The Elektra in Richard Strauss's 1909 opera is a woman of determination and focus. She has vengeance in her heart and she won't let go of it. Belfast soprano Giselle Allen, who sings the title role in Ireland's first staging of the work – outdoors from Irish National Opera at Kilkenny Arts Festival – has a similar streak in the way she knows how to stand up for herself. She was, as she puts it, always involved in music, playing recorder and violin in primary school, successfully auditioning for the Belfast School of Music, where singing was compulsory for everyone, and harbouring an ambition to play the oboe, one of the most challenging of instruments to master.
But she was shunted towards the bassoon instead, because she had suitably large hands. She tolerated it for a while at a time that was quite difficult in her life. “I had a lot of ear problems, I caught an infection in the swimming pool, and it was misdiagnosed. So I lost most of the hearing in my left ear for over five years. I missed a lot of lessons and I just didn’t quite get into the whole bassoon thing. Apparently, my mum tells me, I went into the head of woodwind and just said, ‘If you don’t let me play the oboe, I’m leaving.’ I don’t remember doing that, but apparently I did. And he said, Okay.”
She wasn’t thinking of music as a career. “I really wanted to be a nurse. But my dad said, no, you’re not going to waste your talent. I thought of music therapy and all sorts of things. And finally when I got to sixth form – I love drama as well, and I loved the school plays – I just thought, maybe I’ll give this a go.” At university in Cardiff, there were a lot of oboists in first year, “so they asked would I mind doing singing as my first study for the first year. I’d auditioned with both voice and instrument. And after a year, I just wanted to sing so I stopped playing. Also the oboe embouchure was too tight on the muscles around the jaw, so I had to stop. It wasn’t like I saw an opera when I was young and went, Oh my god, I want to be an opera singer. Not at all.
After Cardiff, she spent two years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, then went to the opera school at the Royal Academy of Music after which she auditioned for the National Opera Studio. She didn’t get through the final round, but somebody from the studio saw her in an opera performance and she was then offered a place. “I said, no. I thought, I wasn’t your first choice, and I knew other people who had gone there and who hadn’t been given great roles.”
And then, in one of those magic moments, she was talent-spotted. She was heard by James Holmes, head of music at Opera North, when she was working with Clonter Opera a company that has a focus on young singers. “He asked me to cover Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and that’s how I started at Opera North. So in a way I learned my craft within the opera house, with great coaches and great directors, and watching established singers working. A year at the studio, yes, it’s always nice to have on your CV. But I think I had the better journey.”
Although she has already sung the title role in Strauss's Salome, she had never actually had her sights on Elektra. "If it hadn't come up and Fergus [Sheil, artistic director of INO] hadn't asked me, I probably wouldn't have sung Elektra. There's this big mystique that surrounds Elektra for singers. It is a really difficult role. It's seen as a voice-killer. And when you look at the list of people who've done it, like Birgit Nilsson, big dramatic sopranos . . . actually, those kind of voices weren't around in his day. It's just kind of how it's become. Salome and Elektra are difficult. Vocally they're very angular, Salome is more lyrical, but Elektra is very angular. She's angry a lot of the time. It would be very easy to do it all the same, and not try and get light and shade in there."
To orient herself in deciding whether to take it on or not, she listened to different recordings, and mentions Hildegard Behrens and Deborah Polaski as performers with lighter voices who showed alternatives to more heavyweight approaches. "I rang my singing teacher, and she said I think you could do it, you just sing it with your instrument, you don't try to be this big, Brünnhilde-type, dramatic soprano. And my voice has changed. I did Tosca two years ago, and my voice changed slightly after that. I've done those bigger roles where I have to discipline myself to not oversing."
She worked on it with a coach in Brussels, where she was working earlier this year, and he felt it suited her. “I thought, okay, let’s take a risk. Sometimes you have to do that. Your voice can only move forward and develop into a different Fach [a reference to the German system of voice-categorisation] if you work it, if you sing a role that stretches you, as long as you’re doing it healthily, with proper technique, and you’re not over-singing.”
Now she feels her voice has really settled into the role. At the end of the first tranche of rehearsals, “we did the whole thing” – in other words the full, 100 minutes without a break. “This was the real test of whether I could pace it. Plus we were singing it with masks on, which was horrendous. I knew I was getting dehydrated, because it was warm and I had a mask on. Half-way through I took it off, because I was on stage with just one other person and we were far enough away from each other to be Covid safe. Actually, it was fine. I thought, I can sing it, and still have a voice at the end. I’m not voiceless. I’m not exhausted.”
Singing, of course, is only part of the challenge. Elektra features retributive murders as gruesome as anything in The Sopranos or Love/Hate. “Dramatically, she’s really fascinating, like a lot of Strauss characters, a really complicated woman. They’re usually a product of some horrendous thing that’s forced them to live their life a certain way. Elektra’s father was murdered by her mother. Of course in this opera you don’t see why. It’s because her father sacrificed Iphigenie so he could go to Troy.
“There’s a lot of stuff that Strauss left out that actually affects her character as well. It just means that Klytämnestra just looks like this horrible, evil mother. She’s not. She also is someone who’s damaged. That’s where the acting side of me comes out. As an actress as well as a singer, I love those fascinating roles. In this Elektra I want to make her not just this one-dimensional, hateful character, always mad. There are parts of it where she totally isn’t. The whole scene with her brother Orest, when he comes back and she realises he’s still alive, and she tells him why she’s in the state that she’s in, it’s heart-breaking. And the music is really beautiful, and quite reminiscent of Salome, when she’s talking about her pale skin and her beautiful hair. She’s become this way because she had to survive.”
Being blessed and privileged in Elektra will be something else again
She mentions Miss Jessel in Britten's Turn of the Screw, the role she was singing in Brussels – "there's so much more to her than you get in the opera" – and the differences between Peter Grimes in Britten's opera and in the opera's source, George Crabbe's The Borough. "I love having my own backstory. I learned that from Phyllida Lloyd. She, being a theatre director, was always saying, if you don't have a backstory, you need to make one."
The new Elektra production is a product of the ongoing pandemic. It’s going to be performed with the orchestra and chorus pre-recorded, and out of doors in the Castle Yard in Kilkenny, to get over the fact that we’re not yet at the stage where an opera like Elektra would be allowed an indoor performance, even if there were a venue on the island that could accommodate the size of orchestra Strauss demands.
Allen is no stranger to site-specific opera with pre-recorded orchestra, having sung Ellen Orford in the 2013 production of Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh, to commemorate the centenary of the composer’s birth.
Musically, she says, “it’s not ideal, because all the dramatic moments – and it will be the same in the Elektra as well – there are moments when you want to take a little more time in the silence to do something, to feel an energy or feel an emotion, and that we can’t do. That is the only frustrating thing about it.”
The beach in Aldeburgh was cold, “but we did have layers on underneath our costumes. But when you’re singing you’re so full of adrenaline that you don’t notice it as much. We were just amazed, it was probably the salt air and everything, but nobody got sick. We were all really healthy. It was sunny, even if it was cold, and we were all staying in lovely little cottages in Aldeburgh. It wasn’t like a holiday, but it was lovely. It was a production on which we thought we’re so blessed to be even here. It was quite an emotional thing. I’d done quite a lot of Grimes by then. That thing of being where he wrote it, and going and seeing the Moot Hall, all these different places, going to the graveyard and the church . . . We loved it. We felt really privileged.”
Being blessed and privileged in Elektra will be something else again.
Strauss's Elektra at the Castle Yard, Kilkenny, directed by Conall Morrison and designed by Paul Keogan and Catherine Fay, is on Thursday, August 5th; Saturday 7th, Tuesday 10th, Thursday 12th, and Saturday 14th. See kilkennyarts.ie