Dame Ann Murray is a tutor on the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme for singers. In this 50th Anniversary interview she talks about her early involvement with Britten Pears Arts revealing her passion for her craft and an insight into her approach to coaching young artists.
When did you first get involved in the music programme and how did that come about?
I didn’t attend the programme as a student, but by some force of fate I made my professional debut at Snape on 1st September 1974 with Scottish Opera - it was the last performance of Alceste. I was the understudy. They had done four or five performances in Edinburgh, and we did one or two days before with Júlia Várady, who took over from Janet Baker.
Then I came back in 76 / 77 to do Don Giovanni again with Scottish Opera. I had my first contact with Sir Peter Pears who came to see me on that evening of my debut. Benjamin Britten was already not very well and they had come to the first half of the performance. Peter had the kindness to come around to see me in the interval to say well done.
Then I did some recitals and recordings with Steuart Bedford, the most important for me was Phaedra.
I think about 20 years ago was the first year I was at the School. I had Lucy Crowe and Matthew Rose in the same class. I suppose I had gained some confidence to see if I could help people bring another angle to their work. My deeper involvement with the School has been in recent years, when I've been invited by Caro Barnfield (BPA's Director, Music Programme).
But the organisation of the School, the the ethos of it, I think is so tremendously generous and important. Students are there for a serious class not on sort of semi holiday. I found the students through all those years very well prepared and very dedicated because they know what a prestigious opportunity they are getting to be part of the Britten Pears School.
The atmosphere of the whole place rings with Britten and Pears. You can almost hear the English folk songs ringing in the background.
The shape of the organisation now has brought so much young blood, but still following is the influence of Britten Pears and the extraordinary Steuart Bedford. In that post-Britten era he was amazing. I have a feeling that Britten didn't die, his spirit just transferred to that genius. He was so quiet, so retiring and so modest about his talent. His career was so clever too, so devout to the music and yet when you gave a performance there was a freedom he could give you because the music was in his blood.
What areas of singing / voice coaching do you focus on with young artists?
To start with, nobody can know everything. So I always ask for the repertoire before I go because there are going to be songs that I don't know. I learn everything that I'm going to work on, so I am equally prepared and can talk with the singer, as though it's a book club and we’ve read the same book.
The student has an idea and we discuss it. I try to help if there's a difficulty, to push it or a challenge vocally. I try to get round it through interpretation, because I will not go down the road of touching anybody's technique, because I'm only with them for a day so, and that’s not the way to do it.
I try then to make each song, a little ‘opera’, in order to give them a backstory. So they're not just singing what the composer or the poet wrote, they are singing their interpretation of what the poet wrote, they could be singing about their cat, it doesn't matter what it's about, as long as they have a story that we can see through their interpretation.
I try to help with facial expression. You just see so many who ‘close' because of concentration, you don't see the joy or the honour of being able to sing any of these songs that quite honestly should be very humbling and amazing.
With each song, I feel, you should walk through into another room of fantasy and then another room of creation and creativity. And it should be scintillating.
Mozart particularly does it for you, every time you sing a piece of Mozart, it's different whether you want it to be or not. There are of course difficulties like the huge demands of Schubert, but you have to you think, ‘Oh, that's easy’ because you need to find a moment of inspiration and not be inhibited.
And I try to have fun. You can say, to students ‘well, that was a heap of rubbish - should we try again? And they laugh! It's not an insult, because we're doing it together. It's new each time, a bit of an adventure. And I say to them all, if you don't like what I'm saying, that's absolutely fine. You've only wasted an hour of your life. If you do like it, then maybe I've sparked a change in your interpretation.
I also try to ask the singers to write the words in a book. So it’s their book of poetry, in their own hand as though they have created it, so that they can refer to it - the poem belongs to you before you start to sing the tune.
What does a typical day look like in one of your classes?
In my introduction I say that I do not want to interfere with anything you’re doing. I have some ideas. If there's something you don't like, please tell me, because I can't be right at everything. And if I come close to you, I will ask you, if I'm going to touch you, I will ask you. So I get all of that out of the way.
And then I say, tell me why have you chosen this song? And tell me what your take on it is?
I ask them to generally to recite the poem. And then ask them where it comes in the song cycle, or why it was written, or where do they think they are in the piece in their own minds - and then, off we go!
I say to the pianist, please forgive me, we don't have very much time. I will have to stop and start, I hope you don't mind because it's a right nuisance, because pianists are giving a performance too.
If I notice something I will say, and then I stop them. And if I find that the language is a little bit rough or I notice they're struggling or using too much physical energy instead of the technique to do it.
And then I give them something else to do, distractions, like dancing around the room sitting on an exercise ball, or something imaginary. And this helps take away the concentration on hitting that note or getting over a phrase. So it’s the two of us working together towards a brighter, different or more confident interpretation.
What is your relationships with pianists/ accompanists?
I think one has to remember that it is a duo. It's not a singer with an accompanist. It's two soloists, melting together to create a piece of music. So the accompanist has also got to have her / his voice. So I try to bring colours in, technically I wouldn't dream of saying anything. But you know, sometimes it's a little bit too loud, or it's a little bit, too present. So, that's the only thing, but I generally concentrate on the singer and hope that the pianist is sufficiently gracious to allow me to do so.
I've been very lucky with a particular number of accompanists. For the majority of my work at the beginning, until the last years of my career, with Graham Johnson and Steuart Bedford played for me a number of times. György Fischer who was married to Lucia Popp at one stage, she was wonderful as well. And then, latterly Malcolm Martineau, who really extended my song career.
Its very existence is essential... it will always continue because it’s like an artistic sponge: it draws everyone to it.
What are the challenges for young singers?
I say to my students ‘sing your age’. Gerald Moore said it in one of his last classes - ‘run slowly’. You can only do what you do at the time you’re doing it. Allow yourself, a childlike innocence, to stay in this young vocal moment, don’t try pack your punches just because you can, because you’re strong, just wait, just allow yourself to develop.
The apprenticeship is really difficult these days. There are no more choral societies, recital clubs don’t exist much, the opportunities aren’t there. If you are young and can sing the notes you’re sometimes allowed to develop too quickly. It doesn’t look like one can hold down a career for 40-45 years because of modern pressures.
So the Britten Pears School is an oasis. I mean it's where you get your vocal life's blood recharged. You have to be very brave to hold back in your apprenticeship and to say I’m not going to sing Das Lied von der Erde. You can sing the notes but you have to know what you can bring through from your youth to know what you can bring to that repertoire.
What were the particular challenges for you in your apprenticeship?
Shyness and a slight inferiority complex. A fellow compatriot (from Ireland) said the problem with us is that we were born saying sorry. I only found my confidence in 1981 when I sang in a performance in Zurich with Jean Pierre Ponelle and he couldn’t care less if I came from Dublin or Mars. And all the time I was in England despite all the wonderful vocal opportunities in Manchester, I still thought I wasn’t good enough. So I said to myself I’ve done all the hard work, now just get out and involve yourself in the magic. I have a colleague who said to me RTM ‘read the manual’ - it makes life so much easier!
What do you hope students take away from your classes?
Well, I would like them to feel that if they need it, that they have a new or a different focus, a different angle on the piece or another level of it. Something different to what they've already studied.
I'd like them to have fun. If you've done all the work, when you walk out on stage (to quote my deceased mother) all you’ve got to do is sing! You shouldn't be thinking about technique, or how to negotiate this, that or the other, that work is done in preparation - so allow your imagination to fly.
Don't always listen to recordings, work it out for yourself. In the olden days, there weren't these opportunities to sit down and type it into the into the computer and then find a zillion recordings…you sat down with the music, a piece of paper and your dictionary and you wrote it out. That way you almost absorbed the piece. That gave you time, so when you were ready to sing it, you knew what you wanted to do with it.
So I want them to leave me with a new angle, and a bright focus on what they're doing. Not doing what I told them. But having that freedom to think, oh, yes, that was good, I can do it.
It’s 50 years since the first study weekend masterclass - what do you think is special about Britten Pears Young Artist Programme?
It’s very existence is essential. There are so many gifted tutors and technicians who know everything - it’s an oasis. It’s an encyclopaedia of vocal and other musical genres. Every type of discipline in classical music - it’s extraordinary.
It’s essential that it should continue and it will do because it’s like an artistic sponge - it draws everyone to it - the setting is beautiful the opportunities and the library, the lady in the coffee shop everyone. You can’t do this all on your own you need everyone else. It’s essential it’s like Easter. It’s part of music life.
Is there a piece of music that is special for you?
The song I’ve been asked for and that I have found most challenging, uplifting and at the same time emotionally ‘knife-edge’, was Nacht und Traume by Schubert with Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall. He would include it in my recitals.
I would learn a recital programme (and some I never sang again) but Nacht und Traume he played so beautifully, it was magic with the sort of feeling and idea that you’re in a different world.
The accompaniment frightens you at one stage and then calms in the same breath. And you sail as though you’re on your back looking at the night sky. If you go into that room of the imagination, committing yourself to the piece, then it’s easy.
But then everything’s easy if you practice! Wasn’t it the golfer Arnold Palmer who said that? - someone asked him ‘Mr Palmer aren’t you lucky to have won the Masters? …and he replied - ‘Isn’t it strange, the more I practice the luckier I become!’
Ann Murray was born in Dublin. She has close links with both the English National Opera, for whom she has sung the title roles in Handel Xerxes and Ariodante and Donizetti Maria Stuarda, and with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where her roles have included Cherubino, Dorabella, Donna Elvira, Rosina, Octavian, new productions of L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, Ariadne auf Naxos, Idomeneo, Mitridate, Re di Ponto, Cosi fan Tutte, Mosé in Egitto, Alcina and Giulio Cesare.
Her international operatic engagements have taken her to Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Zurich, Brussels, Amsterdam, Milan, Vienna, Salzburg, the Chicago Lyric Opera, Los Angeles Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, New York.
In concert, she has appeared with the world’s great orchestras and her recital appearances have taken her to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Geneva, Dresden, Zurich, Frankfurt, Madrid, London, Dublin, the Aldeburgh, Edinburgh, Munich and Salzburg Festivals and both the Konzerthaus and Musikverein in Vienna. Her discography reflects not only her broad concert and recital repertoire but also many of her great operatic roles.
In 1997 Ann Murray was made an Honorary Doctor of Music by the National University of Ireland, in 1998 she was made a Kammersängerin of the Bavarian State Opera and in 1999 an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music. In the 2002 Golden Jubilee Queen’s Birthday Honours she was appointed an honorary Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. In 2004 she was awarded the Bavarian Order of Merit.