Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill will be joining the LSO and Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev for four concerts at the Barbican in October and November, plus a tour to Europe. As part of this autumn’s Berlioz series, she’ll be singing the composer’s song cycle Les nuits d’été and the dramatic cantata The Death of Cleopatra. We caught up with Karen recently to talk about all things Berlioz and to find out what to expect from the concerts.
What are you most looking forward to about your concerts with the LSO and Valery Gergiev this autumn?
It will be wonderful to be back with the LSO. The orchestra believed in me from the very start of my career and I have many wonderful memories of concerts with them. They showed me what was possible in this wonderful world of music. It will be my first time working with Maestro Gergiev and I’m excited to collaborate with him.
You’ve performed and recorded a lot of Berlioz recently – what is it about his music that you enjoy? Do you have any favourite works of his, either to sing or to listen to?
I’m quite passionate about the music of Berlioz. His musical language is so immediate that you are thrown into the story from the start and that is so important for the journeys that his characters take, be they operatic or symphonic. My first journey with his music was when I was a student and studied Symphonie fantastique – how can you not smile through ‘Un Bal’?! The lightness just shines through. One of his most ravishing compositions for me is the duet between Hero and Ursule from Béatrice et Bénédict, so honest and beautiful.
People were shocked by how dramatic and experimental The Death of Cleopatra was when Berlioz wrote it – is it challenging to sing? Does Les nuits d’été require a different approach?
The Death of Cleopatra is a monumental work, grand in drama, orchestration and vocally challenging. The scope of the piece is huge, not only emotionally – it has a vocal range of over two octaves within only a few pages, ultimately quite operatic in delivery. Pacing the work is a huge part of performing it, allowing the character to recollect, reflect and ultimately act. The death scene is so wonderfully written, so simple and real.
Les nuit’s d’été is a different prospect as it requires each song to have a distinct emotional flavour. I like to think of the work as a whole, the turbulent love life of someone who loses an incredible love and who is devastated by the loss yet manages to come through the grief to live life to the full again. Vocally each song requires a variety of colours to convey the degrees of grief. Particular favourites are ‘Absence’, a desperate desire to turn back time and be reacquainted with happier times and ‘L’île inconnue’ where we return to sunnier climes and the possibilities the next stage of life may offer.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a professional singer?
Singing has always been a huge part of my life but I don’t remember a particular defining moment where I decided it was a career path. My addiction to making music is what has spurred me on and I’m grateful for all of the wonderful experiences I had. Listening to Bach will continue to be my place of serenity and a reminder of how amazing music can be.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
Having the chance to work with Sir Colin Davis so often in my early career continues to be an inspiration to me. An incredible musician, a brilliant mind but most importantly a generous human being. Making music with him was always about humanity.
How do you spend your time when you’re not performing?
I love to cook and my kitchen is my first port of call when I return home after a trip away. There’s nothing better than a family meal to decompress and be with the ones you love.
Karen Cargill will be performing with the LSO at the Barbican on 31 October, and 1, 12 & 14 November. To find out more about the series, visit lso.co.uk/berlioz, or click on the links below to find out more about the individual concerts.