Dame Felicity Lott - a Sussex songbird

PUBLISHED: 11:53 22 October 2013 | UPDATED: 11:53 22 October 2013

Dame Felicity Lott

Dame Felicity Lott

Christina Raphaelle

The well-loved soprano has lived in Seaford for 27 years, after falling for the area during a Glyndebourne Tour. Here she talks about a life lived through song

Despite her status as one of our most popular and renowned sopranos, Dame Felicity Lott is definitely no diva. On the contrary - she comes across as refreshingly grounded, friendly and unpretentious. When we meet at her Seaford home, she has just returned from Spain where she gave two concerts, one of them in a “fabulous” hall in Zaragoza, with “a wonderful acoustic”. Having anticipated singing to 50 or so people, she was amazed to find an audience of nearly 700 – “More than the Wigmore Hall!”

She is 66, but ask if she has any thoughts of slowing down and she remarks that I should have seen her running for the plane in Spain the other day… “We caught it with about five minutes to spare!” Travelling, she admits, can be stressful. “It has lost its allure… It’s the anticipation of it that is awful. I get very twitchy, but once I’m in the car and on the way, I’m fine. I quite like making a nest somewhere else”.

Now that she is performing in fewer opera productions, there is less time for nest-building. “It’s nearly always a one-night stand, so there’s much more travelling, and usually a different repertoire every time, so one is constantly trying to learn something (new)”.

After her many working trips abroad, Felicity always looks forward to coming back to Seaford, where she has lived for 27 years, with her husband, the actor Gabriel Woolf. “I grew up in landlocked Cheltenham and always wanted to live by the sea”, she says. Before that, they lived in Lewes, and they have a small apartment in Paris.

Over tea and biscuits in her light, spacious sitting room, she tells me that her love affair with Sussex dates back to 1976, when she played the Countess in Strauss’s Capriccio on a Glyndebourne tour. From there she sang in the Festival virtually every year until the Opera House’s rebuild (in 1994). “I’ve sung twice in the new House. It’s an absolutely wonderful theatre: beautiful to look at, and very comfortable for the audience.

“The old one had a kind of magic. It was more quirky – and we got desperately hot. I remember doing Arabella (in Strauss’ opera of that name) a couple of times. I had the most amazingly heavy clothes - that was hard. I could have gone out with the huskies in Siberia!” Singers, she adds, are “frightfully sensitive to things like air conditioning”.

Flying plays havoc with the voice. “It dries everything up… but I don’t like to sit there wearing a mask”. She used to be “decimated” by hay fever during the summer months, until somebody put her on to a natural remedy called Propolis which she takes all through the winter. Since then, she has hardly suffered any colds, and the hay fever is manageable, “although I sat outside in the garden last week and suddenly started streaming!”

Gabriel does the garden – “the lawn, everything” – and she is quite happy with this arrangement. “He loves it. I do a bit of weeding and planted the sweet peas, but I don’t do very much. I just come back and say: That’s died!” They have fabulous roses, she loves the scent of them and of course that sets off her sneezing.

Felicity’s childhood years were steeped in music. Both her parents sang – for fun, in amateur choirs and in Concert Party – during and after the War. Her dad wrote sketches and was a pub pianist – “sort of oompah oompah!” And her mother, now 93 and living down the road, sang for years “very beautifully: Madame Butterfly – One Fine Day, Smiling Through, all those lovely songs”.

Her father was an accountant and her mother helped him in his office. “My mum wasn’t a pushy mother but extremely supportive. I had piano lessons, violin lessons, singing lessons, and I sang in the church choir in Cheltenham”. When we meet she is about to return to Cheltenham to appear in the Festival – at a concert in the Pump Room, where she used to sing God Be In my Head on school speech days.

“I was at Pate’s grammar school and we had a wonderful, slightly dotty lady who conducted the choir… and our church organist’s wife taught me the violin. There was so much music going on… “

She loved pop music too: the Beatles, Beach Boys, Four Tops and the Everly Brothers. And there was one particular B side of an Elvis Presley single that she played rather a lot: “I had a crush on somebody called Jim at the time, and it was called Just tell her Jim said Hello… It must have driven them barmy at home!”

At first Felicity opted to study French rather than Music. And as part of her French degree (at the Royal Holloway College) she spent a year at the Conservatoire in Grenoble, where she happened upon an inspirational singing teacher called Elizabeth Maximovitch. This was something of a turning point, helping Felicity to change direction and gain the musical confidence she had previously lacked.

“Because I was shy and wore glasses till I was 17 or so and didn’t fit into any of my ideas of what a singer ought to look like, it had never occurred to me that I’d be able to do anything like that”.

She won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, of which she is now a Fellow. During her long and distinguished career, she has sung with most major orchestras internationally, under celebrated conductors including Solti and Rattle, and has appeared on recital platforms worldwide. But she still suffers with pre-performance nerves, albeit in a slightly different way than before.

“I’m more worried about whether my voice will obey instructions. I tailor my repertoire a bit now”. She is doing less opera as it requires more strength than she believes her voice can muster. “The higher part of my voice is fine, much more reliable than it ever was when I was young, but the bottom part is not so good. I’ll have to take up smoking again!” she jokes.

“I do exercises a bit – not as much as I ought to. The best thing for my voice is to keep using it. It’s Use it or lose it. I’ve got a sort of natural voice, and as long as I don’t do something really silly like smoke… We’re not great partygoers, my husband and I – we don’t lead a wild life”.

Singing, she declares, is tremendous exercise - “and very good for releasing all those endo-do-dahs (endorphins), because you have to stand up straight, breathe properly… and anyway, it’s such fun”.

She is passionate about performing. “It’s not about applause. It’s about communication and sharing something with people. And I almost only do things that I like very much to sing. Doing recitals, I can choose, and there’s no end to it”. She has always relished performing in the French language: “my great love”. And she has been so lucky, she says, in the characters she has played in Strauss and Mozart operas – “You certainly get rid of a lot of your own problems by letting it all out in that way”.

She admits to being an easy weeper, tending to become emotionally immersed in a role. “I was always in tears at Glyndebourne when I was doing Octavian (in Der Rosenkavalier)… It had me in floods! But having done it again and again, you finally, somehow, get over it”.

Some songs, however, have the power to affect her nearly every time, especially if they have personal associations, when it can be “pretty much impossible” to sing.

The ideal thing, she says, is to make the audience cry and somehow keep control oneself. Presumably, though, the audience will respond all the more when they see her cry, aware that she is not just ‘putting it on’?

“No, I’m not very good at acting!’ she says, laughing. “Even talking about it makes me blub - it’s pathetic! The other day I was taking part in a concert and Jon Walmsley sang a sad Victorian ballad. I was blubbing on the stage… and I’d heard it four times in rehearsal!”

How does she rate the current craze for community choirs? “It’s great – to get out and meet other people and sing together. It really is good therapy”. It is also, she believes, the perfect antidote to sitting in front of a screen in a ‘virtual’ world. I agree, and we enjoy a brief digression on the time-wasting tactics of Twitter and other social networking sites…

“I mean”, says Felicity, “how do you have a life? It’s like people who take photographs all the time, rather than just being there and looking at things”.

Although she will sometimes put Radio 3 on in the car, she chooses not to listen to music much at home. Maybe this is because she herself is doing music and therefore would wish to have a complete break from it?

“Partly, yes. But when I do listen I discover all sorts of amazing things and I think: why on earth don’t I listen more? It’s odd… “ It would have to be orchestral music or string quartets rather than song, she says, but she tunes into Radio 4 a lot more.

When time allows, she involves herself in various local events and causes. Earlier this year she gave a recital at Brighton and Hove High School, in aid of the Brighton and Hove Springboard performing arts festival, which gives young musicians a platform to perform. Last year she took part in a “fantastic” concert in Glyndebourne, which raised £100,000 for Young Epilepsy.

Glyndebourne will always be very special to Felicity. “Sir George and Lady Christie – the whole team - were amazing”, she says, recalling the early days there. “It was like being part of a big family… and the music staff, the production side, were brilliant”.

Her schedule for the coming months sounds punishing. She is off to Bombay for about four days, to do a concert. It’s her second visit and she knows people there, but there will be no time to linger as she then has a concert booked in Tours (with her friend and colleague Graham Johnson), followed by one in Gloucester with mezzo Sarah Connolly (Connolly has campaigned for a stained glass window in Gloucester cathedral in memory of ex-chorister, composer and poet Ivor Gurney)…

“Then I’ve got a week of classes and a recital – near Biarritz. Not all bad really!” she smiles. “Yes, I am slowing down, but it never looks quite like it!”


My Favourite Sussex

Restaurant: Pelham House Hotel in Lewes. The restaurant is excellent, it has an interesting menu, with manageable portions all beautifully served. I don’t like being presented with a piled-high plate.

Pub: The Cricketers in Berwick. It’s a nice pub with a lovely garden. I took Mother there for lunch yesterday and it was absolutely buzzing...

Shop: JCJ Pottery, Pevensey. I have some of his pots. I love the designs, the shapes and the lusterware.

View: the Seven Sisters from Seaford Head. It’s extraordinary. I love the curviness of the Downs: they’re bare, with no trees on them, but this wonderful shape, like a Henry Moore (sculpture).

Place to visit: Sheffield Park, so beautiful at all times of the year. I love its magnificent rhododendrons and azaleas, and later its glorious autumn colours around the lakes.

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