First published in The Herald on 10 January, 2018
This time last year, Scottish mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison was a hard-working young opera graduate who was quietly building a career in Germany but had yet to make much of a name in the UK. By the time I interviewed her in October, she was a star. Morison flew into Glasgow for a few hours to pick up an honorary professorship at her alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and dispense a few kernels of wisdom to current students. On route from the airport she fended off the latest influx of concert requests and organised her schedule as one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists. She could fit me in, she apologised, for half an hour over lunch.
Where did it all go so right? Cardiff. Last June, 31-year-old Morison became the first Scottish competitor in 12 years to reach the finals of the illustrious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. (The previous was the terrific lyric soprano Lee Bissett back in 2005). And Morison didn’t just reach the finals: she swept up.
Two nights after being declared joint winner of the Song Prize alongside Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, she became the competition’s first ever British winner of the coveted Main Prize. “She will be justifiably proud of her performances in the prestigious competition,” wrote Guardian critic Rian Evans. “She’s a singer of much character, real musical intelligence and the possessor of a mezzo voice that is wonderful in the expressive middle.”
Morison herself recalls the competition through a blur of adrenalin and elation. “It was a crazy week,” she tells me. “Crazy! I’d done a couple of competitions before, but Cardiff was always in the back of my mind. I was just curious to see how far I would get. I was staggered enough when I got the email saying I’d made the first cut.”
Morison’s stage presence was much commented on back in June. Even under the hype and pressure of TV cameras and a live competition final, she seemed so grounded, so centred. While English soprano Louise Alder’s performances in Cardiff were all vim and sparkle and cheeky charisma (she took home the Audience Prize), Morison exuded a slower, earthier kind of musicality.
In person, too, she has that manner: straight back, open shoulders, broad, steady, resonant speaking voice. She talks about the physical and mental work that went into preparing for Cardiff. “Being settled about what I could control from my side. Not being swept up by things like what I would wear, not thinking too much about the TV cameras…”
“I was super nervous,” she admits. “I couldn’t eat properly, couldn’t sleep properly…” Which surprises me, I say, because her performances had such calm intensity to them. “Ah, but that was about getting myself into, you know, The Zone. Telling myself, ‘I do this, I’ve gotta do this, let’s do this’. And then – it was the weirdest thing. The moment I stepped out on stage, the nerves just fell from me. It definitely helped that in the final one of my friends was playing in the orchestra — someone I’d known from Edinburgh Youth Orchestra. That meant a lot. And so the smile came, and it felt genuine, and I looked out into the audience, and I thought… no,” she pauses. “I didn’t think at all. That’s the thing. I just went into to the music.”
Morison grew up in Edinburgh playing violin and viola and singing in various choirs. “My mum and dad said I always had ‘the voice’ when I was younger,” she laughs. “As in, I would put on some big stage voice around the house. They say they always knew I was going to be a singer.”
She was shy when she started her undergraduate at the RCS, she says, and it was only when she went to Berlin for a year as an Erasmus exchange student that she began feeling confident around new people. But being on stage was always different; that always “came quite naturally”. The Herald’s Michael Tumelty picked up on it nearly a decade ago. “The mezzo,” he noted in a 2009 review, was “a breathtaking singer, [who] had a nobility of tone that reminded me of Janet Baker.”
Even if the stage has always felt her natural home, “something has become apparent more recently,” Morison reflects. “Something to do with tapping into honesty and truthfulness as the key ingredients of communication. Not acting. Not putting on a character. Not thinking, ‘this is a happy song, so I’m going to be happy,’ and then planting on a fake smile. It’s about really getting underneath the emotions. Living them.”
Does she mean a kind of method singing? “I guess so. I haven’t really thought of it that way. If you don’t allow yourself to communicate with honesty then there’s an invisible barrier between you and the audience. For me, it has to come from a very deep place and I have to let people in. Like opening up shutters. Does that make sense?”
It definitely makes sense when I think about the way Morison performs: that mindful, intelligent focus that so impressed the judges in Cardiff. “In any case,” she adds, “I always know when I’m moved by something. When I can see that a performer is deep beneath the text. I’m really drawn to that. Music isn’t perfect, art isn’t perfect. My technique certainly isn’t perfect. But when we connect with real honesty… that’s where the beauty comes from.”
Morison has lived in Germany for the past four years, long enough that occasionally she needs to stop to find the right word in English. (“It’s easy to get swept up by the…” pause. “The hype! By the hype of it all!”) She’s a member of the ensemble as Oper Wupertal, currently playing Hansel in Humperdink’s fairytale opera Hansel & Gretel. She loves singing in German, she says; she wants to work up to the role of Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.
She also loves the culture around opera in Germany. “The attitude there is so much more normalised,” she says. “Nobody thinks it’s weird or snobby to be an opera singer. Everyone seems to know somebody who’s involved.” Is that an attitude we could achieve here? She exhales, as though deflating at the thought. “It’s a nice dream, isn’t it? The themes of opera are the themes of everyday life. OK, maybe not the murders… the emotions. Everyone can relate on some level. But it would have to start with better funding for music education in schools. It can only work from that level. Otherwise, we will never break down the elitism barrier.”
Catriona Morison performs a recital with pianist Malcolm Martineau at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 19 January