Karen Cargill on lockdown and Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Mezzo-Soprano Karen Cargill stars in our performance of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, premiering on our YouTube channel from 7pm GMT on Sunday 1 November. We asked her for a Zoom chat to find out more about her.

Your relationship with the LSO reaches back almost 20 years, with recent performances including The Damnation of Faust, Schoenberg at the BBC Proms and Elgar with Sir Antonio Pappano, and of course most recently Bluebeard’s Castle recorded at LSO St Luke’s and streaming this Sunday. What was it like coming back to us in these strange times compared to your last visit to the Barbican in 2019?

It was very emotional. It was quite stressful from a singing perspective because during the ‘hard’ lockdown, I didn’t sing very much. I found it too difficult, it was too emotional for me to sing, so I took a sabbatical. So I had to try and be ‘match fit’, which took a little bit of work. But it was amazing to be back with the LSO. It really feels like home to me - I have so many friends in the Orchestra, and I've collaborated with Simon many times, so coming back was lovely. Obviously all of the social distancing things give it a different flavour, and you have to adapt, but as musicians we hopefully are used to adapting as much as possible. So it was exciting, and a challenge for sure.

Had you done many of this style of recorded concert in the past, whereby there wasn’t a live audience that you could connect with?

I had done one with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, some Mahler Lieder for the Edinburgh Festival. We did that in August and were in fact one of the first performances up in Scotland of a symphony orchestra. I found that quite strange because I was singing into a dark auditorium with no one there. Where as this was different, I could react a little to the faces that I could see. It’s a whole new world that we’re going to have to get used to, this live streaming.

Of course we had a tiny audience up in the balcony of LSO St Luke’s, but the space where the audience would usually sit was taken up by the Orchestra with their social distancing formation. Was that a novelty, performing looking at the musicians rather than with the orchestral forces behind you?

That’s something I always like to do when I rehearse anyway. I always sing into the orchestra because I always like to be able to make eye contact with them, to show them a little bit of what I feel about the piece, how I’m emotionally reacting to the text or something that happens in the orchestration. I love to be able to see the person that I’m in a duet with for instance. So I’ve always enjoyed that, but then by the time you come to performance obviously you face out to the audience, where as in this instance I was able to use the Orchestra as an audience. I also used them as a bit of a prop. For instance, in Bluebeard’s Castle we talk about the garden and the flowers, and I would look through the Orchestra and imagine them as flowers. That was a lovely thing to be able to do that was different than normal.

What about LSO St Luke’s itself? A lot of work went into creating the lighting effects, shades of green and red. Did you find the venue helped get into character and conjure up that atmosphere? It has a crypt after all.

That’s right. I think there’s something about the architecture and the metal staircase, the hard surfaces against the stone, that I found really helpful during the performance. Stone is a very big part of the text. Judith talks about the fact that the stones are very cold and wet, that it's damp inside the castle. So it was so helpful for me to have that to draw upon, and the way that the lighting is done was very spooky. It was so atmospheric and very special.

On the topic of streaming, you said you were performing to the Orchestra. But what was it like having the cameras whizzing around in the background?

I think as singers and musicians now, we’re more used to this live streaming aspect that often happens in our industry, and I didn’t notice the cameras at all. When we do opera at the Met or Covent Garden for instance, these places often do HD cinema productions. It used to be that you could hear the cameras whizzing around but its better now and you don’t really hear it, so I just wasn’t aware of that at all. It’s best that we’re not aware of it, because it would certainly impact my performance, and you want it to be as authentic and in the moment as possible.

Coming back to your relationship with the Orchestra, Bluebeard is set for a really big ensemble, but we had to slim things down quite considerably to make sure we could get our musicians in. Compared to other performances of this work, what was it like having a slightly ‘light’ orchestra?

This score is so dense that when you do it in chamber version, the transparency that you can get, especially in the string sound, is something really special. I always love to try and find my way through that sound, sometimes to sit on top of it, but sometimes to find my way through that sound. I find that in this score, particularly with the text, Judith is wading through the forest, trying to cut back the trees to get to the truth. It’s easier in some ways to do that when it’s in chamber ensemble, because there's less of a wave of sound that we need to try and ride over. You’re certainly aware of different tonalities that you don’t hear so clearly sometimes when its with full orchestra. As I spoke about before, trying to duet with certain instruments, that is easier. It’s harder in some ways because it’s more exposed, but it’s easier because you can pick the sound out and you can feel what is happening. I’m incredibly glad that chamber versions of some of these great pieces exist, because it means that there’s a greater chance of these pieces being able to be performed.

I wanted to ask a bit more generally about 2020. You said that you took a break from performing. Did you feel there were any benefits in a surprising way in actually taking a break?

Absolutely. I made my debut in 2002, so that’s 18 seasons, and I’ve never had five months at home. My husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary this year and we suddenly realised in 20 years we’d never had five months together. It was amazing for us, actually. I have a 12 year old son - I was able to be with him and for that transition when he started high school. It was good to not be living out of a suitcase for a long time. I really enjoyed being in my house and having a roast on a Sunday every week. The fact that I could do that was amazing.

But I missed the music, the sensation, the chemical reaction you get when you perform. And I missed my family of musicians. I missed the communication that we create, this communication that’s higher than talking or conversation. We create an emotional palette of colour that speaks to a part of us that’s greater than can be put into words. That I missed.

I was writing a piece about Bluebeard’s Castle and I was trying to convey the fact that music is so much more than we give it credit for. It’s therapy, deep joy, story telling, it's soothing. It’s all of those things. It’s vibration, breath, humanity. It’s everything. I think that’s something that has really come back to me during this time, so when I could actually sing for the first time, it was extraordinary to me that I did this for a job. It was like being able to see it for the first time. It was an epiphany. We spend so much time on the road going from the next job to the next job. We’re prepared, we love the music and treat it with the respect it deserves, but we sometimes forget that special thing, that special energy that’s created. We can sometimes take that for granted.

When you were starting to perform again and pick things back up, did you find yourself seeking out some of your favourite roles or did you want to try something new? What did you want to do first?

I waited until I had something concrete to do, I didn’t want to touch that emotional place at all. I was really afraid of it because I knew once I opened that bottle of champagne, shall we say, once I took the cork out, it would really be an explosion. I was asked to do a little bit of singing of a folk song for Glyndebourne and I sang a Hebridean folk song. I cried for four days after I performed it, because as I knew would happen, that thing of singing and emotion being so neatly intertwined, it just exploded. The grief that this had been taken away from me somewhat, and how much I missed it, came out. The release of being able to sing again was part of that too. It was a visceral experience. My husband filmed it for me, and even he was shocked at how he reacted; how I reacted.

After that I had a bit of a play around with Isolde, because that’s one of the roles people have asked me about for a long long time. They hear my top notes and think ‘she could be a dramatic soprano' – I’m most definitely not. I had a sing around of that, not in any serious way, I just sang through it at the piano one day to see if that was something for me, and as I thought, no.

Then I spent the next little while building up my abdominal support again, because of course I hadn’t used my muscles in a long time. I used a yoga ball and a balance ball to work on my core. I built up some Mahler songs, and then I went to Glyndebourne and did some outdoor concerts there. That was the most lovely way of coming back to it. I did that for Edinburgh too. It was like putting on a cosy cardigan and woollen socks - it was the most delicious way to come back to making music.

Do you think the experiences of 2020 have made you think about certain roles in a different way? Do you think there’s anything that changed how you performed Judith this time compared to previous productions?

I think Bluebeard’s Castle speaks to where we are right now. In Bluebeard’s Castle, Judith is searching for something. She wants to know Bluebeard, she wants to know everything about him. That’s the whole piece for me, she wants to know everything about him. Is it that he has murdered people, is it that it’s a torture chamber, or is it just that she's heard him talking about another relationship that threatens her relationship with him? As regards 2020, it's that idea of being thrust into this situation where we’re looking for a vaccine, for when the lockdown is going to change. We’re looking for what is the easiest way to survive, what is the best way for us to get to work or not to get to work. There are all these questions of how did we get to this point, what’s this all about, who are we? And the way that we live our lives now has had to adapt, because we can’t be one set way. I think in a way that’s the essence of Bluebeard’s Castle. He's living in a very set way, he has these locked doors and that’s it, there’s no way Judith is getting behind these doors. And she wants to show him that life is a bit more technicoloured than that. She wants to breathe life into this relationship, this castle, into him. The way that I thought about it this time round is that it was almost a reflection of where we are right now. It doesn’t resolve at the end. Does she die at the end, does he murder her, or does she just accept her fate? We don’t know.

I did an awful lot of in-depth character study in the first production I did of this with a theatre company. We had two or three weeks before we went into music production of discovery, of playing around with the text and our ideas about what the story was. I had to come up with my own understanding of who Judith is. Is she a victim, or is she just someone who loves this guy so completely? She’s so obsessed with him and in love with him, and is it that she wants to be so wholly together with him, that nothing can be left unturned?

I have to reframe it for myself as a feminist too in a different way. The torture chamber to me is when you meet someone and you’re in a relationship with them for the first time, and you ask that question which is usually right before you go to bed: ‘so who were your previous relationships?’. You ask those big questions, those deep deep questions before you go to bed. I think she doesn’t really want to know the answer actually, but he says ‘of course and shows her', so that’s torture for me.

The second door is the armoury, so that’s ‘were they funnier than me, were they prettier than me?’. She’s discovering all of these things about these other people. The doors for me represent the things she wants to know about him that actually, when push comes to shove, she doesn’t want to know, but she’s so curious that she asks. It’s an interesting way to reframe it, because if there was an armoury, if there was a torture chamber, why would she stay? Why would she keep asking him? So I’ve had to reframe it myself, because if it was me, there’s no way I would stay. I’d be gone.

It’s that idea of trust. At the moment, we have to trust that the scientists and the government are going to protect us, that we’re on the right path. In Bluebeard’s Castle there’s an element of trust. She’s left her life as she knows it, her parents and her brother. She knows the gossip about Bluebeard, that he has this castle and there are murky stories that no one really knows. So there’s an element of trust there. It’s the insecurity of when that trust starts to fade away. You just feel secure, and then the rug is pulled from under your feet. That’s what happens to her behind every door, even the ones that on the face of it seem very beautiful.

The most interesting door for me is door five, and not because of the top C which is always a scary moment. You listen to the way that she responds to him when he says all of this vista, this land is for you. It’s the turning point because it says ‘without expression’ in the score, that’s the turning point. Suddenly the trust starts to go.

To draw things to a close, what was it like working with Gerald Finley; there’s clearly amazing chemistry between you?

He’s just the best. When I was a student in Toronto in the late 90s, he was a God then, all the Canadians loved him and that was when I was first aware of his work. He’s an extraordinary singing actor and has this most glorious sound that just washes over you, and you can’t help but fall in love with him when he sings. At the end, the last aria that Bluebeard sings, it’s exhausting and he just makes it sound so effortless. It’s really wonderful. We had a great time playing off each other, and with the distance even it was great, because you really could play husband and wife having an intense conversation, and that’s something really special.

Karen Cargill performs the role of Judith in Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, with Gerald Finley as Bluebeard, on our YouTube channel on Sunday 1 November 2020 at 7pm GMT. The piece will then be available on demand for 90 days.

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