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Welsh National Opera's Leah-Marian Jones talks of the third Tudor opera, Roberto Devereux

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: October 03, 2013

  • Leah-Marian Jones in Roberto Devereux. Photo: Robert Workman

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As the Welsh National Opera prepare for their annual Swansea visit, MARK REES talks to mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones about the Tudor-themed series


AYBE it's a reflection of my upbringing, but I'd love to get myself a little motor bike… and then a Harley Davidson!" laughs Cardigan-born mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones of her somewhat unconventional ambition to jump on the back of a chopper and hit the vast open roads of America.

"Maybe the reality is very different, but I love watching biker things on telly; I've got a Harley jacket, and I love rock music.

"I think it's the freedom that appeals to me. I love that feeling you have in the car with the music playing, window down, hair blowing back in the wind."

And this ambition is more than a mere pipe-dream. As the opera singer explains, she has already taken steps to make her dream a reality.

"I did a CBT (compulsory basic training) lesson, where you spend the first half of the day training, and the second half driving around the town, going between cars; I need to finish that off."

Not that Leah is limiting her option to two wheels, either.

"I love the idea of going around in a camper van as well. Although in reality, I'd probably be stiff and get earache from the draft!"

Next week Leah heads to the Swansea Grand Theatre, presumably by car, where she will appear in the final production of the Welsh National Opera's autumn season, Roberto Devereux.

And Leah, who now lives in Bath, is looking forward to returning to South West Wales, a part of the world that holds fond memories for her.

"I'm very glad I was born in Wales," she says, having been raised in the town of Cilgerran with Welsh as her first language.

"There's a strong pull form where you come from, and I enjoyed my upbringing very much. Singing was everywhere, which I think was important."

Leah also notes that the Swansea show will be the nearest that she gets to performing a hometown show. Not that she'll be expecting her family to cheer her along in the audience.

"Swansea is the closest to where I grew up, and my mother and brother still live there. But they don't usually come to see me in the opera — I think they get a bit bored!" she jokes.

Roberto Devereux is the third in an ambitious new series of Tudor themed operas from the WNO, breathing new life into some of Donizetti's lesser known works.

But it isn't only some members of the audience who'll be experiencing these historical pieces for the first time. Even Leah, whose wide-ranging career has seen her perform in operas from Bizet's Carmen to Wagner's Ring Cycle, is newly discovering them.

"I didn't know it at all," she says upon first hearing of the title.

"It's was a new thing to me. Roberto Devereux — who's he?

"Everyone's heard of Anne Boleyn and Mary Stuart, but not Roberto Devereux. Maybe it should have been called Elizabeth I," she says, with reference to the opening two titles in the trilogy.

But Leah believes that it is a huge credit to the WNO for tackling such operas, as opposed to taking the easy route and sticking with a tried and tested formula.

"I love it!" she gushes of the newly-discovered gem.

"They've cast it very well. It's not too long, just over two hours with one interval. And it's fantastic to sing, such beautiful music, with a lovely aria.

"It just makes you smile; which is odd when you think about it, because it's about death!"

Leah stars as Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham. But while many of the other roles in the opera, from Sir Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth, might be familiar to many from school history lessons, you might have some difficulty in locating any biographical details on Leah's character.

"She's a made up character," explains Leah of Donizetti's liberal use of fact and fiction in his work.

"She didn't exist. So in a way, I have a lot of freedom."

And Leah, who feels no added pressure at being the first performer on the stage, is relishing the opportunity of taking on a more prominent role in a production

"Most of the characters I've performed in the past have been B and C roles, as is the nature of a mezzo soprano, so this is a fantastic opportunity.

"But there are challenges to both sides.

"With the smaller roles, there's less to say, but you really have to get it perfect every time; with the bigger roles, there's more to do, but you have more of a chance to redeem yourself if you need to."

Looking to the future, outside of her teaching responsibilities at Bath University and the National Conservatoire of Wales in Cardiff, Leah is simply hoping to for more of the same.

"With singing in general, there are very few roles that suit you down to the ground, but I'm really loving singing Bel Canto at the moment.

"I haven't done much of it in the past; maybe I wasn't ready for it; but more Bel Canto would be nice."

And Leah will also continue her partnership with the WNO by returning for Rossini's Guillaume Tell next year, which sees her reunited with fellow Roberto Devereux singer, baritone David Kempster.

Although it has thrown up a rather unusual casting scenario that highlights one of the wonderful peculiarities that could only really occur in opera.

"I play David Kempster's wife in this production . . . and his mother in the next one!"

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