Elisabeth Meister — An Interview

Both level-head and
fun-loving, committed to hard work but spontaneous and imaginative, it’s
easy to see why recent performances have brought her to the attention of the
opera-going public, and won impressive acclaim from the critics: she has
“a very special voice” but “is not just a prodigious voice,
she is also an excellent communicator of the text and a vivid personality to
boot” … “a future star”, “a name to
watch”. As she prepares to sing the role of the First Lady in David
McVicar’s oft-revived production of The Magic Flute at the Royal
Opera House, Covent Garden, she generously gave of her time to meet me and
discuss the joys and demands of an opera-singer’s career.

Meister joined the Jette Parker Young Artist programme in September 2009,
making her debut as the Pale Lady in Prokofiev’s The Gambler.
This is her first Magic Flute, in a solo role, although she has a
couple of Mozart roles under her belt, including the Countess (for Amici Opera)
and Fiordiligi (for English Touring Opera). The latter is a role she would love
to revisit and along with other strong Mozart heroines such as Elektra
(Idomeneo). Mozart is “very good for the voice … [he]
knows exactly how the voice works, he doesn’t make you sing too loudly,
or sing too softly” and there is always a perfect balance between voice
and orchestra. Meister identifies the main challenge of the role of First Lady
as the “fairly high tessitura”, but she welcomes the support of
Second and Third Ladies (Kai R¸¸tel, also a Jette Parker Young Artist, and
Gaynor Keeble respectively) “which makes my job much easier and we work
very much as a unit. One of the greatest pleasures of doing a piece like this
is that you have such strong camaraderie.”

This is a theme that recurs during our discussion, for Meister relishes the
comradeship and friendships which form during rehearsals and performances.
“It’s an odd job. There’s a lot of solitary time for a solo
singer, particularly if you are a concert artist, travelling from country to
country; and you might not see your family for weeks on end. So it’s
great to forge these friendships. … The great thing about the programme
is that we are all so incredibly supportive of each other.“

Meister did not follow a straight path to her current position as a rising
star. She describes it as a “fantastical journey”. There was music
‘in the blood’ though: her father was a self-taught organist and
her mother played the piano. At the prodigiously early age of five, she learnt
to read music and started singing in her father’s choir at
eight-years-old, subsequently studying trumpet and piano. A musical career must
have always seemed a likely future, but for a combination of reasons and
circumstances, Meister did not complete her undergraduate studies at the Royal
Academy, and worked for a time in business and administration. However, she
continued to sing continued during this time, and gradually the lure of the
stage became impossible to ignore. “I decided to give singing another
try”. In 2002 she entered the Guildhall, and the following year surprised
herself — “a rank outsider” — by winning second prize
in the Kathleen Ferrier prize. A role in the chorus at Glyndebourne followed,
and indeed The Magic Flute was the first choral role that she
performed there. One senses that Meister was a quick learner, and that her
perspective from the ranks of the chorus sharpened her insight and her
ambition. “I was always watching from the sides and seeing what the
principals did and following their stagecraft, and I took that with me to
English Touring Opera the following year [where she sang Fiordiligi] and then
to Welsh National Opera [where she was an extra chorus member].

At this point, Meister found herself at a crossroads. She had completed a
highly enjoyable and successful year with the WNO chorus when a full-time
vacancy arose. But, at the same time she sang for renowned tenor, Dennis
O’Neill, and on the spot was offered a place at O’Neill’s
International Academy of Voice at Cardiff. “I had very little time to
decide whether I was going to sit back and have a nice comfortable career,
nicely salaried and good pension etc., or whether I was going to put all my
eggs in one basket. And I thought, I can give it my all for just one year
[it’s a one-year programme] and if I succeed it will be because
I’ve given it one hundred per cent.” Meister learned an enormous
amount during that year, in terms of technique and stamina, and relished the
‘family feel’ of the programme, and at the end of the year she
successfully auditioned for the Jette Parker Young Artist scheme.

So, when there are so many talented young singers, what is it that enables
an individual to step out of the chorus and be successful under the glare of
the spotlight? What distinguishes a chorus member from a leading lady?
“It’s so many things. It’s a combination of ambition, a
desire to show-off — above the rest of your colleagues! It’s jolly
hard work, make no bones about that. Many in the chorus have the talent to step
into leading roles but for whatever circumstances — family commitments or
a desire for a more nine-to-five job, they are happier in the chorus …
it’s a tricky beast managing a solo career.”

Meister feels that she has got the balance about right. She lives close to
her family, and a commutable distance from the Royal Opera House. She is
totally focused on the programme which she praises effusively. “It
couldn’t be better! You have exactly as much coaching as you want, or
desire or need; you have help with languages, interpretation, stage craft,
stage fighting; there is a personal trainer on the programme who we see once a
fortnight; you have access to an osteopath —everything that a singer
needs to function as well as they possibly can. Aside from the stage
opportunities you get to sing in small roles, like the First Lady, and cover
larger roles, like Anna Nicole …”

Meister’s success is obviously a combination of long-term planning,
intensive hard work and training, great stamina, accompanied by the ability to
adapt, be spontaneous and make the most of any opportunities that arise.
Covering the role of the Fox in Jan·?ek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, she had only 24 hours’ notice
that she would have to step into the indisposed Emma Bell‘s shoes:
“It was just about the right length of time, not enough time to start
panicking, but just enough time to prepare.” It was an important, if
unexpected, debut and won her much praise for her “bright, laser-like
soprano” and her dramatic gifts: “Elisabeth Meister was full of
manly swagger”, “her boyish vitality put the rest of the cast to
shame”, “Her tom-boyish Fox bristled with energy … she is a
natural stage animal.”

Her confidence on stage extends to her assuredness with languages, which she
puts down to solid preparation and practice. “When I pick up a new piece
of music, whatever language it’s in, the first thing I do is I translate
it absolutely word for word, even if the word order doesn’t make any
sense at that stage. And then translate it again into an idiomatic form, so
that you don’t just have the ‘gist’ of the meaning, you know
absolutely what you’re saying; and you know that, for example, Mozart has
chosen to put a particular word on the highest note of the phrase, and you find
the reason for why he has done that.” Meister doesn’t have strong
opinions about whether one should always sing in original language, and while
she herself prefers to do so, she recognises that it can be “great for
communication” to sing in English. In this regard, she tells a typically
mischievous anecdote: “I remember going to Turandot, and there
was an elderly lady sitting next to me who was not enjoying the opera, and who
complained, ‘I hate this opera and I can’t stand Puccini,
it’s so vulgar … I went to see it in Italy last year where at
least you have the advantage of not understanding what they’re saying

A glance at her performance history reveals a wide range of roles; while she
is still exploring the operatic repertory, Meister particularly enjoys the
“heavier repertoire … I adore German repertoire, especially
Strauss heroines” — and is eager to try early Wagner.
“It’s good to sing anything that you can sing and not to push too
far outside the boundaries”. Having embraced a wide range of styles and
periods, I ask whether there is any repertoire that she feels is not right for
her voice. “It’s really to do with the ‘taste of the
time’. There are particular tastes and sounds, say for Baroque music,
which my voice wouldn’t fit into right now; but perhaps in the future
that might change and my voice would be ideal for it. So you go with
what’s current, what suits you and what you find not too challenging. If
you’re expected to hold onto a top C for a minute and a half perhaps
that’s not the repertoire that you want to go into!”

Coming up are an Aida — “one of my dream roles” — in
2011 for Santiago Opera and Elisabeth (Tannh‰user) in Chile in 2012.
She covered Aida last year so when the Jette Parker programme ends in July, she
will have a couple of months to “sing that back in”. She relishes
such “fantasy roles … because they are not based on any real
people, you can use your imagination a great deal”, and loves Verdi for
he “absolutely knows the requirements and the capabilities of the soprano
voice”. Meister also sustains a busy recital schedule but prefers to
perform music by similar composers on the operatic stage and in the concert
hall, at any one time. “The ‘mind set’ and the different
demands that composers make on a voice are wonderful in their own different
ways but sometimes incompatible.” On her future ‘wish-list’
are Turandot (“to show-off!”) and “for my vocal
health”, more Verdi and early Wagner.

Meister also finds the prospect of creating new roles an exciting one.
“With works such as The Magic Flute which are well known and
well established you essentially step into someone else’s shoes, but once
the basic stage business is clear you start to make it your own and put your
own intention into it. If you’re creating a role for the first time you
get a lot more input from the outset, because the rehearsal period is going to
that much longer.” She is covering the role of Anna Nicole in
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera, which opens at the ROH on 17 February:
“It’s a great role for exploration. I love real characters —
perhaps with difficult backgrounds, difficult situations.”

With a full performance diary ahead, there’s not much time for
relaxation and rest — or to fit in the indoor climbing that she enjoys!
But, it’s clear that Meister made the right decision in switching
secretarial duties for the operatic stage. “Having not been one for
taking risks in the past, this was a big risk … but if it doesn’t
work out I want to be able to say that it wasn’t because I didn’t
try.” Recent successes suggest that she won’t regret her decision.
She comments that, “It’s strange to go from relative obscurity to
everyone knowing your name”. And, she’s definitely a name to

The Magic Flute will be performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent
Garden on February 1, 3, 7, 9, 11, 16, 19, 22, 24 at 19.30pm; and on February
26 at 12.30pm.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Elisabeth Meister [Photo by Brian Tarr courtesy of IMG Artists]
product_title=Elisabeth Meister — An Interview
product_by=By Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Elisabeth Meister [Photo by Brian Tarr courtesy of IMG Artists]