EVER wondered what a mezzo soprano is? It's a question I put to Karen Cargill, – for the simple reason that the Arbroath-born singer is currently Scotland's hottest property among mezzos.
• Karen Cargill, already a BBC Proms veteran and SCO regular, will sing Waltraute in the New York Met's 2012 Wagner Ring Cycle. Picture: Robert Perry
Let her upcoming diary speak for itself: a featured artist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; new-found favourite of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic; soon-to-be debut artist at the New York Met, Berlin's Deutsche Oper and Covent Garden; and she is already a veteran of the BBC Proms and regular guest of Scottish Opera.
She's not brazenly name-dropping when referring to the buzz she got making her debut last season with Rattle's supreme Berlin outfit. "How did that happen?" Cargill asks herself more than once as our conversation turns to recent major breakthroughs in her career, such as the successful audition she undertook at the New York Met to secure the role of Waltraute in the company's 2012 production of Wagner's Ring Cycle, or the same forthcoming role with Deutsche Oper, arising from her contact with the BBC SSO and Donald Runnicles, who also happens to be musical supremo in Berlin.
You can't help feeling that Cargill's cheery, homely and completely non-diva persona goes some way to securing the global success that is justifiably coming her way. She talks as much of her home life in Bearsden with husband Nick and 19-month-old son as her jet-setting around the world's greatest concert arenas.
Let's face it, it must be tempting to adopt sky-high airs and graces when you're set to open the new Berlin Phil season, as Cargill will do later this year in Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Perhaps the Phil has enough divas of its own, I suggest. She responds with an amusing account of rehearsing a scene from Wagner's Gtterdammerung during her first Berlin visit last May.
"Simon asked me to sing off stage, and they would leave the door open for me to watch him. As I waited, one of the violinists came over and started ranting at me in German saying he was cold and needed the door shut. I tried to explain why I was there, but he wasn't having it and stormed off. Then I sang and he came back and said he was terribly sorry. But to experience the legendary wrath of this orchestra was quite an experience – they show no mercy!"
For Cargill, the musical experience was unforgettable. "The noise that comes out is sensational, like a well-tuned car that purrs along," she says. "And it was a dream being part of it."
As for clearing up the mystery of the mezzo – a term that tends to sound like the compromised limbo land between soaring soprano and velveteen contralto – Cargill comes straight out with an answer that dismisses any sense of mere in-betweenness.
"What defines a mezzo soprano is the core of the middle voice. That's where you can tell the difference between a mezzo and a soprano," she argues. "Essentially a mezzo needs to have the top range – not top Cs and Ds, though if you've got them, all the better. But it's the quality of the middle of the voice that counts."
Her current status as "featured artist" with the SCO has given her a golden opportunity to explore the kind of repertoire that sets the mezzo apart. It's not an accident, she says, that Berlioz features prominently in that programming. Just over a month ago, she performed his Le mort de Cloptre with the SCO's hotshot chief conductor, Robin Ticciati.
"I like the way Berlioz writes specifically for a mezzo – not a contralto, not a 'Zwischenfach' mezzo, but an actual mezzo – demanding colour in the middle of the voice and using the extremities to really express what he wants to say," Cargill explains.
This week sees her centre stage in a better-known Berlioz classic, L'Enfance du Christ, again with Ticciati and the SCO. It's not new to her, having performed it in London with Sir Colin Davis. On witnessing that performance, Ticciati insisted on booking Cargill for his SCO programmes, and as the season's plans developed it became clear that she was going to appear quite a lot.
"We laughed about it," she says, "the ultimate logic was to cast me officially as a featured artist."
Still to come as part of the package are a chamber music appearance in February with clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and pianist Simon Lepper in Brahms Op 9 Lieder (part of the SCO's popular Sunday afternoon Queen's Hall chamber series), and a performance of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder with SCO principal guest conductor Olari Elts in March.
Then Cargill is back with Ticciati next season in Tippett's A Child of our Time, and there's talk, too, of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, while a Mahler 3 with Runnicles (and presumably the BBC SSO) is rumoured to be on the cards.
Despite the main focus on concert work, it would be wrong to typecast Cargill in one particular role. From a practical and domestic point of view, it currently suits her to be away from home for only a day or two at a time, which an all-consuming opera career simply wouldn't allow.
But it's not just about convenience. "I love the breadth of repertoire of concert work, which has just about everything to offer you," she says. However, as choice opportunities present themselves, it's hard to imagine her saying no to the biggest opera houses in the business. In New York, Cargill will share the Waltraute role with Waltraud Meier.
"Dramatic mezzos don't come much bigger than her," she says of Meier. "What a masterclass that will be for me to watch!"
What's the betting, though, that it won't be too long before Cargill finds herself cast as a master mezzo in all the top joints?
Just look at the form and the odds speak for themselves.
• Karen Cargill performs in Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ with Robin Ticciati and the SCO at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, tomorrow, at the City Halls, Glasgow on 5 February and the Music Hall, Aberdeen on 6 February. For more information, or to book tickets, log on to: www.sco.org.uk