Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is a tale of two Queens – one Catholic and Scottish, one Protestant and English. One is in prison at the other’s behest. Irish National Opera stages it in the Gaiety Theatre this June.
A man between them balancing loyalty and love. And an impassioned insult – “Vile bastard” – that leads to the scaffold. The insult was so potent that the first performance of Donizetti’s lyrical tragedy was cancelled at the last minute in Naples through royal intervention. A toned-down revision went awry in Milan the following year when the great Maria Malibran chose to sing the original words. More than a century would pass before the work would finally make its way into the operatic mainstream.
The INO production will be directed by Tom Creed with costumes created by designer Katie Davenport – featuring a massive red carpet dominating the set and costumes reflecting Vivienne Westwood, Union Jack Dresses and David Bowie.
lead photo credit: Ruth Medjber
We speak to the two leads Tara Erraught (Maria Stuarda) and Anna Devin (Elisabetta) ahead of their performances.
Tara Erraught (mezzo-sporano)
What was your first abiding memory of the world of opera?
Aged 13 I had already been taking singing lessons for over 3 years, and steadily competing at Feis’ around the country, but my parents brought us to see Aida in Verona that summer. It wasn’t just the music, but the entire spectacle of the drama, the sets, costumes, the pure scale of what was involved, took my breath away. I knew there and then that I would chase this art form across the globe. Because at that time, there was no full time opera company in Ireland.
Who inspired you whilst first immersing yourself in the world of opera?
My first singing teacher, Geraldine McGee, would spend hours explaining plots of operas and introducing me to the stunning arias, often allowing me to sing translations in English, so I could get a feel for what lay ahead. The late, great Monseigneur Shields who was a huge fan of the arts and a great supporting of young singers, also was very involved at that time. His many years in Rome meant that he had great Italian, and a link to the Vatican library. So I was very lucky to have had such musical immersion in the tradition of Grand Opera, at such a young age.
You will be performing as Maria Stuarda. How did you research this role and what is your understanding of her, having done so?
As with every role, it is important to spend some time getting to know the score, what the composer wanted from the singer. The beauty of bel Canto, is that the singer is given a lot of space to make the role fit the voice, We can change cadenzas, add ornaments etc., until the role feels organic to you. Although I did some reading and, in fact, watched some excellent films, I felt that because Donizetti took some turns in his version, that never happened in real life, that it was important to commit to his Maria Stuarda, rather than a factually correct version of Mary Stuart. An example of this would be, in the Act 1 finale, Donizetti composed an incredibly dramatic meeting of the two women, which, in fact never happened. However, this scene is the epicentre of the entire opera. Both the interactions in this scene and the reactions to this scene, create the entire landscape for the characters in the second Act.
The most important thing with any role debut is to honour the composers wishes, while committing to the character that he wrote, in the circumstances in which he presents her. To that end, my Maria is still growing and changing within the rehearsal process, reacting to my colleagues, creating the music with conductor Fergus Sheil, and director Tom Creed.
“My Maria is still growing and changing within the rehearsal process, reacting to my colleagues, creating the music with conductor Fergus Sheil, and director Tom Creed.”
What do you hope to bring this role and do historical parallels with the contemporary world inform your interpretation of the part?
This is the first time this opera is being performed in full scale in Ireland. With that comes a depth of responsibility, of which I am very aware. It is my job as a singer, to present the story in an honest manner, both vocally and emotionally. As with every role, we commit fully to the character both dramatically and musically. This is a story of two women in very difficult, high stake situations, both fighting for their birth rights, their countries, their families, their people. It is a piece of our time…
How important is an understanding of mood, motive and psychology in opera?
Without these three elements, there is no opera. To understand the music, is to understand the mood, the motive, the plot, the actions and reactions. The power of the composer can not be undersold. He/she writes everything in the music before they even add the text. Every single tone has a dramatic reason or an emotive impulse. This is why it is so exciting, it takes over your body. The music leads you to each emotion, but in opera it is the interaction with your colleagues that changes dramatically and vocally, depending on their individual impulse or reaction to the music. Thus the reason that the rehearsals process is so very important. It is intense and always interesting.
How challenging is making opera appeal to a younger generation? What is and could be done to make it a relatable art form?
Opera has never not been appealing, it simply wasn’t always available. As with every art form it is important to make everyone feel welcome to experience it. Culturally, Ireland had some periods of time where opera, and certainly regular performances, were not available. With the birth of Irish National Opera, Irish audiences of all ages finally have many chances throughout the year to see many different types of opera all over the country. There is a huge wealth of vocal talent in this country, and this must of course be celebrated. I believe that the continued success of INO shows the public interest, not only across all age groups but across all genres of Opera.
Could you share memories of the most daunting and rewarding role you have played to date?
I have had too many wonderful moments to pick a winner. Each role is very different and carries their own reward and difficulties. This season 2021/2022, I made two role debuts singing in French in Paris, Both title roles. Iphighenie in Iphighenie en Tauride and Cendrillon (Cinderella) in Cendrillon. The first of these two contracts was a jump in. I arrived in Paris not knowing a single note of the opera, I learned it and the staging in 10 days. That was a SERIOUS undertaking, but an incredibly rewarding part. Singing the role of Cendrillon in Massenet’s Cendrillon, the first time the Opera National de Paris have ever performed this French opera, was a huge honour.
Does the power of opera exert even more meaning after the lockdown experience we have all been through?
Without question. Being unable to perform during the lockdown was like being unable to breathe. Singing is a vocation, it takes commitment, and sacrifice. The lockdown experience gifted me some beautiful and unexpected time with my family, time at home and time that I am well aware, I will not have again. It gave me time to rest, and the voice time to grow. We are at a point now where we are willing the public to return to the theatre. Is it just like it was? Absolutely not, and we wouldn’t expect that. We have all lived through a huge trauma, all of our life experiences have ballooned over the past few years. Let us all come together and see what the art does with these experiences. It is a rebirth rather than a return.
Anna Devin (soprano)
What is the allure of opera for you? When did you realise you were destined for a career in it?
The music was the first thing that grabbed my attention in opera but as I saw more and learnt more about it, it was the fact it has all the possible elements of theatre in one, music, costumes, sets, language, text, lighting, and the amazing orchestra. I dreamed of being an opera singer from a young age, but I suppose it wasn’t until I got accepted into the opera course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London that I thought it might happen.
Elisabetta is presented as a duelling queen opposite Maria Stuarda – how do you prepare for such a role? What is done in advance and what emerges from the dynamic realised in rehearsals?
I have spent some time reading up on the queens and their situations, there is so much information and also so much up for interpretation about what you believe happened, particularly with Maria, that I really feel of all the roles I have done, I need to be in the rehearsal room to find the multiple layers of Elisabetta’s personality. I find the idea of having a set idea before you rehearse strange as the other singers/actors you interact with on stage bring their own energy that you need to work with to fully realise your character.
Have you starred opposite Tara before? Have your pathways crossed?
I have not starred opposite Tara, so it is going to be great fun to finally share a stage. We studied together at the RIAM in Dublin when we were at the beginning of our journeys. Both of us have developed our careers abroad so to do a production on home soil is extra special. My only concern is that we won’t be able to stop laughing as we found that rather tricky at our photo shoot.
We all tend to associate the word ‘diva’ with opera? Can you attest to this or refute it?
Interesting question, I think I have to attest it. Opera singing is like formula one singing, everything needs to be perfectly lined up to create the best possible sound to ride over an orchestra of up to 100 instruments without amplification. In all of the productions I have done I have never worked with someone you would call a ‘Diva’ in the traditional sense, most opera singers are friendly and very much team players. But I do believe a sense of divadom is necessary to step on stage and do our job.
“Opera singing is like formula one singing, everything needs to be perfectly lined up to create the best possible sound to ride over an orchestra of up to 100 instruments without amplification.”
What are the fundamentals of a successful opera in your opinion?
Most important are great singers, cast well in the roles so they can fully occupy the world that has been created on stage for them. The interpretations are best when drawn out of the artists by great directors, Barrie Kosky is amazing at this, whoever steps into the room, he uses their unique qualities as performers/people/artists to realise the characters. On a second note, it helps when the characters are dressed in costumes that suit them.
Katie Davenport is bringing a modern sensibility to costume. How hands on are you with the component parts of a staging?
It is rare that I get to see the costume before I go to my fitting, so I don’t often get much say in it, but I do find things are often up for discussion at the fittings if things don’t work for me. I have only done one production where the designer asked me to pick my own dress from a rail, it was really nice.
What can a 21st century audience glean from a 19th century opera?
In my opinion nothing has changed, humans are the same, the world has moved on and we have adapted, but fundamentally we are all driven by our feelings and failings, whether that be in love, career, politics or wealth. It is the job of the opera singers to make that clear to the audience so they come away understanding the dynamics of the story and the character’s journey.
Are there other roles you have performed which you are drawing upon for this one?
Elisabetta is definitely the most complicated character I will have played due to her status as Queen of England but even within this I believe she has two overriding driving forces, her love for Leceister and her sense of duty to the country. I have played so many roles that are driven by their love for someone, but the two that stand out to me, are Melissa in Amadigi because she is power hungry and in a love triangle, the other one is Cleopatra in Guilio Cesare, her political game is completely wrapped up and intertwined with the coupling with Cesare.
If you could inspire one piece of advice to an aspiring soprano what would it be?
Trust your gut instinct as you will always know what is best for your journey.
Maria Stuarda is on in the Gaiety Theatre on Sunday June 5 (5pm), Tuesday June 7, Thursday June 9 and Saturday June 11 (7.30pm) before a tour of Cork, Wexford and Limerick. Tickets: €30-€85.
Sung in Italian with English surtitles.
Duration is approximately three hours including an interval.