Dangerous Territory

Henrietta Bredin talks to Janis Kelly about her role in Rufus Wainwright's first opera

The Spectator, 27 June 2009

Anyone less like the clichéd idea of a prima donna than Janis Kelly would be hard to find. She is known and loved as a singer and consummate actress with a conspicuous lack of airs and graces who will throw herself into anything, the more challenging and off the wall the better, imbuing performances with her own particular brand of intense musicality and grace. Lucky Rufus Wainwright then, who has cast her to perform the title role in his first foray into writing opera, Prima Donna, which will be given its world premiere at the Manchester International Festival on 10 July.

I ask her, tentatively, what it's like to be playing a woman of approximately her own age when she can, and almost invariably does, play much younger women. She roars with laughter. 'It's fantastic actually. And it's so great that someone has written a good role for an older woman. There aren't enough of them about. In fact, because the opera is a day in the life of a woman at a crisis point in her career, there are flashbacks and so I do have to play younger as well. No matter what part I play I usually have to find that inner girl somewhere - bring those ringlets out!'

So who is this prima donna she's embodying? 'Her name is Régine Saint Laurent. She's a famous French singer who was probably the great Traviata of her day, the leading lyric soprano at the Palais Garnier. There are echoes of Maria Callas and, because there's a character - played by Jonathan Summers - who's a Svengali-type manager, there are also echoes of other singers who've had very forceful partners or managers, pushing them in their career. The setting is Paris, it's Bastille Day, and she's on the verge of a comeback in an opera written specially for her called Aliénor d'Aquitaine, in which she triumphed six years earlier. At that time, something happened that caused her to stop singing altogether and now it's been six years since she's sung a note.'

So she's singing the role of a singer who's stopped singing in an opera about opera? That's a somewhat complex, multi-layered notion. 'Yes I know! But it's a very simple story on the page. One of the things that makes it more 'operatic' is the fact that it's sung in French. I'm loving that - it's a beautiful language to sing in and it somehow helps add depth to the drama. Showing how a singer works has been quite difficult. There's a scene early on where she's warming up and I was anxious about that because, done naturalistically, it could be really boring. Rufus wrote something that was quite technical-sounding, almost clichéd as a notion of an operatic way of rehearsing, that would always include a trill for example. Which really wouldn't be the way I'd go about it. But working through all that I've found a way in which I can present some of it as the character's internal thoughts and some of it, when it's more tricksy, as someone who's clearly working to get her voice back.'

This is potentially dangerous territory for a singer. Pavarotti used to talk of 'la voce' as if it was a capricious, pampered, infinitely precious creature that had taken up residence in his throat only to emerge when circumstances were absolutely auspicious. Kelly has to portray a character who has a vocal and emotional breakdown without becoming unravelled herself. 'There's this phrase where I'm climbing up to a top B and I can't get there because that's where I broke down six years ago. But I have to make sure it's not me who can't get there, it's Régine; I have to make it look and sound as if I've got a problem but make absolutely sure that the character's problem doesn't become mine - that I don't start thinking I can't get there myself.'

The publicity for this show has been in print and online for some time now and I noticed a line stating that 'There is some nudity in this event'. As there are only four people in the cast I wondered what Daniel Kramer, the director, had in mind. 'I asked him that. Whose nudity? Well, mine, needless to say. Of course he's not going to make me do it but there's one point where I'm in full view in this perspex box and he wants me to be as stripped down, as dishevelled as I can possibly be. There are a lot of costume changes and it's extremely complicated - I'm on stage pretty much the entire time. I've made a plan of act one to try and get it all into my head.' She produces a piece of paper on which she's drawn a chart of how each scene connects with the next, exits, entrances and costume changes. 'And that's only the first half - there's an interval after all that, thank God.'

With all this complexity of staging, has the piece itself been difficult to learn? 'No,' says Kelly, 'no it hasn't. In fact I've deliberately not set out to memorise it because there have been things that have changed. It is vocally demanding though, with quite a lot in the middle and bottom of my voice. But I enjoy that. The orchestration is really lush and on a grand scale so we're going to have to work hard to sing through it. Rufus says he can take layers away if necessary once he hears how it sounds.' Does she work hard to stay physically fit? 'Within reason. They do Pilates classes twice a week at Opera North, where we've been rehearsing, so I've been going along to those. I try to stretch before rehearsals but I'm no good at running or jogging or jumping up and down. I try to keep calm as well, not get all worked up. I do quite a lot of teaching now, at the Royal College, and I've realized that it's not so much a matter of warming up vocally, it's about the body around it, keeping things aligned and flexible so that the voice is supported. The voice knows what to do really - it's a matter of giving it a nice comfortable sofa, and space, then it just says thanks, I'll get on with it now.'

Up until now, Rufus Wainwright has heard very little of his opera as Daniel Kramer asked to be allowed time to work on the staging without being overlooked. But from mid-June he's going to be sitting in on everything and Kelly thinks he'll be surprised by how much detail has emerged. 'That happens with paintings, doesn't it? Everyone sees different things within a painting. And I've had people remark on things I've done in performance when I haven't been aware of doing them at all. It's disconcerting but hugely rewarding to get that reaction.

'On stage is where you get the chance to feel more completely in the present than you ever can in real life. You can't afford to think back or plan ahead; you just have to allow yourself to be there. And then anything can happen.'