Before winning the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World last year, Catriona Morison from Edinburgh was quiety building her career with a regional opera company in Germany. That’s about to change, writes Ken Walton
How come a city like Wuppertal, with a population of around 350,000, can, like so many other similar-sized German towns, support its own opera house and resident company, complete with contract soloists, whereas here in Scotland, with a population of more than five million, we struggle on with a part-time national company?
The answer is one of cultural priority, and it has a lot to do with federal pride, but it’s a fact of contemporary musical life that budding opera stars in the UK are more likely to find stable career openings in relatively quiet corners of Germany than at home.
Take, for example, Catriona Morison. If you followed last June’s prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition on television, you will recognise her as the so-called “wildcard entrant” from Edinburgh who blew the judges away with her rich mezzo soprano voice and intelligent performances, sweeping the board as the first British outright winner of the main competition and joint winner of the Solo Prize. If not, this may be the first time you’ve ever heard of her. For Morison, who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, has spent the past few years at the Opernhaus Wuppertal, where she is employed as a “Fest” singer undertaking lead roles in the company’s regular productions. She is currently starring as Hansel in Humperdinck’s delightful Hansel and Gretel, before appearing in Martinu’s Julietta in March. Other than her Cardiff appearances last year, Morison has rarely appeared in the UK.
But that’s all about to change. On 19 January, the 31-year-old will be at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, where she will team up with fellow Scot, pianist Malcom Martineau, to give her first ever professional solo recital. She’ll be singing mostly German language repertoire (Grieg, Mahler and Brahms), alongside songs by Fauré, Pierre Vellons and Scots composer Claire Liddell.
Life is changing fast for Morison. Needless to say, Cardiff has been the main reason. “It’s been the most important milestone to date,” she says. “It really accelerated my career, though it was only a number of months ago and I feel I’m still at the very start of everything.”
One of the biggest spinoffs was to be recruited onto the prestigious BBC Young Generation Artist scheme, which opens up priceless opportunities for the very best young international musicians, not least exposure to the worldwide Radio 3 audience. For Morison, it’s a precious foot in the UK door.
“Obviously, I’m still over in Germany with lots of things already planned in the diary, so to be able to be in the recording studio laying down tracks for the BBC is a nice way of keeping my name heard the UK,” she explains. It’s early days yet, but already Morison is cock-a-hoop at the new contacts, ideas and openings that are coming her way in Britain, especially concert and recital opportunities that will allow her to escape periodically from the intensity of the German opera stage.
She is especially delighted, though, to be returning to Edinburgh this month. It’s there that her love of singing first took root. “My mum’s a musician, so there was always music in the house. My sister and I both learnt the violin, and we both sang as members of the Waverley Singers.” The singing bug stuck, and Morison proceeded to the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), where she studied under Clare Shearer, before capitalising on opportunities to study and work in Germany.
“I’ve been incredibly happy in Germany,” says Morison. “I worked initially in an opera studio in Weimar, a touring company that moved around four different opera houses, so it was a rapid learning process on how the business over here works.” The move to Wuppertal and a coveted Fest (Company Principal) contract came within a year, a position she could hardly have dreamed of in the UK.
“There just aren’t the same opportunities back in the UK, unless you join a chorus,” Morison explains. “You just don’t get the opportunity to be a soloist in a house anymore, which is a big shame. The system over here is very different.” Last year alone, Morison featured in five new productions, from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman to Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges to a new opera by Helmut Oehring.
Following Edinburgh, there will be other recitals in the UK, promises Morison, though with things happening so fast, that’s more a frustrating teaser than a disclosure of actual details. “Yes, there will be more in Scotland; no, there’s nothing yet to say about opera opportunities; yes, there’s more on the concert side of things,” is all she’s in a position to say at the moment.
What pleases her most is that she’s getting to do the thing she loves most. “When I was at college I wanted to be able to make a living out of singing,” she recalls. “It’s a hard career, and so I’m so proud to be where I am now. Of course I have goals of places I’d like to sing, but who knows what’s going to happen. I just hope it continues to build.”
Catriona Morison Sings in Edinburgh is at the Queen’s Hall, 19 January, www.thequeenshall.net. For more on Catriona Morison visit www.catrionamorison.com/