10 questions for soprano Susanna Hurrell

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Photography: Eloise Campbell

Tell us a bit about yourself – where were you born and where did you grow up? Do you come from a musical family?

I was born in North London within the Hertfordshire border and lived in the same area till I went to college. I come from a very musical family; my parents are professional musicians in London orchestras, and my aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and grandparents all played instruments so for me, there was no escaping a musical education, and I’m very grateful for that. One of my favourite feelings is being totally surrounded by live music, as I was when I played the violin in my school orchestra, and I imagine it stems from growing up in the midst of a lot of musical people making a lot of noise.

Why is opera important?

I could philosophise about this all day, but my short answer is that opera, like all art and indeed sport, is intrinsically optimistic. lt is not a crucial part of our survival, but instead it provides us with the optimistic idea that there is more to life. The reason the first cave drawings were so fascinating is because they set this new standard for living  they raised the bar from sheer survival to something more, something undefinable and ever-evolving, and opera is a highly-evolved extension of that original expression. It is a form of beautiful communication between humans  it reconnects us to our passion and our humanity, and gets us to think on a higher level, where the ultimate aim is to transcend and make something more beautiful of our lives.

What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?

The most exciting moment was definitely a working audition with Antonio Pappano. He is an incredible musician and a tough man to impress so I was quite nervous, standing in his room at the Royal Opera House with him watching me intensely from two feet away, but he conducted me through my arias and I was so inspired by his passion and technical knowledge of the voice that I was able to do exactly what he wanted and it felt amazing.

La traviata or Anna Nicole?

Interesting to compare these two as there is something iconic about both the female leads. However, I have to say La traviata. Anna Nicole is undoubtedly a great piece with some very juicy music and I’m a big fan of the composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, but I could probably live without ever doing that role whereas Violetta is a role that I’ve always aspired to do one day.

This autumn you will make your role debut as Mélisande in our new production of Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande. How would you describe your character to an opera newbie?

Mélisande is the epitome of indirectness; it’s hard to understand her and she retains a sense of mystery throughout the opera, avoiding answering any direct questions. She is sensual and childlike, quite fearful but at other times surprisingly bold. She could be described as a Lorelei, a tragic siren-like character who unwittingly lures people to their doom.

Have you ever toured before? What are you looking forward to the most?

I toured Kurt Weill’s Street Scene with The Opera Group in 2011. We did 30 shows in 28 days and it was tough! This tour looks a little more forgiving with rest days in between shows, thankfully. I’m looking forward to going to some places I don’t know so well, such as Aldeburgh, and I’m hoping I’ll have time to go to Bath Spa. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know the rest of the cast; we’ll be rehearsing from August so there will be plenty of time.

Who are your inspirations?

Well, there are so many to list here but in terms of sopranos, I love Maria Callas, Mirella Freni, Mariella Devia and Renée Fleming. Closer to home, my friend and ex-housemate Sophie Bevan, American soprano and friend Corinne Winters, my husband, tenor Ben Johnson, and perhaps most importantly my teacher, Jeffrey Talbot.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals?

I try to listen to my body on the day of a performance and figure out what it needs, for example, I might have to steam or meditate if I’m not feeling great, but usually I combine a vocal warm up with some stretching and yoga, then eat a big late lunch, rest, warm up some more and then slowly get into costume and make-up.

What is your dream role?

I would love to play Liù. Turandot is my favourite opera  in fact I think it was the first opera my dad introduced me to as a child  and no matter what mood I’m, in I can always get swept up emotionally in that dramatic music  it’s wonderful.

And finally, what would you say to someone coming to see Pelléas & Mélisande for the first time?

I hope you enjoy it! It’s a symbolist work so don’t be put off by the lack of action; it’s all in the words and dream-like quality of the music.


Susanna will play Mélisande in ETO’s new production of Pelléas & Mélisande, opening at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music on Thursday 1 October 2015. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk/pelleas-et-melisande

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