With a little help from my friends

To hear Ann Murray tell it, she owes it all to everyone else. To hear her sing, is to know she's telling nothing but the truth. Hail the Royal Opera's far from imperious Caesar.

Given half the chance, Ann Murray would erase herself from the interview altogether. Pretend it wasn't happening, pretend she wasn't there. If you let her, she'll answer most of your questions with a vote of confidence in one or more of her colleagues: share the limelight, even when there's no one else to share it with. An interview with Ann Murray is like an Oscar acceptance speech. The Dublin-born singer credits everyone but everyone - from the nuns who educated her to her agent - for her success. Everyone, that is, except herself. Whoever it was who said that the Irish were born saying sorry was definitely thinking of Ann Murray. Ask her about her latest recording - a collection of Bizet songs - and the impish face contorts: "Oh, God, they're dreadful! Someone should donate them to the insomniac society." Ask her what she doesn't like about her voice, and the response is swifter still: "From about bottom G to top C sharp. I think the softer I sing the `prettier' it is... If you can't hear me at all, it's wonderful."

Take no notice. Ann Murray was taught never to boast (official convent policy). So it's high time someone boasted on her behalf. In an age when so many voices still come "gift wrapped", when sound is still valued over content, when record company executives still speak in terms of the "good recording voice", Murray is here to remind us that great singing, great music, is not about sound, but made with sound. It's about gesture, expression, drama. It's about living, breathing, feeling what the words and music tell us. When last I heard her, she was Donna Elvira in a concert performance (and recording) of Don Giovanni conducted by the late Sir Georg Solti. And with a single aria - "Mi tradi" - she walked off with the evening. It wasn't "beautiful" - the voice isn't - but it was intense, it was meaningful in the best sense. The palpitating vocal line actually connected with the words, the anger of betrayal was tempered with the pity of compassion in such a way as to convince the audience that this was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And it was, of course. Now that is great singing.

"I try to be honest," says Murray with characteristic honesty, "to express how I would feel in any given situation, or how I would feel for someone else in that situation. How the audience would feel. And once you've made that connection, things begin to happen. I suppose I've been lucky in that I've never really had a problem singing. I was well trained, I had teachers who laid the foundations of a technique that would not get in the way. I always thought that my singing voice should be an extension of my speaking voice, in the sense that the words just happen to be sung rather than spoken. So when you're angry, when you're upset, you don't speak in carefully modulated tones. There's an edge, a hardness creeps into the voice. And if it's ugly, it's ugly."

Just so. When Handel's Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare) strides once more into the public arena tonight, in the guise of a manly Ann Murray, singing - beautiful or otherwise - will be the last thing on her mind. But rather the stuff of high drama, high emotion: the conquering coloratura of "Presti omai", Caesar's entrance aria, the revulsion and disgust of "Empio, diro, tu sei", his contemptuous message to Ptolemy on receiving the head of the defeated Pompey. As Murray is all too aware, Caesar is full-on from the start. No "Ombra mai fu", Handel's so-called "Largo from Xerxes", to break her or us in gently.

We are seated in her dressing-room at the Barbican, 10 days "on the wrong side" (her words) of opening night. It is the company's first day on stage at the Royal Opera's temporary home (well, one of them). Murray is uneasy. The show is at that nervy, critical stage, the point at which everyone - not least Murray - is painfully aware of just how much "fleshing out" is still to be done. "The temptation," she says, "is to over-compensate, to try too hard to fill in the cracks." Her only practical point of reference for the role has been Richard Jones's "wacky but terribly clever" staging in Munich. She adored that experience but is quick to recognise that one's first encounter with a piece generally takes on a special significance. Lindsay Posner's new production will be just fine, she says, lightening the moment with a sneak preview of her costume: Roman tunic ("Riverdance, don't you think?"), calfskin coat ("The Virginian?"), and the obligatory laurel wreath ("God help me, I'm going to look like a corps de ballet cast-off"). You've got to laugh: singing is such a serious business.

Singing Handel certainly is. And few do it better than Murray. She thanks her agent, Robert Rattray (often and profusely), and Peter Jonas (late of English National Opera, now intendant in Munich) for showing her the way to Xerxes (the triumphant Nicholas Hytner/Charles Mackerras ENO staging). Prior to that, there had been Judas Maccabaeus and a Bradamante in Alcina that, and I quote, "sounded like water going down a sink - and about as clean" (it was, she says, way too low for her), but nothing to suggest that Handel might prove such a good fit for her voice and temperament. She thrives on the da capo convention, seizing the opportunity to intensify, to build on the message of each aria in the repeats. She thrills to the risks associated with the vocal pyrotechnics ("it's called fear, you know"). She may not say as much (well, she does if you sniff out the subtext), but she loves to live dangerously.

It's been at least a minute since she thanked anybody, so now it's the turn of her teacher, Frederick Cox, who made a point of providing motivation for even the most technical of exercises. That stood Murray in good stead for working with directors like Nicholas Hytner or David Alden, with whom she collaborated on the stunning ENO Ariodante. She sums up that experience simply, as "wonderful work". And to those tired old reactionaries who still insist that the Aldens of this world ruthlessly impose their will on reluctant singers, Murray cites Ariodante's Act 2 aria "Scherza infida", where the physical business of sliding off a roof whilst simultaneously negotiating Handel's athletic coloratura was entirely of her own making. "Directors like David [Alden] liberate your imagination, they encourage you to express the emotions physically as well as vocally. At the beginning of my career, rehearsals were always a problem for me. Performing was fine - I was someone else. But rehearsals... I felt so inadequate, so inhibited. It was Jean Pierre Ponnelle who first opened something up in me. He didn't care where I'd come from, what my background was: he was the first one to make me feel free to express what the words and music meant to me."

Murray is unique among singers in my experience in that she always - always - relates the musical experience to the dramatic context. Opera only exists for her as a theatrical entity, and in that regard she's open to just about anything. The show's the thing. Which in turn has enormous bearing on her recital work. We can trace that back to the behest of an ardent young lieder enthusiast who invited Murray to become a founder member of a new venture devoted to regenerating interest in the genre. Graham Johnson was his name and "The Songmakers' Almanac" his cause. "If only Graham had left me at home, I'd have been all right!" she jests, launching into an impersonation of Johnson so painfully accurate (a whole gallery of her colleagues are thus captured) as to have you wondering if she chose the right branch of showbusiness after all. "No, seriously, Songmakers taught me so much about finessing what I did. Each song was a miniature opera, and in creating a concentrated acting performance for each, I was developing something that I could then take to opera without have to fling myself around vocally."

Not that she ever has. On the whole, it's been a healthy, judicious, career ("I really don't know what I'd do without Robert, my agent"): lots of Mozart and Rossini and Octavian, of course - one of her key calling- cards and, incredibly, a role she very nearly didn't go through with (suffice it to say, the booted foot of Robert, the agent, was right behind her on that one). Right now, it looks like her operatic life is coming full- circle. Apart from the exciting prospect of Donizetti's Mary Stuart in a new production for ENO ("Usurper!" Janet Baker fans will cry), her future engagements will "take her back" to when she first arrived on the mainland, as green as an Irish mascot. In Amsterdam, she'll be revisiting Gluck's Alceste, the first role she sang after leaving the Opera Centre, and in Munich she's been invited, and feels "honoured", to re-create the roles of Ariodante, Cesare and Xerxes (and re-create them she will - Murray is not one to pack the interpretation with the passport) in a projected Handel Festival. You get the feeling she'll leave it at that.

Her motto has always been to "keep running". She longs for the day (not too soon, I hope) when she'll no longer have to "keep running" - away from her home, her husband (the tenor Philip Langridge) and her son (Jonathan). Meanwhile, on stage, it's a question of having to, a physical necessity: "I can't bear just standing there. Keep running, and they can't work out how big or old you are!"

`Giulio Cesare' opens 6.30pm tonight, Barbican Theatre, Silk St, London EC2 (booking: 0171-304 4000), then in rep to 1 Oct

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