Graduate of the month: Karen Cargill

Published: March 8, 2017


Karen Cargill

Women have played a key role in every facet of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland throughout its illustrious history.

With March playing host to International Women’s Day, the latest Graduate of the Month is acclaimed Scottish mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill.

Since graduating from the Conservatoire in 2001, Karen has earned a glowing reputation as a performer in the opera house, concert hall and recording studio. Here, she reflects on her busy career and the way it was shaped by her studies at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama…

As a fresh-faced youngster, Karen Cargill wrote to conservatoires across the country asking for their prospectuses. Eagerly leafing through pages, the Arbroath school girl imagined herself studying the subject which had already captured her heart.

Fast forward to the present day, and audiences all over the world continue to express their gratitude that Cargill opted to pursue her prodigious talent as a mezzo-soprano. Most recently, that had seen her in Canada, where she was starring in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, performing not one but two roles: Waltraute and the second norn.

“I’m on near the beginning,” she explained, “then it’s time for make-up and a change of costume.”

“It’s a long show, very intense, so it’s important for me to be very disciplined. It’s also a long run so I keep the music with me most of the time to keep it in the bloodstream.”

The life of an opera singer is truly international. Cargill had been across the pond since Boxing Day, her latest expedition following trips to the Netherlands, Germany and Japan. While the travelling is fun, Cargill limits opera productions to two a year so she is never away from her family for too long.

She continued: “Lately I have been travelling a tremendous amount but we try to make sure we don’t go longer than three weeks without seeing each other. If I can get home for just a couple of days, I’ll do it. It’s important for me to be there for my son.

“The travelling can be tiring but I have been able to visit the most fantastic places. I’ve been to Japan three times; it’s just wonderful.”

There may be a self-imposed limit on participation in full scale productions but Cargill confesses she revels when performing in the concert hall. “I am more addicted to that than I am to opera, she said. “I love the thrill of having two sessions with an orchestra and putting on a concert; I have to be so efficient.”

A regular with orchestras in Europe, the USA and South Korea, Cargill regularly works with leading maestri including the likes of Donald Runnicles, Valery Gergiev and James Levine.

It’s exactly what she was aiming for when she arrived at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as a wide-eyed 17-year-old after studying in her home town with Molly Robb, in whose memory she has now set up a prize.

At the conservatoire, Cargill learned from Elizabeth Izatt and Patricia Hay and said: “Patricia gave me the tools and taught me about the temperament needed to be a singer. She told me how to carry myself and made sure I was aware of the challenges in the industry.”

Pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Glasgow, Karen graduated with an MMus (Advanced Opera) in 2001.

She furthered her studies at the University of Toronto, where she met her husband Nick, and the National Opera Studio in London. The Canadian experience was fascinating but to begin with, extremely overwhelming.

“I arrived and I was in tears,” Karen reflected. “Here was this girl from Arbroath out in Toronto, which was just massive compared to anywhere else I had ever been.

“I didn’t think I would be able to live somewhere that size but I did. The city has made me a lot more cosmopolitan, that was the beauty of it.”

The extensive period of study enabled Cargill to immerse herself in the repertoire while also giving her voice time to develop – something which “takes as long as it takes,” as she explained.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Your body is developing and that is something you can’t speed up. You have to give it time and be gentle.

“As a singer, you have to come to terms with what you can and can’t do. When I speak to students now, I tell them not to ask permission from anyone when they sing – just tell the story they want to tell. Try not to worry too much about technique – so often you are keen to get it right, which is natural, but life is not perfect. Just be true to yourself.”

She added: “Being an opera singer requires you to be a great actress as well as having the stamina and passion to underpin it all. Looking back, I was so obsessed with the music I wanted to learn.”

That passion comes in handy when clocking up the air miles. Within 24 hours of flying home from Canada, Cargill was due in rehearsals for Bluebeard’s Castle, a Scottish Opera co-production with Vanishing Point. After that Berlin, New York and Philadelphia are among the destinations uppermost in her diary.

With March marking International Women’s History Month, did Karen feel women received a fair deal in the arts on her travels?

“There are always female parts for singers, of course. One of the areas that is improving is conducting. Look at people like Marin Alsop and Jessica Cottis (conducting fellow, 2011). They are at the forefront and I would like to see more of that.

“Conducting is a very male-dominated area. Women have a strong voice that needs to be heard and music is one of the best ways to communicate that.”