Christine Rice: The unlikely opera star

Christine Rice swapped her physics degree for a singing career – and now she's taking centre stage at Covent Garden. Jessica Duchen meets a very unlikely opera star

Christine Rice's DPhil concerned the reflection of light from clouds. But there's nothing reflected about the glory that now surrounds this Mancunian mezzo-soprano. In Harrison Birtwistle's new opera The Minotaur, the premiere of which is at the Royal Opera House on 15 April, she stars as Ariadne; it offers her an intellectual challenge of a kind far removed from her studies in physics, as well as making the most of a voice that increasingly bewitches listeners with its versatility, power and beauty.

Backstage between rehearsals, Rice, 37, is energetic, down-to-earth and good-humoured. She has to be: she juggles her operatic commitments here and abroad with life as a mother-of-three based at Rugby school, where her husband is head of modern languages.

And if the public thinks that it's the sopranos who have all the glamour, that's not a problem. "I have no complaints about being a mezzo. I think certain types of soprano have a shelf life because they're put into young, girlish roles and there can be a certain credibility gap as you get older – whereas mezzos are caught between playing the young boy and the old bag! And as you head towards your old-bagdom, you can embrace a great variety of music."

Rice's rise may look meteoric, but she insists it's been a gradual process of "plugging away". Over the past decade, she has sung everything from Monteverdi to Thomas Adès, from Handel trouser roles to Rossini's La Cenerentola; she's also been a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. Her debut album on EMI featured five composers and three languages, including the baroque purity of her beloved Handel and the heady sensuality of Duparc. And if the future holds meaty parts like Oktavian in Der Rosenkavalier and the formidable mothers-in-law in Janácek's operas, that will all be well and good.

As the daughter of a chemistry lecturer, Rice thought a career in science would be the way forward, but she nurtured a passion for theatre and music. "All my siblings did science A-levels and I just wanted to be like them," she recalls. "At that time, the late Eighties, unemployment was still high and the careers advice was to do sciences so that there'd be more likelihood of a job at the end of it." She went to Balliol College, Oxford, for a degree in physics, and subsequently began a DPhil. But in the end, she decided, "It wasn't really for me – I didn't quite fit."

Rice elected to spend a "gap year" at the Royal Northern College of Music. "I didn't assume I'd make anything of the singing career-wise, but I was very fortunate. I met a wonderful teacher, Robert Alderson: he had an ear for an untrained voice, and thought I had the potential to be a working singer, so I stuck with him – and I haven't looked back."

Her first singing job was in the Glyndebourne chorus. Soon after, she joined English National Opera under contract for four years. She was to have sung in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea there last autumn, but instead took time out to have her third child, William. She'll be back there later this year singing in Handel's Partenope: "I do a lot of Handel. He's the greatest."

She convinced that career trajectories aren't a question of one big break: "That's the trouble with these TV programmes where it's featured as a sort of one-off competition. In fact, every time you stand up, you are part of a competition and you're judged by how you sing on that day."

Still, one individual in the right place at the right time can make all the difference. Antonio Pappano heard her at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, shortly before moving to Covent Garden as music director. "Peter Katona, the main casting guy here at the ROH, had me in mind for a few things," says Rice, "but Tony came to see a performance and he took a shine to my voice. So there was sort of an agreement between Peter and Tony that I was a useful singer. I'm such an admirer of Tony's. He's often associated with romantic Italian music, but in the Birtwistle he is doing absolute cutting-edge contemporary music, and he's fantastic. He has a total understanding of the voice and the orchestra as a pairing."

Birtwistle's music is notorious for its grittiness and complexity – this is the composer whose work for saxophone and orchestra, Panic, induced scenes resembling its title at the 1995 Last Night of the Proms. But in recent years, Birtwistle may have mellowed a little. "In the rehearsal room we've all been thrilled by it," Rice says. "There's a lot of variety of texture and transparency in the music, with some very beautiful, sort of silvery sections. And I think the special effects in the theatre are going to be fabulous as well."

Still, she adds, the sound suits the subject: "There's a visceral, violent quality to some of his music and it's a very bloody story. There aren't many jokes. He has created a dark and disturbing world for a dark and disturbing myth.

"David Harsent's libretto is quite complex psychologically: everyone has their own needs and their own agenda that they're pursuing and these come into conflict or harmony, depending on the point in the plot. The libretto is very clear – it's poetic in its use of language, but so strong that there hasn't been much difficulty interpreting it. It takes a sympathetic view of all the characters – everyone is trapped in their own prison and seeking freedom in some way."

The character of Ariadne is certainly rewarding :"Her journey gives you a lot of scope and a lot to think about." Is that her favourite kind of role? Yes, but also no: after the run, Rice is off to Munich for a rather different experience, singing Dorabella in Mozart's Così fan tutte. "That's completely the other end of the spectrum – in terms of the female psyche, it's about as silly as you can get," she says. "There's a thrill to performing tragedy, but there's also a thrill to performing comedy. What's nice is to be able to do both."



'The Minotaur', Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000), in rep 15 April to 3 May

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game