JULIA Riley, singing Sesto in English Touring Opera’s production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Lyceum next Tuesday, effectively became a singer by accident – she calls it a random occurrence.
Prior to it, she claims never to have sung a note and had no interest at all in singing
“I was in the back of a friend’s car and just messing around singing our school song in a sort of operatic way and my friend turned round and said, ‘orr! You’ve got an amazing voice.’
“So I decided to get a few lessons because I was doing A-level music and I thought it might help.”
It turned out the York-born mezzo-soprano, whose main musical interest was playing piano, had a natural singing voice and “everything came together very quickly” when she sang for the head of music at the Royal Academy of Music in London who gave her a late place.
Subsequently, when studying at the National Opera Studio, she made her professional debut when she went on as Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne in 2005 while covering the role.
As a result, other engagement offers followed and she quickly established herself as one of the most promising young mezzo-sopranos in the country, as well as a growing profile in Europe.
“It’s going quite well at the moment,” asserts the singer.
“I came out of the National Opera Studio about four years ago and made my debuts at the Opera Comique (Paris) and Rouen Opera as Nancy in Albert Herring (Britten) two years ago.”
The birth of a baby daughter 11 months ago meant a slight slowing down of her mushrooming career in which everything she had done had been invariably greeted with glowing reviews.
She says: “Up until I had the baby, I had back to back contracts, although I had to relinquish a couple of things because, obviously, you can’t do certain roles when you’ve got a big bump!
“When she was six weeks old, I went and did a Magic Flute (Second Lady) in Toulouse and I’ve had a little gap when I’ve just been doing concerts.
“Sesto (ETO’s La Clemenza) is actually my next big thing.”
She has sung a number of trouser roles?
“I particularly like doing them, it’s quite fun getting into male parts. As well as the characterisation being a challenge, trouser roles are very good mezzo roles. They’re meaty parts.
“Sesto is probably in my top five roles I wanted to do, so this is fantastic for my career satisfaction.”
Trouser roles, as such, fall into two categories these days, those for which the term travesti (trouser-role) was first coined, like Cherubino, Octavian (Rosenkavalier) and Orlofsky (Fledermaus), and parts originally written for castrati to sing: now adopted by female singers, usually mezzo-sopranos.
Written for a male soprano, Sesto is such a part and in Mozart’s opera he is the closest and most trusted friend of the Roman emperor, Titus – or Tito. Vitellia, daughter of the deposed emperor, is in love with Tito and gets so agitated over his continued attempts to marry someone else she talks Sesto, who is madly in love with her, to kill Tito.
Unknown to her, as Sesto goes off to do the deed Tito has decided to make her his wife.
“The character’s been quite a challenge to get into,” admits Julia Riley. “The fact that he’s so in love with Vitellia and would even think about killing his best friend is quite weird to get your head round.
“Sometimes you can identify with a character but with Sesto, he’s so madly in love you’ve just got to completely immerse yourself in that, you can’t do it half-heartedly, and Mozart’s music helps.”
Julia won the Mozart Singing Competition in 2007 singing the aria in Italian but sings it in Andrew Porter’s English translation in ETO’s production, which resets the opera in 1930s Rome.
lCelebrated American mezzo Joyce DiDonato can be seen in a lesser-known travesti role this Saturday in a live transmission from the New York Metropolitan at Sheffield Cineworld, the page Isolier in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory.