Born in Narbonne, France, mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine is recognized as one of the most exciting young mezzos to have emerged on the international scene in the last decade. Following initial studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, she joined the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper Berlin where she sang a number of roles including Carmen, Marguerite and Dalila. She has already appeared on some of the world’s leading lyric stages including the Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro Colón, Washington National Opera, Teatro di San Carlo and the Canadian Opera Company. Recent, current and future engagements include Carmen in Berlin and Toulouse, Amneris in Australia and Léonor at the Liceu. I caught up with Miss Margaine by telephone from Paris, France between rehearsals for Concepción in L’Heure espagnole at the Opéra national de Paris.
Madame Margaine, you are currently preparing to open as Concepción in L’Heure espagnole in just a few days. How do you approach a role in which you have only just under an hour of stage time to create a character?
It’s true that it’s a very different role for me because it’s a comic role and I find that I haven’t had much opportunity to sing comic roles in my career so far. It’s somewhat like vaudeville in fact. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of working on this piece and I’ve been very lucky to have an absolutely superb staging to work within by Laurent Pelly. It’s very funny and it’s very much in that comic spirit. We also have a great cast of colleagues, most of whom I’ve known for a while. As it’s a short opera, it’s true that it’s a completely different experience to work on – it’s more like a sprint compared to Carmen for example. I only have fifty minutes to portray Concepción but these are fifty very intense minutes and you need a lot of energy to be able to get through them. You need to be able to show the comical side of the situation, you have to be able to react to your stage partners. It’s been an experience that I’ve absolutely loved and getting to work with Laurent Pelly has also been delightful. I’m so pleased to be able to have the opportunity to sing this role and especially to be able to sing Ravel’s music which is absolutely sublime.
You have sung Carmen in both Europe and North America. This year alone, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you in two very different stagings – one in Berlin by Tandberg and the other in Toulouse by Grinda. How important has this role been to you, in your career?
It’s true that in my career so far this is the role I’ve sung most. It’s the one that I made my Berlin debut with, in the previous production, and this is also the role that has opened the doors of so many of the major theatres to me. I’ve sung her in so many places and I’m due to sing her again next season in London, Vienna and the Met. It’s a very complete role and I’ve learned a lot from singing her. More recently I’ve taken on a number of new roles so I’m singing her a bit less now, which is also a good thing, so that I’m recognized as an artist who doesn’t sing just one role. I can never get tired of Carmen though, I find it’s a work of genius – and that’s one reason why it’s deservedly so popular. My interpretation of Carmen has evolved since my debut because I’ve also grown as a woman in this time and my own experiences have fed into how I interpret her on stage. Carmen also depends greatly on the staging and on one’s own partners on stage and the kind of Carmen you are, can be very different depending on who your Don José is or what the stage director decides to focus on. Even in the same production, things can change from one evening to the next depending on the energy that you have in that moment, the way your colleagues react and also the energy one feels from the public.
Do you have a staging that strikes you as the most memorable of those you have performed in up until now?
There have been quite a few. I loved the production I did at the Met and I’m so looking forward to going back and singing in it next season. I loved it because it was spectacular. I’m from Narbonne in the south of France, so quite close to Spain, and I’ve been immersed in the world of flamenco. In those productions that I have done that bring in a troupe of professional flamenco dancers, like that of the Met, there’s an incredible energy on stage. Similarly, I did one in Washington that I enjoyed and another in Australia that was very modern but still kept that energy that the flamenco dancers brought. Every production I do of the piece brings something new – even the most recent one I did in Berlin, Ole Anders Tandberg’s, which has been by far the most radical that I’ve done, but it was really interesting to try something new.
I must admit I absolutely loved the Berlin production, the dark humour and girl power.
It’s true that it was a very different production. I was on stage throughout, the direction we got was very precise and it was really interesting to do that staging. And it was quite fun to do a completely traditional staging just a few weeks later with the same Don José, Charles Castronovo. We’re actually both going back to the Tandberg production shortly, so it’ll be fascinating to sing opposite Charlie again in that very different staging.
As a francophone singer, is it important for you to sing in French?
I do have a large number of roles in French. I sing Dalila, Charlotte, Berlioz’ Damnation de Faust. Being able to sing in my mother tongue is definitely an advantage when it comes to portraying a character. It makes it much easier not to be too focused on getting the text right. I’ve noticed that when I’m singing in languages I don’t speak as well, that I do tend to focus on getting the words right. I lived in Germany for a few years and I speak Italian, so I have a familiarity with these languages; but the Russian repertoire, for example, is something I haven’t explored very much yet and when one doesn’t speak a language, it makes the learning process somewhat more complicated. Of course, you work on it to get it right, but there are always some things that are easier in one’s mother tongue.
What for you are the challenges of singing in French? For example, there are some francophone singers, who might say that it’s almost an anti-vocal language in many respects
It’s true that French isn’t an easy language to sing in and it does pose questions regarding technique. French is a language that is placed at the edge of the lips and this has given me some issues as a singer to get the text across. Right now, I’m working on L’Heure espagnole, and the focus is really on making the text clear, to get my voice in the right position so that the text comes over. I have quite a large voice and so it’s a challenge to pull it back. Those with lighter voices will approach this in a different way. I’m also currently working on Amneris and it’s true that Italian is much more open and allows you to really let the voice flow.
How did you discover your voice?
I really discovered music in general before I discovered my voice. I was very lucky to grow up in a family where music was central to our everyday lives. My grandmother was a violinist, both my parents are keen music lovers. All of my siblings learned to play an instrument – my sister is a professional pianist now – and I also learned piano. My first love was piano and classical music generally, which we listened to a lot at home. We didn’t listen to much opera but I went to the conservatoire and joined the children’s choir. This was something that appealed to me straightaway. I loved it because it was something that I got to do with others, I found a lot of pleasure in sharing the joy of singing with my friends. Getting to sing concerts as part of a group was such an adventure and this is where I started to develop that love of singing. When I finished high school, I started studying law. Alongside law school I took some singing lessons. It was mainly through curiosity, just to develop my voice a little. I was very lucky to have an exceptional teacher who one day told me ‘you’re not going to be studying law for very long – you really have something there’. A few years later I started my vocal studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, I stopped my law studies and decided just to go for it with my singing. As someone who loves classical music, I found in singing the most extraordinary way of expressing myself. Suddenly, even more than with playing the piano, I found a genuine way of expressing myself, my love for music.
After your studies in Paris, you went to Berlin to join the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper. How was the experience of working as part of an ensemble for you?
It was an amazing experience. I will always be grateful for having been given this opportunity. It all happened somewhat by accident. I was in Magdeburg for a show and I asked my agent if he could find me a few auditions to do during my days off. He got me the one in Berlin and I went over for it, thinking that it would be great, to have the chance to be part of an ensemble. I did the audition, I sang a few numbers, and the Intendant asked me into his office. He immediately invited me into the ensemble and offered me Carmen right there and then. Up until then, I’d had a few auditions in France, I’d been offered a few smaller roles here and there but here, out of the blue, I was being offered the title role in such an iconic opera. I moved there for the next season and I had the time of my life. On the one hand, because of the roles that I got to sing; on the other, it was the joy of singing with others, getting involved in the life of the theatre, knowing the musicians in the orchestra, singing chamber music, being able to discuss the show afterwards in the canteen over a drink. The first time I sang Carmen in Berlin, there were representatives of the Met, Washington, in the house and it was after one of those Carmens that my agent called me with the news of these big contracts. I think the two years that I was in Berlin, there wasn’t a single evening where I didn’t go to the opera. I would go into the Deutsche Oper or over to the Schillertheater where the Staatsoper was playing, sometimes only to see the first act before returning to my studio to work. I got to listen to the orchestra rehearsals and I even got to sing some smaller roles in the Ring. Discovering Wagner was a complete culture shock, getting to sing next to these vocal giants, who lived their roles, watching and learning how they managed their voices. I also got to learn how to sing in those acoustics, it became the house where I was able to sing almost effortlessly. It really was such a great learning, enriching and fascinating experience.
You’re about to make your role debut as Amneris in Australia, you’re returning to Léonor at the Liceu. Your career is certainly taking off. How do you maintain balance given the number of engagements, new roles, new cities coming up for you?
It’s not always easy. This season has been exceptionally intense. I’ve done Favorite several times and I’m also going back to Munich for the Festspiele to sing it. The biggest challenge this year was the role of Fidès in Le Prophète by Meyerbeer. This is by far the most difficult role that I have sung and it’s certainly reputed as one of the most difficult in the repertoire for mezzo-soprano. It was a fascinating experience because I’ll admit, there were some moments where I thought I wasn’t going to get through it. It’s such a long role, you’re singing constantly for an hour and a half in the third and fourth acts and there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to rest. It was a game-changing role for me. As we got through the run, I realized that I was making it through and by the ninth show I came to realize that I was in full control of my voice and of my technique – which was certainly not the way I felt at the premiere – and that I had really grown into the role during the course of the run. It’s been an important role for me because it’s helped to show me what the limits of my voice are and now it’s pointing the way to other roles that I can start to look at, such as Eboli for example. It was a great learning experience for me, even though it wasn’t always easy. These are the moments that show you what you’re capable of and that sometimes you have to take the risks, all while making sure you don’t get sick. It’s not like Carmen for example, where I’ve already sung Carmen while sick and I know I can get through it. Roles like Fidès are ones where you have to really be careful and take things easy. It’s the same with Léonor in La Favorite, that’s another big role. It’s been quite a season and now with Amneris coming up, it’s been a big year for me.
You’ve already mentioned Eboli for example. Where do you envisage your career going from here?
I’m taking things step by step and making my debut as Amneris is going to be a big step. Amneris is a role I’ve been working on for a long time, I’ve always wanted to sing her and it’s a role that lies well in my voice. Of course, you have to develop the voice to be able to sing it but it’s a role that I’ve wanted to take on for a long time. Amneris will hopefully lead to exploring more of the other Verdi roles such as Eboli and Azucena. These are roles that a mezzo like me has to sing and I think this is the direction my voice is going in. I also want to be able to continue with the bel canto roles, Fidès and Léonor are two of those. With my manager we’re looking carefully at planning my schedule so that I’m singing Amneris in between these bel canto roles. I’m going to be singing Adalgisa also. I want to be able to keep that suppleness in the voice. For the moment, I’m in a good place being able to sing the French romantic roles – Charlotte, Dalila, Carmen – the bel canto roles and a few Verdi roles. That’s where I’d like to maintain my career. Later we can look at adding a few Wagner roles. We’re looking at Fricka or Brangäne, for instance, but that’s going to be for later on. Keeping the suppleness in the voice is what’s important for me.