Did you know, that recently the Swedish government instituted a neutral gender pronoun to save the problem of when you don’t know somebody’s gender?” Susannah Waters asks me. “I mean, how wonderful is that?” There’s real excitement – even delight – in the former opera-singer-turned-director’s voice as she shares this information with me. Preconceptions about sexuality and gender roles have always been important to Waters: her family is, in her own words, “very complex”: she has a female partner and the pair have five children, living in a beautiful Tudor house on the High Street in Lewes. Waters also has two teenage children. “It’s a very busy family-artistic-juggling life,” she laughs joyfully.
This May Waters will examine the use of gender in opera, as she directs world renowned mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in a one-woman show, Being Both, at the Brighton Festival. Coote will take a journey into Handel’s most sublime vocal music. This constitutes a particularly audacious journey, as the opera singer – celebrated for playing roles originally written for castrati – will be singing both the female and male parts.
Waters first got to know Coote when they both studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (Coote was three years below Waters), and despite Coote also living in East Sussex, the two women have never before worked together. The seeds of Being Both were sown two summers ago when there was a minor scandal at Glyndebourne, as critics were particularly vicious in their remarks about the woman playing Octavian – a trouser role – in Der Rosenkavalier.
“It was outrageous,” recalls Waters. “They were being really personal and talked about the woman in question being too ‘pudgy’ for the part. Alice made a very public statement – which went viral – condemning these reviews, pointing out that a boy does not have to have one particular body shape anyway, and rightly stating that she could never imagine those journalists criticising a male singer in the same way.”
Coote and Waters started talking. What would happen if opera roles were cast differently – in a way that was much more unisex and agender? Handel’s work, in which female characters were originally written for castrati voices, became their focus. For Waters, it was an obvious choice.
“Handel’s operas are so wonderfully humane about the foibles of the heart, of unrequited love always expressed with such compassion for the characters. What I wanted to look at was how, instead of saying that this male character is being sung by a woman traditionally, how about saying it is a female character – what would that do to the way we perceive the character and the way we hear the music? So, in Being Both, we’re playing all the way through with this idea: if you up the masculine feel and physicality, what does that do to the way we understand the text?
“But what we’re very much not trying to do” – and here Waters is quick to emphasise – “is to make Alice into a man for some of the numbers and make her a woman for others. We’re working with the idea that in all of us we have the qualities of both male and female. It’s about playing with the volume and balance of these and exploring that through the music. If there’s a message we want to get out to the younger generation it’s that they can be both male and female: they can have both of those qualities and that is ok.”
In the often conservative world of opera this is quite bold, but Waters says she has had nothing but support from her contemporaries. What does she think audiences will make of these changes?
“I really don’t think people will be too shocked by it. I feel I am catching a wave that is just cresting rather than being ahead of it,” she modestly laughs, telling me that a week previously she and Coote visited Selfridges, who have just started a new campaign called Agender. This involves the setting up of a temporary installation to clump all the male and female clothes together, creating a unisex area which experiments with gender boundaries. “It’s the way things are going,” adds Waters. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Selfridges decide to change the way they sell their clothes and no longer have one floor for men and another for women. It’s time to free up those barriers.
“I love opera so much as an art form, but it can very much fall into traditional sexual roles and relationships. Being Both is a one-woman show, so obviously we can’t explore those relationships too much, but if I were casting a Handel opera, I’d be interested to play around with the roles: why not make a male character who is usually sung by a woman, a woman? Then you’d have some relationships that were heterosexual and others that were same-sex. I think that would make it more relevant to today.”
Waters knows what works in opera. She has had a long and illustrious career as an opera singer, performing principal roles in the world’s leading houses, including the Royal Opera House, the Welsh National Opera, LA Opera, Seattle Opera and the Royal Swedish Opera. She has also performed many times at the Glyndebourne Festival, which she repeatedly speaks of with great affection.
Being Both is the latest project from an independent, passionate and clearly determined woman who has consistently taken risks and pushed her own creativity. In 2000, at the height of her powers as an opera singer, Waters decided to leave the stage to take up writing and directing. Why?
“I often say that singing was like squeezing a stone. I adored it, did it for 10 years and had a great deal of success. But there came a point when I listened to the voices of famous colleagues and thought, ‘I will never have that voice.’ I got frustrated with my particular paintbrush – what I perceived were the limits of my voice. You can’t do anything with the paintbrush that you’re given. A voice can only go so far.”
It was, I remark, a brave decision: some other singers would perhaps have continued to the point when they became bitter.
“Well, yes…sometimes I do meet singers who are incredibly burnt out and, sadly, there is nothing else that they want to do, so they stay at it. It’s a shame. Fortunately, I always had an eye on the production and the direction. I loved the whole world of opera – not just the singing. I could see a future elsewhere.”
Waters went on to form her own production company, The Paddock, which produced theatre, opera and dance, frequently in unusual settings. Then, in March 2013, she directed a new opera, Imago, by Orlando Gough and Stephen Plaice at Glyndebourne. In addition to these projects, she was also writing and mentoring writers: her first novel, Long Gone Anybody, was published by Transworld-Black Swan in 2004 and was followed by Cold Comfort (Transworld-Doubleday) in 2006. But she never planned to become a writer.
“Both of my parents were English teachers, so I grew up around books. But nothing happened for me until I went to sing in Sante Fe one year. Let’s just say I was heartbroken. The first place I visited was a bookshop, where I picked out a book on writing. All summer, I’d set the clock for 25 minutes each day and write. My initial thought was that it was just cathartic, but very quickly a story emerged and by the end of the summer I’d written a novella.”
Success followed: Waters was published very quickly. She, of all people, is most surprised – and, one senses, a little guilty – at how easy it was. There were no demoralising rejections. She currently has two further books in the wings, but is holding off submitting them because she says they don’t quite have “the texture” she wants. She relishes her new craft.
“I love the solitariness of writing, being a mistress of your own domain, but I also need the collaboration of directing. The two form a good balance for me.”
Does she ever look back and yearn for the applause and flower-strewn stages of the world’s greatest opera houses?
“Oh, no! I am full of admiration for singers. I think they’re wonderful, but it’s a hell of a life. The pressure of it. What I hated most of all was the necessary rest that you had to take all the time. It’s like being an athlete. And you’re always away from home; you have to get enough sleep; you have to rest your voice, and so on. That really doesn’t suit me. I like being busy all the time and having lots of things on the go.”
Her days flying around the world to perform as a singer may be over, but with plans to tour Being Both, one senses that Susannah Waters is unlikely to be sitting back and resting on her laurels anytime soon. Her curiosity for the world we live in and the limitations we set ourselves continues to spur her on. “Why Work?” she asks herself on her website. The answer: “My dogged, deeply un-hip obsession with what happens on page and stage.” Or, to put it another way, as she tells me in a low but emphatic voice now: “I just love what I do.”
This May former opera singer and Lewes resident Susannah Waters takes a very daring show to the Brighton Festival. Alex Hopkins uncovers her passions