Susanna Hurrell on performing at the Royal Opera House

The English soprano talks about her experience of playing Micaëla in ‘Carmen’

Susanna Hurrell as Micaëla (C) ROH. Photograph: Bill Cooper

The Royal Opera is shaking things up with Barrie Kosky’s radical production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Set in Seville, Spain, the production tells the story of Don José, a corporal who becomes infatuated with Carmen, a gypsy girl working in a cigarette factory. The seduction leads them both down a path of passion, violence and self-destruction.

First performed in Oper Frankfurt in 2016, the production is likely to shock opera traditionalists with an ensemble whose members appear dressed in pre-war attire, their faces heavily painted. They perform on a dark, dramatic staircase that Carmen herself descends in a gorilla suit as she sings her famous aria ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’. With pre-recorded French narration sweeping away all the dialogue, as well as six highly energetic dancers performing in a cabaret style, as choreographed by Otto Pichler, this production breaks the rules of traditional opera, as Bizet did when Carmen was first performed in 1875 (it was then condemned as a critical failure and is now considered one of the greatest operas of all time).

The still centre of all the chaos in this story is Micaëla, the pure-hearted girl next door, whose love for Don José is unrequited and who tries desperately to save him from Carmen, her rival. A vision in virginal white in counterpoint to the darkly attired Carmen, she represents the voice of reason, hope and unselfish love (with Don José’s mother’s approval to boot!). Performing Micaëla on respective evenings, the English soprano Susanna Hurrell speaks to T&C about performing in this landmark production and why the story attracts audiences time and again. 

Anna Goryachova as Carmen, Aigul Akhmetshina as Mercédès, Jacquelyn Stucker as Frasquita (C) ROH. Photograph: Bill Cooper

You are returning to the Royal Opera House with this production – what have you been up to since you were last in Covent Garden?

Since Il Trittico in 2016, I’ve been having a lot of fun doing a wide range of operas, all of which have been new productions. I performed in two ROH premieres: 4.48 Psychosis by Philip Venables, and the title role in Sukanya, by the late sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. I also played Rosalinde in Opera Holland Park’s beautiful Art Deco production of Die Fledermaus, Mélisande at Norwegian National Opera and Aldimira in Cavalli’s Erismena for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Perhaps my favourite role of the past two years was Anne Trulove in The Rake’s Progress with a new company, OperaGlass Works, here in London at the wonderful historic venue of Wilton’s Music Hall.

You trained at the Royal College of Music. Back then, could you have imagined appearing in such an imaginative production as Barrie Kosky’s Carmen?

While I was at college I don’t think I ever thought very far ahead, except to be hugely impressed by what my friends who had already left were doing. I was lucky enough to be in some really good productions and in fact, my first role there was in a highly physical staging of a Handel opera, Alessandro, where I had to play croquet, perform a detailed make-up ritual and cartwheel during my arias, all of which served to prepare me for Carmen

Anna Goryachova as Carmen, Francesco Meli as Don José (C) ROH. Photograph: Bill Cooper

What should we expect from the production?

I would say, expect to be razzle-dazzled. It’s totally un-traditional and anarchic; it breaks the fourth wall; it pushes you to think about gender and feminism, so it’s very current; and the dancing is slick, funny and fabulous. 

What is it like performing to a London audience? 

At the heart of every audience are people who are there to be moved and stirred by what they see, and it’s our job as singers to provide them with a memorable experience, no matter where we are. London does have a great energy, because the standard of art in general here is so high, and as a Londoner myself there’s an awareness of that expectation. Also, because there are usually familiar faces in the audience, you have the sense that the crowd is ‘on your side’, whereas when you’re abroad it feels like there’s more of a challenge to prove yourself. The best atmospheres don’t always come from big venues, though; I often perform at a summer music festival in Southrepps, a tiny village in Norfolk where the people are so full of enthusiasm that their excitement filters through to the performers.

How have you found playing Micaëla?

This is my role debut as Micaëla so I only have this production to go by, but my experience of her is that she is a passionate girl on a difficult mission. The man she adores has been led astray and turned into someone unrecognisable. She believes she can save him from Carmen and from himself, and bring him home to a simpler way of life, but ultimately she fails. By the time she gets him away from the dark situation he is in, he is too far gone; the charm of the gypsy’s flower has woven its magic and he is hooked, like an addict, which is extremely painful for Micaëla to witness. She learns a lot about life throughout the opera, and at the end you feel that a sad worldly wisdom has replaced the innocence and unfiltered joy that she had at the start of the drama.

How do you get into your character’s mind-set?

I have to try to remember what it was like to be an innocent teenager, and have only that romantic, idyllic and passionate version of life in my head. Things are more black and white when you are young – good versus evil, love versus hate, one extreme or the other, and so I have the difficult task of trying to lose the knowledge and self-awareness that I have gained in real life. For her famous aria (‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’), which is all about fear, loneliness, nervousness and then finding strength and courage, all I have to do is be aware of the situation I’m in, standing on a huge stage by myself with hundreds of eyes on me and a tricky aria to sing, and then I can usually access fear and the need for courage quite easily! 

Akhmetshina as Mercédès, Fouchécourt as Le Remendado, Goryachova as Carmen, Doyen as Le Dancaïre, Stucker as Frasquita (C) ROH. Photograph: Bill Cooper

What kind of response do you expect from the audience?

I believe that opera productions should challenge and excite audiences, otherwise the only art is in the music and for that you can go to a concert version instead. Opera is a multi-media experience and it can be so satisfying when you see symbolism in the staging and wittiness in the costumes – things that make you think, what’s that about? How does that image connect with what we saw in the first act? What does that costume say about the character? As long as it adds up to a coherent overall vision and doesn’t impair the singing, I’m very much in favour of modern stagings that force an audience (and the performers) to engage on many levels.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

After all the new productions I’ve done recently, this is a year of revivals. From Carmen I go straight into a revival of 4.48 Psychosis. I’m looking forward to revisiting it after two years and working with the director Ted Huffman again. One of the things about moving from one production to another is that every director has a different style, so you are constantly having to rethink your approach and quickly adapt to a new way of working. While Barrie Kosky works with physicality from a psychological starting point, Ted begins from a more sensory, meditative space where everyone in the cast almost has to let go of thought and sense one another’s bodies to the point where we become one moving organism. 

I’m also looking forward to a staged version of Handel’s Messiah with the English Concert, and in the summer I will make a return to Jean Bellorini’s production of Cavalli’s Erismena, in Paris.

Susanna Hurrell performs Micaëla in Barrie Kosky’s Carmen on 16 and 27 of February and 8, 12 and 16 March at the Royal Opera House. The performance on 6 March will be relayed to cinemas around the world, as part of the ROH Live Cinema Season.

***

MORE CULTURE

Review: ‘Satyagraha’ at English National Opera

Meet the artist channelling Van Gogh for ‘Loving Vincent’

What to book: ‘The Milliner’ exhibition