the most amazing ensembles I have worked with. And I am very happy with the CD. I think it is a wonderful opera.

I was also very happy to meet and work with the great Fabio Biondi. After the recording, he offered me some projects, again with Europa Galante, including Bellezza in Handel’s “Il Trionfo del Tempo” in Parma, and the title role in Donizetti’s “Betly” at the Chopin and his Europe Festival in Warsaw.

I also had the privilege of meeting Susan Orlando, the director of the Vivaldi Edition, who is one of the kindest and most generous people I know; she is so keen to help artists at the start of their career.

And of course, it was a chance to work with the wonderful team at the Naïve Classique label.

OW: How would you describe your voice?

ML: This is a difficult question to answer because, of course, I can’t hear my voice in the same way a listener can, except on recordings, which never reproduce the exact same sound. From the feedback I receive, I believe that my voice is high with an agreeable depth to it.

I know that I have a healthy voice with a lot of stamina which allows me to sing for long periods without getting tired.

I also have a very versatile voice, I can sing bel canto, classical, and even some Verdi roles such as Nanetta and Oscar, and of course early music. I think I would be frustrated if I could only sing in one style. I really enjoy adapting to the stylistic requirements of different periods.

I am still learning about vocal techniques. I think it is a life-long quest to get as close to perfection as possible, and that is what makes this work absolutely fascinating: you keep discovering new things every day.

OW: Of the roles you have performed so far, which ones have stood out for you?

ML: The character I most enjoyed playing was Cleopatra from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.” It was a small production for Bury Court Opera. I had nine arias, all with different colors and emotions, lots of costume changes, and nice interactions with the other characters. The music is gorgeous. I really hope to have the chance to sing this role again someday.

I also really enjoyed singing Adelaide from Handel’s “Lotario” at the Göttingen Festival in 2017. Again it allowed me to portray many different emotions, and it has some wonderful arias. Laurence Cummings was conducting and I love singing with him, he breathes with the singers. I think being a good singer himself helps a lot, he listens so well, and it makes you feel like you could do anything and the orchestra will always be with you. It was also in that production that I met my very good friend Sophie Rennert, who was singing the title role, and who I shall be working with again in the autumn.

I admit to loving Handel’s music and his way of writing for the voice, you can feel all the emotions in the vocal line.

Another role that stands out in my memories is L’Amour in Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice” at the Opéra de Lausanne. I had to sing while performing acrobatics with circus artists. I remember that the stage director, the brilliant Aurélien Bory, called me three months before the production and asked me if I had done any circus or ballet as a child. I had absolutely no background in those disciplines, so I had to get into shape in order to perform the role as he intended. I started taking pole dance lessons as it is very good for the core muscles. I trained at least six hours a week the months before the production, and I was able to do all the planned acrobatics. This was a big achievement for me, as I had never considered myself a sporty person.

From a vocal and musical point of view, I loved singing Nanetta in Verdi’s ”Falstaff.” I was still a student then and unfortunately, the conditions for the production were quite bad, singing outdoors in quite dangerous conditions. I would really love to sing this role in a real opera house someday.

And finally, a really fun role I enjoyed was Cunegonde from Bernstein’s “Candide,” for Opéra de Lausanne last year, but unfortunately, it was canceled following the piano dress rehearsal due to the COVID pandemic. It has, however, been reprogrammed, and I am really looking forward to getting back to this beautiful production by Vincent Boussard with my dear friend Miles Mykkanen, who is a splendid Candide.

OW: Do you see your career continuing in the baroque?

ML. I hope I will always have the chance to sing baroque music because it is very close to my heart. It has a magical way of carrying emotions. At the moment, however, my career is broadening out and moving a bit towards romantic music and bel canto, which makes me very happy. As I said, I really enjoy exploring different styles and ways of using the voice.

OW: With all the restrictions due to the COVID pandemic, do you have many projects and performances lined up for the coming months?

At the moment, I am editing a recording with my music ensemble Abchordis. It is a CD of unpublished opera arias from the beginning of the 18th century, including tracks by Vivaldi, Porpora, Vinci, Leo, Sarro, and Galuppi, in which we retrace the career of a famous diva of the time. We hope to release it at the end of this year.

Also, I am rehearsing “La Clemenza di Tito” at the Grand Théâtre de Genève with the amazing Maxim Emelyanychev conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. It is the first opera staging of Milo Rau, and it promises to be something very special.

Next month I have some performances of Vivaldi’s “Argippo” planned with Fabio Biondi in Vienna at Theater an der Wien, and then in Sevilla and in Madrid. I just hope we will be able to do them!

Then I am back at the Grand Théâtre de Genève for Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” with the Belgium dance company Peeping Tom, with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting Le Concert d’Astrée.

In the summer, apart from “Betly” with Biondi in Warsaw, I’ll be doing “Il Trionfo del Tempo,” which will also be with Biondi, although the venues are yet to be confirmed. Then I shall be singing in a Telemann opera at the Festival Potsdam Sanssouci with Dorothee Oberlinger and Ensemble 1700, with revivals in Bayreuth and Innsbruck. So I have a lot of work to do!


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