Who or what inspired you to take up singing and pursue a career in music?
Singing was almost accidental for me. There was always music in our house and I grew up listening to my Dad relax after a long day by playing the piano late at night. I had been given the opportunity to learn the violin and piano as a young child. I learnt violin from the age of 4 using the Suzuki method, which suited my learning style and helped develop a good ear, and without realising it I was being exposed to a large quantity of Bach and Handel within this repertoire and it was these composers that moved me profoundly even at that age. The violin was always, however, an obstruction between me and the music as I just could not make it sound as it did in my head.
I had always sung and we had a fabulous primary school teacher Veronica Bennetts, who wrote exciting pieces especially for us. When I moved to secondary school, suddenly singing in itself appeared to have more value in a classical sense, and I just found that it was something that I could do. I was lucky to join choirs and found myself being given more and more prominent solo roles and singing really inspiring repertoire such as Mozart’s Requiem and Tippett’s A Child of our Time. The music had always been there and had always moved me, and now through singing there was no barrier to expressing the music, and singing became an essential part of my being, it was the most natural way to be in the music, and something I simply had to do.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Singing for the Monteverdi Choir with John Eliot Gardiner was a really important time. It instilled the discipline of singing with others, being part of a team, having to get out there and perform when you least want to after a day of weary travel, the feeling of singing being a job – treading the boards! But above all, it was John Eliot’s fundamental focus on how the words sat within the music that made singing for him so very exciting and made so much sense.
We have benefitted so much from the Early Music Movement in the seventies and early eighties where so much experimentation and risk taking was happening. The exploration opened many possibilities, and there is so much that we now take for granted which was really ground breakingly new at that time. The use of Emma Kirkby’s beautiful clear voice was revolutionary when we had become used to a singing voice that had had to develop in order to fill concert halls and carry over modern orchestral sound. The legacy that this gives us is that we now have so much more choice in our own vocal development, and more opportunity to discover our own sounds, and what we need to do to use our voice functionally.
There was an excitement during that time in sharing new ideas and newly discovered works, and the people behind the movement have been generous in sharing music and ideas, and in their development of and advice to those of us that have come since. Meeting and working with Andrew Parrott while he puts his research into action in his performance is exciting and inspirational. He is an example to all of us in being true in our music making.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
When work and performance opportunities are clear and flowing, there is the challenge of meeting the needs of the music, but this is exciting and stimulating and often finds its own solutions. The greatest challenges of any career is what happens when you aren’t performing, whether it be coping with the come down after a really great project or how you face up to a patch in the diary which is scarily clear. What you chose to do to fill this time probably makes you a more interesting performer. My greatest challenges were raising a young teenager alone and having to cope with financial worries resulting from gaps between projects. This eventually led to developing a second skill as a Speech Therapist. The discipline of working extremely hard to maintain both careers has resulted in a feeling that everything is possible, and the combination of the two disciplines results in a fascinating career where voice binds both realms and communication becomes fundamental in performance.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I am very proud of the first Delicatessen recording that I made with Steven Devine. We called it Delicatessen because really it was a pick and mix of our favourite song and felt like walking through a Delicatessen and choosing our favourite yummy things. The content was a culmination of the music we had been exploring and performing over the previous couple of years where amongst better known songs, we interspersed the lesser known songs of well known composers such as Arne, Boyce and John Stanley (not usually known for vocal writing!). We enjoyed the recording process with a fabulous producer in Germany, and also enjoyed planning and commissioning the beautiful artwork. We had been planning to record a second Delicatessen, delving a little deeper into the works of similar composers of the period, and returned earlier this year to Germany. Delicatessen II is due to arrive on our doorstep any day and is available to order through ww.devinemusic.co.uk. It has been an exciting process.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
This is an interesting question. As a singer, repertoire choice is often not dictated by yourself but rather, what you are asked to sing. For me, also, the repertoire will be additionally dependent on what instrument/instruments I am being accompanied by . This has been an interesting year for me of exploring Haydn, as I was asked to record a disc of Haydn songs for Resonus Classics together with tenor Neil Jenkins, and was also asked to sing the role of Clarice in Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna for New Chamber Opera. Steven Devine and I had been wanting to put together a fortepiano programme using a beautiful copy of a 1785 Heilmann piano , and it made sense to monopolise on the Haydn immersion to create a programme further exploring Haydn, based around the year of the instrument, so this season became rather Haydn-based!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Different concert venues create whole different performing and audience experiences. I love smaller venues, where you can see the audience directly, and engage people in your performance, rather than gazing out into a sea of blackness. The Holywell Music Room is probably quite an ideal venue in this respect, but I have also sung in small Italian theatres that are just lovely and where you feel that entertainment and performance is a vital part of life.
That said, there is a magic about larger concert halls, where you are overwhelmed by the excitement of the backstage area, being cued onto stage, and the general feeling of who has been there before and stood on that very stage.
Who are your favourite musicians?
My favourite musicians are those that have their own sound. I have always loved voices and as a teenager was attracted to pop singers that had interesting voices such as Sting, Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin and Joan Armatrading. In classical music my favourite musicians are those where I feel I can still hear the personality within the voice, and for me these include Barbara Bonney, Sylvia McNair, John Mark Ainsley and Anthony Rolfe Johnson.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I recently did a very small-scale St John Passion with the Taverner Consort at the beautiful new Zaryadye Concert Hall in Moscow. It was an amazing team of vocalists and instrumentalists and every member took enormous responsibility for the sound that they were creating as an individual and how to combine it as this group on this night in this hall. It was extremely exciting being such a small group in such a large space, and watching the packed audience being so very still to engage with the scale of the sound where so much was being invested. It was possibly the most exhausting performance I have been a part of. Amazing to create such intimacy with so many people.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Being able to present an honesty in your performance. This is almost a contradiction of terms, as the very term of performance implies a veneer of showmanship. It is a great joy to entertain, and we are always looking to be as good as we can be, but I am also looking to be true vocally, to sing with my own voice, and interpret the music in a way that is relevant to me and the situation at that moment. This demands good preparation, so that you are not distracted by the notes as individual features. A performance also is helped when you feel that the audience is coming with you on the journey through the music and that demands that you develop a trust that you are worth joining for the journey! Success for me is when you know you have engaged with the audience and that the performance has been truly shared.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That singing, performance and music are all a long journey and that if we try to measure our success in steps that are too short, we will disappoint ourselves. We hope for a long performing life, and this will span easier times and harder times, but all of this makes up the musician and performer that we become.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being with people that I truly love.
Delicatessen II, “more choice morsels of early English song”, recorded with harpsichordist Steven Devine, is available now on the Devine Music label. Further information
Kate Semmens is a soloist with many leading groups and opera companies, and has sung with some of the UK’s finest choirs with conductors including Sir John Elliot Gardiner, Paul McCreesh, John Butt and Eric Whitacre. Her opera performances have included Cupid (Venus and Adonis), Mycene (Isis), Suzanna (Le Nozze de Cherubino), and Mrs P (The Man who mistook his wife for a hat). Kate is a regular performer for New Chamber Opera, with whom performances include Galatea (Acis and Galatea), Second Woman (Dido and Aeneas), Orgando (Amadigi), Atalanta (Xerxes), Semira (Artaxerxes). She was the title role in Mozart’s ‘Il Re Pastore’ and most recently played Asteria in Handel’s ‘Tamerlano’. She created the role of Euridice in Caldwells’ The Story of Orpheus. Of her Ciro, in their production of Stradella’s Il Trespolo Tutore, Opera Magazine wrote ” the clarity and charm of Kate Semmens’ soprano was dissarming”.
Kate has been particularly involved in historic performances, singing the title role in the first modern performance of John Stanley’s Teraminta for Opera Restor’d and recently completed performances of Cavalli’s Erismena, from the original English edition bought by the Bodleian Library in 2009.
Kate particularly enjoys singing with instrumentalists, and has been enjoying recent performances of Bach Cantatas with violinist Margaret Faultless, programmes with Matthew and Rebecca Truscott, Jacobean programmes with lutenist Lynda Sayce, and viol programmes with Jacob Heringman and Susanna Pell.
Kate has been particularly enjoying performing recitals of music from the pleasure gardens, and the recent anniversaries of Thomas Arne and William Boyce have given opportunities to explore the wealth of this music even further. Her solo CD Delicatessen with harpsichordist Steven Devine and recorded at the Sendesaal in Bremen gave opportunity to record some of this repertoire. More recently Kate and Steven have been developing programmes of music based around the domestic music of the Bach Household. This led to performances at St John’s Smith Square and Radio 3 as well as many Festivals across the country. This was recorded last year and is released on Devine Music Record label. Both Delicatessen and The Notebooks of Anna Magdalena Bach are available from www.devinemusic.co.uk