"Do the groundwork" - An interview with mezzo-soprano Emma Roberts
Following the 2022 Kathleen Ferrier Competition, we were delighted to grab a quick chat with Emma Roberts, mezzo-soprano and recipient of the second prize as well as the Loveday Song Prize winner for her performance of Debussy’s Colloque sentimental.
We first encountered Emma nearly three years ago, back in 2019 as a semi-finalist in our competition By Voice Alone. We were completely blown away by her poised and elegant performance when we saw her at the semi-final of the Kathleen Ferrier awards, and we were interested to hear more about her journey and progression from one competition to the next.
Firstly, massive congratulations! What does winning the Kathleen Ferrier Second Prize and also the Loveday Song Prize mean to you?
There are two sides to it really. On the one hand, I am completely overwhelmed and can’t quite believe it, I am definitely pinching myself! But on the other hand, in perhaps a more realistic way, I acknowledge that I have worked really really hard, I have tried and tested many things that have failed, and it has been my third attempt at the competition, so I also feel like perhaps, finally, I am doing something right.
It is really wonderful to hear you say that. We often only hear about people’s success, but never the journey which leads to it. So, we are grateful to you for sharing that. It is also interesting for us, especially as we were impressed by you three years ago. In By Voice Alone, there were more than 400 people and you made it to the top 28.
By Voice Alone was a pioneer of blind auditions, and we wanted to make the process as fair as possible, and only about the voice. We are now seeing this approach adopted across the industry. However, I understand that you also felt additional benefits from having the screen. Can you tell us more about that?
Singing behind a screen felt totally liberating! There was no feeling of judgement and it felt like ‘play time’. I felt as though I was inventing things on the spot because I couldn’t feel any judgement.
Funnily enough, if I connect the dots, I felt like at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards, I was finally able to harness that freedom, but without needing a screen there. Over the three years, I have slowly managed to transfer that freedom that comes from being behind a screen to feeling like that in front of people.
So, what inspired you to take place in the By Voice Alone competition in the first place?
My main intrigue stemmed from my experiences of closing up when I felt judgement and feeling that the panel were really scary, and consequently not being able to do what I know I am capable of doing both musically and vocally, which, of course, leads to feeling disappointed in myself.
But when I sang with a screen, everything loosened up and I was able to do what I would in a singing lesson or rehearsal room.
You were very young when you took part in By Voice Alone, and early on in your training. Therefore, how was it walking out to the semi-final of the By Voice Alone competition knowing that there was a large panel, which consisted of all the most influential opera casting directors?
I remember walking into the room and my mouth drying up completely, thinking ‘Ah, this isn’t as fun as last time!’ and just getting through it. I think I was suffering from a bit of imposter syndrome, comparing myself to other people who had made the semi-final and thinking they were further on with their training than I was. I think I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the final, but I just aimed to get through the pieces and not embarrass myself!
Ah imposter syndrome, I am sure everyone can relate there! So, tell us how have you kept motivated these last three years? We understand you have been training during that time, but also through a pandemic, which must have been incredibly isolating?
At the beginning of the pandemic, the change of pace really helped me. At college (Emma currently attends the International Opera School at the Royal College of Music) everything is really fast-paced, and I sometimes feel there is not enough time to truly get under the surface of a piece or a character. So, I enjoyed having time to really delve into the arias and songs I was learning. Although after a few months, it did get a little bit old! And, like the rest of the music world, I was craving performing to real people, not at a screen. But as a student, I was fortunate to have a schedule and structure. It’s hard to remember now, the pandemic seems like a weird bad dream! But I am really grateful to have been part of an institution that was helping me and having goals also really helped.
Yes, having a goal really helped people through the pandemic. Would you say that is your general approach in life? Having a goal and then working towards it systematically?
I wouldn’t say that comes to me naturally, but opera singing has definitely brought that out in me. I am naturally quite disorganised and lazy.
We find that really hard to believe!! You have clearly worked so hard!
No, no, I definitely worked hard. I know, as it’s a real contrast to previously being lazy (she says laughing).
How did you realise you had this voice inside of you?
I think I knew when I was about three years old! I have basically sung ever since I could talk, which must have been so annoying because as a child I would just sing at people! There was this one song that had ten verses, and I remember I would sing all of the verses and then start all over again! And my parents, I don’t know why, would encourage it. But, as a child, I liked singing pop.
What sort of things would you sing?
Well, it depends on the age, but when I was about eight it would have been The Spice Girls, Shania Twain, Britney Spears and, to be quite honest, I wanted to be Christina Aguilera! But my Dad sang both folk and classical music, so I suppose I did have early exposure to both of those genres.
And fast-forward to now, what would you say your favourite piece you performed in the Kathleen Ferrier competition was?
That’s so hard to say! My favourite programme was my semis I think, as I enjoyed the journey it had. But my favourite piece was the Mendelssohn (Die Liebende schreibt), it’s a bit of an underdog that song, but I love it!
Handel – Di speranza un bel raggio… Venti turbini (Rinaldo)
Mendelssohn – Die Liebende schreibt
Debussy – Colloque sentimental
Mark-Anthony Turnage – No Way Out (Twice Through the Heart) – 1997
Mahler – Urlicht (Symphony No. 2)
Mascagni – Io qui potrei forse restare (Zanetto)
Bizet – Près des remparts de Seville (Carmen)
Nadia Boulanger – J’ai frappé
Brahms – Unbewegte laue Luft
Britten - O tell me the truth about love (Four Cabaret Songs)
Ah, that’s what matters. If you love it, you will interpret it very sincerely. That’s something I particularly loved about watching you perform, I find you very sincere as a performer.
Thank you! That is basically the greatest compliment I could receive.
You talked of your father performing folk and classical music, but what was it that inspired you to pursue a career in opera? Once you had finally let go of The Spice Girls?!
My school was quite musical and had a good music department, which is really lucky as I know a lot of schools don’t. We also had a choir. Admittedly at the time I didn’t think classical music was very cool, and I wasn’t really interested in it, but I did it anyway because I could and I had a voice. I started to like the odd thing at first, I remember doing some Britten arrangements and liking those. But I knew I wanted to sing in some capacity, so I did a music degree at university. Maybe also because it was the only thing I was good at! Whilst I was at uni, I sang in the choir, and we did a Mozart Requiem, (granted it’s not opera) but that was a huge light bulb moment for me. I think it was in the Lacrimosa movement that I just thought ‘this is the best thing ever'. I remember saying to my friend ‘You know what, I think I am going to try opera’. And that was it! And then it got really tough because I had no idea how hard it was going to be!
We couldn’t agree more with Lacrimosa being the most amazing bit of music. We find a lot of people go straight from school to music college, so what was your journey like from then onwards having chosen a university degree pathway?
After my second year at Manchester University I dropped out and I decided I wanted to go to a singing teacher in London that I knew who worked at the London College of Music, which is part of the University of West London. But that wasn’t actually for me at all! So, I also dropped out of that. I thought I wanted to go back to Manchester Uni but it was too late in the year. So, I spend the rest of the year doing a Musical Theatre Diploma at the Central School of Speech and Drama, which was part-time, and then I worked as a nanny as well.
After that year was over, I knew I didn’t want to be a musical theatre singer, I definitely wanted to be an opera singer, so I went back to university and finished my third year. In that year, I also auditioned for all the London conservatoires, and didn’t get into any and had a bit of a meltdown. I realised there are lots of really good singers out there! However, my Mum had a good idea, as I was beginning to feel like maybe this wasn’t for me, but she advised me to go and talk to a professional and see what their opinion was. So, I emailed the Royal College of Music, and I paid to have a consultation. At the time I didn’t know who Nick Sears was (as you will remember I said I was quite lazy and I didn’t do my research). For those who don’t know, Nick Sears is the head of the vocal department!
So, I went and sang Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix from Samson and Delilah, which was way too big for me at the time. And he initially told me that I was doing some rather strange things, but we ironed some things out within the hour. But at the end, he said he really loved my voice (!!) and how he was sorry he wasn’t on the panel as he would have given me a place. And that he was going to try and pull some strings!!
The next day I got an email offering me a place on the Graduate Diploma course! And, of course, I lost it with excitement and ran up and down the street screaming with joy! And that is how my journey at RCM began. From there I got into the masters course, and from there into the opera school. So, it has been five years, but it was much-needed work as I had a lot to do.
Well, you have certainly worked hard, and I think the proof was in the pudding last week having heard you in the competition.
Do you think you have come across any obstacles in your journey that you think industry leaders could help to mitigate?
The cost of applying for things is really tough. There are times when I am at the very bottom of my bank balance and I need to apply for something and it's fifty pounds, but that’s also my week of food. I know that they need to pay for people to be on panels and such like, but sometimes the cost is so high. Spending money to get rejected is really tough.
What else? This is a really personal one, I wish that so many places didn’t require a Mozart aria. Mozart is not for everyone, that’s all.
Also, there are a lot of things about age limits as well, especially in Europe, where the limit is often 32 for men and 30 for women, which is totally nonsensical to me.
Because you didn’t go to conservatoire straight out of school, have you felt that you were slightly older than other singers at times?
I am 28 now. But I think there’s a different timeline for every different type of voice. And I think being 28 is okay for my voice. But some young artist programmes just look at my age and don’t consider me, so I think that should be changed.
If you had your time again, is there any advice you would give your younger self?
This advice is tailored to the type of person I am, but I am going to say do the groundwork. Learn the translation of each word for every single song, for a long time I used to get away with it, but it only gets you so far. And research, I think that’s where the sincerity comes from.
Do you have a dream role? Now or in the future, and you can have any voice type.
In an imaginary world, I would love to sing Isolde, from Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde. But if I am sticking to being a mezzo, I would probably choose Delilah from Samson and Delilah.
Well, there have been many a mezzo who have transformed into a dramatic soprano, so you never know! What can we come and see you in next?
I will be in Flight by Jonathan Dove in the summer term at RCM, for which I am playing Minsk woman, which I am really excited to do. Then, I am going to take a bit of the summer off, as I haven’t had a break in a while. And, after that, I am going to be better at updating my website, as I am terrible at that but there is definitely more to come!
One final question, what are the next steps in your singing career?
I think in practical terms, I’d like to get more work in the real professional world (she laughs). Perhaps that means having an agent. And then, also keep working on my technique and never let it slip.
Yes, please never let it slip because we adore hearing and watching you! And who knows, hopefully, we will see you as Delilah one day. Well, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us, but also enormous congratulations once again on the Kathleen Ferrier competition, and we are so thrilled that By Voice Alone helped you in that journey.
To keep up-to-date with Emma's latest news please visit https://www.emmarobertsmezzosoprano.com.