Whilst in rehearsals for Jonathan Dove’s Opera ‘A Walk from the Garden’ with Scottish Opera I’m grateful to be receiving professional coaching from Judith Howarth, one of the most sought-after sopranos in Europe. Judith is also a vocal teacher at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
I asked Judith in one of the Dove rehearsals if I could ask her some questions for a blog interview and for my personal interest and I’m very appreciative that she took the time to answer in fabulous detail to share with us all.
Judith first of all thanks for agreeing to an interview for my blog I’m very grateful for your time and help. My first question is what do you think are the vocal challenges in the role of ‘Eve’?
The role has lots of colours that can be used, vocally. Singing in English is always a challenge and getting the words clear but not spoiling the sound of the voice is tricky, but of course, perfectly possible. You must develop vocal and physical stamina for this role. It sits quite high in the voice and so is vocally demanding. With modern music, it is always a challenge to find “the line” but it is very important, so that the music does not just sound like notes.
Which vocal fach is Eve?
In my opinion, Eve is a light lyric sing.
What vocal fach are you and has this changed over the years? Do you think these definitions are a good idea or pigeon-hole singers?
I am a lyric coloratura. My voice has changed immensely over the years. I have always had the ability to sing coloratura and I have always had very easy access to the top of my voice. I don’t think that I have ever had a light voice and the darker qualities that I use now have always been there but I did not use them for many years. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that I am still performing and that I think that my voice is better than ever.
I do think that there is too much emphasis placed on what voice types young singers are! First of all, it doesn’t matter and secondly, no one knows how a voice will develop and how long it will take. Emphasis should be on letting the voice develop naturally. That means stretching it a little occasionally but always sing the correct repertoire. It really annoys me when pupils ask me what voice type they are and what do I think that they will become, it’s stupid. ( Memo to myself “never ask Judith what voice type she thinks I am!” 🙂 )
I’ve heard you talk of stamina before, what sort of exercises do you do to improve your stamina before a big performance?
Stamina is built up over years and also I build the stamina for each performance during my private learning and the production rehearsals. It takes time. We all need to find our limits and I am afraid that it comes from occasionally over singing. I did this a lot as a student because I am greedy to sing all the time, especially when I am having a “good ” day. I actually don’t like exercises. I usually sing the slow part of a bel canto aria and get the voice nice and “high”. I also sometimes just sing along to a recording of Rutter, Karl Jenkins or anything that I like and is gentle. I never practice the top. I know that it will work because I have done the practice. All singing techniques are in the songs or arias, so I prefer to sing songs rather exercise. I am afraid that they bore me. I also keep physically fit and the demands on the body when singing a large role are immense.
Having good breath control is so important, what is your biggest advice for young singers on improving this?
Yes, breathing is paramount. Total relaxation is the key. One can practice breathing at any time. Totally relax and the take a slow intake of air. If you do this 3 or 4 times correctly, you will get high because of the amount of oxygen that you are taking in. Breath control is also paramount as you sing on the flow of air. It must be controlled so that there are no “bumps” in the “line”. Singers must also totally relax between phrases. You must release the diaphragm otherwise you will hyperventilate. Breathing is the first thing to be affected when a person is nervous, so try to control the flow of air.
I read about you being called up to fill in for a sick singer and flown in on a private jet which sounds terribly exciting. What do you do if you have a cold, do you sing on through colds? Do you know any quick remedies for a blocked nose on audition days for example?
The first thing is that if you are unwell, then don’t sing if you can avoid it. We all get colds and there have been times when you have to perform. The more well known a singer becomes, the more intolerant the public are if the singers performance is not perfect. They expect the best every time.
There are no remedies for colds I am afraid. I do drink lots of water and hot drinks, avoid talking and get lots of rest. One can sing on a cold. It all depends what type of cold. If the chords are coated with mucous that is because the body is protecting them. If you have to sing like this, you could do damage so try to avoid it. You have to be patient as a singer. Things take time, years sometimes. There are no quick fixes to becoming a fine singer. Practice, advice, and above all listen to your body. A decongestant will help to unblock a nose. I would always advise that if you are doing an audition, you have to decide whether you think that you can do yourself justice. If you can’t, then you should try to reschedule, because people always remember a bad audition.
Judith I read that at my age you were working as a Principal at The Royal Opera House, what impact did moving from Scotland to London have on you at such an age?
When I moved to London from Glasgow, I took everything in my stride. I was keen to see the world and be the best singer that I can be. The only reservation I had was that my husband was still in Scotland. We took it in turns to travel to each other at the weekends. It was the best thing that happened in my career. It taught me so much and for that I am eternally grateful.
What has been your favourite role to-date?
I don’t think that I have a favourite role. There are possibly three that I adore. They are Madam Butterfly, Mrs Mao, and Maria Stuarda. I also used to love singing Violetta which I have sung at least 45 times all over the world. I have been very blessed and very spoilt.
I am passionate about passing on my knowledge and experience and am now asked to teach worldwide which I am delighted about. Everyone deserves a good technique and an opportunity to be a part of this wonderful world of opera!
What role is left that you’d like to fulfil?
There are a few roles that I am booked to sing and a few that I want to perform. They are Tosca, Amelia in Ballo, Norma, and Aida . There are more but these are the ones that come to mind at the moment. I have sung so many that I forget.