Rosalind Plowright on opera and longevity

Simon Button

The opera star chats to us about marking her 70th birthday with two works that are dear to her heart

RD: You’re celebrating your 70th birthday by performing Andrea Chénier at the Royal Opera House 35 years since you first appeared in the opera there. What are you most looking forward to about revisiting it?

The music is glorious and it’s always nice performing at the Royal Opera House. I first played Maddalena there and I’ve revisited the opera since elsewhere, playing her mother La Contessa di Coigny several times. I’m playing La Contessa again for this production. Obviously it’s not quite the same as when you’re young and singing the leading role, but Maddalena’s mother is very prominent in Act I and it’s a character role that needs to be strongly cast.

RD: This is your 16th production at the Covent Garden venue. What makes it such a special place?

One is always in awe of the place and it’s always wonderful to perform in your own country. I’d love to do it more but in this profession you have to go everywhere.

RD: What are the joys of performing Umberto Giordano’s music?

When I sang Maddalena I felt it fitted me like a glove and I was very passionate about that sort of verismo music. It can be a bit dangerous at times for a young singer but my training and singing Verdi kept that disciplined. And I love Andrea Chénier. When I first did it at Covent Garden they called it “a poor man’s Puccini”. [Laughs] Terrible! It’s a wonderful work that has become much more popular since then.

RD: You’ve worked continually over 45 years. What have been your professional highlights?

The first one was probably Otello at the English National Opera in 1981, when I sang Desdemona. It sort of brought me to the fore, if that’s the right expression, because up until then I’d been in Europe and making good over there, then finally your own country sits up and takes notice. It was like I’d appeared overnight, even though I’d been putting in the work. Another memorable one was Mary Stuart with Dame Janet Baker and then there was the night I jumped in and sang Aida with Pavarotti after Katia Ricciarelli pulled out of the final performance. That was amazing because I met him, he liked me and a year later I sang with him in the Arena di Verona.  

RD: As well as Andrea Chénier you’re performing in Verdi’s Uno Ballo in Maschera at Opera Holland Park, which marks your 15th Verdi role. What keeps drawing you back to his work?

OK, the early Verdis are a little ‘oom-pah-pah’ before the expansion of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, which was more my scene. I’ve done nearly every Verdi that came after those three and Uno Ballo suits me well. Verdi wrote wonderfully for the voice. If you sing Verdi really well you can last a long time. I said goodbye to the Verdi soprano in the early 1990s, then I did a few Verdi mezzos. [Laughs] But all the stories are a bit crazy, aren’t they? I mean, who goes and picks a magic herb at the foot of a tree in a cemetery at midnight to be rid of all her problems?


Giuseppe Verdi 

RD: What are you relishing about returning to the role of the sorcerer Madame Arvidson?

It’s a short role but it’s full-on. She’s a bit weird and I like playing weird people. In one production when I played her I was a bit like Isadora Duncan and I was smoking, which I love to do in a role. [Laugh] I’ve done so much smoking on stage. I don’t actually smoke in real life but they give you fake cigarettes.

RD: How do you keep your voice in tip-top condition?

I practise every day. Well, I do take the odd day off if I’m travelling but when I’m singing, at my age now, I cannot afford not to work on my voice every day as well as doing breathing exercises. When you’re young you can take a fortnight off but if I did that I’d need about a month to get back into shape.

RD: How was it doing the Not the Messiah, Eric Idle’s comic oratorio take on Monty Python’s Life Of Brian?

It was quite nerve-wracking because Monty Python are huge and you could sense that from the audience in the Royal Albert Hall, but it was a lot of fun. Eric Idle was a lot more serious than I’d expected but it’s funny because a lot of comedians do have a very serious streak in them. I remember doing a charity thing with Mike and Bernie Winters. I was bowing at the end and Mike said, “Well, have you finished bowing yet?” like he was thinking “I wish that bloody woman would get off stage so we can do our act!”

RD: Does coming into your Seventies mean new and interesting roles are opening up to you?

They’ve opened up already over the last few years, with old baronesses and countesses and hags and bags and goodness knows what. I’m very happy to do these roles, although a lot of people wouldn’t do them because sometimes it’s quite hard to make that transition. You really have to take a back seat when you used to be out front playing the romantic heroine, then suddenly you’re on the side watching. I’m past that feeling now but it can be tough at first.


Rosalind in Queen of Spades 

RD: As a teacher as well as a singer, what advice would you give young aspiring opera singers?

I would say: Be prepared. Be confident about what you’re going to sing. Never have any fear—just know that vocally you can sing every note the way it should be sung. Work hard on your technique. Never be satisfied and always be searching. I mean, at my age, I’m still having lessons. Another thing I’d advise is to be tough but also humble. You can be strong within but also maintain your dignity.

Rosalind Plowright performs in Andrea Chénier at the Royal Opera House from May 20 and Un Ballo in Maschera at Opera Holland Park from June 8. Visit roh.org.uk and operahollandpark.com for more details