Rozanna Madylus, mezzo-soprano

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 distinctly remember singing the pivotal role of the Innkeeper (a couple of lines, at most!) in the primary school production of The Star and the Animals and suddenly everything going very quiet as people listened to what I had to say. A very powerful thing for a young child of 7 or 8 to experience. The following year, I was given the lead role of The Pied Piper of Hamlin – my first trouser role! – for which my maternal grandmother, an extremely talented dressmaker, made the costume. I think it’s fair to say that from then on, I had caught the performance bug. Years of my parents taxiing me to/from youth theatre groups followed. One year, I played the role of Young Jane in Leicester’s Little Theatre production of Jane Eyre in which I had an unaccompanied solo, to which my older sister responded, “I think you would make it as a singer rather than an actress” or words to that effect.

My late mother was determined to give my sister and I all the opportunities she’d missed out on in her childhood, of which music (piano and violin) lessons were one. One parents’ evening she exclaimed to my music teacher at secondary school, “She has a good voice, you know!” and so I then began singing lessons with the vivacious and charismatic peripatetic teacher at the time, Sarah Norris. Even though I never studied music for GCSE or A-Level, I always felt like an honorary music student; I was always encouraged to participate in whatever way I could, such as orchestra and choir, and then had the great honour of being dance band singer for two years in a row – usually only reserved for an upper sixth former.

My father was in a band in his younger years and has great taste in music. I grew up listening to an eclectic mix – everything from The Beatles to Beethoven as well as a lot of Ukrainian folk music. As third generation Ukrainians, my sister and I attended Ukrainian school every Saturday morning, during which time we learnt to sing a variety of traditional songs. We also attended the Ukrainian Catholic church in Leicester, in which there are no service or hymn sheets so the congregation’s response is learnt aurally. Frustrating at times but equally rather liberating.

I was incredibly lucky to witness my first opera – Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) – at the Bregenz Festival in Austria, by invitation of the British-Ukrainian Bass-Baritone, Pavlo Hunka, later to become my singing teacher. He was artistic director of the amateur Ukrainian male voice choir, The Bulava Chorus, at the time of which my father was an enthusiastic member. The stage in Bregenz sits on Lake Constance and, at that time, it had a giant moving skeleton protruding out of the water as part of the set. Quite a spectacle for an impressionable 14-year-old to behold. Of course, I didn’t fully appreciate the vocal gymnastics nor the musicianship or artistry involved, but I think from that point onwards I secretly knew it was a world I needed to be a part of. Pursuing a career in the arts was not overly encouraged at my secondary school, so I chose to study a more traditional subject which I enjoyed, with the intention of pursuing a law conversion course afterwards.

After graduating in English Literature and Philosophy from The University of East Anglia, I took the “do different” motto to heart and made the decision with my (thankfully somewhat maverick and incredibly supportive) parents to “give the singing a go”. We were all rather naïve about how challenging the journey as a freelance classical musician would be and continues to be. But fortunately, I’m from a rather stubborn and headstrong entrepreneurial family, meaning that I am well equipped with the tenacity required to survive in such a tough industry – Ukrainian passion mixed with English discipline. And so I began four gruelling years of private vocal studies with Pavlo Hunka – I had a lot of catching up to do with my peers – as well as enrolling onto language courses abroad, watching as many opera performances and recitals as my budget would allow whilst intermittently temping for the NHS mental health service.

In the winter of 2010, I felt that it was time for me to audition for The Royal Academy of Music and was offered a scholarship to continue my studies with the legendary Anne Howells and Jonathan Papp at postgraduate level. The staff at the Academy gave me a much-needed boost in self-belief and esteem, which gave me the confidence to audition for the internationally acclaimed opera course at the end of my first term. Jane Glover, who was the head of opera at the time, was exceptionally kind and generous and gave me some fantastic performance opportunities, most notably the title roles in Handel’s Ariodante directed by the formidable Paul Curran and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

At the start of 2016, I was working with the Birmingham Opera Company in a rather grotty disused O2 Academy (I don’t think that it had been cleaned since the last gig!), often three session days, singing a substantial role as well as covering the main principle role and chorus mentoring. I was less than two years out of music college and working with the tour de force that was Graham Vick. It was a big deal and he was a hard task master, but I was up for the challenge and eager to please. In my personal life, however, my family and I had crushingly just learnt that my mother’s breast cancer had returned and, as well as this, my paternal grandmother’s dementia was progressing and our beloved family pet, Mischa the Chow who turned heads and stopped traffic, had developed a megaoesophagus. Suffice it to say, by the end of the contract I was pretty run down and had caught a horrendous cough which plagued me for months. As a result, my vocal cords had taken a hammering and I developed pre-nodules meaning that I had to cancel work for most of the rest of the year. The wind had well and truly been taken out of my sails and a very strict regime set by my ENT specialist – the wonderful Mr Rea – of vocal rest (no speaking or singing), steaming three times a day and cutting out caffeine, alcohol and anything else that had the potential to dehydrate my vocal cords followed. I was lucky that I was able to work for the family business to earn a living – my nickname in the office became “Silent Joe” – and to have such patient, supportive family and friends. After three months or so the nodules had cleared up but it was a huge set back, having to effectively rehabilitate my voice, which I am extremely grateful to Susan Roberts, my voice teacher at the time, for. Fortunately, Wexford were willing to honour my chorus contract I had been offered before getting ill, which allowed me to take baby steps back into the world of classical singing. After such a horrendous first half of the year, I had the most wonderful time working with like-minded artists in such a beautiful part of the world. Over the few years that followed, we became cautiously optimistic about Mum’s treatment and I was once again getting into my singing stride. Then 2020 happened.

The tragedy and chaos of the last two years have thrown so many things into disarray and have had a detrimental effect on the performing arts industry. Not being able to do what you have spent your entire adult life preparing for is tough but 2016 had already prepared me well enough for that. Then, at the start of 2021, my entire universe was turned upside down. In an age in which you think you can walk through a hospital door and everything will be fixed and it doesn’t, you don’t know where to turn. We devastatingly lost my mother – my anchor, my cheerleader, my everything – to the secondary breast cancer. This forced me to bring everything into question, including my life choices as a freelance musician. I couldn’t bring myself to sing for months as it was just too painful, so at that point I was grateful for the world effectively being put on hold because of the pandemic. It took a lot for me to crawl out of my cocoon of grief, which family, friends and the City Music Foundation helped me to do. We have to allow ourselves to be so vulnerable on stage and in the rehearsal room but we also have to have such a thick skin to be able to overcome the adversities that accompany a career in such a cutthroat industry, which is not easy, particularly when you’re already feeling emotionally vulnerable. But then, life is full of paradoxes that we must learn to live with.

Music has taught and continues to teach me how to live with the grief and to know that it’s ok to feel that pain, express the pain and, in doing so, it helps to release you to begin to heal and grow and to dare to live and love again. And that is how, if we let ourselves, we can survive the most unbearable losses and learn to rebuild our lives around it.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

When I think how far I’ve come, it’s not an exaggeration when I say that I am proud of most of my performances. Each one serves as a learning experience in its own way; a chance to master my craft and move and inspire people.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I think it goes without saying that I have an affinity for the Slavic repertoire. It’s in my DNA; Ukrainian art songs (Lysenko, Stepovyi, Stetsenko, Turkewich and many others!), Russian arias and art songs (Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky), Janáček, Dvořak… but also anything that Mahler wrote for alto/mezzo and much of the operatic repertoire written by the French Romantics – Bizet, Massenet, Gounod.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I try to stay curious about everything. These days, I tend to read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. Truth is stranger, after all. I’m a storyteller, so the more knowledge and experience I have about people and life, the more colours available in my palette. I’m also fascinated by what makes people tick.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Life events certainly influence my concert repertoire choices; what is it that I want to say? What story do I want to tell? With the opera, it’s usually a matter of what I’m offered.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

The Holywell Music Room in Oxford holds some special memories for me – one being singing Wagner to Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter with both Mum and Dad in the audience. I feel very privileged to have performed in a venue with so much history on numerous occasions and the audience is always very warm, welcoming and appreciative, not to mention the wonderful acoustic.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

We need to be less regimented and open to new ways of thinking and doing things. I was very saddened to hear that Nigel Kennedy’s programme was rejected for the 2021 Proms. He wanted to play Hendrix on violin, they wanted Vivaldi. Of course, it’s about respecting and building on what has come before us but not to the point where it stifles innovation, creativity and enjoyment. I mean, have you seen/heard The Goede Hoop Marimba Band play Vivaldi? Pure joy! There’s a balance to be had between the two. Graham Vick certainly got it right with the Birmingham Opera Company, in which the outreach work is central to the artistic product, making it all inclusive with no hint of snobbery.

I’m excited about working with Sir John Tomlinson and Counterpoise again for our tour of the double bill programme Brünnhilde’s Dream and John Casken’s The Shackled King. It will be a similar set-up to our previous double bill of The Art of Love and Kokoschka’s Doll, which examined the life of Alma Mahler and her many loves through her eyes and music. The first half was a monologue interwoven with art songs, which set the scene for Casken’s one-man melodrama up very nicely. It’s a fresh and fun way of delivering art song, putting them into context through a character and adding another dimension to the storytelling.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Aside from my first opera, Un Ballo in Maschera at the Bregenz Festival, I would have to say a collection of classical, jazz and popular music performances at the Beaux Arts’ Museum Night Fever event, Brussels, March/April 2009. Angelika Kirschlager and Helmut Deutsch were amongst the performers, giving a recital of Schubert, Korngold and Weill, which left quite an impression.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Knowing that I’ve done my very best in preparation for a performance, which allows me to enjoy and take risks on stage.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

To have a healthy mixture of humility, patience and self-assurance and to be responsible for your own choices, which isn’t always easy. Particularly at the start of one’s journey. To remember that everyone’s background is unique to your own, so always being open to new ways of seeing or doing things; leave your ego at home. Most people’s careers will be multi-layered, that is to say – your income will not come solely from performing unless you’re incredibly lucky, so be prepared to juggle. A lot. Know your strengths and your weaknesses; work on your weaknesses. It may mean having to go that extra mile and work harder than everyone else but in the end it will serve you well. And always be as prepared for rehearsals as you possibly can be.

What is your most treasured possession?

A note written by my mother

What is your present state of mind?

Slowly learning that grief and joy can co-exist.

Rozanna Madylus appears at the Northern Aldborough Festival on Friday 24 June, starring in the Opera double bill with John Tomlinson DOUBLE BILL: THE SHACKLED KING (John Casken) & BRÜNNHILDE’S DREAM | The Northern Aldborough Festival

Rozanna is a graduate of The Royal Academy Opera School, where she was recipient of The Karaviotis Scholarship, The Sir Charles Mackerras Award and The Carr-Gregory Trust Award.

She was born in Leicestershire, England, of Ukrainian descent. After completing her undergraduate degree in English Literature and Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, Rozanna decided to dedicate herself to classical singing. During her time at the Academy, she was a member of Academy Song Circle and a finalist in the Patrons Award. Rozanna was also awarded The Karaviotis Prize at Les Azuriales Young Artist Competition, Nice, France, in August 2012 and, in the summer of 2013, attended the Solti Accademia in Castiglione della Pescaia. Rozanna was on the Young Artist Platform at The Oxford Lieder Festival and, since then, she has been invited to perform in various concert halls around the UK and abroad, including The Royal Festival Hall, The Holywell Music Room, Kings Place, The Mendelssohn-Remise Berlin, The Prokofiev Hall at The Mariinsky Theatre and The St Petersburg Philharmonic.

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