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Interview with Limelight Magazine

Miranda Keys: A Wagnerian plucked from the chorus

by Sam Gillies

The Australian soprano on her career and being pulled out of the Glyndebourne chorus by Sir David McVicar
Australian-born soprano Miranda Keys first encountered opera as a spectator at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Proms. This year she will appear at London’s other Proms – the eight-week concert series at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where she will perform in two unique programs. This year also marks the 80th anniversary for Glyndebourne Opera, the outfit responsible for pulling Miranda from the chorus and casting her into the spotlight, and a company Miranda is involved with to this day. So how did it all happen so fast? We spoke to Miranda about her career, from a young graduate of the Guildhall School of Music to her current role as Marianne Leitmetzerin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.
Raised in Queensland until the age of 14, Miranda’s earliest musical experiences were not of opera, but of a rather different musical world. “When I was living on the Gold Coast I got really into music theatre,” Miranda recalls. “There was a gentleman there called Robert Young. I don’t know if he still does his productions at the Gold Coast Arts Centre. I think he did a Les Misérables and a Jesus Christ Superstar, and a couple of other Lloyd Webber-ey type musicals. I was only about 12 or 13 at the time but I was so desperate to be involved.”

Miranda moved to London to pursue her undergraduate studies at Guildhall School of Music in London. Miranda’s decision to study there was based upon that initial love for music theatre. “I looked at the biographies of the great performers in the West End, and they all studied at the Guildhall,” explains Miranda. “And I thought: ‘Right that’s the decision’. But then of course I worked out that it wasn’t actually the music department that they studied at, it was the acting department!”

It was while she was studying at Guildhall that she encountered opera for the first time. “A friend of mine convinced me to go and watch a Proms performance of Tosca at the Royal Opera House,” Miranda remembers. “I sat on the floor on a rug, and saw this amazing performance of Tosca. It was the old Zeffirelli production, the one that Callas did a billion years ago, and I was just blown away. I think that was my first thought that opera was another area that I could head into. As I started having singing lessons my voice started to grow, and it became very obvious as to which direction I was heading.”

After graduating from Guildhall Miranda went on to further study at the Royal College of Music, where she would perform in her first opera at age 21, cast in the role of Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, for English conductor Sir Colin Davis. “It doesn’t get much better than that!” Miranda passionately declares. “Doesn’t get much better and doesn’t get much more frightening! When you’re 21 you just don’t know, you just go: ‘Oh yes, I’ll do that’.”

From the Royal College of Music, Miranda went on to attend the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and work with the National Opera Studio. These courses not only allowed Miranda to consolidate her skills, but also gave her the time needed for her voice to develop. “The problem with my voice type is that you need time, and young singers who know that they’re going to go into dramatic German repertoire need as much time as possible,” Miranda explains. “If I had graduated when I should have graduated from the Royal College, I would have just been 22 and there’d be nothing for me to do. So I thought I’d stay on and do another opera course up in Scotland, and managed to get a couple more roles under my belt.”

Miranda auditioned for Glyndebourne while in college and was awarded a place in the chorus. “They had given me a fantastic cover of Elettra in Idomeneo,” remarks Miranda. “It was my very first proper job out of college. It was 2003 and it was a very heavy tour – we had Idomeneo, we had Theodora by Handel, and La Traviata, so basically the chorus were on stage every night of the week. And the conductor for Theodora wanted straight tone, she didn’t want any singer singing with vibrato. Then the next night you had to come out and try to sing La Traviata having had no vibrato the night before, so it was a very interesting baptism of fire.” Miranda’s first big opportunity came about two thirds of the way through that tour. “I got a phone call saying that the Elettra was sick, and would I like to go on that evening. And of course I was ‘Absolutely! Wow! I mean, Fantastic!’”

Miranda describes this performance as her first ‘grown up’ gig. She returned to the Glyndebourne chorus the following year for two tours and a season performance. During this time, Glyndebourne were to perform Carmen, directed by Sir David McVicar, one of the world’s top opera directors.

“David McVicar saw me singing around in the chorus,” recalls Miranda. “He spoke to his assistant and said that he wanted me to learn a section of Wagner. I hadn’t even touched Wagner at that point; I thought that that was for really… I mean there’s ‘grown up’ singing and then there’s proper ‘grown up’ singing! He gave me a section of Sieglinde and then asked me the following week to sing it to him in a rehearsal studio during a break of rehearsing Carmen. After I sang it he went straight upstairs to David Pickard, the general director at Glyndebourne and said: ‘You have to get Miranda Keys out of the chorus, she’s far too good!’”

Following her graduation from the Glyndebourne Chorus, the following years were tough for Miranda. “I managed to do a couple of roles for Scottish Opera,” she says. “I played the witch in Hansel and Gretel, and a couple of other things, but it was a rough couple of years. Then I did the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2007. I got into both finals, and that helped to put my name around. So then the work in Europe started coming, which was fantastic.”

So considering the kind of works Miranda has been involved with thus far, what is the most challenging to perform? “The hardest role I’ve ever done is Fidelio,” Miranda admits. “The hardest and the easiest in a way. Of course Beethoven can be quite tricky, it depends how your voice sits and I’m quite happy up in the passaggio – in the higher echelons of my sound – so singing Leonora was quite easy for me. Much easier than any Mozart I’ve ever done, or any Wagner. But having said that, Wagner also has a lot of wonderful things.”

“I’ve done Third Norn in Götterdämmerung – that was my very first Wagner. I did that with Simon Rattle, and I thought: ‘This is just fantastic!’. I stayed and watched Ben Heppner, who has just retired, singing Siegfried, and Katarina Dalayman and Anne Sofie von Otter do her first Waltraute. I just saw all these people whacking out this Wagner, but singing it in a way that was almost like lieder, and I thought: ‘That’s how they can sing for five hours, because they don’t whack it out’. It’s an illusion.”

Miranda is currently rehearsing the role of Marianne Leitmetzerin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. “It’s actually a really fantastic role,” Miranda enthuses. “Marianne has got some great music, and the way that Richard Jones, our director, is doing the production, it’s very funny. I think that I’m so lucky to have the chance to work with people like Richard. It doesn’t matter how big or small your role is, he gives you a huge back-story and develops you into a massive character. Marianne probably has ten pages of music, but it feels like I’m on all night! There are loads of things to do and I’m very important in the Faninal household. It’s fantastic.”

Miranda will return to the BBC Proms this year, performing Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra – her second performance since her 2007 Third Norn with Donald Runnicles – and she sees it as an exciting prospect. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she enthuses. “Imagine walking out onto that stage and just seeing a sea of thousands of faces.”

“The Prommers have been lining up outside and they’ve been cooped up in the tiny stalls area of the Royal Albert Hall, yet they’re happy to stand there for six hours watching Götterdämmerung, they just love it. Anyone whose saying that opera is dying, they just have to come and watch one of these shows. Because I can tell you there’s no lack of enthusiasm that’s for sure!”

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