La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 28 March 2013

In Focus: Alwyn Mellor

Curtain Call of Siegfried from the Opera Bastille Paris with Alwyn Mellor (Brunnhilde) and Torsten Kerl (Siegfried)

Soprano Alwyn Mellor receiving audience accolades after Siegfried

Opera world's newest Brunnhilde shares her thoughts on singing Wagner

by Joseph So

The Wagnerian voice holds a special place in the hearts of opera lovers. An ideal Wagner soprano must possess an instrument of beauty, volume, dramatic expression and communicative power, not to mention sheer stamina to get through some of the longest roles ever written. She's also expected to bring out the inherent poetry in the text, and to make flesh and blood out of the many complex and nuanced characters she sings, be it Senta, Sieglinde, Isolde or Brunnhilde.  Given the daunting challenges, it's no wonder the list of fine Wagnerian sopranos is lamentably short. To that select company one can now add the name of soprano Alwyn Mellor.  A native of Lancashire,  Mellor studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and began her career at the Welsh National Opera.  She started her career as a Mozartian - I recall hearing her as a lovely Fiordiligi and Contessa at the Santa Fe Opera back in the late 1990's. Subsequently, Toronto audiences was introduced to her Donna Elvira with the COC. She was also an impressive Chrysothemis in Elektra at the Four Seasons Centre in 2007. By the time she sang the Strauss opera, one could hear that her full lyric voice had expanded beyond the confines of Mozart and had the potential of bigger things to come. Within a few short seasons, Mellor has re-invented herself as a Wagnerian soprano, singing her first Walkure Brunnhilde at the Longborough Festival in 2010, receiving excellent notices in the Daily Telegraph. It was soon followed by Isolde, the Siegfried Brunnhilde, and a concert performance of the Goetterdammerung Brunnhilde. Critics praised her powerful vocalism and sympathetic stage presence.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, the audio of the complete March 16 performance of Die Walkure can be accessed at  A video clip of the dress rehearsal of her Liebestod can be found at
Soprano Alwyn Mellor

Originally scheduled as the alternate Brunnhilde in the revival of Die Walkure and Siegfried at Opera Bastille this spring, the withdrawal of soprano Janice Baird led to Mellor taking on all fourteen performances over a two month period. It was a major career breakthrough for the British soprano, who is scheduled to bring her Brunnhilde across the pond to the Seattle Opera for three cycles of the Ring in August. Reviewing a performance of the Bastille Die Walkure, critic Henning Hoholt from called her Brunnhilde "oustanding," "powerful," "beautiful" and "warm."  During an intense rehearsal period back in February, I caught up with Alwyn Mellor via Skype for a chat. I asked her for her thoughts on singing Brunnhilde and on her career:

LSM: Congratulations on this big news!  Seven Walkure and seven Siegfried Brunnhildes - what a fantastic career breakthrough!  Fourteen performances in two months is a lot isn’t it?

AM:  Thank you. Yes it’s a lot, but I think it’s going to be a good warm- up for me for the Ring in Seattle. 

LSM: Does this mean your Mozart and Verdi days are over?
AM:  Not in every case, no.  But the last couple of years it’s been a lot of Wagner. It’s been good for me, building up my stamina for the Ring.  I still want to sing other repertoires because I am still quite young for the Wagner rep - I want to be able to sing for a long time!  I am going to do more Puccini and Strauss.  The problem is once you start to sing Wagner, this is what people want to book you for…

LSM: Let’s talk a little about your vocal transition. When I first saw you in Santa Fe, you were the Countess in Nozze and Alice in Falstaff. What made you decide to make the transition to the Wagnerian repertoire?
AM: It wasn’t a conscious decision but a natural development. I knew this would be the rep I would sing one day but I didn’t know when would be the right time.  I took time and did it gradually over the years, singing bigger and bigger things, trying out certain things to see if it’s the right time. I still think I am singing this repertoire as a lyric.  I feel this is not the end, not the only thing I can sing in my career.

LSM: So you consider yourself a full lyric instead of a dramatic soprano?
AM: Yes, I would say so… other people may hear something else. I still try to think of myself as (a lyric voice).  My voice is flexible and has what I need to do this repertoire at the moment.

LSM: Do you still sing Ariadne?
AM: I haven’t done it for several years but I would still sing Ariadne. Also Chrysothemis, and I’d love to sing the Kaiserin as well.

LSM: Ah, Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Do you find the center of your voice moving higher?
AM: Well, in certain ways… but the middle and lower middle parts of the voice have developed, and I managed to keep the top as well. Like with the Walkure, it lies quite low except for the Ho-jo-to-ho, and it feels more comfortable than when I first did it two years ago. 

LSM: Do you work with a voice teacher during your transition?
AM: Yes, I go to a teacher in Venice.  His name is Sherman Lowe, an American based in Venice. He also teaches my friend Susan Bullock. We did Elektra together in Toronto.  It was the beginning of the big change for me repertoire-wise.

LSM: Tell us your thoughts on singing Brunnhilde. You’ve done Walkure and Siegfried, but have you sung Goetterdammerung?
AM:  I've done Gotterdammerung in concert in Gothenberg with Kent Nagano. It was performed over 2 nights. 

LSM: Of the three Brunnhildes, who is your favourite? Or do you have one?
AM:  This is very difficult... because they are so different. As a most complete work, the best written vocally, I have to say it’s the Goetterdammerung Brunnhilde.

LSM: Do you find the Goetterdammerung Brunnhilde the most difficult, the most strenuous?
AM: In a way, yes. But because I haven’t done it on stage, it is difficult to judge. It’s the most demanding, because of the extremes of the character. We see a Brunnhilde we never saw before, and (singing her) takes a lot out of you. And the vocal writing is very different. In a way it’s the best written for the voice, the most even. Walkure, except for the 'Ho-jo-to-ho', it’s quite low, while Siegfried is in the high end of the voice. Goetterdammerung is written in a good place vocally. Most sopranos who sing Brunnhilde find it easiest.

LSM: You have 14 performances, and in Seattle you’ll have 9 performances. How do you keep up your stamina?
AM: I don’t know… you have to ask me that after Seattle! (laughs)  This is a big year for me…I’m on unknown territory. I have to take each thing as it comes, and to make sure I get lots of rest, look after myself.  The performance is the most important thing - the audiences pay to come to hear us sing, and they want to see you at your best. My plan is to take care of myself.

LSM:  What about Brunnhilde as a character?  Do you feel you relate to the mythical Brunnhilde as a woman?
AM: That’s an interesting question. I think you’ll always find something of yourself in the character you portray. I think Brunnhilde has the most enormous journey as a person, starting as a young teenage girl in Walkure. By the end of  Walkure she has already experienced a lot. In Siegfried she wakes up as a woman instead of a god. In Goetterdammerung, we can see she’s a woman with a lot of pain and lots of anger. You have to draw on things from yourself, but you have to think of the bigger picture as well. I have studied all three, and it’s good to know what the journey is.  I think you have to draw on some of yourself, and also have to remember that she isn’t just one person, she has this enormous development during the Ring.

LSM: I’ve always loved the Walkure Brunnhilde.  In Goetterdammerung, she has a side that’s vengeful and angry in Act 2 that can be a little off-putting. She’s no longer the perfect heroine, is she?
AM: No, she’s not. Sometimes none of us are perfect and we are affected by different things that happened to us in life. She has good reason to feel like that, but I think as an audience we don’t like to see her like that because it’s not the Brunnhilde we’ve seen before. At the end of Siegfried, life is good and it’ll continue that way but we know that’s not true!  A lot of bad things are done to her and she’s completely betrayed.

LSM: Is the Bastille Ring your first complete cycle?
AM: No, Seattle will be, as I am not doing Goetterdammerung here because I’ll be in Seattle. 

LSM: Who is your Siegfried and your conductor in Paris? Have you worked with them before?
AM: It’s Torsten Kerl - no I haven't worked with him before. The conductor is Philippe Jordan, the Music Director at the Bastille. I worked with him 16 years ago - we did the Merry Widow together in Dublin. Our lives changed a lot since then!

LSM: Anything I've forgotten to ask you?
AM: I did Sieglinde for the first time last year.  I am happy to have both roles in Walkure, as it would be nice to do Sieglinde sometimes instead of Brunnhilde.  I love the music for Sieglinde - it's so beautiful.

LSM: Any plans to return to the COC?  You are fondly remembered for your Chrysothemis and Elvira...
AM: It would be great to come back - it's under discussion. I hope so...

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