Interview: Véronique Gens

First published in The Herald on 30 August, 2013

Since her opera debut as a teenage chorus member of William Christie’s legendary 1987 Atys at the Opéra-Comique, French soprano Véronique Gens has been a leading voice of the French baroque revival. In recent years her repertoire has broadened to Mozart, Berlioz and even Wagner; here she talks to Kate Molleson about letting her voice make the right decisions for her. 

KM: Welcome to Edinburgh! Where have you travelled from this morning?

VG: I live in Nantes; the quality of life there is so much better than in Paris. As a singer you have to live in Paris for a while, but you leave as soon as you can. So much pollution, so much traffic… When you spend your life touring it’s important to go home to somewhere healthy and relaxed. Plus Paris with children would be really hard. I have two, aged 13 and 9. They are still young; they need a mother, and I need them.

KM: Did you grow up in a musical family?

VG: Not at all. Both of my parents were chemists; in fact, my entire family were chemists or doctors, so I was supposed to become something serious, too! Eventually I did a degree in English and Italian because I thought I might be a political interpreter, and I never really decided to be a singer. I was just lucky.

I was in children’s choirs from the age of 4, and would sing solos at Christmas concerts and so on. Then when I was about 14 the conductor encouraged me to meet a wonderful teacher at the conservatoire in Orléans, who happened to be a good friend of William Christie. He heard me sing and said I should come to his classes in Paris. So I stayed on at my regular school in Orléans and took the train into Paris three or four times a month for classes with Christie.

When he put together his famous Atys at the Opéra-Comique he invited me to sing in the choir. Marc Minkowski was playing bassoon in the orchestra, Christophe Rousset was on the harpsichord… everyone was there! And the production went all over the world. Before that production, people thought that baroque music was for singers who couldn’t sing and violinists who couldn’t play. That Atys changed everything. There were many revivals; I started in the choir, then had small solos, then bigger roles, then finally a lead role. That’s how William Christie works. He trusts young singers and gives them a chance.

KM: What made you decide to start branching out from baroque music?

VG: It’s my voice that usually suggests directions for me. After about ten years of baroque singing it needed something else. French baroque music, especially, takes so much control. I started singing small roles in Mozart and I felt incredible freedom. Of course, for singers who are used to Wagner or Verdi, Mozart feels incredibly restrictive. It’s all relative! Things have just gone on from there. I’ve even sung some Wagner, which is quite weird… But my voice is changing. I’m 20 years older than I was.

KM: Which direction is your voice suggesting that you try next?

VG: Princesses and pretty young girls are behind me now, and I’ve never dreamed of La traviata or Rossini – that stuff just isn’t my cup of tea. But I’d love to sing Strauss. I think my voice is ready. And in December I’ll sing Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. It’s a horrible role, but then I’m always singing horrible roles. Alceste, Iphigénie, Donna Elvira…

KM: And the French songs you’ll be singing in your Queen’s Hall recital? Also horrible?

VG: Not at all! These songs are simply beautiful. Reynaldo Hahn, Ernest Chausson – nobody really knows these songs, but it’s such a pity. For me I’m at home in French song as I am in French baroque. The texts are so poetic – it’s worth singing them just to say the words. And I love performing with [pianist] Susan Manoff. I mean, we’re not married like Andreas [Scholl] and Tamar [Halperin], but we’re very good friends and we have a lot of fun together. You can’t perform with someone you just met two days ago, especially in this kind of repertoire. It’s so subtle. It’s as subtle as embroidery.

Véronique Gens is at the Queen’s Hall this morning; the concert is also live on BBC Radio 3 from 11am