Musician of the Month: Cathy Bell
Mezzo-soprano Cathy Bell performs a sell out concert on Thursday 16 April 2015 of cantatas and operas by Handel.
As part of the Handel House Talent concert series in March-April 2015, we spotlight each musician talking about their programme, instrument and progress with the scheme. Mezzo-soprano Cathy Bell performs a sell out concert on Thursday 16 April 2015 of cantatas and operas by Handel.
Your concert on the 16 April will focus on arias from Handel’s cantatas and operas. Is there a difference to Handel’s approach to both musical styles?
That’s exactly what I’m exploring! The early Handel cantata I’m preparing, La solitudine: ‘L’aure grate’ (London, before 1718), is available in an edition including lots of ornamentation which Handel wrote out for the alto, harpsichordist and manuscript collector Elizabeth Legh. It’s fascinating comparing this very florid, rhythmically flexible writing with “Eternal Source” from Handel’s Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, and with arias from the opera Rinaldo, written about the same time. Vocally there is a completely different feel from one piece to the next. I am enjoying the rhythmic freedom of the cantata’s heavily ornamented lines, and hoping to bring some of that freedom into the way I sing more familiar Handel repertoire.
Your repertoire ranges from baroque to new music. Are there differences or in fact similarities that draw you to these styles?
I have been singing full time for a number of years now, and I’ve always been a “bit-of-everything” sort of performer, with a wide repertoire across several centuries and many different styles. This is great fun because of the variety of work it allows. However, over the past couple of years I’ve begun to realise that, with a few honourable exceptions, baroque and contemporary music are where I’m at my best and most comfortable. I have the right sort of timbre and vocal range for baroque repertoire, which tends to sit a little lower in the voice than later vocal writing; and Bach, Handel and their contemporaries have always been my “desert island” composers, whose music is most important in my life. With new music the attraction is more the intellectual challenge of singing difficult music, and remaining expressive of text and music even when tackling the most wacky extended vocal techniques.
In February you had a masterclass with Mark Padmore at Handel House. What did you learn from it?
My masterclass with Mark Padmore was a real highlight of my year. We worked for most of the time on the two alto arias from Bach’s St John Passion, a piece which Mark knows inside out, back to front and upside down. He encouraged me to do four things when approaching a piece of music: speak the words, sing the melodies, hear the harmonies, feel the rhythm. Mark talked a lot about the importance of rhetoric in this music, as a way of understanding, almost as an actor would, the many repetitions of text in each aria. We looked at the simultaneity of thought and breath as a kind of literal “inspiration”, which allows the singer to deliver the text directly and with honesty. There was close analysis of the harmony underpinning each vocal phrase: Bach never does anything by accident, and a true understanding of the unexpected in his harmonic writing helps us decide how to interpret each phrase as itself and within the whole harmonic and rhetorical structure of the aria. Everything Mark said made perfect sense to me – this is how I always try to work on a new piece (or a familiar one that I want to prepare afresh) – so I felt encouraged to keep working in the same way but to work harder, to look again, to delve deeper, since there is always more to discover and to understand in this music. Handel House very kindly recorded the masterclass, and I am really looking forward to listening back through the session and learning from Mark Padmore all over again.
What are you up to at the moment? Are you still studying?
Right now I’m in Bergen, Norway, where I’m singing in the chorus for a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Bergen Nasjonale Opera – so something neither baroque nor contemporary! As soon as I get back to London I’m into rehearsals for Hampstead Garden Opera’s April/May production of Handel’s Xerxes, in which I’m singing the role of Arsamenes. As I mentioned above, I’m also working hard on the repertoire for my first Handel House showcase concert with fellow talent scheme member, harpsichordist Katarzyna Kowalik; then preparing Britten’s Death in Venice and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Garsington Opera (May-July); learning lots of oratorio repertoire including Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle, CPE Bach Magnificat and JS Bach Mass in B minor and Christmas Oratorio for choral society concerts later in the year; and keeping up with the usual round of auditions and choral work. I’m really looking forward to working on some new music with the composers on the Handel House RNIB Composer Workshops in July. As for study, yes: I am always studying! My singing teacher is Robert Dean, and I also work with lots of different coaches according to the music I’m preparing. Unlike the other members of the scheme, I didn’t spend much time studying early music in a conservatoire environment: I have been learning “on the job” instead, so there are many gaps in my knowledge and I am always working to fill them. This is why a scheme like Handel House Talent is so valuable to me: it offers an opportunity to focus for a while on music I really love, in a supportive environment where I can learn and perform at the same time.
What have been the highlights of Handel House Talent so far?
Most of my official Handel House Talent engagements are yet to come, though I have been enjoying the opportunity to practise and rehearse in Handel’s music room when it is available. The highlight so far must be the masterclass with Mark Padmore, who gave so generously of his time and knowledge. It was such a privilege to work on the music of Bach and Handel with this master of the repertoire.