Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I started having piano lessons at the age of ten, and my teacher (who was retired) lavished her time on me, encouraging me to listen to all sorts of classical music, and encouraging me as I took up the violin at fourteen and singing at sixteen. There was never any doubt that the classical music world was for me.
Around that time, a family friend gave me a tape cassette of orchestral songs and arias sung by Jessye Norman. It included Mozart (“E Susanna non vien…Dove sono” from Le nozze di Figaro), Strauss songs, and “Es gibt ein Reich” from Ariadne auf Naxos, amongst other things. It showed me what command sounded like – command over text, technique, dramatic situation – and I have never forgotten it. It set the bar for me throughout my career, whether consciously or unconsciously.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I have very rarely repeated an operatic role, which has been fascinating inasmuch as I have been fortunate to sing a breadth of roles in a relatively short time. The challenge with that is that I am always learning new music, words, ideas, etc. which can be exhausting. I long to go deeper with a handful of roles and to mine their depths over a number of years. I believe the biggest role I have learned in the shortest time was Madama Butterfly, which I learned from scratch in under six weeks and sang for fifteen performances.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
My most memorable performance without doubt is making my Met debut in a title role – Bess in Porgy and Bess. I will never forget the roar from the house and the standing ovation at my curtain-call – it was quite overwhelming. I really had to work hard for it, as I’d had very little stage-time, and no time at all with the Met’s fabulous orchestra, so it was a lesson in concentration, flexibility, awareness, and especially conviction (being the only Brit in an all-American cast).
The recording I am most proud of is my debut solo album, ‘Heart & Hereafter’, which will be released on 28th May this year. It is the culmination of hours of research, days poring over scores in the British Library, reading biographies about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, then weeks at the piano sifting through what I had found, choosing and recording the songs during lockdown last year. It is a labour of love from beginning to end – this opera-singer had to learn how to sing songs well – and I am proud to be able to present the songs of a fellow, black, south-Londoner to a new audience.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I made my debut singing Puccini when all I had sung up to that point had been Mozart and Handel, so you could say that I stumbled upon him. But I have sung seven of Puccini’s heroines to date, and I feel that I have an affinity with the composer now. My Mozartian roots have served me well as I sing lots of Verdi too, so I guess you could say that Italian repertoire is my specialism…
But so much of this career is about opportunity, and I have simply not had the opportunity to explore the German repertory much – Strauss, lyric Wagner, Weber – which I have a feeling might be a great fit. Only recently have I had the opportunity to be explore and work on song repertoire and give recitals, which I really enjoy and think I perform well.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I prepare. I prepare in as much detail as I can over many weeks and months. Only then can I have the freedom to explore, to listen, to respond, and literally “re-create” my material in real-time on stage with my colleagues.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I love to sing in the London Coliseum. Although the stage and auditorium are large, there is an intimacy and a warmth to the acoustic which makes me feel at home and relaxed.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
In March of last year, I sang a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the BBCSO, and Donald Runnicles was the last-minute replacement to conduct it. Apart from the musical difficulty for all of the participants, it was easily one of the most profound and stirring performances I have ever participated in…and I think the audience and orchestra felt the same by the end. Who could have known that it would end up being one of the last performances heard in London before the pandemic?
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Whether a musician is a “success” or not I believe is in the hands of the audience paying to see them. If my audience is moved, entertained, challenged, provoked, consoled, informed, inspired – or any combination of the above – then I feel I have been successful in doing my job.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The industry has changed so much over this past year and, I believe, will be a hard place to work for some time to come. I would encourage anyone wanting to make a career as a musician to have bold ideas and real convictions about the material they are presenting. Then to have the courage of those convictions in their execution of it.
What is your present state of mind?
Restless. I am constantly looking for connections, new projects or new ways of looking at “old” material, and my business-brain is always wanting to move current opportunities on a step every day. Although my diary is shifting-sand at the moment (whose isn’t?), I like to think that I am always moving forward.
Elizabeth Llewellyn’s debut recording ‘Heart & Hereafter’, collected songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, is released on 28 May on the Orchid Classics label. More information
Known for her vivid portrayals of Puccini heroines, and for her full, distinctive voice, Elizabeth Llewellyn has quickly risen through the ranks since making her debut as Mimi/La Boheme in London in 2010, and established herself internationally as a dramatic and vocal artist of distinction.
Image credit: Shirley Suarez