Alan Morrison

For decades, Strauss's Salome was about as close as the opera world got to Girl Power. Along the corridors of Scottish Opera's Glasgow headquarters, however, there's now talk of a new "Soprano Spice" effect.

The nickname has stuck to Lisa Milne ever since it appeared beside her photograph (blonde hair in schoolgirl bunches) in a magazine profile last year. But, unlike Posh, Scary, Sporty and the rest, there's no question mark hanging over Milne's vocal abilities.

The 26-year-old Aberdonian is back on home ground, after a break of 10 months, to sing Despina in Scottish Opera's new staging of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. And it really does feel like coming home: after she completed her studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1994, Scottish Opera snapped her up with a three-season principal contract that allowed her to mature personally and artistically without diving straight into the big, bad professional world.

"Scottish Opera really gave me the foundation for my career," Milne reflects with gratitude. "I'm 26, and that's still really young for an opera singer. I'd have thought that, maybe in 10 years' time, I'd be doing some of the things I've already done."

In the past few months, those things have included singing at the Gottingen Handel Festival in Germany; debuting as Servilia in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito with Welsh National Opera; recording a solo disc of Hebridean songs; collaborating on a collection of the complete songs of John Ireland; and understudying the title role in Handel's Theodora at Glyndebourne. The Glyndebourne connection resumes this summer, when she takes over the lead in Rodelinda - Handel again - for three performances in the summer festival prior to an autumn tour. While this may provide a breakthrough to wider recognition in Britain, it certainly won't be as dramatic as her first appearance with the company.

The story goes like this. Just as her Scottish Opera contract was drawing to a close, Milne was invited to understudy American soprano Dawn Upshaw in Peter Sellars's award-winning Glyndebourne staging of Theodora, Handel's uplifting tale of Christian martyrdom in Roman-occupied Antioch. Planning to nip home to Scotland for the weekend when the fourth performance (on a Sunday) came along, she wasn't quite expecting a phone call on the Friday telling her to stick around, as Miss Upshaw was feeling a little unwell. A just-in-case trip to the wardrobe department proved prescient when the star did indeed succumb. After a quick rehearsal with the orchestra and the counter-tenor lead, David Daniels, on she went - in true 42nd Street style - to a full house.

"I've never been more scared in my life," she says now, punctuating every line with a laugh. "I had to take some jewellery off during the first song and give it to Lorraine Hunt [singing Theodora's companion Irene], but she had to prise the stuff out of my hand. I was literally paralysed. In Act 2, when Theodora is waiting to be raped by Roman soldiers in a prison cell, I finished the scene, collapsed on the ground and realised I was sobbing my heart out because it suddenly hit me where I was and what I was doing."

Apart from reducing her director to tears of joy, Milne also benefited from a pounds 5,000 study award from the company. She hopes to use part of it later this year, working privately in Copenhagen with Elisabeth Soderstrom while performing Mozart's Idomeneo at the Royal Danish Opera.

A glance at her repertoire reveals a lot of Handel and Mozart, which still comes as a surprise to someone for whom the combined dramatic and musical potential of opera first became clear during a performance of Alban Berg's 1930s serialist sex-shocker opera, Lulu. It does, however, make perfect sense given the weight of her voice.

A closer look also reveals rather a large percentage of turns in maid's uniform: her first major role for Scottish Opera was as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, while her parting shot with the company brought a champagne sparkle to Adele in Die Fledermaus. Now here she is putting on the apron again, as Despina in Cosi fan tutte. Without saying there's a little stereotyping going on, it is true that there is something infectious and down-to-earth in Milne's personality that makes her ideal for these roles.

"People who know me say I'm the sort of person who calls a spade a shovel," she admits, "and I suppose that's in keeping with those characters. They put into layman's terms what everyone else in the opera is waffling on about. One of the things that's brilliant about the maids in the Mozart/ Da Ponte operas is that they're never just coquettes or cheeky little chappies; there's always a lot of depth underneath, and that's the side I'm more interested in."

Milne's talent isn't just limited to a voice that can win her the likes of the 1993 Maggie Teyte Prize. She also has the makings of an operatic actress, particularly in comedy, where her warm presence and natural sense of fun frequently allow her to steal every scene from under the noses of bigger names. Cosi, with its themes of fidelity, betrayal and the death of romantic naivety, has a dark and at times cruel edge. Milne has been working closely with director Stewart Laing - the Tony Award-winning designer of the Broadway musical Titanic - to ensure that Despina is something more than a comic cog in the intricate plot machinery.

"Maybe it's a hangover from my teenage angst, but I feel quite strongly that the way Despina talks about men isn't just her being funny," reckons Milne. "This is obviously a girl who's been hurt and now has a protective shell that makes her say, 'Treat them like this before they do it to you'."

Here's the key to Milne's success: she's a thinker and a giggler. She'll talk wisely about the emotional involvement this type of career demands - "Your voice is with you all the time, your instrument is in your body" - then top it off with an anecdote about fainting during a teenage talent competition and coming round to see the show's compere, the late Hughie Green, worriedly handing her a glass of water.

"People ask me if I'm ambitious, but I'm only ambitious to better myself," she says, proving there's a sensible head on top of those powerful lungs. "That doesn't necessarily mean I want to sing in bigger houses; it just means I want to be vocally and dramatically better than I was the day before. The worrying thing is I start to think, when the dates come in a year ahead, 'Oh, God, I'm going to be 28 when I sing that role!' I see myself getting older by what parts I'm going to play. But the thing with this job is, in a way, it's like being a boxer - you're only as good as your last fight."

Lisa Milne is already getting into the ring with world-class opponents, and she's ready to go the distance. Now, that's what I call Girl Power.

Scottish Opera's 'Cosi fan tutte' opens tomorrow, then 7, 11, 14, 17, 19 Feb, Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141-332 9000); 24, 26, 28 Feb, Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-529 6000); 3 March Eden Court Theatre, Inverness (01463 221718)

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