‘This is such a tough profession, particularly for older women. The roles really, really dry up’ - Les Mis and Abomination star Rebecca Caine

International opera singer and musical theatre star Rebecca Caine returns to Belfast this month with a show that takes audiences on ‘an older woman’s journey’. She tells Gail Bell that despite the toughness of her industry, she will always be grateful for being able to turn out a “decent La la la”

International opera singer and musical theatre star, Rebecca Caine
International opera singer and musical theatre star, Rebecca Caine, returns to Belfast this month to perform

She has enjoyed a string of firsts, from her defining role as Cosette in the original production of Les Misérables, to playing the DUP’s Iris Robinson in Conor Mitchell’s Abomination – quite the theatrical leap, you could say - and now international opera and musical theatre star, Rebecca Caine, has made another show uniquely her own.

She returns to the Lyric this month - accompanied by musical director, singer and pianist, Nathan Martin - for Dividing Day, a show which takes her off on an “older woman’s journey”, with the help of eminent songwriters such as Bernstein, Bucchino, Guettel and Sondheim.

“Nathan had seen me in Abomination: A DUP Opera in London where we had such a big success with it, and he wanted to put together a show with music that is more about an older woman’s journey,” explains the 64-year-old Toronto-born, London-based performer.

“It’s not something that you see on stage very often; women at a certain age are mums, grannies... our stories aren’t told so much; we’re sort of sent to the sidelines. That is why it was such a treat to play Iris Robinson in Abomination (inspired by Robinson’s 2008 radio interview describing homosexuality as an “abomination”).

“It was a stonking role for a grown-up woman and it told such an interesting story.

“So, after that, Nathan was inspired to put together a series of really amazing and interesting songs, mainly from musical theatre, that talked about the complexity and the ambivalence about being at this place [age] in one’s life.”

Caine, back in the “stonking” role again last October when the Grand Opera House staged An Evening with the Belfast Ensemble and Marc Almond as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, says she now is starting to look upon Belfast as a “kind of second home”.

International opera singer and musical theatre star, Rebecca Caine
Rebecca Caine's show Dividing Day takes her on an “older woman’s journey”, with the help of songwriters including Bernstein, Bucchino, Guettel and Sondheim (Greg Locke)

“I keep being pulled back here,” she says brightly, down the line from London. “I did Conor [Mitchell’s] Propaganda show at the Lyric and also Abomination, and I have made the best friends in Northern Ireland. My dad’s family came from Ballycastle, so maybe that’s the reason I feel this weird connection – or it could just be the dark sense of humour, which I really appreciate.”

From a family of academics (her father was a professor at US Ivy League university, Princeton), she trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London but dropped out early after landing a dream first job – and her first big break – playing Laurey in Oklahoma! in the West End when she was just 19.

Glyndebourne opera chorus followed – “a sort of rite of passage for young opera singers” - and in the process of prioritising opera over musical theatre, she turned down the lead role of Maria in West Side Story. As it turned out, though, she didn’t have to wait long until another one came along; this time in a brand new show no-one had ever heard of called Les Misérables...

I remind myself I’m not facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square; it’s just singing

—  Rebecca Caine

“Trevor Nunn, who was directing at Glyndebourne, was doing this new musical and he wanted me to be in it, so he took me out of the chorus and suddenly I was Cosette in Les Misérables,” she says.

“I was part of the making of the original show, but of course we didn’t realise at the time what it would go on to become. It has become legendary since we made it and I am very proud of that.”

After Les Mis she also made her mark in another hit show, Phantom of the Opera, playing Christine opposite Michael Crawford’s Phantom in London. She counts herself “really lucky” to have been around at that time – “When one after another, those big shows broke, and I was able to play leads in both – because so much of it is luck, really.”

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But it hasn’t all been glamorous gowns and star-studded events. During her 43-years-and-counting career, she went on the record to talk about abuse at the hands of a co-star in a 1989 Toronto production and has been outspoken about the industry in general – “The rejections, the disappointments, the injustice, the bitchiness... all of it.”

“I am hard to cast, anyway,” she mulls “I make a certain kind of sound – I don’t ‘belt’. I am a legitimate soprano and there’s not a lot of writing for voices like mine. I think if you are a very sensitive person – and to be a good artist, you have to be a sensitive person – I think this industry can grind you up and spit you out.”

And yet, at 64, she keeps on doing it, still battling the nerves beforehand and still chasing that adrenaline “hit” on stage, although now she “picks and chooses” the roles more carefully.

International opera singer and musical theatre star, Rebecca Caine
International opera singer and musical theatre star, Rebecca Caine

“I am in a happier place with it all now,” she concedes; “I remind myself I’m not facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square; it’s just singing. It’s just going, ‘La la la’ – and I’m incredibly grateful for the amazing things being able to go, ‘La la la’ at a decent ability has brought me. I take a deep breath and just get on with it.”

Age has also brought a greater appreciation that there are other things in life – whether fitness (she is passionate about Pilates and, more recently, weightlifting) – or just sitting in the garden with her husband (a retired West End stage manager) “reading novels with my cats wandering around”.

Trips to the theatre are also part of off-stage schedule – she recently sat in the audience of Phantom because one of her students was playing Christine. “I don’t teach much, but I am happy to coach people on stuff that I’ve done,” she says. “I don’t think teaching is one of my talents, but I like to look out for the next generation, because it is such a tough profession, particularly for older women. The roles really, really dry up.

“I was doing a play with Sheila Hancock a few years ago and she said: ‘My family are so sick of the fact that every time I go on television, I am either dying or I am going mad.’ In reality, she was 88 or something and whizzing around London in a sports car - while still working.

“You don’t see that side of people living their lives and that is why the show at the Lyric is so great for me; I get to tell the amazing stories of amazing older women.”

Rebecca Caine: Dividing Day is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast on February 16 and 17, lyrictheatre.co.uk