Carolyn Sampson: The bare-all diva

The soprano Carolyn Sampson has been getting used to public exposure since she stripped for English National Opera

Michael Church
Monday 15 May 2006 00:00

Carolyn Sampson is one of the wonders of the operatic world. She has an exceptionally flexible voice, pure in intonation and deployed with super-subtle refinement. She tops virtually every Baroque conductor's wish list of soloists. Still new to the big time, she's suddenly ubiquitous, with five records (of works by Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Mozart and Stravinsky) out already this year. In separate Proms this summer, she'll take the lead in Mozart's Requiem and in the Requiem by Michael Haydn. Yet she is bemused by her success. "I don't know how it's all happened," she insists.

The total strip she performed in English National Opera's Semele two years ago may have brought her a touch of tasteful notoriety, but otherwise her ascent has been unobtrusive. At school, she tried to emulate Kiri Te Kanawa in Mozart's Exsultate, Jubilate. "I sometimes sat at the piano and did the 'Queen of the Night'," she says of that form- idable set-piece aria. Her real concern, though, was the piano. While studying the instrument at Birmingham University, she started singing with the city's Ex Cathedra choir. Its director, Geoffrey Skidmore, recalls: "I was knocked out by her open, natural sound."

She was then taken up by The Sixteen, Polyphony and the Tallis Scholars, and by the inspirational Robert King. "She came to audition for a Vivaldi work she'd neither sung nor heard," he says. "It was obvious in 30 seconds she'd be perfect. She's the most undiva-like diva I've ever met."

Not many divas would have taken the risk she did in Semele. The music was so fearsome to sing that stripping was the least of her worries. "I tried to be philosophical about it. I'm not a supermodel. Everyone crept around the issue in rehearsal - it was never really talked about. The first time I did it was when we were first in costume on stage. I decided that was the time for my no-costume, but nobody was expecting me to do it. Afterwards, the stage manager said in a strained voice, 'Thanks for doing that, Carolyn.' It's a funny thing, and quite personal. One review said - and the words are graven in my memory - that I 'lacked the sex appeal of a diva required to bare all'."

So speaks an attractive comedienne who is famed for her penchant for partying. But shortly prior to that production, she'd had to grapple with tragedy. Her father died suddenly, and though she worked on, the shock was profound. Colleagues noted the way this private trauma impinged on her performances, first through the father-daughter overtones in Mozart's Pamina, then in the St John Passion she sang in at the Barbican.

"The grief she projected was heart-rending," recalls a friend. "There was barely a dry eye in the house as she sang her big aria." Sampson thinks playing Asteria in Handel's Tamerlano helped her accept his death, about which she'd been in denial. "In the scene where her father dies, the music is achingly beautiful. Every time I sang it, I was in floods of tears. At first it was my dad I was thinking about, and of him leaving me, but once I was properly in character, it became my father as a character, and it became a joy to think about him, to accept that he was dead. It was appropriate that I was shaky, and had mascara all down my face."

Her progression from panicky desperation to anguished acceptance was delineated with fastidious artistry, as the recording bears out. Expressing the text, she tells me, is her overriding goal, even at the expense of perfection. "If you take the brightness off your sound, it might sound slightly flat, but it may also create an additional colour suggesting pain. I've always been paranoid about being in tune, but if it became a choice between a moment that was perfectly in tune, and one that was slightly out but 'said' something, I would rather have the latter." That's why she prefers to record in long takes rather than with endless "patching", and why she loves recording live. "I need an audience to react to."

She pushes ideas to their logical conclusion. One recital partner, the blind lutenist Matthew Wadsworth, recalls the night she decided to sing "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" in total darkness. And she's self-critical. She says of her recording of Monteverdi's Vespers, with the King's Consort: "I didn't feel I was singing from the heart." And she applies a similar rigour to her colleagues. Asked why she didn't enjoy singing Purcell's The Fairy Queen with the ENO, she says she felt the other singers didn't appreciate the quality of the music. Early music, she remarks, is not easy music.

Watching Sampson prepare for a recital in the medieval grandeur of Gray's Inn, one senses that singing is as natural for her as breathing. Pencilling her score, she powers full- blast through the programme, marking spur-of-the-moment adjustments as they occur to her. Why did she put that moment of silence into the last line of a light Haydn love song? "It's cute - and it will give me an opportunity to flirt with the audience a little."

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Carolyn Sampson's CDs include Monteverdi's 'Vespers' and Mozart's 'Exsultate, Jubilate', both on Hyperion, and (with Robin Blaze) Handel's 'Oratorio Duets', on Bis

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