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La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Carole Wilson

#mirrorselfie

Eline Hadermann
Reading time
4 min.

From virgin to brothel keeper, from tender wet nurse to a serial killer’s business partner, and from courageous grandmother to malicious auntie: La Monnaie’s audiences have seen Carole Wilson in more guises than can be counted on two hands. How do you set about making all these eccentric characters recognisably human? What does it really take to play a character role well? A good look in the mirror provides answers.

How important are mirrors in your life?

I use them a lot for my work. Technically speaking, it is good to practise in front of a mirror. You can control your posture – shoulders down! – and check to see if you look ridiculous because, let’s be honest, that’s always a possibility. A singer pulls weird faces without realizing it. So during the study process, it’s advisable to look at yourself as the audience eventually will. That can be confrontational, of course. I am constantly looking in the mirror for flaws. And now that I’m slightly older, I find them too! (laughs)

© Simon Van Rompay
That sounds harsh.

No, not really. Observing yourself in the mirror at my age is no longer a form of affirmation, and in some ways that’s liberating. Even twenty years ago, I was asking myself how I might camouflage this or that, but nowadays I feel more relaxed about it; I am more accepting of my little imperfections. The fact is, I no longer feel the pressure to conform, which makes me more tolerant of my shortcomings. And in any case, as a rule, a singer who concentrates on character roles is not compelled to comply with the unrealistic beauty ideals which – unfortunately – are still a reality for protagonists in our sector. Witches, evil stepmothers, wise grandmothers: paradoxically enough, in terms of appearance, those sort of characters are more real, more believable.

Mrs. Grose in The Turn of the Screw, Ježibaba in Rusalka, Babarikha in The Tale of Tsar Saltan: you have played lots of eccentric women at La Monnaie. What is the secret to interpreting such characters?

Playing character roles as caricatures, as characters lacking depth, is easy, but not very interesting. I always try to create a back story based on everything I have read about the work. Then when I’m learning the part, I ask myself: why am I making this gesture? Why am I singing this? Then it is up to me to find the appropriate vocal colour for the character I have developed. I am so well trained in this process that you could almost say I am more an actor than a singer. But that’s where my talent lies, I think.

A talent for authenticity?

Injecting credibility into each of these character roles takes practice. If I want to make a character three dimensional, it is essential that I can find some sort of humanity in it, which I myself understand. And if I don’t find that, then I steer clear of the role. For example, I am often offered the part of Kabanicha in Leoš Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, but up to now I always turn it down: I simply don’t see why she is so nasty to all the other characters in the opera!

So that means you understand Babarikha?

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s perception of this woman is a good example of ‘humanization’. In the libretto, Babarikha’s relationship with the other characters is left rather vague: she is sometimes referred to as an aged aunt, but she is usually portrayed as a cardboard wicked stepmother. However, in this production she is the tsar’s mother. A woman who likes to be in control and take charge through her intrinsically weak son. So she becomes the invisible power behind the throne, to which she clings, come what may. To protect the status quo, she chooses the two lazy sisters as future tsarinas over the noble Militrissa, who she sees as more difficult to control. I understand where that convulsive desire to control something that is precious to you comes from: I can relate to that.

© Simon Van Rompay
That excessive need to exercise control has its price.

The tragic twist Babarikha’s story takes in the last act is indeed interesting. She has managed to hang on to power, but the two sisters who were party to her secret plans betray her. When rejoicing breaks out among the crowd at the tsar’s act of clemency, the old woman finds herself abandoned and alone. A painful, but important warning, perhaps the more so for singers: at the end of the day, it is not success and prestige that count. What matters is that you have been good to your fellow human beings. That you can look at yourself in the mirror.