Lipstick on her collar

Jill Gomez has been getting her mouth around Ades's new opera.

The lipstick was fresh on, the face duly powdered. Jill Gomez felt strangely reassured. Both actions are central to the narrative of a brand-new opera (not for nothing is it called Powder Her Face), and she does so like to inhabit the characters she plays. "I find I'm refreshing my make-up with alarming regularity. You see, it didn't matter where she was or who she was with - a dinner party, an official banquet in the Queen's presence - out came the powder compact and this stick of carmine red lipstick. Then she'd glow. Then she could face the world again."

"She" was Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, socialite, superstar, dame fatale, for whom the maxim "Go to bed early, and often" proved all too consuming. She made her first entrance as a debutante, contriving to spill red wine down the customary white gown so as to enable her to don the ice-blue confection hanging idly in her wardrobe. As Mrs Charles Sweeney (her first husband), she was immortalised in Cole Porter's "You're the Tops". Her subsequent marriage to Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll (Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler had nothing on this match), ended in the longest and most notorious divorce case in English legal history. Bored by Campbell's reluctance to play the social circuit with her, she had retreated into a secret life of anonymous escorts and liaisons in hotel bedrooms. She became a kind of Donna Giovanni. There were photographs (though nobody knows how), and one, which became known as "the headless man" (for obvious reasons: the gentleman was standing, the Duchess was not), found its way into court, prompting the Judge into "operatic" paroxysms.

At least they promise to be so when Philip Hensher's "racy libretto" meets Thomas Ades's "amazing" score in tomorrow night's Cheltenham premiere. Other aspects of this extraordinary story are stranger than fiction, but the more Jill Gomez has unearthed in her research (and she's not about to reveal how intensive her methodology has been!), the more she has found herself able to identify with a woman who at first appeared so irretrievably shallow. It's the absolute strength of purpose that has fascinated her; the command of the woman, her dignity through the ultimate vilification.

"Had she lived in today's world, she'd probably have been chairperson of Save the Children or something... But, you know, the opera is not really about her. It's about the myth she became. She herself speaks of outlasting fashion, outlasting time..."

A metaphor, then, for the changing face of society? (Remember, the Duchess came to notoriety on the threshold of the swinging Sixties.) History as maker of myths? "That's all part of it. It's about endings and beginnings, it's about the inability to recognise things changing, the inability to let go of the past and embrace the future..."

The composer, Thomas Ades, has no such problems. His music plainly has a past - pieces like Living Toys have absorbed much but emulate nothing - but its future is uncharted. You know where it's coming from, but where it goes... chances are it's somewhere you've never been before, or don't recognise. And that's how Jill Gomez would sum up the score of Powder Her Face.

"Each of the eight scenes has a totally distinct musical personality; and, in a funny kind of way, it's only when you get to the end that you understand what he was doing at the beginning... When I started work on this piece, I felt very strongly that I had a past, that I had ancestors that I could think about and dream about. Tom's music does that."

But - and this is the burning question - is it singable? Does it alleviate fears that composers no longer understand the voice? Is it grateful for the voice? "Is it grateful!" - and here her intonation suggests an intoxicating mix of excitement and apprehension - "Oh, yes, and extraordinary. Just the sheer range of it - bottom G up to luminescent top B, full forte like Salome! It's a whole gallery of operatic heroines, but within the tighter form of a chamber opera, moving swiftly from scene to scene as in a song recital. This Duchess goes from a girl in her twenties to a grande dame in her late seventies, from a kind of Isolde-like rapture to Cole Porter insouciance - yes, I can promise you an Ades popular song which will stay with you long after the opera is over - and then I'm into an Ella Fitzgerald scat-style, and from that to the fragile hauteur of a Richard Strauss heroine, and ultimately to a manic Erwartung-like psychodrama... Vocally, physically, mentally, it's more demanding than anything I've ever done... You remember how Robert Craft described the Erwartung lady - 'an Isolde with a nervous breakdown' - well, when this is over, I'll probably feel more like Janacek's 300-year-old Emilia Marty in need of a somewhat overdue break."

But still there's the overwhelming excitement of coming fresh to a new piece, the feeling that it is somehow evolving with you (in this case, many of Ades's refinements were specifically tailored for the singer). "It's scary but liberating coming to something with no tradition of performance to put behind you. But then I've tried to approach everything I've ever done in that way, to look at the music as though I was the very first person ever to see it."

Initially, it's a technical process. Gomez learnt Powder Her Face from the inside out. Scene 4 - that's the "headless man" scene - came first. Because of the difficulties, because it's so "off-the-wall".

"This scene takes off musically unlike anything I've ever heard. We've seen nudity, we've seen all kinds of sexual practices on stage - but we've never heard them before!" Enough said.

Gomez is no stranger to controversy on the operatic stage. In creating the role of Flora in Tippett's The Knot Garden, she went topless at the Royal Opera House and, to this day, will never forget the unmistakable sound of coins dropping into the slots for opera glasses. That was in 1970, when hers was the name on everybody's lips (roles like the Countess in Figaro, Tatyana in Onegin, Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare and the Governess in The Turn of the Screw duly reaffirmed that early promise).

Aficionados who know and respect her as the thoroughbred artist she is, will ask why, in recent years, she has all but vanished from the operatic stage. Apart from one brief "crisis" of confidence back in 1975 (the knock- on effect of singing through a chest infection), there is no straight answer. Ask the opera houses.

Does she care too much? As one who sat by her through a whole week of the 1991 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, I know her as someone with very real concerns for the craft, for style, for language, for vocal truth, someone who feels for young singers who compromise their voices in pursuit of the glittering prizes. She has scruples. Maybe they have cost her.

But, in another sense, the theatre lives in everything she does - not least in her ambitious recital work. She comes to the very first line of this role through the experience of songs like Hugo Wolf's Das verlassene Magdlein. "Wolf's forlorn maiden is right there. In one bar of music, those with ears to hear will hear the history of everyone who has ever felt betrayed and alone."

For her, it's a moment, a role, that's been waiting to happen. A little more powder, a touch of lipstick, and she'll be ready.

n 'Powder Her Face' is at the Cheltenham Festival, 8pm tomorrow, Everyman Theatre (booking: 01242 227979), then at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 on 5, 9, 14, 17, 22 July (0171-359 4404)

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
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.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links