Sarah Castle is singing the role of Portia in Welsh National Opera’s production of The Merchant of Venice which is visiting Venue Cymru, Llandudno on 22 November. We caught up with Sarah to hear more about the show and what it’s like to sing with a touring opera company…
The Merchant of Venice has only been performed a few times, but you’ve sung this role both for WNO and in Poland. What’s it like to work on a ‘new’ opera?
I love modern music and working on new pieces. The music is often challenging to perform, and anything that is hard is so satisfying if you can actually get it right! Also, I think it’s important that we are performing new works as well as the old favourites, otherwise opera as an art form would eventually die out, or at least not progress. Often modern music is less formulaic than some older pieces, so as an actor/singer it can feel very real. This is certainly the case with this piece – it’s a brilliant production and our feelings are very real and present and believable.
You’ve performed with WNO previously in The Cunning Little Vixen. What is it that drew you back to the Company?
I had such a great time singing in The Cunning Little Vixen with WNO! I was excited to be asked back again. WNO choose interesting repertoire – look at this Shakespeare season of Macbeth, Kiss Me Kate, and Merchant of Venice – all linked, but how diverse! It’s a very friendly company – everyone I’ve met in management, backstage crew, music staff are all very good at their jobs and also fun. The Chorus are REALLY good and a great bunch of people to work with. And I enjoy the touring because it’s important that world-class opera be brought to places outside the capital cities. I feel passionately that everyone ought to have the opportunity to try out going to an opera to see if they like it, and lots of people are surprised to find that they do!
Do you have any memories from your last time in Llandudno with WNO?
I loved visiting Llandudno. It’s always a little different to visit a place to sing there, rather than just a holiday. You feel like you belong in a place for a short while, and are part of the performance venue as you’re bringing it to life with your singing. I live in Manchester and I remember driving to Venue Cymru from home, going for a lovely walk along the waterfront, looking in at the shops, getting some food, and going back to the theatre to sleep for a bit before the show! I come from Wellington in New Zealand originally, and anytime I get to work in a place by the sea, I feel happy.
As well as being a singer, you’re a mother to two children. How do you manage when you need to travel for work?
I have two children, aged 7 and 11, and when I have to go out of the country for a long time my husband and the children come with me. The children are allowed to come out of school, and so in the mornings before I go to work (opera rehearsals don’t usually start before 10.30am) we do schoolwork. They spend time in museums and learning outside as well, and love it! They’re lucky to have travelled to a lot of places and it’s been great for them. It is hard work sometimes, combining singing and parenting, but I wouldn’t want to leave them for long periods and they have been thriving. It also keeps me balanced about my life, and makes me realise I can perform well without devoting every minute of my day to it! I feel strongly that the children should not be excluded from my work, so they sometimes visit me backstage to see my makeup and wig going on, or we get permission to look at the set. They come to a performance of most shows I do.
Your husband is also a musician – do you think your children will follow in your footsteps?
Yes, my husband is a percussionist and composer. The children are showing signs of interest and talent at music and drama as well, and although we don’t expect them to necessarily follow in our footsteps, it’s lovely that they enjoy the things we enjoy too. My son Xander is 11 and plays the drum kit, sings in the Hallé Orchestra Children’s Choir, and goes to a weekly drama club. Maude is 7 and plays the violin, and does ballet and tap. I teach them both the piano. Their musical taste is very eclectic – they might choose Vivaldi or Mozart to listen to, or Twisted Sister or Ozzy Osbourne!
What would you say to someone who is new to opera who might be thinking of coming to see The Merchant of Venice?
I hope that lots of people will take the opportunity to come and see this wonderful show! It’s the only operatic version of the Shakespeare play, and so is a great chance to see a different take on this much-loved work. Keith Warner’s production is brilliant and insightful – it’s always interesting to see how a director deals with the anti-Semitism in this play, and in this version, I as Portia am violent and harsh towards Shylock, and he not without his faults too. The end of the court scene is very intense as I kick him to the floor and scream at him (well, sing high notes at him!) to beg mercy from the Duke. Ashley Martin-Davis has designed a gorgeous set and costumes, very elegant. I have a fun Edwardian bathing suit to wear, then a gorgeous dress with Suffragette overtones. The music is, of course, modern and sometimes challenging, but there are tunes, and I get some gorgeous almost jazz-inspired music to sing. This is a cast of really good acting singers, and people who enjoy theatre but might not usually go to the opera will also find this performance really rewarding.
For those wanting something a little more special, then those attending the WNO’s first performance of Kiss Me, Kate on 24 November, can “Come & Sing at Venue Cymru” which will give the public the opportunity to come together and sing a few numbers from the show, led by one of their music staff.
The Welsh National Opera arrive at Venue Cymru on Tuesday 22nd November, until Saturday 26th with 3 Operas, Tuesday 22– Macbeth, Wednesday 23– The Merchant of Venice, and Thursday 24 – Kiss Me Kate. Tickets available from www.venuecymru.co.uk or via the Box Office: 01492 872000