Born in Aberdeenshire, soprano Eleanor Dennis is a rising star in the opera world, inspiring Fiona Maddocks in The Observer to write: ‘I’m not sure if I can recall one who so obviously deserves to be a star.’ Recent appearances have included critically acclaimed portrayals of the title role in Rodelinda and Costanza Riccardo Primo (London Handel Festival), Romilda Xerxes (English Touring Opera), Contessa Le nozze di Figaro (British Youth Opera) and Fiordiligi Così fan tutte (RCM). She has also sung the title role in Francisco António de Almeida’s Ippolito at the Festival de Sablé with the Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música and Laurence Cummings and Lucio Cinna in Mozart’s Lucio Silla at Cadogan Hall with the Classical Opera Company (of which she is an Associate Artist) and Ian Page. Eleanor also recently made her debut at the English National Opera in a new production of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress. Glasgow Theatre Blog was delighted to have the chance to ask Eleanor some questions about her career.
Can we start back at your beginnings? Tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to become a classical singer?
Well, my mother is a professional musician – she is musical director of the Haddo House Choral & Operatic Society based in Aberdeenshire – and my household has always been very musical. I started singing in her junior choirs at the age of three, and soon graduated to being involved in their bigger scale operas as a chorus member. I just loved being a part of these productions – I used to stand in the wings and watch these amazing performers singing so beautifully, and powerfully. I definitely caught the bug then!
I’m interested to know how your talent was recognised; how does a young girl with a talent for singing take that and turn it into pursuing a career in Opera?
When I turned 15, my mum thought it would be a good idea to have some more serious lessons, so I went to the North-East of Scotland Music School in Aberdeen, and started seeing a wonderful teacher called Raimund Herincx. He soon convinced me to audition for conservatoires in London, with a view to doing an undergraduate degree – I had no idea whether I would gain a place or not, but decided to go for it anyway! My mum and I travelled down to London, I auditioned at the Royal College of Music, and was lucky enough to be offered a place on the spot. I moved to London aged 18, and haven’t looked back since.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience in training?
I had a brilliant seven years at the RCM in total – four undergraduate years, one year on the Postgraduate course, and two years in the prestigious Opera School there. I began working with an amazing teacher called Eiddwen Harrhy (who I still see regularly), and learning with her gave me the confidence and musicality I needed. I got the opportunity to play some great roles and sing with some incredibly talented people, and basically had a wonderful time.
You made your professional debut with the ENO in Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress; how did it feel to be performing in such a beautiful (and vast) venue like The Coliseum?
At first, it was a daunting prospect – but once I got settled in, it was just the best experience. It had always been a dream of mine to perform on that stage, and to get the chance was almost unbelievable!
The work of Handel seems to feature heavily on your CV; is his work a particular favourite or does it especially suit your voice?
I absolutely love singing Handel – the creativity and beauty of tone it encourages really helped me in my development as a singer. Some of the best heroines in opera appear in Handel’s works – Rodelinda, Cleopatra, Alcina – and it’s a real joy taking on a character like those. There’s an exceptional tradition for Handel in this country, and I’m very lucky to have benefitted from that. Conductor Laurence Cummings has been a tremendous support for me here.
Who are your favourite composers or what pieces do you particularly enjoy singing?
Handel! Mozart (especially Cosi fan Tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni), and Britten are my favourite composers – but I love singing French art song and German Lieder too.
You recently completed a national tour with Scottish Opera in their 50th anniversary highlights programme. It was certainly fun to watch, was it as fun touring Scotland spreading the word about opera?
It was a brilliant two months, especially working with such talented people. It was intense, but there was non-stop laughing all the way, and we got the opportunity to see some beautiful places far off the beaten track.
What roles would you love to sing in future?
I would love to have a go at some of Richard Strauss’ prima donnas – the Marschallin, Salome – and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Maybe one day!
What advice would you give to any young person thinking of pursuing a career in opera?
If people are encouraging you to pursue a career, listen to the advice, trust in your talent, and go for it. It’s a long process, and often difficult, but when you start reaping the rewards for all your hard work, it is more than worth it.
Finally – and don’t be modest, how would you describe your voice in three words?
Reliable, flexible and fun (sounds like a lonely hearts ad!)
Find out more about Eleanor at http://www.eleanordennis.com and http://www.askonasholt.co.uk/artists/singers/soprano/eleanor-dennis
Follow on Twitter @elliedennis17