Scottish mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill was the 2002 winner of The Kathleen Ferrier Award. She has sung major roles at The Royal Opera, Metropolitan Opera, Deutsche Oper, Glyndebourne Festival and more.
10 September 2018
S: What are you up to at the moment?
KC: I’m currently rehearsing the role of Geneviève in Stefan Herheim’s new production of Pelléas et Mélisande for Glyndebourne.
S: What do you love most about your job?
KC: Creativity. Not only the music making and stage demands of the job, but the flexibility that we need to have as parents in order to fulfil our needs as artists. It’s sometimes exhausting but also sometimes just as exciting.
S: How long have you been juggling parenthood and your career?
KC: My son Adam is 10 this month which seems incredible to me. I found out I was pregnant with him while I was singing Rosina in Sir Tom Allen’s new production of Barbiere at Scottish Opera, such an exciting time!
S: How long after having your son did you return to singing?
KC: I came back 5 weeks after Adam was born. In retrospect far too early, but I was committed to a job and didn’t want to let the organisation down. It was a televised job and you can see how fragile I was when you watch it back.
S: What physical changes did you feel?
KC: For me breath became an even greater commodity. I performed in Barbiere and then in the Minghella Butterfly at ENO straight after, that was an enormous challenge particularly because I felt quite nauseous throughout my pregnancy.
S: How did parenthood change your career?
KC: I’m not sure I could quantify this, other than to say that my priorities changed and I’m much pickier with how long I stay away from home, trying to balance a small amount of opera with more work on the concert platform as I’m not away from home so much.
S: Do you think that being a mother has ultimately enriched your performing?
KC: Without a doubt. Your perspective changes more than you could imagine and that ultimately informs who you are as an artist. The stakes are also very different to when you were only focusing on your career, priorities change and family time became the real focus of my life.
S: How does your son respond to your job?
KC: He loves it, though I don’t think he would like to do anything musical, he’s acutely aware of the fact that music takes me away from home.
S: Has your son ever appeared on stage with you?
KC: Not as yet. We do have a lovely photo of his as a baby on stage with me at the Albert Hall but no performing yet!
S: How do you manage to continue your career alongside your family commitments?
KC: My family and management are incredibly supportive and understand what makes me tick as a mother and a musician. Whenever possible I have my husband and son with me, sometimes that means my mum travels with me. I’m acutely aware of Adam having his own life, friends & commitments, so I try to keep a balance where he can spend time with me but also keep his own diary!
S: What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry, to make life easier for artists with families/dependants?
KC: It’s a hard question to answer as it’s such a complex jigsaw puzzle for all involved. I would have loved crèche facilities that could have meant that Adam stayed with me for longer when I was abroad. If it were possible for companies to avoid working with the singers on a Saturday so that people could go home that would make an enormous difference. I would gladly work more sessions in a week so that I could go home on a weekend.
S: Can you think of an example of a job where you have felt really supported by the company as a parent?
KC: Currently the company office at Glyndebourne have been very supportive in giving me time to go home. For the first time Adam has really struggled when I have left, the awareness and knowledge that we yearn to give them has suddenly become a disadvantage. I’m grateful to Ian and his colleagues for understanding and being so supportive.
S: What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry who is about to become a parent?
KC: Remember that you are given the guilt card from the moment you find it you are expecting a baby. Try not to beat yourself up and remember that each decision you make could have lots of other options, whatever way you turn don’t allow the guilt to creep in.
S: Have you come up against or heard of any discrimination or bias as a working parent?
KC: Recently there have been a couple of cases of colleagues being released from contracts because of pregnancy but a far as I’m aware it was more to do with health and safety rather than discrimination.
S: Were you ever advised not to have children for the sake of your career?
KC: Never! I would never listen to those voices anyway as they wouldn’t have ‘got’ who I am!
S: Aside from the challenges of working-parenthood, have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
KC: Gender is an interesting one as of course the roles exist for women. I’m encouraged greatly by the amount of female conductors coming through. My husband (who is the Chief Exec of the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland) made a big statement in his first programme as artistic director by given the entire Easter programme over to female conductors. It was encouraging that the audience barely noticed....
S: Which operatic character have you most enjoyed playing and why?
KC: There are just too many to choose from! Recently I tackled (yes, tackled!) Judith in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and that was a career high point. Working with a theatre company to discover the complexities of this woman, why she chooses to stay and what that says about the human condition. Musically it’s extremely demanding but ultimately truly rewarding.
S: Which novel or play by a female author would you like to see adapted for the operatic stage?
KC: I’ve recently been reading more Margaret Atwood who I think has an extraordinary voice for women. The Heart Goes Last delves into the world that could become and strips back the veils that we place over our relationships to protect ourselves and others.
S: Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
KC: I have to say my friend Christine Goerke. She’s at the very top of her game, singing everywhere but is ALWAYS available for her daughters. She prioritises time with them, whether that be in person or Skype, so much so that she flew home to the US from London just for 3 days the other weekend. Those girls have a mum who loves them so very much.
S: Do you have time for other passions and interests outside of your work and family commitments?
KC: At the moment life is so very busy that it’s difficult to find time for other things! We have recently been renovating our house and I get immense satisfaction in doing interior design. I’m a new convert to Transcendental Meditation having just completed my training last year. It was something I wanted to do to help me switch off from work & home stresses but it’s turned into something much more meaningful and I’m a complete convert!!