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Gemma’s love of opera blooms late

By Margaret Chrystall

Important awards have come soprano Gemma Summerfield’s way since she built on her lifelong love of singing and took to opera at college. She answers Margaret Chrystall’s questions about her career and her role in The Magic Flute as Pamina ...

Q Your voice has been compared to champagne and most recently when playing Pamina to cream and honey – when did you first realise your voice might have ‘something’?

A Compliments indeed! Well, my mum would tell you I could sing before I could talk. Just shy of the age of two, I sat on my dad’s shoulders at the local fireworks display and sang ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ on repeat – probably to the annoyance of those around us. Anecdotes aside, I sang all the way through school in choirs and had some private singing lessons too. Music-making was a big part of my formative years, but not specifically opera. In fact I hadn’t sung any opera or even seen an opera when I started music college, I just loved singing. When it came to applying to university I didn’t know what to do – I knew I didn’t want to study music academically (I have a lot of ideas about what to do with the dots on the page, but I didn’t really want to write essays about who put them on the page and why) and my singing teacher at the time suggested I try out for music college. I did and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland offered me a place.

Q You have won some prestigious awards and one of the latest and most significant was the 2018 Susan Chilcott Awards for singers, in memory of an outstanding singer who died of cancer at 40. It seems a lovely way to remember someone and also to help young singers develop?

A I feel particularly blessed as the last recipient of this award – it has come to me at the perfect time. Susan Chilcott was an outstanding performer and everyone I’ve spoken to who was lucky enough to have known her has impressed upon me, not only what a fantastic singer she was, but also the generosity, kindness and good humour that she brought to a rehearsal room. They are certainly qualities that I aspire to emulate. The award itself is curated by the Royal Philharmonic Society and helps me with all sorts of things, from singing lessons and coaching to health and image – dresses, hair, make-up, a gym membership. We’re expected more and more to be the full package these days.

Peter Gijsbertsen (Tamino) and Gemma Summerfield as Pamina in The Magic Flute. Picture: James Glossop
Peter Gijsbertsen (Tamino) and Gemma Summerfield as Pamina in The Magic Flute. Picture: James Glossop

Q What are the wonderful – and also scary – things about being chosen for the role of Pamina?

A This has been such an exciting learning curve for me! I signed the contract around two-and-a-half years ago, fresh out of music college, and it was the first professional offer I had. There’s a level of gravitas there for me too – it was an opportunity to return to Glasgow having graduated from the RCS, which really feels like a homecoming, and my current singing teacher Rosa Mannion sang Pamina for Scottish Opera as one of her first professional jobs too! Not to mention the opportunity to work with Sir Thomas Allen. He’s given us all a perfect equilibrium of guidance and freedom to shape the roles that an audience can now see on stage. For me, Pamina needs youth and light to begin with, but is imbued with the opportunity to love and to care deeply, to grow up swiftly and independently and then, on top of that, help Tamino, our story’s Prince Charming, to do the same. Without Pamina, Tamino possibly wouldn’t make it through his trials. Pamina’s allure is in the fact that she never has to be in front to guide, but guide she does!

Q What would you recommend about The Magic Flute to anyone seeing it for the first time? And what other productions are you part of this year?

A I’m very much looking forward to performing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hallé and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and singing Fiordiligi for Opéra National du Rhin and Musetta for Grange Park Opera. As for The Magic Flute, this is just the perfect opera for first timers. It’s funny, accessible, modern, joyful, spectacular, and in English to boot! It’s genuinely fun for all the family and it’s a joy to hear children out there in our audiences too. There’s a prince, a princess, goodies, baddies and everyone in between. There’s a battle between darkness and light, there’s a whole load of visual effects controlled by our awesome backstage team, who are the beating heart of the production. The chorus brings the show to another level again and The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, under Tobias Ringborg’s baton, create an incredible wave for the whole performance to ride on. It’s our job as performers to help an audience love what we’re doing as much as we’re loving doing it. So why not come along and give us that opportunity!

Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute is at Eden Court tonight (Tuesday May 21), Thursday and Saturday. It starts at 7.15pm. There is also an unwrapped performance giving insights into everything about the opera plus extracts from its most famous moments on Friday at 6pm (tickets £5). And there will be a pre-performance talk about the opera on Saturday at 6pm. For more info: www.eden-court.co.uk and www.scottishopera.org.uk

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