Preview: Flavio, Town Hall, Birmingham

A soprano who certainly can Handel it
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The Independent Culture

Handel's tragicomedy Flavio is seldom heard, so this performance by Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music is well worth catching – particularly since the key role of Emilia is sung by that peerless baroque interpreter Sandrine Piau, whose appearances on this side of the Channel are all too rare.

This French soprano's story had a surprising beginning. "When I was four," she recalls, "I saw Disney's The Aristocats, in which a cat played the harp like a princess, and it seemed to me a very romantic thing to do. So I pestered my parents to give me a harp, and accordingly became a harpist." When she was 20, and playing six hours a day at the Paris Conservatoire, she met a flautist who said that, as she was always singing, she should say hello to the conductor who was working in the next room, who just happened to be William Christie.

"I decided to do a course with him on 18th-century music – not serious singing, just an exploration. But I'd always sung in choirs, and had always felt that the human voice was the supreme instrument. To sing always seemed like the best therapy, particularly when you're feeling bad."

"After I'd been studying the baroque style for two years, William said, 'Forget about the harp, and be a singer'. Until that point, I had been primarily involved in modern music, but now I began to discover that incredible musical world, where as a singer I could be at the centre of things. Singing Handel, I felt completely at home in my body."

She joined Christie's company, then branched out into Mozart and Britten, and now moves constantly between these very different musical spheres.

"To sing Handel properly," she says, "you must take pleasure in improvising and decorating – and with the coloratura, you must force your body to go very fast, try to elevate yourself above your normal human condition. If you can't manage that, forget it."

15 April, Town Hall, Birmingham (0121-780 3333); 17 April, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550)