July 28, 2018
Interview with soprano, Gillian Keith
British-Canadian soprano Gillian Keith made her Royal Opera debut as Zerbinetta in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Celebrated roles include Poppea (L’Incoronazione di Poppea), The Woodbird (Siegfried), and Pretty Polly (Punch and Judy). Concerts include BBC Proms, Boston Symphony Hall, Sydney Opera House, Edinburgh Festival and London’s Wigmore Hall, in diverse repertoire from Bach Cantatas to Oliver Knussen’s 2nd Symphony. Recordings include Zerbinetta, Dallapiccola orchestral songs, Handel’s Gloria, Deutsche Arien, and Messiah, Mozart’s C Minor Mass, and recitals of Debussy, Strauss and Schubert. Recent projects include Mark-Anthony Turnage (Coraline - Royal Opera) and Tom Randle’s (Love Me To Death), Tête-á-Tête Festival.
What are you up to at the moment?
I am preparing for several big summer projects, including 4 programmes at the Dartington Festival, one of which is a choreographed song cycle with contemporary flamenco dancers, and a new opera 'Love Me To Death' by Tom Randle for the Tête-á-Tête Festival, all of which are rehearsing through July.
Which operatic character have you most enjoyed playing and why?
I have most enjoyed playing Zerbinetta because she's fabulous and feisty and presents the biggest musical and vocal challenge I think I have ever encountered. The character goes hand in hand with the role - both she and her music are central to the piece, and what is required of her vocally and theatrically represent the kind of physical, flexible singing and performing I love to do.
Which novel or play by a female author would you like to see adapted for the operatic stage?
I could see Andrea Levy's 'The Long Song' receiving a very moving operatic treatment. I imagine its strong, themes of slavery, racism and immigration, and musical colours suggested by its Caribbean setting, would make for engaging and relevant musical storytelling. If I'm allowed a second choice, I would love to see what could be made of Meg Rosoff's 'What I was' - a curious look into a future devastated by war seen through the eyes of youth.
Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
I'm inspired by women who have continued to grow creatively and who have pushed the boundaries of their own professions to take on new challenges and roles throughout their creative careers. Singers who have gone on to direct or take positions in production or artistic direction, dancers who have turned to directing or choreography, or performers who have continued to find opportunities which keep their skills and experience relevant to the industry today. Two names who spring to mind are Aletta Colins and Felicity Palmer.
In a business where there is always a plentiful supply of artists ready and willing, do you think changes should be made to make the industry more inclusive for artists with families and/or dependants?
I applaud those who feel strongly enough to try to change perceptions and circumstances for the better in our industry, but personally, I don't believe the industry should make exceptions to be more inclusive just because an artist has a family or dependants. I agree that having children and dependants makes life incredibly challenging whilst trying to forge a successful career, however parenting is challenging full stop, and it is a choice to have children and raise a family, just as it is a choice to enter a career as an artist. A career as a self-employed artist has never been especially stable or balanced when it comes to earnings, schedules and time commitment, and I don't imagine that will ever change significantly, due to the nature of the creative work we do. A lot of the creative process in opera (and other musical and theatrical genres) requires flexibility on all levels, which is part of its allure and enchantment. There are so many different reasons beyond those presented by parenting which make life challenging for artists and performers; for example those dealing with serious mental health issues, physical health issues, or other personal commitments or circumstances such as caring for an ageing or disabled parent or family member. If we highlight the stress and strain carried by parents, should we not also give consideration to those living with depressive or anxiety disorders, chronic pain issues, or even financial burdens that make self-employment too risky? All of those things might bring on excessive fatigue, stress or disability, but might be conditions that could be too private or shameful to share in a professional situation. Having said all that, I always admire those who work towards greater awareness of the difficulties and challenges faced by colleagues, and the more we can show consideration to the varying choices and circumstances of all our colleagues, surely the better colleagues we will be.
Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
The only way in which gender is relevant to the work I do as a singer is in the range of my voice. I can only sing music written for my range, but I wouldn't classify that as a relevant challenge. One could argue that there are more sopranos than any other voice type in the business, and therefore there is more competition, and that is a great challenge! I think it's a challenge for anyone to arrive and stay at the top of their game - vocally, mentally, musically and creatively, whether they are male or female.
What do you love most about your job? What would you change about your job?
I love the endless possibilities for creativity, learning, development and exploration. There will never be enough time to learn all the music I want to learn, to write stories, scripts or explore characterisations I have imagined, or probably to pursue some of the big projects of my dreams; but every day offers a new opportunity to look at a new song, watch and learn from someone else's performance, strike up a partnership with another artist or put a big creative plan into motion. I am ALWAYS learning, and I love that. If I could change something, I would like to be able to spend more time on the creative work and less time on personal admin. Sometimes the scheduling, self-promotion and production tasks take up more time than the actual singing preparation, and I would love more time in the music studio.
What are your main interests and passions outside of work?
I am a devoted gardener and have a large allotment as well as a beautiful garden at home. I also do a lot of yoga and physical activity, I am very active in my neighbourhood events committee, and I like to cook, knit and sew. Basically, Making, Baking, Raking and Shaking!
Have you ever been advised not to have a family if you wanted a career?
Do you think women’s career progressions differ from men’s?
I think differences between women's and men's careers differ from person to person and can't be easily generalised. There are many reasons a woman's career could succeed, fail, accelerate or wane. Do women's voices deteriorate with age in a different way from a man's? Do women become less attractive or flexible on stage? Are there too many young female artists who take roles from older women and push them out of work? I can think of so many women who have continued singing, teaching, recording and performing into older age, so I suppose these issues and questions must vary from person to person.