June 7, 2018
Interview with Rosalind Plowright OBE, Mezzo-soprano
Rosalind Plowright is one of the most celebrated artists of our time. Her career spans more than 35 years. She was acclaimed as one of the world’s great spinto sopranos specialising in roles such as Medée, Alceste and Norma as well as the great Verdi and Puccini heroines. Rosalind Plowright has sung at nearly all the international opera houses such as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Paris Opera and Vienna State Opera
What are you up to at the moment?
I am preparing the role of Madame de la Haltiére in Massenet’s Cendrillon which I will be singing later this year in France and over the Summer I will be heading off to Prague and Sweden to give a series of Master Classes.
What do you love most about your job?
The fact that I have earned a living doing something I love for just over 40 years.
How long have you been juggling parenthood and your career?
The juggling stopped a long time ago as my children are now 31 & 29, one has moved to Canada and the other lives 60 miles away in Bristol. Although both have independent lives, my greatest joy is seeing them and spending time with them.
How long after having your babies did you return to singing?
Good question. After my son was born, I was rehearsing at La Scala singing Gluck’s Alceste in just 6 weeks. He was 2 weeks late and La Scala were very anxious, ringing up all the time to ask if the child was born yet. I had hoped to have at least 2 months before travelling and of course, with hindsight, even this was far too soon. The body needs time to recover after childbirth and one wants to spend time bonding with the new baby. In the case of my daughter, two years later, I sang Bellini’s Norma at 8 months pregnant but then stopped for the next 6 months. A far better solution.
What physical changes did you feel?
I became quite thin after my second child and my support took a while to come back. My voice was also affected, it became richer and heavier making some of my highest notes less easy.
How did parenthood change your career?
It didn’t change my career there were just more people to concentrate on other than myself. I guess my stress levels went up a bit!!! Leaving small children behind to be looked after by another person whilst one goes away to work in a foreign country can be very hard especially when they’re too young to understand. Back then there was no Skype or Facetime so my only communication was through the nanny (my parents had both passed by the time my first child was born). On an artistic note the roles I sang the most back then were Norma and Medée, one contemplates murdering her children, the other actually does it!! Having two small children at that time made this extremely challenging … but it did add an extra dimension to my understanding of roles which involved children.
Do you think that being a mother has ultimately enriched your performing?
How does your child/children respond to your job?
As little ones they were very adaptable and travelled with me almost everywhere. Nowadays they are greatly supportive and have always loved coming to see me perform. Neither have been attracted to the profession.
Has your child/children ever appeared on stage with you?
How do you manage to continue your career alongside your family commitments?
Well, those days are behind me now but my career was only possible by employing a full time nanny – or series of nannies – which really caused all sorts of challenges. I cannot see that there is an option here if one wants to continue to work. There has to be compromise however painful, frustrating and annoying, it is essential.
What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry to make life easier for artists with families/dependants?
Not sure that there is a straightforward answer to this but I suppose knowing the weekly schedule well in advance would be more helpful than just a couple of days before. Women have always had to deal with the challenge of combining motherhood and careers. It isn’t easy but we do it nonetheless. When my kids were small, I had no choice but to adapt to the industry and it never occurred to me to alter the way the industry works. It was my choice to combine Motherhood and singing and so I had to find the way.
Can you think of an example of a job where you have felt really supported by the company as a parent?
I think nowadays it’s more a question of being supported by the Creative team around you and their understanding of parenthood. In some cases the director and the conductor seem to have more power than the company!! Travelling abroad I found most “companies” very supportive and quite accepting of my being there with children and nannies even allowing them into rehearsals…..(although generally not a good idea remembering in Pittsburg when my four year old son was allowed, with his Dad, into a final rehearsal of Onegin). I was singing Tatyana and as nurse put me to bed before the “letter scene” I heard him bawling at the top of his voice. Fortunately his Dad was able to quietly remove him from the theatre to find out what was wrong. My son said, I don’t want Mummy to go to bed before me!”
What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry who is about to become a parent?
You have to decide before you become a parent what you really want from your career. There is no doubt you have to make sacrifices and in some cases your career could probably suffer….but we are all individuals.
Have you come up against or heard of any discrimination or bias as a working mother?
Not as a mother, no, but I was fired from singing Desdemona with Placido Domingo when they found out I would be four months pregnant.
Were you ever advised not to have children for the sake of your career?
Aside from the challenges of working-parenthood, have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
Which operatic character have you most enjoyed playing and why?
Impossible to say but as a soprano, Medée, (along with Norma, Alceste and 11 Verdi heroines). These were magical parts and magical evenings when I was at the peak of my career. Nowadays, as a mezzo, I get a great thrill performing Klytaemnestra. It fits me like a glove vocally and just leaves me to get on with the acting.
Which novel or play by a female author would you like to see adapted for the operatic stage?
As a character mezzo these days, I’d like a shot at Lady Catherine de Bourg if someone wants to make a libretto of Pride and Prejudice
(On the subject of combining a successful career with parenthood has anyone yet adapted Caryl Churchill’s play “Top Girls” into an opera)?
Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
Always has been and always will be the late Maria Callas. Out of her short life, her short career was a glorious one that changed the face of the opera world. Few singers have done half as much. Without her I would never have got to do some of the great repertoire that she rescued from obscurity. I know from reading so much about her that being a mother was a greatly cherished dream of hers but sadly that was one role she did not fulfil.
Do you have time for other passions and interests outside of your work and family commitments?
Yes. I have always enjoyed climbing fells in the Lake District – I do this every year.
Rosalind Plowright OBE