Musician of the Month: Sarah Gabriel
For me, it’s the intimacy. Performing in big venues is thrilling, but I was lucky to perform quite a bit to the small audiences at Handel House before I got to my first opera house. Every detail matters in that room. It also gave me a rapid understanding that there is a magical relationship between the performers and the audience: and even though many people don’t realise it when they’re listening, they’re sending huge waves of energy to the musicians. That symbiosis between audience and performers creates better music-making. Also, if I’m singing a more obscure Handel aria (and there are still lots that haven’t really entered the standard repertoire but deserve to) I get a little frisson of excitement wondering if perhaps it’s the first time it’s been sung there since Handel composed it or rehearsed it himself.
Do you remember the first time you heard Handel? What did you feel?
I am sure that the first Handel that I heard was Messiah. I remember a beautiful recording of ‘He was despised’ when I was little and ever since then, whenever I sing Messiah in concert, I have to avoid looking up when the contralto sings because that aria makes me cry. In it, Handel demonstrates his breathtaking instinct for perfectly-placed rests in the score, which to me are as important as beautifully-laid notes.
When did you first start singing?
I was in school choirs, but I didn’t take it very seriously. When I was little, my piano teacher told me that ‘Music is a difficult career and you have to love it. You should never choose music as a profession unless you wake up one morning and realise that you can’t live without it.’ It was superb advice. That’s exactly what happened. It felt a bit like homesickness. I realised one day that I really wouldn’t be happy without music, left my job, and started singing. I have never once regretted it.
Out of all the Baroque musicians, who is your favourite and why?
All of Handel’s sopranos have interesting stories. Elisabeth DuParc (nicknamed La Francesina) is my real favourite. She was one of Handel’s later sopranos and sang his last operas in Italian and several of his English oratorios. I am fairly sure that she had a slightly higher voice than many baroque sopranos – or at least, her arias are set higher – which makes her roles particularly comfy for me to sing. There is also lots of opportunity for coloratura fireworks in the music that Handel wrote for her, often contrasted with a sublime economy of expression which is almost painfully beautiful and often psychologically brilliant. A few of the plots of the operas at this time (for example, Deidamia) are barking, but as ever, he creates terrific emotional arcs for his women.
For those who will not be attending the ‘Tea, Coffee and Hot Chocolate…’ concert on the 18 November 2012:
What was the importance of the 18th century coffee house?
Contemporary letters, reports, gossip sheets and diaries suggest that coffee houses were a hotbed of dissent (men slurping coffee while disagreeing with each other or with the dominant parliamentary party), conformity (men hanging out together and agreeing a lot about the perceived villains of the day – ‘Papists’, the French and so on) political lobbying, intellectual exploration and pretty much everything that the women weren’t allowed to do at the time. So I thought I’d check out what those poor women were missing out on while stuck playing demure minuets at the harpsichord. It turns out that it’s all thrillingly scurrilous and a trifle more risque than needlepoint.
And why have you emphasised on tea, coffee and hot chocolate in your performance?
We grouped the three drinks together in this concert because they all provided an opportunity for people to socialise and share ideas without stewing their brains on the generally appalling gin and erratically produced beer of the time. The three types of drink probably had a lot to do with making the Art of Conversation a crucial 18th century accomplishment. Tea, coffee AND hot chocolate (all imported) and the pleasure that they brought seem to have elicited the sort of hysteria about a beverage that we can’t really imagine now. I am sure that part of it was pure caffeine addiction. Also, did you know that in those days, they poured tea out of the cup and drank it from the saucer? That would not have impressed my Granny.
And finally, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word Handel?
One of the finest composers of passionate, compelling, and touchingly fallible operatic heroines that I have yet encountered.