Lucy Crowe on childhood, lockdown and performing with the LSO

soprano Lucy Crowe

Our Autumn 2021 season starts this weekend! And acclaimed soprano Lucy Crowe bookmarks our September to December series of concerts from our Barbican home with performances on 12 September – including the world premiere of Exiles by Julian Anderson, Natural History by Judith Weir and Vaughan Williams’ A Pastoral Symphony – and on 16 December, with Mahler’s blissful Symphony No 4.

Ahead of it all, Hannah Fiddy spoke to Lucy about how her goals and aspirations have shifted during lockdown, being bullied as a child and her thoughts on the pieces she’s singing with the LSO.

Let’s start with a quick-fire round. Can you tell me the last thing you…

… took a picture of? My children’s first day back at school.
… watched on TV? Motherland. Laugh out loud, brilliantly observed blunt and forthright depiction of motherhood.
… ate? Chocolate probably. An addiction I can’t seem to shift.
… sang? Can You Feel the Love Tonight. We gave a street concert last night and ended with this.
… got excited about? Going to All Points East to see London Grammar live with my daughter.
… do before you step on stage? If very nervous I remind myself that I’m not a heart surgeon, so this isn’t a matter of life or death. I’m just entertaining people! Enjoy it!

What’s it like performing with an orchestra again after all this time?

Just wonderful. Emotional, thrilling and joyous!

And what do you think it will be like for audience members to be back in the concert hall surrounded by music on 12 September, with a full orchestra, chorus and soloists?

The same feelings hopefully. I think people may be nervous too, but the music will help them forget and provide them with some escapism from all the crazy going ons in the world.

That night, for the Season Opening concert, we’ll hear two movements from a brand-new piece: Exiles by Julian Anderson. Can you tell us more about what we can expect?

The two movements are both very powerful, emotive and dramatic. One is set in Hebrew with beautiful, long phrases juxtaposed with fast intense chromatic lines. The other is in French: a letter from a Moroccan French composer to his friends, sent in lockdown. The soprano lines are all closely derived from plainchant neumes. I’m yet to hear it with full orchestra but I’m very excited to hear the sound world. And the line ‘ce baiser est pur sans Covid’ (‘this kiss is pure, without Covid’) is text I never thought I’d be singing!

You'll also be singing Judith Weir’s 1998 piece Natural History. Can you give us a brief introduction to it?

It’s really wonderful. Sometimes direct and dramatic, sometimes otherworldly and ethereal. The four texts are taken from Chuang Tzu, a classic collection of Taoist writings from the second, third and fourth centuries BCE; short parables about natural life as lived by different species, human and animal. They feel earthy and magical in the way Janáček’s writing does, especially The Cunning Little Vixen. They are glorious to sing. Judith Weir said she ‘aimed to find words which would allow both clear storytelling and opulent singing’. The last couple of phrases in the final song are so moving that I can’t currently sing them without welling up!

> LSO Season Opening Concert: New Music Britain | Sunday 12 September 7pm, Barbican

You're also on stage in the final concert of the Autumn season, on 16 December (and in a Half Six Fix concert on 8 December) when we’ll be hearing Mahler’s Symphony No 4: a child’s view of heaven. Tell us more!

Mahler considered the song both the goal and inspiration for the Fourth Symphony. Fragments of it are heard in the first three movements so when we hear it, we feel a sense of arrival and fulfilment. The music is earthy, reflecting the folk origins of the poem and the child imagines and describes what heaven must be like – leading angelic lives yet having a merry time! Indeed the child has quite a wild imagination and Mahler’s writing gets quite busy and unrestrained as we hear about the feast, a lamb being brought to the banquet for slaughtering, free wine, platefuls of delicious food! But then it settles back down and we hear how ‘there is no music at all on the earth that can ever compare with the music in heaven’.

What's special to you about performing with the LSO?

Every single player is highly skilled and oozing with enthusiasm, talent and musicality. There is a real sense of friendship and ensemble and I always feel very welcomed, encouraged and inspired by them.

> Mahler Symphony No 4 | Thursday 16 December 7pm, Barbican

Stepping back to last year, is it true that you performed every day for your neighbours during lockdown?

Yes, my husband and I performed for our street every night in the first lockdown. It started with my husband Joe performing a horn call. Brass instruments have always been used to announce special events or moments in the day, so it just felt like a natural way for him to let neighbours know that the day had finished and it was time to come together briefly before turning in. Hearing Star Wars echoing through the streets in the darkness was magic, and I soon joined in, singing V’issi d’arte from Puccini's opera Tosca, letting rip the sadness and frustration I felt at the time. We borrowed a friend’s PA so that we could be heard further afield, and to mark the end of the week we started our Sunday afternoon concerts – not just a couple of numbers, but a 30 or 40 minute show, of not only classical, but Aretha Franklin, Kylie and U2! Neighbours and other locals brought their camping chairs and bottles of wine, and enjoyed being transported out of this crazy world for a while. A mini Glyndebourne on our street.

What a treat for your street! It must have been a way for you to stay sane too … ?

We benefited massively from the daily chance to let off some steam, and it helped bring structure to our days and weeks. More importantly it took us all outdoors and every day for three months we had the chance to connect with neighbours we’d never spoken to before. As musicians we know so well how music has the ability to heal. We've had people tell us that they don’t know how they would have coped if it wasn’t for this daily dose of live music, and others saying how they now listen to opera when they didn’t before. We’re now a close community and will continue to perform as much as we can. In fact we did so last night!

'As musicians, we know so well how music has the ability to heal.'

It’s always interesting to hear different routes into classical music and opera. What was yours?

I was bullied when I was younger for being a successful all-rounder (it’s taken me a long time to be able to say that without worrying that it makes me sound big-headed)! I would come home and sing along to Maria Callas’ greatest hits, Madonna and the soundtrack from Blood Brothers in order to escape from the hurtful words. I found real solace, peace and passion in singing the music. It provided me with escapism, a place to channel my frustration, pain and inner pop diva! For me, music has a healing power like nothing else.

Looking back, what’s the advice you’d give your younger self?

I would advise my teenage self not to listen to the bullies. Believe in yourself and be confident and proud of who you are and what you can do. Music was always my happy place and my way of expressing myself, so I think the only advice I’d give to my singing self would be similar: self belief and confidence. Don’t worry too much about what people think. Art is subjective and there will be some who like what you do and some who don’t, and that’s ok!

'Music was always my happy place and my way of expressing myself.'

Having sung with the best orchestras in the top concert halls, what are your next goals and aspirations? Has this changed due to the pause of lockdown?

Good question! And one I’m still mulling over. Before Covid I thought I had the right balance between home life and career, but lockdown made me realise that I didn’t at all. Having the opportunity to not live out of a suitcase, to feel settled physically and mentally for a long period of time, and to spend 24/7 with my beautiful family and friends, has been absolutely wonderful. A revelation really. I’m very lucky in that I’ve fulfilled many of my dreams and at the moment I’m not sure what the next goal is, or indeed if there needs to be one right now.

We’ve all had a moment during lockdown of imagining our alternative career. What would yours be?

I am fascinated by and love reading the autobiographies of surgeons and doctors such as Rachel Clarke, David Nott, Henry Marsh. So possibly a surgeon … or a rock star!!

I read that you warm up for the opera stage by listening to London Grammar, and you recently discovered Bruckner’s symphonies via an electronic remix album. What else do you blast out at home?

I always have BBC Radio 6 on at home. I love listening to classical music live but listening to it at home reminds me a bit too much of work, so I can’t switch off in the same way. I also just love all music: rock, pop, musical theatre, jazz, so we play a huge variety. I used to own a drum kit and taught myself to play along to rock bands including Guns N’ Roses. Other bands I love are Tame Impala, Fleet Foxes, Radiohead, Tori Amos, The War on Drugs … the list is endless!

If you could see one artist perform (living or dead) who would it be?

I’ve seen the legends Prince, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Wonder and I’d loved to have seen Freddie Mercury too, and of course Maria Callas.

Lucy Crowe joins the LSO on stage at the Barbican on 12 September, 8 December and 16 December.

Season Launch: New Music Britain
Sunday 12 September  7pm, Barbican

Purcell Remember not, Lord, our offences
Julian Anderson
 Two movements from ‘Exiles’ (world premiere) †
Judith Weir Natural History †
Vaughan Williams A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No 3) †
Maxwell Davies An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise ‡

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Lucy Crowe soprano †
Robert Jordan bagpipes ‡
London Symphony Chorus
Simon Halsey
 chorus director
London Symphony Orchestra


Half Six Fix: Mahler 4
Wednesday 8 December 6.30pm, Barbican

A different way to experience the LSO, with Music Director Sir Simon Rattle introducing the music of Mahler's Symphony No 4.

Mahler Symphony No 4

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Lucy Crowe soprano
London Symphony Orchestra


Debussy, Berlioz & Mahler 4
Thursday 16 December 7pm, Barbican

Debussy Music for King Lear
Berlioz Overture: King Lear
 Symphony No 4

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Lucy Crowe soprano
London Symphony Orchestra


Interview by Hannah Fiddy for the LSO 

Image: Victoria Cadisch

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