According to Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, "Recitals make you as vulnerable as you can possibly be in front of an audience - it takes courage to be practically naked in front of so many people." The charismatic black soprano is set to bare her soul when she sings Messiaen at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Friday, in a programme including solos by her pianist Stephen De Pledge. Audiences in Cardiff have seen her star in Il Trovatore, and she has made effective appearances as a Vilar student at Covent Garden, but the wider world has yet to clock her.
Her forebears may be Trinidadian, but she is a Londoner born and bred; her musical life began when her mother took her to see The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden when she was three. "They gave me cushions so that I could see, and I apparently sat there open-mouthed, wide-eyed. And on the way home I told her that that was what I wanted to do." She started piano lessons at four and "baby" singing lessons at seven, and took full advantage of the orchestras, choirs and instrumental teaching at the City of London School for Girls. At Exeter University she majored in composition, "because it meant I learnt how orchestras worked, and could become an all-round musician".
Jeffers is an accomplished pianist, but a singer is what she wanted to be from the start. "I loved the challenge of it - of having to be like a detective, in that almost everything you sing is in a foreign language, and the composers are, for the most part, dead. Your job is to find out what their aesthetics were, what their thought was."
No surprise that her first role model should have been the American soprano Leontyne Price. "At that time," Jeffers says, "there were so few black opera singers who had become prima assoluta. She was an example of someone who had done it, who had shown that it was possible." No surprise, either, that Jessye Norman should be another role model, though less for her blackness than for her interpretation of lieder. "There are a great many good lieder-singers in the world, but it's a breath of fresh air when you find one who doesn't sound like everybody else."
At once grand and coquettish, Jeffers lays great emphasis on finding one's own interpretations, and on the evanescence of the art. "Singing is a fleeting experience and it's not just a matter of vocal beauty. Beautiful voices are 10-a-penny. It's what comes on top that matters: are you simpatico? Does the audience take to you? There are people who can walk on stage and - without their singing a note - the audience is with them every step of the way."
Messiaen's songs, Jeffers admits, are a challenge as much for her listeners as they are for her. "They're a sound-world in which the audience has to make a leap of faith, in the people performing it, that they will carry you safely through."
OK, Gwen-Ann, carry me.
Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141; www. wigmore-hall.org.uk), Friday, 7.30pmReuse content