Opera singer Kathryn Harries reprises role in Jenufa

KATHRYN Harries is that rare thing – an opera singer who can really act. Now she’s reprising one of her greatest roles in Scottish Opera’s Jenufa, writes Ken Walton

Kathryn Harries as Kostelnicka Buryjovka  and Lee Bisset as Jenufa in Jenufa. Picture: Contributed
Kathryn Harries as Kostelnicka Buryjovka and Lee Bisset as Jenufa in Jenufa. Picture: Contributed

At 64, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Harries has experienced life to the full. That means taking the rough with the smooth, and there’s been plenty of each, as anyone reading her entertaining website blog – where she describes herself as “happily divorced” – will know.

It also means making the best of the many unexpected career opportunities that have come her way, from television presenter in the 1970s – the twice-weekly schools television series Music Time on BBC1 – to her current role as director of the influential training ground for young opera singers, the National Opera Studio in London, to charity fundraiser and that wild moment a few years ago when she seriously considered setting up a Welsh holiday retreat for horses.

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She is, though, an opera singer first and foremost, whose early successes as Leonora in Beethoven’s Fidelio and subsequent Wagnerian roles for Welsh National Opera in the early 1980s established her, unusually at the time, as a singer who could really act. A busy international career ensued, including memorable appearances here with Scottish Opera, as Leonora in Fidelio in 1984, Senta in John Cox’s 1987 production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman alongside Norman Bailey’s lead, and Dido in the 1990 production of Berlioz’s The Trojans.

For Harries, the 1984 Fidelio was memorable for all the wrong reasons. “I collapsed on stage in Leeds, which halted the performance,” she recalls. “It turned out I had a blocked fallopian tube. That was the last of that run!” A major operation ensued.

Speaking to her backstage at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, where she’s about to make a nostalgic return to Scottish Opera in this week’s new production of Janácek’s Jenufa, it’s clear that whatever life has thrown at Harries, good or bad, nothing has shaken her naturally sunny disposition, nor her determined belief that things happen and you jolly well have to get on with it.

We meet during a brief break in rehearsals and she’s in character, dressed in the dowdy, wholesome assemblage of a Czech village matriarch, the hair swept back, provocatively wild and wavy, the natural attractiveness of the face weathered by stage make-up, worry lines etched on the cheekbones. Harries’ beaming eyes add a warm and knowing dimension of their own.

But that’s to be expected, as she’s playing perhaps the most interesting tragic figure in Janácek’s harrowing opera, the Kostelnicka who, out of the purest form of love, drowns her stepdaughter Jenufa’s illegitimate baby in order to save the family from the shame it would face within the claustrophobic village community.

What I don’t expect Harries to reveal is that she has recently been diagnosed with the early stages of breast cancer. “It’s so boring, but we’ve caught this very early on, so I’ve got to go and have an operation in May, and I don’t know whether I’ll be fit to see the contemporary scenes,” she says, referring to the final performances of her trainees at the National Opera Studio. “Or whether I’ll be able to fly to New Zealand to give masterclasses and visit my 35-year-old daughter in Sydney.

“It’s driving me nuts, but tell your readers: girls, get your mammograms, because it was discovered at a routine mammogram in January. At my age you get them every three years. Had it been at any other time in that three-year cycle, then maybe it would have been a more serious story. As the surgeon keeps reminding me, it’s a big operation, so it is serious. But I just think I’m very lucky that we caught it when we did.”

Who knows whether living under that current shadow will rub off on Harries’ portrayal as the Kostelnicka? But it’s a role she’s sung many times, in Chicago, San Francisco, Bilbao, Genoa, Nantes, Lille, and most notably at Glyndebourne 11 years ago, when one critic raved: “Her asceticism, anger and warped intolerance harboured hidden depths of grim experience: this was an interpretation of searing force.”

Harries certainly wouldn’t describe her own life experience as “grim”, but she does relate to characters whose lives have been as eventful and adventurous as her own, among them Wagner’s Brangene and Getrune, Beethoven’s Leonora and Berlioz’s Dido

And what about Carmen, a role Harries made her own as a younger singer? “I did her a lot in my 40s, and it’s a wonderful role to play,” she says. “But that opera is about Don José’s journey, not Carmen’s; she just stays the same.

As for the Kostelnicka, Harries refers to it as her favourite role, one she first sang in Israel 22 years ago. “She makes such an amazing journey, and the terrible act she carries out – drowning the baby – I never see as an evil one. I think what she does is 75 per cent pure love for Jenufa, trying to give her her life. The minute the decision is made, that it’s better to send the baby to God because then it won’t have any stain on its character, she knows she is going to hell.”

Then there’s the music: a score that represents Janácek’s flowering – he was 50 – as an opera composer. “It’s just phenomenal,” Harries believes. “You could play Jenufa as a straight play and it would be very powerful. But the music adds this great ocean of depth that just hits people slap bang in their gut. When I did it in Amsterdam ages ago with [former Scottish Opera music director] Richard Armstrong he said it’s all about being as true to the piece as you possibly can, because Janácek’s done all the work.

This new production by Annilese Miskimmon features Scots-born Lee Bisset as Jenufa, and is conducted by Stuart Stratford, one of the names hotly tipped to fill the long-vacated post as music director of Scottish Opera. “It’s an honest and truthful approach, simply telling the story and seeing the people in as rounded a way as possible,” says Harries.

Coming from such a rounded and truthful individual, you have to believe it.

Scottish Opera’s new production of Janácek’s Jenufa is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 7, 9 and 11 April; and at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 16 and 18 April, www.scottishopera.org.uk