The Many Styles Of Kate Royal
If there was ever a more obviously fitting adjective to describe young British soprano Kate Royal, one suspects it would be “regal”, for not only is the singer tall, slender and striking, but she also has the sort of luminously lyric voice that comes from the same blue-blooded stable as New Zealand’s Kiri Te Kanawa, America’s Renée Fleming, or Britain’s Felicity Lott.
Her surname aside (which is, incidentally, genuine), it’s hard to pigeonhole Kate.
“It’s scary when people always want to put you in a box and tag you as the next so-and-so for marketing purposes,” she muses.
“Especially when I’m still finding my feet with repertoire and trying to find the balance of what I want to do.”
Looking at her CV, it’s extraordinarily varied. As well as singing the serenely lyric, Kiri-type Mozart roles such as the Countess and Pamina, she has starred as the febrile and psychologically tortured Governess in Britten’s The Turn Of The Screw for Glyndebourne. She famously – perhaps even notoriously – sang the solo in Paul McCartney’s oratorio Ecce Cor Meum, and also devotes half her professional life to performing song recitals. Her second disc for EMI, Midsummer Night, is a collection of 20th-century opera arias and, to cap it all, she’s just done a fashion shoot for the achingly on-trend style magazine Harper’s Bazaar.
Success has come fast and early for London-born, Dorset-raised Kate. Aged 25, and one year out of music college, she won the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award for young singers, which led to a string of engagements including a stint in the chorus of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. There, after stepping out to sing a one-line solo, she was picked by Simon Rattle to sing Woglinde (one of the Rhinemaidens) for his Proms performance of Wagner’s Die Rheingold.
“It was crazy: I was the first person in this huge opera to sing a note!” she reminisces. Then, at very short notice, she went on stage to sing Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, for which she received glowing reviews.
“It was extraordinary and rather scary, but you have to remember that this sort of thing happens all the time in the opera world – people get ill and their covers go on,” she says. “It was just all very high profile!”
But, she points out, she’s been no overnight success; anyone trying to make it as an opera singer without a very thorough training and rock-solid technique “wouldn’t last five minutes.” She studied for seven years, at London’s Guildhall School of Music and the National Opera Studio, and by the time she won the Ferrier competition those in the know already had an eye on her; she was with a prestigious agent who steered her through the flood of offers that came her way.
Perhaps, though, Kate was destined to end up in the entertainment business. Her father was a pop musician, writing songs and performing for the 1970s TV game-show The Golden Shot, hosted by Bob Monkhouse. Her mother was a model and dancer – “one of the chorus lines you’d see high-kicking in TV shows” – who went on to open a dance school in Devon.
“My sister and I were always singing and dancing round the house and it was assumed one of us would probably end up in theatre. In my case when I started learning to play instruments I realised that was what suited me – I took the conventional route, I suppose. Still, I’d love to be able to play jazz, to just sit and improvise. But you always want what you don’t have!”
So why did she choose opera? Was she ever tempted by the world of pop or musicals?
“I never wanted to be a pop singer, but musical theatre was a big thing in my early teens,” she admits. “I remember all these girls around me who could ‘belt’ in a musical theatre voice, and I used to think, ‘How do they do that?’. When I tried to sing that way it felt wrong.
“But when I was 15 or 16 I met a singing teacher who encouraged me to sing in a classical style. And it just clicked. I thought, ‘Ah, I get it now, this feels exactly right and the way forward for me,’ so it went from there.”
Kate also studied piano to a high level – it was as a pianist that she first went to London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, before singing took over.
For now, Kate is concentrating on performing mainly Mozart roles as well as song recitals; her diary is full of dates that take her all round the world for the next few years. However, one of the few 20th-century operatic roles she’s undertaken has had a huge effect on her: that of the Governess in Britten’s Turn Of The Screw.
“I absolutely love that role. It’s the first time I’ve had the feeling of the words almost taking precedence over the music; suddenly it’s a play, a real drama, and the melodrama element you usually find in opera is gone.”
The Governess’s central aria provided the spark of inspiration for the programme of her new disc. “Many of these arias are sung either at sunset or at night, and they involve women who are either under psychological strain or releasing a flood of pent-up emotion.”
The music is certainly varied, from Dvorˇák’s famous Song To The Moon to the sumptuous – and stratospheric – lines of Mariettas Lied by Korngold.
“Putting the disc together took a huge amount of research – I spent hours looking on the internet and listening to iTunes for any suitable aria. But it’s a wonderful way of singing repertoire I’ll probably never perform on stage.”
Kate is careful about what she takes on.
“I’ve had a lot of people saying, ‘You should sing Puccini or Verdi’, but there are so many sopranos out there who sing that repertoire like they were born to it and I don’t feel it’s right for me, vocally or temperamentally – not yet, anyway.”
She clearly has a long career in her sights and is sensibly not taking on anything too big for her voice at present, however much we might want to hear her sing Mimì or Violetta. But that’s not stopped her exploring repertoire beyond the scope of the usual operatic canon, such as McCartney’s Ecce Cor Meum.
“I’m sure I got some criticism from certain circles for doing that, but you’re criticised no matter what you do. It was a wonderful project, I got to perform in Carnegie Hall and record in Abbey Road Studios – and we all know what happened there!”
And the question everyone wants to ask: What was Sir Paul himself like?
“He was really interested in my kind of music and my background, with my father having been a singer-songwriter. It was a nice vibe. It’s fascinating to see how someone like him runs his life with all the people around him – and there are a lot of people.
“It made me thankful that, as an opera singer, you’ll never have that crazy level of fame where you can’t go anywhere or do anything on your own. But what I like about him is that he’s remained truly down-to-earth and treats everyone in the same way, with respect, as an individual. He’s also the only person, apart from my grandmother, who can get away with calling me Katie.”
HEAR HER ON…
Midsummer Night - Kate Royal (soprano), Orchestra of English National Opera/Edward Gardner
A disc of 20th-century opera arias may sound rather forbidding, but there’s plenty of wonderful music to discover here, from Dvorˇák’s well-known Song To The Moon from Rusalka and Vilja-Lied from Lehár’s The Merry Widow, to the aching simplicity of the lament from American composer Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Korngold’s famously lush melody Mariettas Lied from Die Tote Stadt shows off Kate’s gossamer high notes as well as her creamy lyric sound, and there are some rare gems too, such as an aria from William Alwyn’s Miss Julie.
EMI Classics 268 1922
■ Born: Dulwich, London, 1979
■ Educated: Guildhall School of Music and Drama; National Opera Studio
■ Big Break: Winning the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2004
■ Signature Roles: Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute; The Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro; Yhe Governess in Britten’s The Turn Of The Screw.
■ Home Life: Kate lives in south London with her partner, who is an actor, and a black Labrador called Roman.