Clare Presland remembers her time with Jackdaws

Clare Presland

In 2011, I felt very lucky to join Jackdaws OperaPLUS project in which we performed Mozart’s Così fan tutte conducted by Audrey Hyland and directed by Saffron Van Zwanenberg.

I had very recently changed from Soprano to Mezzo and I was at a stage of my development where building experience in mezzo roles was priceless. Not only was the incredible guidance of Audrey and Saffron completely amazing but the invaluable experience of getting a core Mozart role under my belt was so worthwhile. What also made the course so special was meal times together – we were fed so incredibly well but also the numerous and good quality chats with colleagues, Audrey and Saffron. I remember walking back to rehearsals one day after lunch and Audrey mentioned that I should learn Concepción’s aria: “Oh! La pitoyable aventure”. It now remains one of my core arias in my audition package!

Shortly after Così, my career took an extreme turn when I made an unexpected debut at the English National Opera as Omar in The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams. The head of casting at that time, John McMurray had heard me sing when I took part in the ENO Opera Works Course and offered me the understudy. However, during the stage rehearsals and unbeknownst to me, the role had become available. I was strategically asked to sing Omar’s aria during a stage and piano rehearsal and an hour later the role was offered to me. Looking back now, it was obviously a pivotal moment in my career from which everything else seemingly fell into place.

Ever since my debut, ENO have been incredibly supportive. I have since performed a whole variety of roles, expanding my repertoire on a major operatic stage where I felt nurtured and encouraged whilst working with the best music staff, directors and conductors in the business. I was also very lucky to be surrounded by amazing and incredibly experienced colleagues who really knew their ‘craft’. Not only did I get to watch and observe how they were doing it, but I also learnt the invaluable lessons of the profession: turning up early, knowing your score inside out, being a generous colleague with positive and open energy, and crucially, learning how to ask for what you need to enable yourself to be the best that you can possibly be.

My career has also taken me to places further from home including Japan, France and Germany. My European debut was at Opéra de Lyon as Aksinya in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In Lyon we were performing a Russian opera at a French house. The communication in rehearsals ended up being in four different languages! Russian, French, English and German – such a different experience to the UK!

An opera contract is typically 7-8 weeks long so you really get the opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture and learn a different way of life! The converse learning curve is learning to be away from home, filling your time away from rehearsals and managing homesickness. Again, I’ve been lucky enough to work with more experienced colleagues who have ‘been there, done that’. I remember one remark, ‘I do my taxes when I’m away from home, it gets that job done, it passes time and means I’m free of them at home!’

Clare Presland as Susanna in Il segreto di Susanna at Opera Holland Park
Il segreto di Susanna, Opera Holland Park. Image by Ali Wright

To date, I have been blessed to play and sing an eclectic mix of roles which I find really exciting. I originally started singing because I wanted to be an actor, and when I discovered opera, a medium in which you both act and sing, there was no turning back! I love delving deep into the drama and nuances of every character I play, particularly those of comedic and dramatic nature. A highlight of which was the title role in ‘Il segreto di Susanna’ by Wolf Ferrari for Opera Holland Park in 2019 but equally more intense and dark characters such as Miss Jessel in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Benjamin Britten or ‘Between Worlds’ by Tansy Davies for ENO which is based on the harrowing events of 9/11.

Clare Presland at the Royal Opera House

I’ve also been lucky enough to work with a number of living composers which is a real buzz as we can ask them real questions face to face there and then! When a role is written especially for you, the composer will naturally want to know your voice inside out. They will want to know its possibilities and limitations so they can compose in an informed way to maximise what they like about your voice. It’s been interesting as some composers have written to highlight the lower register of my voice (my ‘chest voice’) and some the top! It just goes to show how everyone has their own opinions and preferences. It’s also very satisfying from a dramatic point of view as you can be the first to mould the character from notes and text on a page and into life. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK, a professional dream came true: I made my debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in Gerald Barry’s ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’ (based on Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the looking Glass) directed by Antony McDonald and conducted by Thomas Adès. I played a whole variety of roles including the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts. It was the most outrageously brilliant thing I’ve ever been a part of. The pace of the piece goes at lightening speed, not only because you are on stage most of the time but you are also required to make very quick costume changes! Some in less than a minute! It was also wonderful because we played to audiences of both adults and children so the reactions were varied and so rewarding. My son (who was only two at the time) was too young to attend an actual performance but instead ROH organised for him to sit in a box with my husband for our stage and orchestra run through. He sat through the whole thing, good as gold and afterwards came running over to me all giddy saying ‘I saw horses, an egg, a cat…’ It was such a great moment and just goes to show how opera can be accessible for everyone of any age.