In the world of classical music, the performance of a Mahler symphony is like . . . well, imagine a live gig that has Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Arcade Fire all on stage at the same time, and you get some idea of the scale of the thing. The Resurrection symphony, for example, features an extra-large orchestra, a full-sized choir and two female soloists whose task, effectively, is to sing the audience to paradise.
What does it feel like to be one of those soloists, a tiny figure who has to wait until the fourth movement and then come out and soar over that wall of sound? "It's fabulous," says mezzo Patricia Bardon, who, along with soprano Máire Flavin, will join the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Philharmonic to perform the work at the National Concert Hall on Friday, October 16th.
“It’s fabulous for the audience, too, of course. But to be surrounded by such a sound-world – to be actually, physically, in the middle of it – is really exciting and inspiring. I love Mahler anyway; I always have. He was so specific with colours and dynamics. I feel it’s a privilege, being part of a Mahler symphony.”
Bardon's presence on this occasion is a bit of a privilege in itself. So successful is her international career that the Dublin-born mezzo, who has been described by one critic as "amongst the most special singers on the planet", doesn't get to sing in Ireland very often. That's the downside of constantly jetting off to sing Carmen in Los Angeles with Placido Domingo conducting; doing Porpora at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music; or giving an Olivier-award-winning performance of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at Covent Garden.
On the plus side, there's nothing quite like creating a role on stage, especially when it's a brand-new opera. "I love that, because almost my biggest interest in opera is building a believable character," Bardon says. Last autumn, for example, she played Mary Magdalene in English National Opera's world premiere of John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
“It sounds like a bit of a religious evening, but it wasn’t,” she says. “It’s really about women and the role that they’ve played in world events without getting any proper recognition. Mexican field workers protesting in California about being exploited. Very dark and heavy-duty, but it was a big success. People loved it. Peter Sellars directed, and he’s brilliant. I love working with him. He’ll always get the best out of you. You don’t even know how he does it, but somehow he does.”
The unorthodox Sellars is one of the biggest names on the international opera stage, famous – among many other things – for producing a puppet version of Wagner’s Ring cycle and setting a Handel opera in outer space. But according to Bardon, who is best known for her Handel roles, that is mild compared with some of the baroque set-ups she has performed in.
“If you are in a production, and on day one the director and the designer get up and speak about their concept and you think, ‘Oh – my – God, this is gonna be a long five weeks’, you kind of have an inkling. And then you have to work your backside off to try and make something that is never going to work on stage.” Happily, she adds, it doesn’t happen very often.
Bardon came to opera in her late teens, having – as she says herself – never seen an opera until she was actually in one. “I grew up on the North Circular Road, in a house full of Elvis and Frank Sinatra,” she says. “That wasn’t my choice, though. I loved Led Zeppelin. I was a rock babe.”
A music teacher at her school suggested she get her voice trained, so she headed to Veronica Dunne for singing lessons. The plan was to turn into Tina Turner: it backfired big-time, however, when she came second in the first Cardiff Singer of the World competition. She began to sing with Welsh National Opera, and transformed from rock chick to diva.
“I still love the energy of rock music,” she says. “I love all music. I like jazz in the background when I’m making dinner, or whatever. I love Nina Simone. I love Adele and Amy Winehouse.” Does she bop around her kitchen while chopping the veggies? “Oh, yeah. I sing along with Adele. Absolutely. She’s fabulous.”
Given her admiration for these feisty female characters, it's not really a surprise to hear Bardon say that one of her favourite stage parts is the title role in Bizet's Carmen. But even though it's a must for a successful operatic mezzo, she shied away from it for years.
“I wasn’t terribly interested in the idea of singing Carmen,” she says. “How she was depicted, you know: hands on the hips, and all that nonsense. I thought, That’s just so dull.
“I was lucky enough to work with really good directors for the first Carmen I did. They were theatre directors and really interested in finding the essence of this woman. She has depths. There’s a lot more to her than just the sexy babe – and that’s what I try to bring to her when I sing the role.”
Sequins and tiaras
Opera has come a long way since the days when Carmen was presented with castanets, mantilla and flamenco frock. "The emphasis is on story-telling, now," Bardon says. "Sequins and tiaras, generally, are gone. Even though it is far-fetched and all the rest of it, people should be transported away by the live orchestra, the live music, the wonderful theatre."
Does the emphasis on theatricality put more pressure on singers, though? “Yeah, but that has always been the case,” she says. “If you don’t put the emphasis equally on singing and acting, then you’re only doing half your job. The music and the singing is 50 per cent of your job as far as I’m concerned.
“Singers have got a bad rap as actors, and I think it’s unfounded. When you’re on stage you’re doing a hell of a lot of things in one go: following the beat, getting your words right, portraying a character, remembering to breathe, not overdoing your character relating to others. There are several balls in the air at one time.”
Mahler's Resurrection symphony may not be an opera, but as musical evenings go it's about as dramatic as it gets. "Mahler was a dark individual," Bardon says. "He had a lot of tragedy in his life." His daughter Maria died aged five, and both his parents, and his sister, died in one year.
"You can almost think that he had an obsession with the afterlife. The Resurrection symphony is about the trials and tribulations of life, and then eternal life – for those who believe – at the end."
In the fourth movement, Bardon will sing the song Urlicht, or Primeval Light. It opens with a simple D flat major doh-re-mi sequence: but those three upward steps express a longing for release from the pain of human existence, and lead the music towards the ecstatic response of the finale. A rapturous ascent into the light-filled cosmos: not a bad way to spend a dark October evening.
- Patricia Bardon and Máire Flavin are the soloists with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alan Buribayev, and the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, chorus master Mark Hindley, in Mahler's Resurrection symphony at the NCH on Friday