Modern opera on rise and fall of duchess living under media spotlight

Mary Plazas makes her debut with Northern Ireland Opera in the Irish premiere of Powder Her Face, which tells the story of the Duchess of Argyll, infamous for her much-publicised divorce case in 1963. Jenny Lee spoke to the international opera star

Soprano Mary Plazas prepares for her role as the Duchess of Argyll in Northern Ireland Opera's forthcoming production of Powder her Face

RENOWNED Oxfordshire soprano Mary Plazas makes her debut with Northern Ireland Opera this month in the powerful role of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, the beautiful socialite with an insatiable sexual appetite, whose exploits and subsequent divorce in the 1960s resulted in a public scandal.

The story of her glamorous rise and tragic public downfall is portrayed in Thomas Adès's opera Powder Her Face, a work which critics credited with changing the face of opera. Written in 1995, Powder in Her Face, with its scandalous subject matter and witty, satirical score is now considered a modern classic.

Plazas is no stranger to the role of the duchess, having performed the role at the Aldeburgh Festival and at London’s Barbican Centre with the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as starring in Channel 4’s film adaptation of the opera.

"It's a fantastic dramatic role to play. As a performer you have to give an emotional and physical portrayal of her in all ages and explore her depth and strength of character," says Plazas, who worked alongside composer Adès in a past production.

"You get a great grounding working with the composer himself. But now coming to it fresh, and with the various life experiences and different roles I've played, it also helps bring so much to the role."

Margaret Campbell burst on to the covers of newspapers and society magazines in 1930 as debutante of the season. In the decade that followed, she became one of the most photographed women in the world and a style icon.

However, it was very different photographs that would lead to her notoriety, when she went through a public divorce to the 11th duke of Argyll who, in attempting to prove her infidelity, claimed she had more than 88 lovers. The most damning evidence against her was a series of Polaroid photographs stolen from her personal possession and presented in court.

Plazas believes the opera is very relevant in today's world of social media and public scrutiny. "She was a strong woman who suffered because she was living in a man's world under the gaze of the paparazzi. Nowadays having your private life exposed is nothing unusual."

One of the reasons the opera has been so successful is that it constantly challenges its audience to consider what they think of the duchess – from vain and manipulative to seductress, to victim.

"There is something tender about Margaret amidst the vanity and complexities," says Plazas. "Whilst there is no nudity, there are a couple of quite strong physical scenes which are staged in a way that the audience will be on the edge of their seats.

"It's hard technically and physically. It's not meant to make comfortable viewing and that comes across in the music as well," she adds, alluding to a score that includes music written for the rather unusual percussion of fishing reels and swanee whistles.

While the chamber opera does not permit time for the duchess to have multiple costume and make-up changes, Plazas shows her ageing using her own body movements and expressions. "It's hard technically and physically, with a very big vocal range."

And how does she prepare her body for such challenging roles? "You just look after yourself and walk every day. We are the athletes of the music world," she laughs.

This Irish premiere of Powder Her Face in a co-production between Northern Ireland Opera and Opera Theatre Company and is directed and designed by Antony McDonald. Nicholas Chalmers returns to conduct the Ulster Orchestra.

:: Powder Her Face runs from January 27 to 29 at Belfast's Lyric Theatre. Tickets at Suitable for ages 16+.


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