BWW Interview: Soraya Mafi Shows Operatic Expertise Beyond her Years
Soprano Soraya Mafi makes her Seattle Opera debut this coming month as the deceivingly angelic young Flora in Benjamin Britten's psychological drama, The Turn of the Screw. The young award-winning Manchester, UK, native already has several diverse roles under her belt, and her career is progressing at a rapid pace.
I caught up with Soraya in the midst of her hectic rehearsal schedule in advance of the opening.
Erica Miner: I enjoyed your performance here in Seattle Symphony's rendition of Ravel's L'enfant et les Sortilèges with Maestro Ludovic Morlot. Do you approach learning and performing an opera in concert version differently than staged?
Soraya Mafi: The basic principles of learning are the same. I always start with the text- sometimes this means translating a foreign language into English, sometimes translating it into my own personal language. Once I have worked through this process, I turn to the score and all of its details. Why has the composer made these choices? How will I reflect them? I then work on musical style with coaches and my singing teacher. It is important to arrive to rehearsals with the same level of preparation for concert performances as fully-staged opera.
Performing is a little more complicated. In opera, we can have weeks of rehearsals to figure out logistics/meaning/intention etc., whereas concert performances are generally rehearsed in a very short time period and often without a director. This can allow for somewhat more personal freedom in dramatic interpretation, but henceforth requires more responsibility for the performer to arrive with a fully formed characterization of their role. In opera we have scenery, costumes and lighting; this can be very limited in concert performances. Therefore, as a performer, you must work with your colleagues-singers, conductor and players alike- to ignite the imagination of the audience. We must create the scene for them with our dramatic and musical projection!
EM: You have quite a diverse selection of roles in your operatic palette thus far in your young career: Tytania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Suor Genoveva in Suor Angelica, Nanetta in Falstaff. Do you find Flora in The Turn of the Screw to be a large contrast from those?
SM: There are both similarities and differences. The most notable difference is that Flora is a child. Whilst Nanetta is a young woman, and roles such as Suor Genoveva in Suor Angelica, or Soeur Constance (both nuns!) in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites are undeniably wide-eyed ingénues, Flora is much younger. She is still to reach puberty. She has also lived a sheltered, complicated life with no parents-notably, no mother. Musically, this means a slightly limited vocal range as her voice is yet to develop and find a variety of colors. However, the rhythmic writing can sometimes be more complex than expected: a reflection maybe of her complicated state of mind.
Tytania, another Britten role, is a regal woman with command of the entire fairy kingdom. She enjoys a wide vocal range throughout the opera with greatly varied dynamics. She uses this to dominate Oberon and seduce Bottom. She also enjoys beautiful, lyrical vocal lines when preparing for bed in the forest: floating lines just above the staff in a form of musical hypnosis. When she meets Bottom and is aroused by his animal behavior, her vocal range climaxes along with her excitement. This reflection of dramatic intention in the music is also true in Flora's last scene in The Turn of The Screw. She is upset and angry-her rage directed toward the Governess. The vocal line reflects this as she reaches the height of her range-virtually screeching.
EM: How would you describe the experience of being an adult playing the role of a young girl?
SM: Tiring! Children are generally more physically active and uninhibited than adults. They also live in the present-rarely do they think, then act. Everything is on impulse which can be quite exhausting. I'm certainly reaching my step-target each day!
It is easy to fall into the trap of 'playing' young, when actually you mustn't be so self-aware. Playful, instinctive, unencumbered rather than 'young.' Flora and Miles are not just young children, they have been exposed to something. What that is, we can't be entirely sure: I think it would be foolish to have a very strong opinion on this. We do know however, that whether it be ghostly spirits, neglect or abuse, it is a force that has gripped them and affects their relationship with the new Governess. I have been reading cases of children who experienced trauma growing up and how it affected their behavior: attachment/detachment, outbursts, agoraphobia, inability to maintain relationships. There's plenty of critical research into The Turn of The Screw and how Flora's relationship with women is complicated by the arrival of the Governess who is neither matron nor whore, but something in between. Growing up without a mother figure, this is a revelation to her. She is trying to find her role within this new situation whilst also witnessing the development of her brother's relationship with their new teacher. There's a lot going on in that little head of hers!
EM: You've also sung the First Niece in Peter Grimes. Do you feel an affinity for the operas of Benjamin Britten?
SM: The first opera I ever performed in was at high school: I was cast in a gorgeous role in Britten's an opera for children 'Let's make an opera: The Little Sweep.' My music teacher was great at exposing us to high quality classical music in addition to other genres, so you could say I was spoilt to be exposed to Britten's music so early in my musical education! During my years at music college, I studied a variety of Britten's song repertoire and even took part in the debut of Iain Burnside's Journeying Boys, which explores Britten's setting of Arthur Rimbaud's Les Illuminations. This piece encouraged me to delve into the language of Britten in more detail and understand the context of his writing.
Before my more recent role of Tytania in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, I sang First Niece for Grange Park Opera while still a student at The Royal College of Music. This was a real eye- (and ear)-opener for me. The level of detail in Grimes is astounding, the story so harrowing and the sea symphonies so incredibly beautiful. To me, it is a true masterpiece. This experience allowed me to observe more seasoned Britten performers such as Rebecca de Pont Davies, Anne Marie-Owens and Clive Bayley approach the music and characters. It soon became evident to me that the relationship between the text and music in Britten's music is so intertwined and demands the performer to truly treat the work as a piece of theatre.
EM: What was it like to work with much-respected film director Mike Leigh in The Pirates of Penzance?
SM: Mike is a fellow Mancunian so we immediately connected. He is a patient, methodical and detailed director. He didn't let us get away with any operetta 'moves': everything was purposeful and unfussy. He allowed for Gilbert's wickedly brilliant text to shine through rather than be obstructed by slapstick action onstage. He taught me to trust the text rather than feel the need to 'sell' it.
EM: Thank you, Soraya for your keen insights. I'm eagerly looking forward to your Seattle Opera debut!
Seattle Opera's The Turn of the Screw runs from Oct. 13-27. https://www.seattleopera.org/on-stage/turn-of-the-screw/
Photo credits: Raphaelle Photography, Philip Newton