Corsets and arias: Tara Erraught on life as a mezzo-soprano

The young singer from Dundalk is building a thriving international career on opera, orchestra and recital stages across the world

Tara Erraught: ‘When we’re singing pieces from hundreds of years ago we want to make it relevant. It’s to do with the truth of the character.’ Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Tara Erraught: ‘When we’re singing pieces from hundreds of years ago we want to make it relevant. It’s to do with the truth of the character.’ Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

It’s not often you watch another woman put on her corset. Tara Erraught makes it seem ordinary, pointing – “here, feel it” – how stiff the ribbed fabric is.

It’d constrain an ordinary mortal, but Erraught is a mezzo-soprano on world stages, whose voice is praised by critics for its “rich and clear coloratura singing” and “a full, round timbre”, where she is “able to adjust the weight and colour of her voice”. Constraining? Not so, says Erraught.

“It’s a really brilliant design. The way a woman’s corset is built, it really sits on the waist; it’s quite high. Like an extra support when you sing.” In the past, she says, corsets might have been tightened to the bone. But we” – that’s professional opera singers – “spend so much time expanding everything, our ribs and neck stretch. I’ve got 2½ extra inches on my shirt size when I wear men’s costumes, because the muscles have grown.”

She lives between Munich, Dundalk, and life on the road

Erraught’s dressingroom today is the elegant Henry Jones room, just off the Long Room library in Trinity College Dublin. She’s getting into a ballgown with side-hoops under a wide skirt for the title role of Irish National Opera’s big show, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, a version of Cinderella, at Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

She and bass Graeme Danby, also in Georgian kecks, chat about the merits of corsets as Anne Healy finishes make-up and Sinead Lawlor adjusts his lacy cravat. When she sings boys Erraught wears a longer, flattening corset, with four layers of elastic, “a sort of tube to take away whatever curves you have in the middle”, she says.

Danby is Don Magnifico, Cenerentola’s stepfather (Rossini’s Cinderella has a buffo stepfather, not a wicked stepmother; there’s no fairy godmother or glass slipper and the prince is disguised). In the Long Room afterwards it’s quite the occasion, with select supporters getting an intimate performance – and glorious, soaring singing – from Erraught, Danby, with an ensemble conducted by INO artistic director Fergus Shiel. The Long Room is a perfect setting for the production’s fairytale book theme.

Warm, effervescent, easy and assured, Erraught chats at great speed, the words tumbling out, about all sorts: the joys of singing Rossini; discovering misshapen vegetables in Washington DC farmers’ markets; how boys’ ankles are much floppier than girls’.

The young mezzo from Dundalk has a thriving international career on opera, orchestra and recital stages. After studying at Dublin’s Royal Irish Academy of Music, aged 20, she got a full-time job at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera’s studio. With two years in its young artists programme, she was offered principal soloist. “I enjoyed every second of it. It was hard work, I won’t candyfloss it. I did 47 role debuts in that house, everything from three words in Werther to all my big roles – Cenerentolas, Rosannas, Susannas – which is beautiful to do with an audience you know, an orchestra you know, in a company you know – every stage hand, every dresser.

“It was an almost a family environment.”

It’s a state job so she didn’t have the insecurity of starting her career freelance. “And I’m so happy to return to that house, because I’m still family.”

‘It’s never just me’

After 10 years, in July 2018 she left that family and her international career is well supported by “a wonderful management team – Michael Levine and Arsis in Vienna – who’re very conscious of what’s healthy, not doing too much but doing enough to keep the voice fit and experiment with some new roles”. Along with teachers Veronica Dunne in Ireland and Brigitte Fassbaender in Germany, “it’s never just me by myself making decisions”.

She lives between Munich, Dundalk, and life on the road. After Cenerentola in Dublin, this season she’s back in Munich in Hansel and Gretel, Vienna State Opera for Barber of Seville, then two months each in New York (her first Cenerentola at the Met), Berlin (Barber and Don Giovanni), Munich (Cosi fan tutte and Haydn’s Orlando paladino). It’s her 10th year on the circuit “so I know people in all these cities. I know the companies. I rent the same apartments, I have my favourite coffee places. And I’m very lucky my family come and visit a lot”.

She adores the sociable life, but also “I have no bother exploring by myself”. She describes moving from NY (“I spent every second on Broadway to see everything I possibly could, and I did a lot of shopping”) to her first time working in Barcelona last year, spending afternoons in a tapas place reading the second Aisling book, “I’m sure people thought I was an absolute lunatic, roaring with laughter to myself”. In Berlin she enjoys jazz and watching tango and, everywhere, restaurants: “I’m a big, big foodie. I’ll ask the make-up people and dressers where they’re eating, the best supermarkets and farmers’ markets, and explore what people who live in that city do, because that’s where the fun is.”

Tara Erraught: ‘Rossini wrote incredibly well for women. He wrote relatively few women in his pieces, but they are spotlighted.’ Photograph: Ross Kavanagh
Tara Erraught: ‘Rossini wrote incredibly well for women. He wrote relatively few women in his pieces, but they are spotlighted.’ Photograph: Ross Kavanagh

She’s sung Cenerentola a lot – “our second show here will be my 30th. It’s a great role. Rossini wrote incredibly well for women. He wrote relatively few women in his pieces, but they are spotlighted”. And “he never wrote ugly sisters. He does write mean. The ugliness is from the jealousy and contempt they have towards her”.

Cenerentola has the last word, the seven-minute aria Non più mesta. “Rossini tends to give them the space to really say something. The big theme of the whole thing, her last big aria, is when goodness triumphs. She says to the prince before it: my punishment for this family is to forgive them, because she knows it will hurt them and won’t be easy for them to accept”.

Cenerentola, she is SO relevant...This is someone who was born with more and it was taken from her, and yet the people around her, who she continues to love, she never gives up on them 

For a mezzo it’s “a big historic thing to sing in it, following in the footsteps of Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato, Teresa Berganza, and a coming of age nearly”.

The most famous Cenerentola she’s done is Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s version, which she does at the Bavarian State Opera; “I do one in Hamburg [by André Barbe and Renaud Doucet], set in space, and it’s incredible and it really works”.

The London Times described her Cenerentola at the Welsh National Opera last year as “a natural Angelina. The Irish mezzo’s voice is warm as smouldering embers, tender throughout, with unfaltering coloratura. She’s down to earth but a dreamer, wise about the world but innocently hopeful.”

Fairytale characters

INO’s production, directed by Orpha Phelan and designed by Nicky Shaw, unfolds from book pages, and celebrates literature, escapism – and Goodness Triumphant. “This one is the epitome of the fairytale,” says Erraught. “And it’s all fairytales, with many more fairytale characters. It’s gone a step further than most. It’s really intelligent. I called my manager and asked: how have I not been in this kind of show, this is what it should be. I think it’ll appeal to everybody regardless of age.”

Back in the dressingroom she’s talking about playing boys. In Munich she was “very blessed to have an amazing drama teacher” who taught her to always observe, “watch children – I play Hansel a lot – the relationship between boys and girls, watch the men, the women”.

She’s sitting, and hitches up her skirts for a masterclass in gender body language. To play boys, the “first thing I learned was to loosen my hips. Women stand with a posture. Our hips are pushed in quite tight so the pelvis is open, so it’s quite good when you sing. But men’s hips and knees are more relaxed and their ankles and feet are floppier. That’s why little boys trip. Girls are concentrating from a small age, standing on their toes – they’ve tightened muscles in back of their legs, and their ankles are stronger”.

She loosens her body and transforms.  “Boys tend to sit and slump, and girls tend to sit their bums into the back of the seat to get themselves comfortable. Watch a teenage girl sulk – it’s a tidy sulk, with teenage boys it’s – everywhere! Then as gentlemen age and manspread, they’re trying to be serious”. She angles one leg, holding it. “It’s all about a stance: I’ve something important to tell you.”

“It’s vital in our industry. When we’re singing pieces from hundreds of years ago we want to make it relevant. It’s to do with the truth of the character. Cenerentola, she is SO relevant. People are born to make the best of what they’re given. This is someone who was born with more and it was taken from her, and yet the people around her, who she continues to love, she never gives up on them. He didn’t write her as stupid or naive. It’s relevant regardless of when the opera is set.

“What I’m falling in love with in this production is that it’s committed to the fairytale, that anybody can escape in a book, the same as in an opera, for an hour or two away from the world and travel with someone else’s story. This production is so clever, it’s a little bit genius. It helps people to remember, even in worst of times, there’s an escape. Goodness will always triumph. If you want something good out of the world you’ve got to put good things in. That’s what my parents taught me. In the end she gets what she wanted – escape from the house. But she’s aware the prince is only human, and she has to get him to forgive them. It’s proper human characters.”

Irish National Opera’s La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) is at Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, November 10-16, irishnationalopera.ie bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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