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‘People see opera as very glamorous from the outside’

Soprano Jennifer Davis on performance hangover, social-media abuse, and creating a phonetic system to learn Dvorak’s Armida for Wexford Festival Opera

Jennifer Davis: "I learnt a lot just from watching big performers, how they managed themselves in rehearsal, how they managed their energy.' Photograph: Marshall Light

When I ask Irish soprano Jennifer Davis about how she came to music and opera, her answer is quick. “It definitely wasn’t a straight line,” she tells me.

Her first degree was in English literature but, since her mother is a singing teacher, she had grown up with music. “I was born in the UK,” she says, “and I’d always been in church choirs. I’d always been singing in some capacity. In secondary school, I did a lot of musical theatre and jazz. But I kind of saw it as my mum’s thing. She’s still, even in her seventies, a really wonderful singer. She just never wanted to do it professionally. She didn’t want the lifestyle.”

After college, Davis took a year off to figure out what she wanted to do next, and was thinking of doing a Master’s in English. “At least I could do research, I could teach,” she says. But, after her mother suggested “auditioning for something” and she got a role in an amateur production of The Mikado, the die seems to have been cast. She had been off the stage for a number of years. The return reminded her of how much she loved it.

She auditioned for a Master’s at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama (today’s TU Dublin Conservatoire). It was, she says, “the most relaxed audition I’ve ever done in my entire life, because I really didn’t think I was getting in. I had very little repertoire. I was so shocked when I got the letter. That was the start of everything”.


A lot of people see opera as very rosy and glamorous from the outside. But the reality of it is usually me note-bashing at a piano, learning my lines

She wasn’t expecting a career. “I just wanted to train,” she says. “I wanted to learn. I wanted to see if it was something I would enjoy doing. You really don’t know until you’re doing it. A lot of people see opera as very rosy and glamorous from the outside. But the reality of it is usually me note-bashing at a piano, learning my lines.” She applied herself with energy, did lots of competitions, and won prizes at the Feis Ceoil.

Her first full role was Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro for Glasthule Opera. She remembers it as “the longest sing in the world” but, in spite of that, she managed to make a mark. “Star of the evening for me,” I wrote at the time, “was the knowing Susanna of Jennifer Davis, a young singer who sounded as if she were just made for Mozart.”

She got a place at the National Opera Studio in London (“It just opens doors when you go to somewhere like that”), and was then accepted on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. “That really changed everything, changed my trajectory, so much more exposure than I’d ever had. That was the real beginning of my professional life.”

What she learnt wasn’t just about singing. She was now working in the rehearsal room and on stage with great performers. “I learnt a lot just from watching them,” she recalls, “how they managed themselves in rehearsal, how they managed their energy, sometimes saying: ‘I’ve had enough today. Can I go? I’m a bit spent.’ They would speak up and look after themselves in that way.”

That was a revelation. “As a young singer you think: ‘Gosh, I could never say that to a director.’ You just wouldn’t think that was an option. So, just watching how they took care of themselves. Watching how they would take on the information they were receiving from the conductor, the director, whoever it was. Thinking that through, and trying to make it work for them. Really interesting.”

Davis also says she managed to foster close relationships “with people who have enormous careers and who’ve been doing it for a long time. So I can always ask them for advice”.

She mentions when a major singer struck up a conversation during a rehearsal of Verdi’s Il trovatore and, unprompted, started offering her advice. “Really know what you want. This is a hard job. Tread lightly. Think through your choices,” he told her. “It really stuck with me that he took that little moment with me, to tell me to look after myself. I really appreciated it.”

Just as Davis’s entry to the profession was anything but a straight line, so was her route to success. The turning point was her performance as Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin at Covent Garden in 2018.

“People paint it now as: ‘She jumped in and saved the day’. I didn’t jump in. I was officially covering the role. I’d taken like a year and a half to chip away at it and learn it. It’s very long. I was very ready to sing it. Everyone always thinks it was like this Cinderella story, almost. In some respects, it is. I was unknown in that repertoire, certainly.”

It was, she says, “the biggest thing I’d ever done in my life, the size of the role, the grandeur of the whole thing, it was a brand new production”.

She adds: “I found out the Friday before rehearsals started that I would have to rehearse, because the soprano was no longer coming. But it wasn’t definite that I would take over completely. I was just doing my job by covering. The Royal Opera House said: ‘If the director is okay with it and the conductor is okay, we would really love you to do it.’ Having that support felt incredible.”

The director David Alden said yes to her on day one, and a week later, when conductor Andris Nelsons arrived, the role was hers. But all was not rosy. “When the official announcement came out, there was a lot of buzz in the press,” she recalls. “A lot of people were angry about it, because they’d spent a lot of money on their tickets. I understood. They didn’t know me.”

I had this huge adrenaline hangover. It eventually caught up with me. I was really run-down. I didn’t have a fantastic year that following year

She had to stay away from social media. “I understand people being disappointed. Singers get sick. Things happen. It’s life. But I didn’t need to be tagged in it. I thought that was cruel. Online, people don’t seem to think there’s a person at the end of the tag they’re putting on.”

On the other hand, she adds: “I knew I could do it well. I loved the role, and I loved singing it. It’s one of my favourite things to do. It got me recognised in houses that maybe wouldn’t have looked at me for another few years.”

But there was a personal price. “At the time I lapped it up,” Davis says. “But six or eight months later, it really hit me in the face. I think I had this huge adrenaline hangover. It eventually caught up with me. I was really run-down. I didn’t have a fantastic year that following year. I hadn’t processed everything, it happened so quickly.”

She also found herself having to say no to lots of jobs, for offers of other Wagner roles that she thought were unsuitable for her. “Vocally, I wasn’t ready for them. I had to say no to really prestigious offers. I had to have my sensible hat on and not get dazzled by all of that.”

The situation got so serious that it led to a stress-related physical breakdown. “It was a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t take it back,” Davis says. “But the aftermath of it, I didn’t deal with well. That was the problem. That was why I got quite sick afterwards. I do look after myself a lot better now.”

In Dvořák’s Armida at Wexford, she’s taking on a title role in an opera that’s hardly known. “I love listening to historical recordings of roles I am learning. I’ll listen to maybe 20 different versions. It’s important to listen to what’s come before you. I never fixate on one particular one.”

She only found two recordings of Armida. “And they’re both cut quite heavily. A lot of it I just had to learn myself, plonking at the piano, which is not fun to hear. It was a longer process of learning, and it’s my first role in Czech, as well. Initially it was going bars at a time, rather than pages.”

She made up her own phonetic system so that it would “imprint on my brain a little easier. It was a long learn, and it’s a very long role. It’s four acts, and there are maybe just 20 minutes of the piece she’s not involved in”.

The work’s limitation is not the music, but the libretto, which Davis says is “a bit flowery” in ways that can make it hard to convey Armida as a real character.

“We’re trying to find a way to not make her a cliché – she’s meant to be a witch and a princess. We want to make it so that she is genuinely, really in love. Yes, she’s magical. But she doesn’t really want to use that unless she’s forced to.”

Davis enjoys the carte blanche aspect of a work like Armida and its undervalued music. “I really love that about Wexford, that you get the opportunity to really come at something that is brand new for so many people.” Including the people on the stage.

Dvořák’s Armida is at Wexford Festival Opera on Sunday October 23rd, Friday 28th, Wednesday, November 2nd, and Saturday 5th. The festival runs from Friday, October 21st to Sunday, November 6th. See

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor