FESTIVAL: Soprano Gillian takes on two operatic roles

Gillian Keith
Gillian Keith

Canadian soprano Gillian Keith is taking on a particular challenge this summer, for the first time starring in two different productions at the Buxton Festival.

The singer, who debuted at Buxton Festival for Handel’s Hercules in 2004, explains: “At other festivals I’ve done recitals and two concerts but never two operas… I’m really sinking my teeth into the festival this year!”

The two performances could not be more different with the star taking on the role of the wealthy countess Sylvie in Gounod’s comic opera La Colombe, part of the Festival Double Bill, and Tullia, a woman dressed as a male servant, in Vivaldi’s dramatic first opera Ottone in Villa from visiting company La Serenissima.

The latter will have to slot into a busy stage schedule. ‘We really don’t get any time on the stage to rehearse! We get about three hours on the day of the show. So that will be a challenge. It’s also challenging to memorise two full operas and have them both in your head all at once”, says Gillian.

As we speak, she is taking a break from intensive rehearsals for La Colombe, which she admires for its economy and beauty. “There’s not really a note wasted. It has just enough lovely tunes but not too many. It’s full of touching moments. It’s got comedy, a lot of exciting musical bits… It really has a little bit of everything.”

Her character, Sylvie, who becomes jealous of a social rival’s prize parrot, is also teasingly multi-dimensional: “She has scheming elements to her character… she comes looking for one thing and ends up finding something she didn’t expect… She’s enchanting and quite heroic in her way.”

Appearing in Buxton again is a huge treat for her. “ Not only are the buildings incredibly beautiful to be in and around but the physical setting in the Peak District… I find the whole festival to be very refreshing in that physical sense… There’s also something very honest and to the point about the festival. It’s not been papered over or unnecessarily glamorised or spruced up.”

Canadian-born, she first came to England to study at the Royal Academy of Music. That lightbulb moment when she realised she could make music her career happened in England. “I was very interested in music when I was younger but it was always for pleasure… When I came to England to study I was met with what seemed like thousands of possibilities all at once. I was giddy with the idea that: ‘Yes, I don’t have to finish with this!’”

That excitement persists in her.

“For me music has shaped my whole life. I know there are people who don’t care for it… but I hope that they have something else… whether it be theatre, music, nature 
or sport – whatever it is that gives you goals or makes you feel connected as a person to life.”

Much as she misses her home country, she says she won’t be leaving England any time soon, and one senses Buxton has played a part in that decision. “There is something I’ve always found very enchanting about English festivals. It’s almost like participating in a story!”