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Meet our Zerbinetta

Soprano Jennifer France returns to Opera North this season to sing Zerbinetta in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.

During rehearsals, she told us why she loves performing the role so much and why she thinks the opera deserves to be better known.

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When was the first time you sang Zerbinetta?

I remember being introduced to the role so vividly. It was in about 2010 when I was a fourth year undergraduate at the Royal Northern College of Music. I did an elective for my degree called ‘Strauss and his Operas’. It was the first time I’d ever heard any Strauss because up until then I’d focused on works by Mozart, Handel, Bach – things that are really good for a young voice.

As soon as I heard Zerbinetta’s aria in Ariadne auf Naxos, I wanted to sing it, but my teacher said: “No, it’s far too hard for your voice at this stage. I’ll help you learn a bit of it, though”, so I started mastering the aria very slowly when I was still an undergraduate. Then, when I went to the Royal Academy for my postgraduate studies, I started systematically learning the role again, and I performed the whole Prologue as a student there. Since then, I’ve just chipped away at it – this is actually my fifth production.

Jennifer France as Zerbinetta in rehearsal for Ariadne auf Naxos © Tom Arber

Why do you feel drawn to the part so much?

First up, the music is incredible. It’s Strauss after all, and Zerbinetta is basically Strauss’ love song to a coloratura soprano which is why he’s written the most extraordinary aria for her. Technically it’s extremely demanding, but it’s also very satisfying.

Aside from that, I love her character. On the surface, she seems very flighty and very confident as she struts around the stage in charge of all these guys. Then she meets the Composer, this completely different character. She’s never met anybody like him before and it turns out that she’s always been searching for something that she couldn’t even really describe herself. She’s certainly never told anybody and suddenly it just pours out of her in the duet. She can’t keep it in any longer. Meeting that one person changes her. I find it interesting every time I come to her.

Dominic Sedgwick as Harlequin, Alex Banfield as Scaramuccio, Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, Adrian Dwyer as Brighella © Tom Arber

What can audiences expect from Ariadne auf Naxos?

The first half is very much a ‘play within a play’. It gives you a glimpse into backstage craziness. When people come to the opera, they see a finished performance, but behind the scenes and during the rehearsal process, there’s a lot of trial and error. It’s where we have our fun. The rehearsals are actually my favourite part – it’s where you can try new things in a safe space. We play, we invent. This opera gives the audience a little glimpse into that.

The German word ‘Verwandlung’ (transformation) is used a lot in the opera and that’s really what it’s about. The Composer sings about music transforming you and we’ve all felt that: you’re listening to a piece of music and it transports you somewhere, it transforms you.

The characters are all transformed in some way too. Zerbinetta is transformed by meeting the Composer. Up until then, she’s constantly been on to the next lover and the next one, but she’s always been lacking something. As far as Ariadne is concerned, she feels like she wants to die because Theseus her love has abandoned her, but this new god Bacchus turns up in the second half and he transforms her. She realises there’s more to life. So, it’s about transformation, and the power of music and the power of love and what it can do.

Hanna Hipp as Composer and Jennifer France as Zerbinetta in rehearsal for Ariadne auf Naxos © Tom Arber

Why do you think everyone should give opera a go?

Opera is about storytelling, the joy of it. My favourite thing is communicating that to the audience. That’s why it was very hard during Covid for all of us performers. I did a few of those streams to an empty hall, but it took away the joy of singing live to people.

There’s something about hearing opera singers unamplified. It’s just so powerful. It’s amazing that the human voice can achieve that – you look at humans differently when you hear it. It’s a bit like when you see professional sprinters and realise just how fast the human body can move.

I’d say to anyone who hasn’t been to an opera, you don’t really know what it’s like until you’re there. Opera might not be for everybody, but I think everybody should give it a go. I really do because it’s such a powerful thing. You can see what human beings are capable of and have a really good story told to you at the same time.

Jennifer France as Zerbinetta and Daniel Norman as Dancing Master in rehearsal for Ariadne auf Naxos © Tom Arber

Why should people come to Ariadne auf Naxos?

It’s got a bit of everything. It’s got drama. It’s got comedy. It’s got soaring melodies. It’s got vocal fireworks. And I get to do some dancing!

Strauss has written a beautiful opera about his beloved art form and from such an incredible composer as Strauss, you can’t really get much better. You’ve got the first bit which is all about how an opera’s put together: it’s very funny; it’s very fast moving. Then you’ve got the second bit which is just a love song to opera with incredibly beautiful melodies.

Do you have a favourite soprano role?

This one! Honestly! My own life experience has added so many different layers to it. I think back to when I first sang the role in 2016. Since then, I’ve married my husband – in fact, I met him when I was performing Zerbinetta and he was Tenor in the show! – and I had my daughter two and a half years ago which changed my perspective again. I find Zerbinetta’s the kind of character where I’m constantly peeling away the layers. I don’t think I’ll ever unearth them all. I’ll always discover something new about her every time I come to her. She’s just fascinating.

Ariadne auf Naxos opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 18 February.


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