From performing with the Berlin Philharmonic to gracing the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Karen Cargill is one of the most critically acclaimed mezzo-sopranos in the world.
The RCS alumna and Associate Artist in Vocal Studies talks to Linda Robertson about her latest role – nurturing the next generation.
Imagine being a young singer on the cusp of your career and spending three days being mentored by an internationally acclaimed opera star, in a stunning Scottish castle no less.
For seven Vocal Studies students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, it was the stuff of dreams.
Over those three music-filled days in March at Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway, they were immersed in all things performance with Karen Cargill, one of the world’s leading mezzo-sopranos.
“The Drumlanrig residency was extraordinary,” says Karen, speaking from her home on the outskirts of Glasgow.
“It was the most special time, I loved it. It was a world of collaborative performance with the students.”
The residency, curated by Karen and Sam McShane, Head of Artistic Planning at RCS, was supported through a new partnership between RCS and the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust. It aims to play a part in nurturing outstanding emerging artists and performers developing their skills at RCS.
The residency offered a deep dive into Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis song cycle, which culminated in a performance for invited guests.
“We took one specific piece that’s core repertoire for every singer really, Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op.39,” says Karen.
“I gave each student songs to sing and, before we arrived, asked them to prepare information about where Schumann was in his life emotionally so that we could have an in-depth discussion.”
The students also delivered a community project to local secondary school Wallace Hall, led by RCS graduate, singer and educator Andy McTaggart.
It was an experience of a lifetime, as one student wrote afterwards: ”˜Karen is one of the most amazing human beings I have ever met and I can’t imagine this experience would have been quite so magical without her. She speaks with so much truth in an honest and open way. She goes above and beyond to help her students’.
“I cried for days after reading that!” says Karen.
“We really bonded as a group. It was revelatory for me because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I think because I felt I needed that when I was a student, someone to offer a different view, outside of exams.”
One night, Karen invited the students to listen to her own rehearsal. “We’d worked all day and I had to rehearse my stuff in the evening. I felt the pressure as I’d been talking for days so my voice was tired! I thought, ”˜right, I’ve got to sing in front of everyone’, and it put me right under the microscope.
“In that moment I had shown such vulnerability and it started a dialogue. I told the students about the struggles I’d had and it was really special to share that, and to show them that we’re all human beings. It’s being able to tap into that human side of yourself which makes you a great artist.”
Karen is the Royal Conservatoire’s Associate Artist in Vocal Studies until 2022. The Associate Artist programme, established by the RCS Artistic Planning department, sees internationally renowned artists become a central part of its creative community, working intensely with students, collaborating with different art forms and sharing their work with audiences.
“We wanted to create something where Vocal Studies students could have direct access to someone who is out there in the profession for things like one to ones, masterclasses and to ask the questions about the industry that there’s never time to ask,” she says. “That’s why the Associate Artist programme is really important.”
As well as working with all undergraduate Vocal Studies students, each year Karen will mentor six to seven singers that she’ll work with intensively and lead on residencies like Drumlanrig.
Full of fun and down-to-earth, Karen believes in keeping things real. She may grace the stages of the finest opera houses and concert halls across the globe but she says being a singer isn’t just about hitting those perfect notes.
“We can all be hard on ourselves in the pursuit of trying to be the best we can be but it puts a higher expectation on yourself. Art is meant to be something to enjoyed, so be kind to yourself.”
There are three words she lives by ”” perfection, flexibility and permission.
“Perfection is such a false construct. It doesn’t exist in life, so no way does it exist in art. Music is about real life. Just sing! Tell the story. If people want perfection, they can buy the CD.
“There’s being flexible vocally and emotionally. When you stand up on stage, people want you to share something with them. Music is communication and conversation.
“Permission is allowing yourself to do all the things you want to do and to stop asking others. Know your own worth.”
She tells the students in every performance, in each practice, to take a moment that’s just for them, whether it’s savouring the sound of an instrument, a certain line of text they deliver or the sensation of how it feels when they sing.
“It’s remembering why we do it. You can spend too much time out in the profession trying to be this perfect thing but you lose the passion that drove you to it in the first place.
“You can only be the singer you are with the voice you have. I’m a big believer that you can only show up with the goods you have today. You might have had an argument with your partner or you missed your bus and it made you harassed. That’s the circumstance you’re in that day so don’t try to push that away entirely. Allowing a little bit of life into your performance can give it a different colour and feel.”
Excerpt from Mahler Symphony no. 2. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Daniele Gatti, 2016.
She loves teaching and gets so much out of it: “It’s all about that human connection, getting to know a person and them sharing with me who they are.”
And she’s also entered the world of online teaching, after putting out a call on Instagram and Facebook for singers to get in touch for lessons, audition advice and career chat.
The requests flooded in and she’s now coaching students everywhere from LA and Hong Kong to Delhi and Germany.
“I’ve never done online teaching before but I said that it doesn’t have to be a lesson, it could be a talk about where they are in their studies, what the possibilities are when they graduate or knowing what repertoire to do.
“It’s trying to remind singers, especially in a time like this, to always look for the positives.
“The time now is a gift, to focus on pathways, roles or technical aspects they want to hone. I’ve always known I’m a workaholic and it has made a difference in this weird time that we’re in. Having a point of focus every day has really helped me and it’s a way to put positive energy out there.”
Excerpt from Berlioz ‘La Damnation de Faust’. London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Simon Rattle, 2017.
Karen usually spends eight months of the year travelling but with life on pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she’ll be at home until October, at least. It means more time with husband Nick and their 11-year-old son, Adam.
“It’s the longest I’ve been at home, probably since 2002 when I made my debut at the Proms. It has been amazing to have all of this quality family time. I try to do two operas a season as I don’t want to be away from home for long periods.
“When I’m on the road, one thing I really miss is my own washing machine and cooking for a family, so I’m getting to do that every day.”
Performing is such a huge part of her life, so she’s also looking forward to stepping back on stage.
“It’s where I come alive. It’s my job and it’s my passion. I love going to the dry cleaners with my dresses and being asked if they’re for something special ”” and saying they’re for my work!”
Karen was ”˜super young’ when she first started singing: “I was probably about two-and-a-half or three, apparently I was like a parrot! I would sing Mull of Kintyre by Paul McCartney and Wings, Heart of Glass by Blondie, ABBA songs and Boney M was a big inspiration, I’ve been told.
“My aunt said to my mum that she should send me for singing lessons, so off I went to my first teacher Molly Robb, in my home town of Arbroath, where I paid 50p an hour until I was 17.
“We worked on folk songs and I didn’t know anything about opera or classical singing, being totally honest. I used to see this picture of a woman on an LP at Molly’s house, wearing Japanese make-up and cherry blossoms in her hair and thought ”˜who is that?’”
It was Maria Callas, who has always been an ”˜enormous inspiration’.
“She was a singing actor and wasn’t afraid to let her voice say what she needed to say dramatically. If the character was dying you could hear it. That’s what I want people to feel.”
Despite the head of music at her high school once writing to her parents to state she’d never make it in music, as she didn’t have the ”˜gift’ ”” they still have the letter ”” she was accepted for RCS, known then as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
“I think back to that 17-year-old wee lassie who got her timetable out of her pigeon hole and immediately ran down to the phones outside the Fyfe Lecture Theatre to call my mum and dad to tell them I’d made a mistake and I wanted to come home! I hadn’t even had one class. There was all this stuff on the timetable like keyboard harmony and I was like ”˜eh?’. I’d gone from a small town to Glasgow, which felt like a metropolis.
“It’s such a vulnerable point in your life, teenager into adulthood, and that’s why students need all the support they can get. That’s where RCS really shines.”
Her undergraduate studies were followed by a Masters of Music in Advanced Opera.
“I learnt loads and I loved opera school. I always talk about my toolbox and all the building blocks that were put there.”
One of her defining moments came in a church in Bath Street, where opera scenes were staged.
“There was a teacher called Patricia Hay and she showed an interest in me and said maybe we could work together at some point.
“My teacher at RCS was retiring and then I got the chance to do an exchange programme to the University of Toronto. Pat said that we should work together when I got back ”” and that was the beginning of that love affair, that’s been going on for 23 years.”
Another love affair was sparked not long after, when she met the man who would become her husband during her year in Toronto.
“I sang in a class that Nick was in, he was a baritone at that point. I technically lost my voice that year because I was too busy dating,” she laughs.
“When I came back, Pat rebuilt my whole instrument. I worked very, very hard at everything she gave me and she had this real faith in what I could do. There’s no way I’d be where I am without her.”
Their bond was clear to see at the July 2018 graduation ceremony where Karen was presented with an honorary degree of Doctor of Music. In her address to graduates, she paid tribute to her much-loved teacher.
“I broke down when I came to say Pat’s name. That’s how important she is to me. The RCS gave her to me and that’s a gift I can never thank them enough for.”
KAREN CARGILL – QUICK-FIRE QUESTIONS
Who influenced you?
Maria Callas, Tom Allen, Christa Ludwig and Anne Sofie von Otter.
The pre-match stuff is quite important and you’ve got to find your own rhythm.
On a performance day, if it starts at 7.30pm, I have a sleep between 3-3.40pm then eat something. I start my make-up and prep around 5.30pm and I’m at the venue at 6.45pm for a 20-minute warm-up. I did a course in transcendental meditation so I do a wee bit of meditation. I look over the score and there’s a lot of pacing, I’m like a caged tiger! I’m always ready to go at 7.15pm. The wait is the worst bit.
Favourite on-stage moments?
Performing for the first time with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle. I never thought I’d sing with the best orchestra in the world. I didn’t get a piano rehearsal beforehand and went on stage and sung Wagner. That’s when your RCS training comes in!
Singing at the Met in New York. When you come out into that auditorium with more than four thousand seats and think of the people who have been on that stage before you, it’s just extraordinary. I remember standing on stage before a performance, listening to the orchestra’s overture, knowing that the audience was on the other side. I had a moment to myself where I said ”˜look where you’ve got to. Maria Callas has been in this same spot’.
Bluebeard’s Castle with Scottish Opera was one of the most emotionally exhausting, and one of the most amazing things, I’ve ever done.
I loved Tiger King, Liar and The Nest with Martin Compston. We’re watching The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan documentary which is really good. I’m not massive on basketball but it’s so interesting. We’re also rewatching Star Wars with Adam.
Follow Karen on Instagram @mezzocargill