For mezzo-sopranos, playing boys comes with the job. Kate Lindsey’s last three roles in London have been Cherubino (the randy pageboy in Le nozze di Figaro), Lazuli (in Chabrier’s L’Étoile) and as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s sidekick. It’s during the run of Hoffmann – the final outing for John Schlesinger’s classic, but creaky production – that we met for lunch, but apart from the trouser roles that are her bread and butter, it was her debut as Dorabella, in last summer’s controversial staging of Così fan tutte by Christophe Honoré that took up much of our conversation.

Kate Lindsey © Rosetta Greek
Kate Lindsey
© Rosetta Greek

The production, which I wrote about after watching the web-stream, relocated the action from the Bay of Naples in the 18th century to a garrison of Italian soldiers in Mussolini-occupied Eritrea in the late 1930s. A rape of one of the black servants during the overture set the tone. In Don Alfonso’s cynical scheme, Ferrando and Guglielmo blacken up as Dubats in order to ‘seduce’ Fiordiligi and Dorabella and there’s certainly the suggestion that interracial sex was something the sisters were prepared to explore. It’s a staging that shocked Aix audiences and caused the Edinburgh International Festival, hosting it later in the summer, to issue a warning to ticket holders.

MP: How soon did you know what the concept was going to be?

KL: We got the letter from Christophe Honoré the summer before, where he explained his concept. He was pretty specific about the racist elements. I read it and thought “Oh my goodness, do I have to play a racist?”. Lenneke Ruiten and I then worked together in Amsterdam and we started chatting about this letter. It was scary to be portraying this element of humanity. I’d never worked with Christophe before. When we got to Aix, he did a presentation in which he showed us some movie clips to explain the sensibility he was seeking [the production opens with Growling Tiger’s calypso song, The Gold in Africa], exploring that part of history, the elements of colonialism, but also the eroticism that was being discovered as well. It was a bit nerve-wracking but what I appreciated with Christophe was that he was not domineering or pushy in the least. We could really talk about things and he was willing to hear our feelings in terms of what the music is trying to do as well, because those things can sometimes act in opposition.

Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) and Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) in <i>Così fan tutte</i> in Aix-en-Provence © Pascal Victor | ArtComArt
Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) and Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) in Così fan tutte in Aix-en-Provence
© Pascal Victor | ArtComArt

We started our staging with the sisters’ Act 2 duet which features Hichimoudine Mondoha, the black actor playing our servant [in which Dorabella and Fiordiligi use him as a sexual plaything]. Hichimoudine had never been on stage before, he had never acted. He lives in Aix, had applied for the role, so we were sitting at lunch together and I asked if he knew what he was letting himself in for and how he was feeling about it. He knew beforehand the elements of the production and he was okay with it. Especially in that scene, we kept apologising to him – we developed a rapport – it was important we all felt safe with each other. Christophe really had to push us to go to this place of brutality – that was really hard to access that and live that. In the end, I also really came to an understanding for myself that in a way this is a reality of humanity – it’s not history, it’s happening right now. The discomfort is actually the point.

But Così is a cynincal opera though?

That’s the reason why I had to go with Christophe. I’d always said no to Così. I’d never wanted to do it because I really detest the women being portrayed as flighty, ditzy, inconsistent. The truth is what these guys do to them is horrible and dirty. So I’ve shied away from doing something as simple as “oh women, they’re like that”. I think it’s more correct to say “everyone’s like that, not just women”.

But I didn’t want to look back and regret never singing the role. Also, I thought if there’s any place that would take the story and commit to doing something with it, it’s certainly Aix. Even when we walked it on opening night, we had no idea had it would go down. We really thought we could get slaughtered. There was a lot of positive critical response, but the audiences booed the production quite loudly, certainly at particular moments in the opera. I felt really bad for Nahuel di Pierro (Guglielmo) because he had some really hard scenes to do and he is the sweetest guy and what he was having to commit to earned the utmost respect.

Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) and Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) in *Così fan tutte © Pascal Victor | ArtComArt
Kate Lindsey (Dorabella) and Lenneke Ruiten (Fiordiligi) in *Così fan tutte
© Pascal Victor | ArtComArt

Emotionally and physically, how did the whole rehearsal and performance schedule affect you?

Physically, it was hard. It was a ridiculously hot summer – there was one stage in the video broadcast where I was close to fainting due to the heat. Even when you start at 9pm, the heat is really intense and it doesn’t let up. From an emotional standpoint, what I found really interesting, which I hadn’t experienced in the past, was that feeling of knowing what we’re doing, the good energy between everyone, real trust, but when I’d get to the theatre, I’d feel this heaviness because you have to re-enter that world of darkness and in a way you have to throw the discomfort in people’s faces.

What was your reaction to the Edinburgh situation? Should opera ever come with a health warning?

I had to laugh at it. Not in disrespect to the festival at all – I understand they need to cover themselves and that it wasn’t appropriate for children – but the uproar about the production? Oh come on! I can’t watch shows like Breaking Bad or Dexter; I am sickened by the violence. If people can sit in the cinemas or watch this stuff on Netflix and see racial tensions on the movie screen, but they can’t deal with it in an opera performance, then there’s a double standard there that we need to look at.

Kate Lindsey © Rosetta Greek
Kate Lindsey
© Rosetta Greek

Do we go to the opera for something chocolate boxey?

I think the purpose of art – performing arts and visual arts – is to elicit a reaction, a feeling of response. I would much rather emerge from something with a strong reaction than come out saying ‘huh’... and have forgotten about it the next day. We’ve got to keep the arts alive.

And that includes contemporary opera. You're taking on the role of Sister Helen in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking in the spring. 

It’s an opera which has gone down well with the public and has been revived quite a few times. It has an American sound to it, you can hear that. I’m learning it right now. Even though it’s modern music and on first hearing you can’t always access it all, you can hear the modern American southern country sound and Heggie did a beautiful job – this is the Mississippi/New Orleans setting – and he infused that southern style that really emerges, so I think people respond to that. It’s a very current topic and something that a lot of people continue to struggle with. And to be doing it in Washington DC is important – it’s not an opera that tells you what to believe, but it asks you to give it thought.

Where did your musical journey begin?

Kate Lindsey © Rosetta Greek
Kate Lindsey
© Rosetta Greek

As a girl, my passion was soccer. I was the youngest of three kids and my older brother played football and I was always trying to keep up with him. I’d get frustrated and kick my mom in the shins, so they put me in soccer school. I had to fit in with the boys, I had to be one of them! I was big for my age and I could hold my own.

I’d always been singing in choirs, but when I was 13 I tore a ligament in my right knee playing soccer and had to take time off and that’s when I got a bit more serious about music and singing. Then when I was 15, it happened to the other knee when I was in secondary school, and I ended up auditioning for the school musical because I couldn’t play any sports. A girl next to me in choir mentioned that she took singing lessons with a woman who only teaches classical music. Once she heard me, she said “Honey, you’re going to come study with me!” I would turn up every week, sweaty from sports practice, and she would withstand the craziness of it all.

I knew music and had music in my ear from a very early age. I was very lucky growing up near Virginia Opera who would give away free tickets to students. Friends and I would snatch the tickets up and we’d turn up with our books, doing our homework in the interval. We’d be way up in the nosebleed seats. My first opera was Lucia di Lammermoor – we saw lots of stuff by doing that. It was so foreign to me and where I came from, so that it was a gradual warming up to the idea. When I finally got to do my first opera scene, that was when it really grabbed me, communicating in a different language, communicating with the conductor, the staging, the subtext, everything that was happening. Someone told me this is the profession where you’re using most parts of your brain at any one time – you’re translating, you’re working on memorised words, you’re communicating with colleagues and the conductor, you’re delivering a staging. 

Vittorio Grigòlo (Hoffmann) and Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) at The Met © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Vittorio Grigòlo (Hoffmann) and Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) at The Met
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Do you find you have to perform differently when the HD cameras are there?

When I’m watching HD, I’m watching the eyes. The eyes have to be really focused. Opera singers for years have been able to do the grand gesture and then check into the pit at the same time. I’ve become aware that when the camera zooms in, everything becomes much smaller, much more subtle. That can be to the detriment of the audience. I’ve noticed at times that directors can direct for the camera more than they’re directing for the house.

You perform the role of Nicklausse opposite Vittorio Grigòlo’s Hoffmann again in Los Angeles. How important is it to develop a rapport with your Hoffmann?

In the ideal world, it’s important for Hoffmann and Nicklausse to have a good understanding of how these two characters play off each other and to have a strong rapport. I always appreciate it if the director of a production has explored that a little bit. Unfortunately, a lot of times, especially with revivals because of the lack of time, that’s not always possible. You find it develops instead through the rehearsal process… and sometimes even during performances! It’s always interesting to see the opening night and then the final one, because it can change dramatically during the run.

Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Kate Lindsey (Nicklausse)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Is Nicklausse Hoffmann’s conscience?

Nicklausse/The Muse and Lindorf are both parts of Hoffmann’s consciousness, they’re of his own making. Lindorf is the nemesis who’s created this paranoia in Hoffmann – he has an alcohol problem, he’s a tormented artist – whereas Nicklausse is the physical embodiment of reason. At the same time, I like it when Nicklausse and Lindorf work off of each other as well. These opposing forces can work against each other, but also with each other at times. Sometimes you have to fall much further to find the will to create, to pursue, to find out who you really are. But I think that Antonia is the biggest threat to Hoffmann’s survival because she is the most human, the most real of his lovers, in having this artistic soul.

Are trouser roles a hazard of the job for mezzos? Do you approach these roles differently than when you’re playing a woman on stage?

I think it comes down to the costume. When I put the costume on, that changes. It’s also about the way we hold our bodies. I feel more rooted into the earth when I’m playing a guy. I also don’t have to worry about corsets or being strapped into a dress! I don’t sit down and make a plan, because it comes down to exploring the character, the subtext – that’s more interesting to me than playing a gender.

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) in <i>Ariadne auf Naxos</i> at Glyndebourne © Alastair Muir
Kate Lindsey (The Composer) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne
© Alastair Muir

I really love singing the Composer in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Each time I return to it, it feels easier. In opera, we get to develop a role and then return to it at moments during our career and it feels different in various ways. You can navigate it a new way. I’m always a little sad when I’ve finished debuting something – you only get one shot at doing something for the first time. It’s really special to climb that mountain and see where you’ve landed. Two years ago I did Sesto in La clemenza di Tito at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. I return to that role at Glyndebourne this summer, and that’s a good feeling. I love singing Mozart. There are some singers who are impatient to move on to other things, but for me it’s medicine for the voice. There is so much depth within the music, so much to explore. Mozart is a real gauge of vocal health. To know how to balance discipline with freedom, discipline with depth of feeling, you still have to stay within the classical style.

Discussing future roles, Kate reveals that she’d love to sing Charlotte in Werther one day and Octavian – another Straussian trouser role – is slated for summer 2018. But if she woke up one day to discover she was a soprano? Which one role would she want to sing? She pauses for a moment, twiches her nose, then declares:

Tatyana. I would give anything to be able to sing the Letter Scene from Onegin. Such vulnerability. I wouldn’t even have to do the whole role… just that scene!