Interview: Catherine Backhouse

First published in The Herald on 17 December, 2014

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a vast devotional masterpiece that covers the Nativity story from birth to the Epiphany. In its entirety it’s an amalgamation of six cantatas, originally divvied up between the feast days of Christmas and staged between two churches (St Thomas’s and St Nicholas’s) in Bach’s hometown of Leipzig. If the work is nowadays less familiar than its indelibly popular contemporary, Handel’s Messiah, that’s probably because it is sterner, denser and harder to perform. But the impact of hearing it whole is emotionally and dramatically epic. It is also an Edinburgh festive staple.

Every year, the early music ensemble Ludus Baroque stages Christmas Oratorio at Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile. Ludus is a loose collection of early musicians from around the UK that generally comes together under the group’s founder, Richard Neville-Towle, just twice a year: once at Christmas, once during the Edinburgh festival. For a while its reputation was niche, with a select audience of those-in-the-know coveting the boutique nature of the gigs. But winning a Herald Angel Award for last year’s festival performance and a series of excellent recent recordings on the Scottish label Delphian have broadened the Ludus reach beyond its Edinburgh groupies.

Part of the appeal is the group’s knack of booking young singers at the start of brilliant careers: sisters Sophie and Mary Bevan come to mind, both long-time Ludus collaborators, both now UK opera A-list. Tonight’s alto soloist might just be another case in point. Catherine Backhouse is an Edinburgh-born singer whose performance in the Aldeburgh/Edinburgh International Festival co-production of Britten’s Owen Wingrave this past summer was unforgettable. Playing Wingrave’s righteous young fiancée Kate Julian in a cast that included some of the great legends of British opera (Janis Kelly and Susan Bullock among them), Backhouse easily held her own. Her voice was rich, intense and expressive, her acting equally potent.

Like so many good singers, Backhouse’s route into opera wasn’t planned. Daughter of the organist Peter Backhouse, she “never decided to sing,” she says; “I just always did it”. Becoming a chorister at St Mary’s Cathedral was probably inevitable given that her father was the cathedral’s assistant organist at the time and her family lived around the corner on Palmerston Place.

As a music student at Durham University she sang in plenty of musicals, madrigals and her share of Gilbert and Sullivan, but an opera career still hadn’t occurred to her. A group of friends formed the vocal ensemble Voces8 – “a bit of fun at first,” she says, “just a bunch of mates having a laugh and making work for ourselves. Then we won some prestigious competitions and the whole thing turned serious. Soon we’d all signed contracts, moved to London and started touring constantly. It was great, all those trips and parties. Oh, and that mythical thing called a salary…”

But it was vocally exhausting. Looking back, Backhouse says that she now realises just how little she knew then about her voice – including her actual voice-type. She is now a mezzo, with a full, resonant low register and a gorgeously dark colour to her upper range. But in Voces8 she sang soprano. “Not just soprano,” she clarifies, “always first soprano. I was one of those people!”

The shift began to happen when she had a couple of lessons with a teacher in London. (She went to him, she says, “because despite all the fun, I knew deep down that I had a huge amount more to learn about my voice and about being a musician”.) The teacher pointed out that she was only using a small part of her voice and that the bulk of it was hidden much further down. He encouraged her to engage her whole body, to sing louder and lower. The scale of the sound she could make astonished her, and she began pondering the opera stage.

Not long after, Backhouse left Voces8 and auditioned, as a mezzo, for the opera course at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Years later one of the panel unearthed his notes from that audition day: a full page of technical criticism culminating in the words, “very musical; a potentially beautiful voice; think she should study here.” She was awarded the place.

Her singing changed completely in the first term. “I had this big voice in me that I didn’t know about. It seemed to be just waiting to come out,” she says. Shifting to opera required a whole new physical approach to music, too, and Backhouse describes her former voice as being too big for her body. She began going to the gym, swimming and jogging, just to build the muscle strength needed to support a proper operatic sound. The idea of commanding a solo stage presence was also new. “I needed the right muscle control to be able to move gracefully on stage,” she explains.

Backhouse’s range hasn’t changed all that much; the upper notes are still there, but the sound is significantly darker and better supported. She says she loves the dramatic element of opera, that acting thrills her. “You have to make yourself confident even if you’re not. If you’re worried, it shows. It’s unproductive being worried, so I don’t bother.” If only it was always so simple.

Tonight’s concert will be her tenth with Ludus Baroque and her first as a soloist with the group. Last year’s Christmas Oratorio marked a turning point: it was her final concert as part of a choir. Giving up choral work was a deliberate decision, made after taking on too much in an effort to simply earn a living as a freelancer in London. “I was sabotaging my own voice,” she says. “I guess the problem was partly psychosomatic. I had so many associations with singing tensely in choirs. Waiting for a conductor’s downbeat to breathe… I found it stressful not being in control, and I was getting tenser and tenser.”

Any freelancer will know how hard it is to turn down paid work. Backhouse wrote herself a bolstering letter titled, “To myself on being offered choral work” in which she outlines all the reasons why she made the decision. She fretted that former choral colleagues might think she was “being a big diva” for quitting choirs. But she knew that to succeed in opera, she needed look after her voice and to focus.

It appears that she made the right decision. The Aldeburgh role was a terrific career break. In January, Backhouse tours with the Dunedin Consort; in the spring she’ll be working with Opera North and Garsington Opera. Tonight’s Ludus faithful can rest assured that they have another rising star in their midst.

Catherine Backhouse sings Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Ludus Baroque tonight at Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh