Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy on Salzburg, Sellars and Singing

Sellars will return to the Salzburg Festival this summer to present a new
production of Idomeneo. It reunites him with conductor Teodor
Currentzis, following their acclaimed 2017 interpretation of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, which highlighted the opera’s vision of a
path to democracy through restorative justice and reconciliation, and also
with musicAeterna Choir of Perm Opera and tenor Russell Thomas as the
eponymous king. Among the cast will be Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy
who performed with Thomas when Sellars’ La clemenza was staged at
Dutch National Opera in May 2018, and who will take the role of Idamante. I
spoke to Paula on the eve of her departure for Salzburg to begin

Preparing for my conversation with Paula, I noted with surprise that it is
ten years since I heard her sing – at the

Wexford Festival in 2009

, where I enjoyed her performances as Cherubino in John Corigliano’sThe Ghosts of Versailles, HÈlËne in Chabrier’s Une education manquÈ (alongside Kishani Jayasinghe’s Gontran) and
in recital with Irish baritone Owen Gilhooly, when songs by Brahms and
Duparc were partnered by some Irish folk-songs and audience participation.

Such eclecticism has been characteristic of her career. And if her
repertoire has been varied then so have the venues in which she has created
these diverse roles. While she has performed in the UK – with English
National Opera and at Covent Garden in 2014 for example – it’s on the
international stage that she has largely forged her path – with OpÈra de
Nice, Santa Fe Opera, Opera Theatre Saint Louis, Los Angeles Opera, Oper
Frankfurt, Opernhaus Z¸rich, Dutch National Opera, Oper Stuttgart, Chicago
Opera Theater, and Boston Lyric Opera, to name just a few.

Paula’s travels began after her initial studies in Dublin, when she
travelled to North America, for further study at the New England
Conservatory. Subsequently, Paula participated in the Britten-Pears Young
Artist Programme, San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program and was an
apprentice at Santa Fe Opera. Paula explains to me that, having been
‘spotted’ when taking part in a competition in Germany in 2007, she joined
Frankfurt Studio Opera in 2008 and a year later became a member of the
Ensemble at Frankfurt Opera, where she remained until deciding to become a
freelance singer two years ago.

Her time in Frankfurt gave her the opportunity to sing many roles at the
right time for her voice. It also meant that she didn’t get ‘pigeon-holed’
in a particular genre and was able to explore a wide-ranging repertoire.
She recalls one three-day period when she sang Medoro in Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso on Friday, transformed herself into Mozart’s
Dorabella (CosÏ) the following evening, and then took a role in Parsifal (Flower Maiden) on Sunday! Alongside ‘central’ repertory such as Der Rosenkavalier, H‰nsel und Gretel and Carmen,
she had the opportunity to explore the operatic fringes, taking the roles
of Lazuli in Chabrier’s L’Ètoile and Kreusa in Aribert Reimann’s Medea.

Being an Ensemble member brings security, of course, but as Paula points
out companies are themselves protean entities, and two years ago the time
seemed right for some changes, professionally and personally, as she wanted
to spend more time at home in Ireland. 2017 saw her make her debut at the
Metropolitan Opera in New York, as StÈphano in RomÈo et Juliette,
and return to Santa Fe Opera as Ruggiero in Alcina and as Die Fledermaus’s Orlofsky. And, in April 2018 she appeared at the
Teatro Real Madrid for the first time – as Frances, Countess of Essex in
David McVicar’s production of Gloriana.

Recently, UK audiences have had the opportunity to enjoy Paula’s
performances. In January this year she sang Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with the Britten Sinfonia and Sir
Mark Elder, and recently appeared in recital at Wigmore Hall with Malcolm
Martineau. Performing on the recital platform is clearly something that
Paula is keen to do more regularly. She studied lieder and French song
during her time as a Britten-Pears Young Artist, with Martineau, Ann Murray
and Robert Tear, and tells me that she loves these “miniatures”: “There are
so many eras, so many worlds, so many voices … it’s an enormous amount of
work learning a recital programme, but immensely rewarding. Together with
the pianist the singer has to create an entire world: it’s a collaborative
journey during which this world has to be imagined – there’s a lot of
thinking! – then brought into being, then let settle. And, in performance
there’s always an intimacy between singer and audience, even if the concert
hall is large; the audience have to come to the singer and take in the
different worlds created.”

But, first comes Idomeneo in Salzburg. Sellars’ has spoken about

new production

: “One passage in the libretto reads: ‘Saved from the sea, I have a raging
sea, more fearsome than before, within my bosom. And Neptune does not cease
his threats even in this.’ That is what Mozart’s music is about.” Remarking
that the Greeks’ pride in winning the Trojan War was self-deceiving and
foolish – “on the way home, the ocean said: No, you didn’t win. Everybody
lost. And the ocean started breaking their ships apart” – Sellars imagines Idomeneo as “the opera that describes the angry oceans, what it
means to negotiate with the oceans for the future of the next generation.”:
“where we are with global warming is exactly where Mozart was with this
opera: an older generation still not getting it, and a younger generation
already on the case in very exciting ways.”

While Paula is still to learn of the details of Sellars’ conception, she
knows that the director sees a ‘radicalism’ in the work and the elements of
youth and sacrifice will be highlighted. She’s certainly “open to any
ideas”. One element that does strike me as interesting and potentially
controversial is Sellars’ decision to excise much of the recitative,
something that he also did in La clemenza di Tito into which he
interwove other music by Mozart, such as the Mass in C minor and the
Masonic Funeral Music. In Sellars’ words, “the music is orchestral from
beginning to end. Which means that the usual quality of these Enlightenment
operas – the fact that everybody explains what they’re about to do before
they do it – is gone. The audience has no idea why people are doing
anything. So, it becomes much more like a movie: you’re plunged into the
situation. It creates suspense.”

Having sung the role of Sesto when Sellars’ production of La clemenza was seen at Dutch National Opera, Paula is familiar
with this practice. Interestingly, just a few months before, in October
2017, she had sung the role with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
and Cappella Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw, in a semi-staged performance.
One could “hear every word of the recitative,” she explains, which, through
text and gesture, created a “beautiful intimacy between Sesto and Tito”.
The Sellars/Currentzis production, during which Paula was on stage for
almost the entire performance, was a very different experience but one
which she “adored”, valuing Sellars’ belief and integrity. And, she
appreciates what Sellars was trying to achieve. She explains that in Idomeneo the omission of the opening recitative means that
Idamante’s first line is ‘It’s not my fault’: “There’s a big backstory to
create, and a narrative of love”. In any case, she laughs, apparently
Mozart wasn’t that keen on recitative either and wanted to cut back!

It’s not Paula’s first appearance at the Salzburg Festival. She performed
the Second Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflˆte in July 2018,
alongside Matthias Goerne, Mauro Peter, Christiane Karg and Albina
Shagimuratova, in a staging by American director Lydia Steier and with
Constantinos Carydis conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s a role which
she has sung many times before, and it was her first role at Frankfurt.
Paula reflects that while it’s nice to repeat a role, she also loves
learning new parts – she is soon to sing her first Donna Elvira with
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, for example. I ask her if she has any
particularly strong ‘musical leanings’, and she replies that she has an
affinity for the Baroque, which has always seemed to her to share certain
elements with Irish folk music. An improvisational quality, I wonder, or
the primary of the voice? Paula suggests that the colours and clarity of
the two genres seems in accord, and that there is a certain “vulnerability”
which is present in both Baroque opera and Irish folk song.

She also especially likes singing in French, both in recital and in opera,
as she feels that the language particularly suits her voice. At the end of
the year she will sing Faure’s PÈnÈlope for the first time, in Frankfurt,
and looking ahead she would love to have the opportunity to sing Charlotte
(in Massenet’s Werther) or Marguerite (in Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust). Opera casting agents, take note!

But, to return to the present, it’s the end of a long day, during which the
next day’s travel plans seem to have unravelled! Despite this, Paula is
generous, warm and self-effacing during our conversation. And, she’s
obviously keen to begin rehearsals for Idomeneo. Reading about
Sellars’ and designer George Tsypin’s plans to project images onto the rock
walls of the Felsenreitschule throughout the opera, “floating up, floating
down across this entire surface”, and at the end to “flood” the entire
stage – “incredible footage of the plastic that is destroying the ocean
right now and is in every one of our bloodstreams at this moment … will be
projected onto the stone [here] – which is transformed into an underwater
ruin” – one imagines that it’s going to be an exciting and
thought-provoking experience.

Peter Sellars’ new production of Mozart’s
opens the Salzburg Festival on 27th July.

Claire Seymour

product_title=Paula Murrihy sings Idamante in Peter Sellars’ new production of Idomeneo in Salzburg
product_by=An interview by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Paula Murrihy

Photo credit: Barbara Aum¸ller