by Margaret Chrystall
WITH opera singers having to take care of their voices, the last thing you’d expect to see dangling from the fingers of young mezzo soprano Laura Margaret Smith is a cigarette.
But it’s just part of the bad girl image she’s having fun with as one of the three witches in Scottish Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth.
“I really do enjoy it,” laughed Laura.
“I’ve never had to play a part like this before, where I’m an evil character. And it can be a lot of fun.
“But our cigarettes are electric cigarettes – so it’s water vapour not smoke. And the technology is so advancd that it’s completely safe for singers – and everyone else.
“But they do look very effective when we light up!”
Not that Third Witch is the most glamorous look Laura’s ever taken on...
“We’re kind of vagrants, scavenging for food and clothes. We’re just searching for any clothes and things we can find. And we look quite downtrodden, like traditional witches – to look at anyway”
Laura is one of two singers chosen by Scottish Opera as emerging artists – it means they have a year’s contract playing roles in the company’s productions, getting special coaching as well as singing lessons.
Laura said: “It’s a fantastic programme launches your career as a singer.
“It’s a great way of working in a professional environment as a young singer and also having a platform to perform on which perhaps will lead to more work. We are working with coaches from all over the UK and often we will go to London or they will come up to us, as well as singing lessons.”
Laura’s love of music began in her schooldays.
"From school I had always been interested in singing and I sang in choirs, including NYCOS – the National Youth Choir of Scotland for about eight years.
"I’ve now been teaching with them for the last eight years and in the Falkirk area for about 10 years.
"At high school – and then at university in Edinburgh – I studied music and, for my first two years, as a pianist.
"But I decided I wanted to get into solo singing and followed university by four years at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, doing a master’s degree in performance. Then I went to opera school before joining Scottish Opera."
Laura was awarded an MBF Postgraduate Performance Award which enabled her to study on the Masters course of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland under Clare Shearer. Afterwards, she was accepted on to the opera course with support from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, EMI Music Sound Foundation and the Caird, Cross and South Square trusts.
During her studies Laura sang the roles of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a co-production with Scottish Opera, Ottavia in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia, covered Duenna in Betrothal in a Monastery and sang Florence Pike in Albert Herring.
"When I started uni, all I knew was I wanted to do something with music and, as much as I loved singing, I hadn’t really considered a career in performing before that.
"I didn’t set out to be a solo pianist either and did a lot of accompanying.
"But with singing and performing I really loved using my voice onstage. The more I got into performance in my honours year, I just knew I wanted to perform.
"In Edinburgh, I did a lot of choral chorus work and smaller parts and started seriously thinking about giving it a go as a career."
Laura’s piano teacher encouraged her.
"I did have a lot of encouragement from my piano teacher who I work with now I’m a singer.
"I had a lesson in my second year, where I asked if he’d accompany me for a singing performance and we had a run-through, but he stopped me and said ‘I seriously think you need to consider singing’.
"So in fourth year I thought ‘I’m going to try to make a go of it’.
"It’s great that I’ve got this far."
Choosing opera singing makes for a demanding career, but despite all the languages to learn, vocal practice, rehearsing music and each role Laura has no regrets so far.
"It can be very tricky and very challenging and things you don’t think about – like touring, if you are not focused and dedicated – can get you down.
"But I relish the chance to get to tour – across Scotland for Macbeth.
"But you can’t come into the job lightly."
Among many awards and scholarships Laura has won, she was awarded a place on the Solti Accademia di Bel Canto last summer and had the privilege of working with important names in the opera field such as Dennis O’Neill, Richard Bonynge, Luciana Serra and Daniela Dessi.
The three-week course– created in memory of Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti – is for young opera singers at the start of their careers. It’s based in the Tuscan seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia where the Solti family still have a home.
Places are offered to 12 outstanding international students, who are invited to immerse themselves in the language and culture of Italy while devoting focused time to mastering the art of the Italian singing style "bel canto".
Laura said: "The woman who had been the New York press representative for Pavarotti asked us all the question ‘Do you want this career or do you need it?’.
"She said it’s the people who need it that make it.
"It’s less your job, more your life."
As a mezzo soprano – usually defined as sopranos most comfortable singing in the middle of their vocal range – Laura has already had a taste of one of her ideal future roles.
It was in May 2012 tht she sang the title role in Carmen with Edinburgh Grand Opera.
"It’s one of the dream roles for a mezzo – you often get to play the boy or the maid – rather than the starring role," she laughed.
"Since then I’ve done a lot of scenes from Carmen. One day I hope to sing that in a full-scale production – it’s such a big role."
Some of the voices she’d travel anywhere to see include American mezzo Jennifer Larmore, Joyce DiDonato – "I love how she sings roles like La Cenorentola and Rosina. Laura also admires English mezzo Sarah Connolly, who has performed as Lucretia in the Rape Of Lucretia, as Laura did at college.
"That is a terrific role to play, quite harrowing, but musically and dramatically it’s quite amazing."
But with the three witches’ voices also replacing the part normally sung by the chorus in the production of Macbeth that’s touring the Highlands, Laura has a lot to concentrate on.
Particularly the props ...
She laughed: “I have to be reminded which prop I’m supposed to have with me. Sometimes it’s the cigarette or – a bottle of vodka.
“I have to remember ‘Is it the cigarette or the vodka?’
“But think I’ve got the reputation of being the clumsy one. There’s quite a messy scene at the beginning of act three when the witches come on. I won’t give too much away – but it gets quite slippery. Safe slippy, but it does get slippy, so I have to be careful!”
Scottish Opera presents Verdi’s Macbeth with piano accompaniment at Eden Court on Thursday and returns with the production on October 18 to play the MacPhail Centre, Ullapool.