Most recently on stage, Janis Kelly played The Mother Abbess in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s summer production of The Sound of Music, which was directed by Adam Penford. Janis has sung the role of Berta in The Barber of Seville, and, having performed for over 30 years with the English National Opera, in 2019, she played Polly Nichols in the world premiere of Jack the Ripper. Previous roles for Janis have included playing Mrs Rutland in the US premiere of Marnie in 2018, Mrs Lovett on the tour of Sweeney Todd with Welsh National Opera, and she played the titled role in Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna on numerous occasions. Along with her theatre and opera career, Janis is also a professor/teacher and holds the Chair of Vocal Performance at the Royal College of Music. Chatting to Janis, she talked to us about playing The Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, singing the role of Berta in The Barber of Seville and performing with the English National Opera including in the world premiere of Jack the Ripper in 2019.
What was The Mother Abbess like to play in The Sound of Music and how was it getting into character?
My process around getting into character for Mother Abbess included recalling my experience with nuns in my life. My first piano teacher got me to grade 8 when I was 16, and she was very tough and used to hit my knuckles when I hadn’t practised, but she was humble and very focused. As a child, I was taken into hospital at about six years old to have a small operation done, and the nuns there used to wear the huge white flying wimples and I was fascinated by them and, more recently, over a 15-year period, I volunteered at a local riding school here in London Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre, which is run by a Catholic nun. She is the country’s first fire woman and runs the centre with a slightly scary authority. But the one that affected me most was a very sweet Irish woman, who came to teach at my children’s school. She had been in a nunnery from age 11 and was only coming into the real world in her early 40s. She is the sweetest and most loving person.
The dialogue in The Sound of Music gives you a lot of help. The fact that in the stage version of The Sound of Music, she gets to sing with Maria about a song that’s been in both childhoods, which gives you an insight into the fact that perhaps the Mother herself had an opportunity to go back into the world, but didn’t take it, devoting herself to God. I always use influences from different sources and there is an Irish opera singer, who I love, who was constantly in the back of my mind, but the most present influence was my speech teacher from the Royal College of Music, Catherine Lambert, who taught me to use my speaking voice with connection and warmth and sincerity. Throughout my career, I have continued to occasionally work with her own pieces that required dialogue. She happens to live in Chichester and I enjoyed catching up but mostly I was honoured to have her in a matinee performance to watch The Sound of Music. She is 104.5 years old and bright as a button.
How was your time performing at the Chichester Festival Theatre and how was it working with the rest of the cast?
It is one of the longest periods I have ever spent with the same people in performance. It always feels like first day of school on the meet and greet day. There was so much joy and acceptance and enthusiasm for playing together on that day that I knew I’d be happy and enjoy all the company. The atmosphere that Adam Penford created in the room was always one of encouragement and lightheartedness, but the work got done and it was full on, especially in the preview week. In opera, we rehearse for four or five weeks with maybe two or three stage and orchestra rehearsals, a day off, dress rehearsal, day off, and then the first night. After that, it’s two or three shows per week. I have performed in musical theatre before i.e. at The Palladium in Show Boat, and Mrs Lovett at Welsh National Opera amongst other things that are getting on in years, I had to make sure I had enough stamina for an actual week, even though the singing, itself was not tiring.
What was it like rehearsing and performing the musical numbers, including Climb Ev’ry Mountain?
It is a wonderful number, of course. I’ve known of it and sung it in the past in concerts. As one of eight children, and from about aged 10, six of us were performing as the von Trapps of the highlands, singing selections from The Sound of Music, Oliver! and traditional Scottish music and songs. I never sang this song then as I played Maria in the family group and it really is a piece for a mature person and voice. It has quite a large range as it starts very low and builds up with a very long and held high A. All I can say is it was a joy to sing it every single night, the audiences were amazing, and having an ovation on every show was exciting and gratifying and joyous.
What have you enjoyed most about being part of The Sound of Music as The Mother Abbess and why do you think the show has stayed popular over the years?
It’s a story about love, family, and, of course, it’s a true story. The book is well-written. The lyrics are sublime, witty and unforgettable, and there’s something very special about a family that sings in harmony together. As children, we used to leave the doors open and, as we went to sleep, we would sing various songs and try out harmonies ourselves. My mother was a little bit like Maria, a religious person, hard-working and loving, with the most beautiful singing voice. My father initially got us to sing in harmony. Sundays were spent with him at the piano. He only played by ear so his rhythm was never accurate and eventually we all had lessons and accompanied ourselves, and the peace is about courage and truth, and Climb Ev’ry Mountain is like an anthem for everyone, little problems can feel like mountains and big problems are mountains, so I think it relates to people on many levels.
You have sung the role of Berta in The Barber of Seville / Il Barbiere Di Siviglia at Nevill Holt Opera, the Royal Opera House and with Glyndebourne Festival and Tour, what is the show like to work on?
I love performing Berta. I remember the first time I saw The Barber of Seville, I thought to myself, who on earth would want to sing that role, she is an older woman, so you need to have depth of voice and yet they also require that you sing very high constantly. I have two top Cs. Not only that, but there is some very, very fast singing in Italian. Luckily, my first experience with it at Glyndebourne with Annabel Arden’s direction was a great success and a lot of fun. I got to do some flamenco dancing and it was my first time of working with Alessandro Corbelli – a master in this role and an utter joy to work with. He helped me with the fast Italian, encouraging me to not miss out any of the syllables. The Royal Opera House production was also with Alessandro and a fantastic cast and conductor, on a difficult set that rose high up and moved from side to side. And Nevill Holt was a fun production that was all in pink. Interestingly, a year after Nevill Holt, I had a call while I was teaching at the Royal College of Music from my agent to ask me if I was able to, that day, step into the theatre at the Royal Opera House that night. It had been nine years since I did the Royal Opera House production and I needed some persuasion by my agent to take the leap. I was rushed in a taxi, straight to a dressing room at the Royal Opera House, given a score, tried on a costume and walked through some of the staging with no other characters there. Thankfully, they were all marvellous colleagues, Bryn Terfel was there, who I know, and I had worked with a conductor at Glyndebourne, so I was in safe hands, and thankfully, it was a great success. So Berta has been with me many years, and still many more to come.
In 2019, you played Polly Nichols in the world premiere of Jack the Ripper with English National Opera, can you tell us about this?
All brand-new pieces are exciting and difficult. I knew Iain Bell, the composer, as I had seen his The Harlot’s Progress in Vienna a few years before and loved it. I knew many of the cast members as good friends and colleagues and we were in the more than capable hands of Martyn Brabbins, the conductor. Unlike musical theatre, we didn’t get the opportunity to try out in a preview week seems that may have been adapted or cut or extended. Since then, there’s been talk of adapting it in different ways, but nothing has happened. It was interesting though looking into the life of Jack the Ripper, and mostly about the women of that time and we’ve got to keep bringing new stories in opera to the stage, relatable stories about real life, whether they’re gruesome or about love.
Having worked with English National Opera for over 30 years in shows including Le Nozze Di Figaro, do you have a favourite aspect of performing with the company?
It was my first job after leaving college at age 25, having done Royal College of Music opera school and in those days it was really like a family. I was mentored by Ava June and started on small roles and worked up. Highlights there for me was my first Flora in The Turn of the Screw shortly after I give birth to my triplets, I sang the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and, of course, as Mrs Nixon in Nixon in China, which I then went on to make my debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with. All in all, I was in over 30 productions, it’s very sad to see what’s happening there now.
What was it like being in the US premiere of Marnie as Mrs Rutland in 2018?
Returning to the Met for Marnie was great fun. They are a very welcoming company and I love Nico Muhly and his music.
How was it performing as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd with Welsh National Opera, and how did you find the experience touring with the production?
Like The Sound of Music, this was a dream come true for me. I remember listening to it for the first time as a student, being knocked out by the peace. I had already done Joanna in the 1980s, with an all-acting cast directed by Ken Hill and I craved singing Mrs Lovett. Singing it at the Millennium Theatre in Cardiff was a joy and then we went out with their tour. The performances were at the end of the week in each venue and so I was continuing my teaching at the Royal College of Music through the week.
What are some of your favourite memories from starring as the title role in Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna in the world premiere at the Manchester International Festival, Sadler’s Wells, Toronto, Portland, Royal Opera House and Teatro Real Madrid?
I am very fond of Rufus Wainwright and his music, and Prima Donna is a special piece for me. Workshopping and creating, and finally, performing at the Manchester International Festival is a highlight in my career. It really felt like it was written for me. Rufus has had this obsession with opera from a very early age and it really was a privilege to be part of the fulfilment of his dream. I’ve done shorter concert versions of it with Rufus performing his solo material in 1/2 and me in the other with the orchestra at the Royal Opera House in Portland and in Madrid. Plácido Domingo was there in Madrid and was very complimentary. It’s a Norma Desmond / Maria Callas type of story about an opera singer’s life and not wanting it to stop. It’s a bit like me now, never wanting to stop.
We understand you are also a professor/teacher with the Royal College of Music and hold masterclasses, what is this like?
Yes, I hold the Chair of Vocal Performance at the Royal College of Music. It is where I studied myself and I very much enjoy teaching undergrads, masters and opera school students. Many of my pupils are now having international careers themselves and occasionally I’ve been in operas with them, which fills me with great joy in my teaching. I demonstrate a lot, which is necessary, and it keeps my voice in shape so I’m grateful to the teaching to enable me to continue with my career.
How did you get into performing and was it something you always wanted to do?
I started with my family group singing in close harmony and encouraged very much at school by Ian Bowman, my music teacher. I sang solos from age 14 in Mozart and Haydn Masses and culminated into operas before I left school – Così fan tutte by Mozart and Dido and Aeneas by Purcell – these were full productions in costume with the orchestra. I was bitten by the bug at this point and before I’d even seen an opera.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your free time?
I love film and I love straight theatre and musicals, which I go to as much as possible, and see as much opera as I can. I spend a lot of time with my three children and three dogs and a cat, and catching up with friends and family.
What are you hoping the rest of the year brings you and do you have any projects coming up that you can tell us about?
It’s all in the lap of the gods at the moment, but I would like to continue doing more musical theatre as I love the spoken word as well as singing. Chichester gave me such a boost. I have friends for life in the cast and it’s a memory I will never forget.
I have various things in the pipeline, but we don’t seem to get contracts so much in advance anymore. So I eagerly await the possibilities.
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