Alice Coote: Against all odds

The mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is determined to make it to the Proms, even though she is standing on sticks after being injured in a fall. It's not her first setback, she tells Lynne Walker
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Alice Coote, the 37-year-old British mezzo-soprano who has established an outstanding international reputation despite wearing almost exclusively trousers, has made a point of trying to think like a man and learning to walk with a man's gait. At present, however, she can scarcely stand even with two sticks. Singing is tricky, too, since she can't breath or support her voice properly without pain. Two slipped discs isn't the ideal way to prepare for a round of important summer engagements. After all, as she comments wryly: "There are some roles you can sing lying down, but not really on the concert platform."

Overcoming personal difficulties seems to have been as much a part of her preparation for her life as an opera star as any college course. Born and brought up in rural Cheshire, the daughter of two artists, she took painting as an A-level. Then, as a punk teenager, mad about David Bowie and sporting a black mohawk hairstyle, she sang "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" from Handel's Messiah at a school concert. "When I heard others sing I felt I that I could do it as well, if not better. In a way, being very shy, I was attracted to singing because standing on your own and delivering was the very thing I was most afraid of."

She began studying at the Guildhall, but found London "a concrete jungle", too difficult to handle after life in the peace of Delamere Forest. Becoming depressed, she stayed in bed and flunked the course. After taking a variety of jobs back in the North - "I've done them all," she laughs. "Check-out points, temping..." - she tried again, this time in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music. There, she came under the influence of the mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, who not only had Coote's troublesome tonsils whipped out but also awarded her the Fassbaender prize for lieder interpretation. Dame Janet Baker, another mezzo, has also been a great source of support and inspiration, Coote says. Eventually, she felt able to return to London to take up a place at the National Opera Studio. Driving herself south to start the course, however, she was involved in a serious road accident from which she took months to recover.

With a voice like hers, though, which earned her a Kathleen Ferrier Prize in 1992, it was inevitable that she would be offered opera parts. After early success as a pert Cherubino (the role with which she later made her Royal Opera debut), as a touching Ruggiero in Stuttgart State Opera's production of Handel's Alcina, which wowed audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2000, and as a sensationally voluptuous Poppea for English National Opera, also in 2000, offers began to flood in.

But there were still hurdles. "I've been working flat out professionally for about 10 years and have never really had a holiday - a time when I wasn't learning the next score. That takes its toll. And I've had lots of throat problems and awful personal issues to deal with." Three performances into Handel's Orlando at the Royal Opera in 2003, her vocal cords gave out, and over the past few years Coote has been forced to cancel engagements when her body and voice simply wouldn't co-operate. "Out there on stage it's as though you have to be an Olympic athlete on peak form every time you appear.

"No one is more upset than I am when I have to cancel. I want to sing and I want so much to be there with the audience. But you just can't argue with your body. The most moving thing happened last year after I'd had to cancel a recital. A couple of weeks later, a huge envelope arrived containing a letter or card from practically every member of the audience that would have heard me, wishing me well.

"Being an opera singer is a ridiculously unsettled existence. An ability to cope with long periods of time when you're on your own, far from home, is the number one requirement on your CV. No one told me that at college. That's why I'm always so thrilled to sing in the UK and I want to do more of it. There's no greater audience in the world."

And in the next few weeks, British audiences will have the chance to hear her in repertoire with which she feels a particularly close affinity. "I regard myself as being without religion, but Mozart's Requiem overwhelms me spiritually. It's so simple, almost like a hymn, yet at the same time it feels as though it couldn't possibly have been created by a human being, far less a young man not expecting to die before he'd finished composing it." The journey toward death and the way Mozart confronts death in his music strike her as particularly apt when we speak, in the wake of the London bombings. "When I am singing this work I can tangibly taste death and the spirit of myself and humanity. I can actually sense our own mortality in the notes."

Another of the mezzo roles for which Coote has won acclaim - which she has reprised with the Hallé at this year's Proms - is the Angel, accompanying a soul on his journey to death in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. It's more of a consolatory one than a tragic one, she feels. What's more, it's neither a female part nor a male one - "more an asexual one," she suggests. "I got to know and love the part from listening to those wonderful old records of bosomy contraltos, all-enveloping matrons, but when you look at the music, it's obvious that Elgar didn't want that sort of wallowing emotion. I am merely the guardian of Gerontius's soul, the keeper of his spirit on its journey."

In Mahler's sorrowful Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), which Coote is singing at the Edinburgh Festival in September, the subject is a father's reflections on the loss of his children. "I'm a bit undecided as to whether or not I should sing them at all, and if so, how? But in order to be as truthful as possible, I put myself into a male frame of mind, trying not to feel as a woman might in this situation."

What pushes her in the direction of this sombre repertoire, exposing herself to emotional punishment? "No one expresses death and loss like Mahler, Elgar or Mozart," Coote says. "In a world where it's impossible to share our deepest feelings and fears - where even in very intimate relationships, loss and death and love are seldom discussed - I believe we can find our inner selves through music. And if I can to put voice to that for even a few people, it will have made my life worthwhile."

As for the more physical pain of those two slipped discs, she says: "I've just been singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in Los Angeles. The company's general director, Placido Domingo, made a very flattering speech after the opening night and asked me to step forward. I misjudged the edge of the stage and tripped, falling face first into his trousers. Not long after that my back went." Her embarrassing memory of what should have been an iconic moment is heightened by the fact that it left her "stumbling through" the remaining performances, singing in pain. That's not reflected in the glowing reviews she received. Whatever the obstacles, she's surely destined to keep singing.

Alice Coote appears in Mozart's 'Requiem' at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550) on 31 July, and in Mahler's 'Kindertotenlieder' at Usher Hall, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000) on 2 September. The recording of 'The Dream of Gerontius' from the BBC Proms is repeated on Thursday on Radio 3 at 2pm