The topsy-turvy world of Orlando

Alice Coote brings a sublime voice and a rare perspective to the role of Handel's hero
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It may be a morality tale about the getting of wisdom, but the scene from the Royal Opera House's new production of Handel's Orlando that I watch in rehearsal is an absolute hoot. Characters rush in all directions, driven by their sexual derangements. Alice Coote's swashbuckling Orlando is impaled by Cupid's arrow, then confronts the lustrous Barbara Bonney, who responds by toying with the hero's sword: the effect can only be described as priapic.

Over the past few years, opera-goers have grown accustomed to the dark beauty of Coote's mezzo tone: to see her limbering up for the complexities of this Arcadian fantasy is to get a whole new fix on what this Cheshire lass can do. Francisco Negrin, the director, is dazzled. "I've worked with many people in trouser roles, but I've never before had to ask myself, is this actually a man? But with her, I do. She conquers the stage, rather than seducing it as a woman does."

Speaking in a break, Coote is entirely feminine - and is looking dubiously at the pre-packed lunch someone has thoughtfully provided: "I'll have to ease into that. I can't go straight from sword-fighting into pasta-mode. I'd rather talk than eat." So we talk about her artistic genesis. She discovered her sound, which is remarkably like that of a clarinet, by singing along with a record of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet when she was 14. "I loved the feeling that I could sing all the notes, and make a sweet sound. That's when it all began." She went in for a local singing competition and was hailed as the new Kathleen Ferrier. That delighted her no end, as Ferrier's liberated sound was her ideal.

Coote went to study at the Guildhall, hated it and left. At the Royal Northern College of Music, she was grounded by tonsillitis. On the way to her third shot at studenthood - at the National Opera Studio - her car was hit by a juggernaut on the M6. "So I went through my training in a mist. I've never been formally trained."

But that crash was an education of a different sort. "I should have died. The police were looking for a body, and couldn't believe it when they saw me hanging upside down in the car, with everything I owned strewn on the road. I've still got my beautifully bound copy of Schubert's Winterreise with the glass and oil embedded in it. I realised in that moment how ludicrous all my worries were. Not only was my car thrown upside down, I was, too. And in those three seconds when the car rolled over - which seemed to last half an hour - so was my whole perception of what life meant. I was just an animal that could have lived or died. Nothing mattered after that, except what was true, and the only truth for me was music."

Work on her current role is proving a further liberation. "When I travel to work on the Tube, I abandon myself. I sit as a man does, and walk along the corridors as a man does. I feel harder, stronger, less accommodating of other people. Life is so much easier when you're a man. At this rate, I could go to war in November." Let's just settle for the sex-war on stage.

'Orlando', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000) 6-23 October