British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly appears on the world’s top musical stages from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to the Berlin Philharmonie. After a 2015 recital in New York’s Alice Tully Hall, New York Times critic David Allen described Connolly as being at the peak of her career. “Her instrument might be strong and luminous,” he wrote, “but it also has a fragility, like stained glass. It’s matched to an acute understanding of text and the control to convey it.”
Connolly, who will join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in performances March 30-31 and April 1 of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), may not have the name recognition of others in her field but she self-effacingly places much of the blame on herself. “I don’t promote myself madly,” she said, speaking from her home about two hours outside London. “And I don’t have a big, flashy contract with record agents who put your face up constantly. I’m more somebody who’d rather go and do a master class in a music college than have a photo session in front of the Albert Hall. That, to me is what I do. I have a sort of loathing of self-promotion.”
Her dislike of putting herself forward also helps explain why she was so surprised in 2012 when she was named the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Singer of the Year, an honor that has also gone to such luminaries as American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and German baritone Christian Gerhaher. “Look,” she said, “there are so many singers, and I’m not one of these people who seem to win things. I’ve never won anything before then.”
In any case, Connolly, 53, is a top-flight international signer by any definition. In November, she appeared in the English National Opera’s staging of Lulu, directed by famed South African artist William Kentridge (a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and the Dutch National Opera). Some directors are very hands-on. “Or you can have William Kentridge’s approach, which is to give you the outline of the character with a few pointers, but he’s very much interested to see what you do with something,” she said. “So he is an intelligent, singer’s director. I would imagine that those who don’t have much imagination would be floundering. But our cast was all brilliant. Each member of the cast enjoyed thinking for him or herself.”
This summer, she will appear in the Glyndebourne Festival’s world premiere of Brett Dean’s operatic adaption of Hamlet, singing the role of Gertrude. Although she had seen only excerpts of the score at the time of her interview, Connolly praised the music as beautiful and lyrical; her role falls nicely in the mezzo-soprano range. “He doesn’t make me sort of find a top B out of nowhere, because I wouldn’t like that,” she said. “So he leaves all the high stuff to [soprano] Barbara Hannigan. Her Ophelia is stratospherically high and suitably mad — Lucia-like.”
Other upcoming highlights include her debut June 19 at the celebrated Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg, Austria, what she calls the “No. 1 lieder festival in Europe.” Joining her will be esteemed pianist Graham Johnson, a veteran of the event. “So to sing there with him — he is very established there,” she said. “It will be nice to be someone who knows how the land lies, and it will make me feel less afraid.” Next season brings performances March 23 and 25, 2018, of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director-designate of the Metropolitan Opera.
Connolly followed an unlikely path to the success she is now enjoying. She excelled as a joint vocal and piano student at the Royal College of Music, but she didn’t feel ready to pursue a solo career right after graduation. Instead, she joined the BBC Singers, a radio choir that travels the world performing new music, which at the time meant works by composers like Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti. It was a way of having a steady income while she auditioned for other opportunities like the British Youth Opera and National Opera Studio, but it proved very demanding. She found that she didn’t sing as well as she wanted at the solo auditions, because she was used to blending.
After five years, she decided to take a risk and resign. “I thought, ‘Well, I could carry on her for the rest of my life, or as long as the job is around. But I won’t go anywhere,’” she said. “And there were one or two singers who started out like me with ambition and ended up in the choir not very happy with their decision to remain. I thought I actually could become like that. So it was better to leave and give it a go.”
In the 1990s, she began to make a name for herself in Baroque works. She took part in a Gramophone Award-winning recording of Rameau’s Les Fêtes d’Hébé with famed conductor William Christie and sang the title role in Handel’s Xerxes at the English National Opera in 1998. But she refused to be pigeonholed in such repertoire. Indeed, she is now known for her uncommon versatility, still singing Baroque roles but always feeling equally at home in Mahler and even the expansive operas of Wagner. “On paper, it is odd, I agree,” she said. “But I’m interested in the different styles, and I always have been.”
Connolly typically comes to the United States once year, usually as a soloist with a visiting orchestra. But she has also sung three roles at the Metropolitan Opera and has another as yet unannounced one coming up in a future season, and she returns every three years or so to Alice Tully Hall. This year, she has recitals in New York, Atlanta and San Francisco before making her first-ever journey to Chicago to perform as one of two soloists in Das Lied von der Erde. Calling herself a “debutante” in the city, Connolly said, “It’s a great shame that I haven’t been before.”
On the podium for the concerts will be esteemed guest conductor Bernard Haitink, with whom Connolly collaborated last summer at the Proms in London in Mahler’s Third Symphony. “He just has this absolute instinct,” she said. “He can tell what your energy levels are and he is in tune with them.”
Mahler (1860-1911) began composing Das Lied in 1907 after his daughter’s death and the discovery that he was suffering from a heart ailment. The genre-busting set of six orchestral songs, which are based on German free-verse translations of Chinese poems, emerged as a profound meditation on life and death and a culmination of everything the composer had done before.
“I can’t love it more than I do,” Connolly said. “It’s the greatest piece that Mahler wrote. It has so many resonances to the human journey. There are religious connotations, but I don’t particularly go there. But I do understand the humanity of the piece, the depth of the Chinese poems, and the sacrifice and handing over one’s control to higher forces sometimes in order to be part of everybody and earth’s energy, put it that way. Not to control things, but to be controlled, to be part of it. And in a way, while the music is damn hard to sing, what I’m trying to achieve is a sense of being part of the texture, not standing out, not preaching, not telling the story, but literally being part of the orchestral texture.”
She is a fan of several celebrated singers associated with the work, including mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and contralto Kathleen Ferrier, whom Connolly praises for the “rich, unforced feeling” that she brought to the piece. But her favorite soloist is mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, now 88. “She is unafraid of those isolated notes,” Connolly said. “She can really sign them quietly. Kathleen doesn’t always achieve that, because she is a contralto. They are quite high. Christa has this stand-aloneness. She manages to get the sense in the last song of standing in the middle of the texture, and the voice just comes out of it so perfectly.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.