5 Questions to Héloïse Werner (soprano, composer)

French-born and London-based Héloïse Werner is a soprano, composer, improviser, and cellist. Her many talents reveal themselves in various combinations: she recently composed and performed a one-woman opera The Other Side of the Sea; she sings and improvises in her mixed quartet The Hermes Experiment; she also plays cello and sings for her folk band The Coach House Company. A Leeds Lieder Young Artist 2018, Héloïse is also the recipient of the Michael Cuddigan Trust Award 2018, and the Linda Hirst Contemporary Vocal Prize 2017.

The 2019-20 season will see her premiering her new work for soprano and piano, as well as a song cycle for soprano and string quartet by composer Freya Waley-Cohen. We talk to her about her multifaceted musical language, her various musical experiments, and her identity.

In the fall, you’re doing a series of recitals that include Britten’s “Les Illuminations” and two new works written as response or reflection on the Britten. I’ve read that Britten was considered a little English Mozart in his lifetime, and I’m wondering whether his impact on English music is still profound today. Do you find that he captures the English spirit or zeitgeist better than anyone else, and is there a bit of an anxiety of influence among English composers that they carry on his lineage?

I’m still figuring out what the ‘English spirit’ is… I’m French and only moved to the UK for university. But it’s clear that Britten has had a huge impact and influence on so many people in England and elsewhere. I’ve been attracted to his music from a young age, when I was 12 I sang a Britten folk song (in French!) for my French Radio Children’s Choir entry audition. I remember it so well. A few years later, I sang the War Requiem with them at the St Denis Festival – it was such an incredible experience, and at the time really opened my mind to a new harmonic language. 

Thanks to the amazing people at Wild Plum Arts and the Britten-Pears Foundation, I’ve spent some of the summer by the sea in Aldeburgh on Britten’s grounds, writing my new piece in response to Les Illuminations. It’s very special there, you definitely feel Britten’s spirit around you. I found it so inspiring and yes, a little haunting at times, but in a good way…

Héloïse Werner performs The Other Side of the Sea--Photo by Emma Werner

Héloïse Werner performs The Other Side of the Sea–Photo by Emma Werner

Your one-woman opera, The Other Side of the Sea, is arresting in its idiosyncrasy. Do you think of it as a work that deconstructs identity and language, dissociating the two and leaving the audience to put the pieces together, or a constructive work that shows the ways in which language feeds identity?

I would say probably both. As an audience member, when I watch a show, I don’t like being patronised or told what I’m supposed to think or feel. At the same time, I also get frustrated when a piece is so alienating that I can’t connect with it at all. In my work, I always try to find a balance between the two: my aim is to connect with the audience in a very direct way, while at the same time leaving room for their own interpretation. My hope is that The Other Side of the Sea explores aspects of language people might not have been consciously aware of, while also inviting them to put the pieces together themselves, as you say. The opera seeks to articulate the tension between language and identity, in this case my own experience as a native French speaker living in the UK, drawing parallels between my identity as a performer, the operatic tradition, and the performed identity of a life lived in a foreign tongue.

To create the show I collaborated with writer Octavia Bright, who wrote the libretto, Jessie Rodger, who produced beautiful visuals and the set, and director Emily Burns, who staged it. The piece also includes additional fragments from Jacques Prévert’s poem Le Cancre (which French children are typically taught to recite in school) and a ‘confessional’ text in which I attempt to explain, using words replaced by a series of abstract sounds, the peculiar experience of adopting a new language and culture.

So yes, several layers and ways of engaging with the work, I hope!

You have a classical training in cello, composition, and a great command of the human voice. Now it seems like you are focusing more on the voice and your own composition, but does your cello training play into the way you think about singing and composing?

100% yes. Cello was my first instrument, and I practised it a lot until I went to university. I decided around 17 I didn’t want to be a professional cellist, but I knew it would play an important part in my musical career. I’ll always have a very special connection to it. Cello and voice have a lot in common, and I sometimes combine the two in my shows (the nice thing being that it’s possible to play and sing at the same time). It’s also fun to explore the cello in a different light, from a more “compositional” approach, rather than just a “performing” one.

As a teenager, I always sung and composed, but back then I somehow didn’t think it could actually become my job–now I’m thinking, why not.

Héloïse Werner--Photo by Emma Werner

Héloïse Werner–Photo by Emma Werner

I read that the Hermes Experiment entered a competition after having just started working together, and succeeded. Does this sense of spontaneity and resourcefulness guide the group’s work, musically and otherwise?

Yes and no. Yes because we tend to ‘go for things’ and in our work, there is a sense of spontaneity. We’ve been described as “fearless” and “unapologetic” which does represent our work ethic fairly well. However none of it ever appears by magic: we’ve been working incredibly hard since day one, both on the creative side and the production one (many funding applications submitted…). We still put a lot of work and energy into Hermes on a daily basis, but it’s so worth it.

I saw a performance of Berberian’s Stripsody last summer and it was one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever witnessed. Do you try to let yourself be entertained by something like this in performance, or do you try to stay seriously focused on the task and let the music speak for itself?

Stripsody is an incredible piece and the comic effect only works if the performer fully commits. It’s very theatrical and I hugely enjoy performing it. I first worked on it with the brilliant director Jack Furness, and we had long discussions on how to approach and present it in performance. There are of course no right or wrong answers, but we settled on one which forms the base of my interpretation today. It involves wearing a white jacket, if you’re into white jackets.