Giselle Allen, Diva in the Making
The Northern Irish opera singer on taking the lead in Tosca, visiting Auschwitz and singing for her daugher
London, Berlin, Brussels, Singapore and Toronto: Giselle Allen is that rare commodity, an opera singer from Northern Ireland with a genuinely international reputation.
It's a demandingly peripatetic existence - when I meet her on a sun-kissed day in Carrickfergus - where she lives when not travelling the global operatic circuit - she is busily preparing for auditions at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, France's most prestigious operatic institution, and for a visit to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland (more of which later).
Allen's most recent engagement, however, was closer to home, singing the title role in Puccini's Tosca, Northern Ireland Opera's inaugural production, staged in three separate venues (one per act) in Derry-Londonderry. Was it, I wondered, just another gig for such a seasoned operatic performer? Allen is adamant that it wasn't.
'I was really honoured to be asked,' she comments. 'And such a great role as well.' She is fulsome in her praise of Oliver Mears, the new company's artistic director. 'Ollie is a fantastic director, with amazing ideas, and experience at a high level. It was so exciting.'
Allen admits to having been 'a bit anxious about the whole three venues thing', but Mears's daring, site-specific staging (using St Columb's Cathedral, the Guildhall and St Columb's Hall) was a huge hit with the Derry audience. 'They loved it,' says Allen. 'We were overwhelmed by the response, totally shocked. They seemed to be completely mesmerised by it.'
Undoubtedly the unusual proximity of audience and singers helped maximise the visceral impact of Puccini's masterpiece. 'I've never done a show like that before,' Allen comments. 'When I was singing 'Vissi d'arte' I could have touched the front row, I could have touched their feet. It was so close! I was worried that it would freak me out, but it didn't.'
Allen is clearly excited by the emergence of a new opera company in Northern Ireland, and hopes to sing for it again. 'I think we have suffered from a serious lack of opera performances in Northern Ireland,' she says. 'While I was growing up, if you had asked me who any opera singers were from here, I would have said none. I never even saw an opera. It just wasn't encouraged.'
Like so many young Irish people before her Allen was, effectively, forced to emigrate. 'There were very few singing teachers here and I was told to go to London or elsewhere if I wanted a career in music,' she explains. Times have, of course, changed in Northern Ireland, but where opera is concerned perhaps not yet hugely. 'People still ask me what my real job is!' she laughs, with just a touch of irritation.
Allen's musical roots go back to childhood, when she learned recorder at Cliftonville Primary School, north Belfast, then oboe at the city's School of Music. But she barely sang a note in earnest until, aged 16, she performed a solo at a concert in her school, Victoria College, and somebody suggested she get proper training.
A degree at Cardiff University - then postgraduate studies at the Guildhall and Royal Academy of Music in London - followed before Opera North spotted her burgeoning talent. She sang her first big part for the company (Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin) in 1998, and is fulsome in her praise of the key role Opera North has played in nurturing her professional development. 'Like a family,' is how she describes the Leeds-based ensemble, 'a really wonderful company'.
Impressive as Allen's career has been so far, the next year will see it shift to a new level, one reached by very few singers from Northern Ireland. This summer, she will tread the main stage at the world-renowned Glyndebourne Festival in the role of Miss Jessel, the ghostly ex-governess in Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, based on a Henry James short story. It's a part Allen has sung before, but the prestigious Glyndebourne ticket considerably ups the ante.
Allen is unfazed, however, describing the Sussex venue as 'a magical place' where 'the musical preparation is extremely high and the whole place just breathes opera'. Jessel, she explains, is a character deliberately cloaked in mystery by James and Britten and therefore difficult to interpret. 'Was she pregnant? Did she kill herself? Is she evil?' Allen muses. 'I don't believe she is, so I try to play her as a lost soul, but I try to make her sympathetic also.'
And what of the Auschwitz connection? Allen's visit to the Nazi death-camp has a professional purpose: 2011 will also bring her biggest career challenge to date, when she sings the lead part in the British premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger, an opera about the Holocaust, during which time the composer lost most of his own family.
'It is a pretty harrowing piece,' says Allen, 'difficult musically but so powerful.' It charts the story of Marta (the passenger of the title), a former concentration camp inmate who meets Lisa, one of her SS overseers, on a cruise ship 15 years later. 'I am visiting the camp at Auschwitz to do some research and really be able to know everywhere that is mentioned. It is a tremendous responsibility to get it right and truthful for all those people who didn't make it.'
Marta, though a new part, is typical of the embattled, tormented characters that Allen seems to specialise in playing - Janacek's Katya Kabanova and Jenufa, Berg's Marie (Wozzeck), Mozart's Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni), and Tatyana in Onegin. Does she ever feel, shall we say, typecast? 'Most of my roles are pretty dramatic and awful,' she concedes, laughing.
'But there's something about conflicted women,' she adds, more seriously. 'I get it, I feel an affinity with them.' Or, as a casting director at English National Opera (which is staging The Passenger) drily put it after one particularly coruscating Allen audition: 'Yes. Intense. What we've come to expect from Giselle.'
It's that intensity, that commitment to getting inside the characters she plays, to, however fleetingly, actually become them, that has taken Allen from Cliftonville Primary to the most prestigious operatic platforms on the international circuit. And she's not finished yet. At 40, she is entering her prime as a singer, and has big parts, as yet unsung, on her radar, the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier in particular.
For the time being, though, it's back to motherhood and domesticity, as Allen's four-year-old daughter Sophia needs attention. Her mother's biggest fan, presumably? Unfortunately not, or not yet anyway. 'She doesn't like me singing very much,' says Allen ruefully. 'She tells me to be quiet, "It's too loud mummy!"'