Giselle Allen stars in NI Opera's The Turn of the Screw
Jenny Lee talks singing and the supernatural with Belfast-born international opera singer Giselle Allen ahead of her performance in the spine-tingling The Turn of the Screw
EXPERIENCING a chilling wind and a sense of spirits present is nothing new for Belfast opera singer Giselle Allen who will be hoping her dramatic performance and high notes in Benjamin Britten's spine-tingling chamber opera The Turn of the Screw will make the hairs stand on the necks of local audiences.
Giselle is a rare commodity – an opera singer from Northern Ireland with a genuinely international reputation, regularly in demand with many major UK and European opera companies, and having performed in leading roles with companies as far away as Canada and Singapore.
No stranger to the stage at home either, Giselle has appeared with Northern Ireland Opera (NI Opera) on several occasions, starring in the title roles of Tosca and most recently the 2015’s controversial production of Salome.
She is looking forward to once again working with NI Opera and reprising the ghostly role of Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, one of her favourite operas.
Scored for a small chamber orchestra and a cast of six, its haunting music and dramatic plot has also made it one of the most popular 20th century operas. After a hugely successful Northern Ireland tour in 2012, this production of The Turn of the Screw toured to Buxton Festival and the Kolobov Novaya Theatre in Moscow to public and critical acclaim.
Based on American author Henry James’s much-loved classic ghost story, it tells the story of a young governess sent to a country house to take care of two orphans, Miles and Flora. But all is not as it seems, with the ghostly presence of a previous governess.
“It is a wonderful story, full of suspense and drama, and Britten’s music is the perfect match. I've sung it in big theatre abroad in Zurich and Lyon where it was hard to create that claustrophobic atmosphere the piece needs and I think the theatres here are perfect for it," says 45-year-old Giselle.
I caught up with her at her local gym, where she regularly works out to keep up with the physical demands of opera.
Remarkably she admits she didn't consider a career in singing until her late teens. Although having been involved in the Belfast School of Music as an oboist, Giselle never sang her first solo until the age of 16 at her school, Victoria College, where it was suggested she train her voice.
Her main inspiration was fellow Victoria College old-girl Deborah Davison, who also studied music at Cardiff University before being awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy and has been based with the English National Opera for the past 20 years.
Following her degree, she pursued her vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music before Leeds based Opera North spotted her burgeoning talent.
Soprano Giselle sang her first big part for the company in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in 1998 and has developed a reputation for her passion and intensity of performance. Though she admits "it's not an easy industry", due to cuts in the arts and increased expectations.
"Nowadays, directors and audience expect so much, it's not like in the 50s when opera singers were lauded for their voices. Theatre and acting is just as important as the singing, which is the way I love to work anyway."
At almost six feet in height and with red hair, she is a striking figure on stage – which she says can both hinder and help her gain roles.
"It can be tricky because sometimes I'm taller than my leading men. But I play such strong women so it can be a good thing because people tell me I do have a presence on stage."
"I was this height from I was about 11 and used to walk with my head and shoulders down because I didn't want to be tall. At grammar school a teacher told me to stand tall and be proud of my height. Now I try to encourage young singers I coach to be proud of everything they have and just use it."
Any other advice to young hopefuls like 11-year-old Garbhan McEnoy from Methodist College, Belfast, who will play the role of Miles alongside her in The Turn of the Screw?
"You've just got to believe in yourself, be determined and work really well hard," says Giselle, whose next role will be in Wagner's The Ring Cycle with Opera North.
The mysterious Miss Jessel is a very challenging character to play, both musically and dramatically. "She's a very tragic, sad character who never really gets any closure on anything. "It's hinted at in the story she has had a big love affair with Quint, who was a servant. The twist is that she may have become pregnant by him and was forced to go. She has this horrible journey every night where she feels betrayed and depressed."
Giselle has experience of her own share of heartbreak and tragedy which helps inspire her performance – she is divorced and also suffered the death of a boyfriend at university.
"I can relate to her in the fact that I've had relationships that were sad and didn't work out and you feel like you have been wronged and your life hasn't gone the way it should have gone. Other people in the audience will be able to relate to that too. That's the power of opera when it's played truthfully," says Giselle.
In real life, she herself is fascinated by the supernatural.
"My granny had a gift and would always know when someone had passed away. When we were little we would hear knocking and names being called and witnessed pictures falling off the walls."
Following her grandmother's death, she recalls lights flickering and the television set suddenly turning itself off.
"I've read a lot about this and spirits use electricity to make you aware they are there," adds Giselle.
:: The Turn of the Screw plays Belfast's Lyric Theatre (lyrictheatre.co.uk) on March 11 and 12 and Derry's Millennium Forum (millenniumforum.co.uk) on March 15.