Clare McCaldin is a British mezzo-soprano noted for opera and song recital, and for producing striking lyric stage work with her own company, McCaldin Arts. She will be singing the role of Queen Mary I in a new music theatre work, about the life and reign of Mary Tudor in, Mary’s Hand at the Opera festival Tête à Tête on August 1 & 2. Here, Clare expresses the inspiration behind her company, McCaldin Arts, her passion for opera, classical music and Haydn as well as the depth of research she conducted to fully understand Mary’s character.
When did you realise becoming an opera singer was your calling?
Crazily late in the day, given the 10,000 hours it allegedly takes to acquire mastery of any activity. I was in my late 20s when I decided to take singing seriously. But it was later when I had done some proper study and acquired the technique through which to express myself, that I realised I really have something to say.
Tell me a bit more about McCaldin Arts: what inspired you to create McCaldin Arts in 2013?
I had convened a small group of creatives in 2012 to make a stage show for myself out of an existing piece by Stephen McNeff. When Steve offered to write something new for me I saw that I needed an identity for the team on the new project, and so McCaldin Arts was born. It is essentially a pool of trusted colleagues on which I draw according to the needs of different projects. After trying to come up with wittier names for the group, I ended up with my own surname because I was the unifying factor.
Where does your interest in Handel, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and Mahler come from?
I’m interested in any composer who writes well for the voice, as do all of the above composers in their different ways. I would say that the composer I have the most specific interest in is Haydn, about whom I have written an entertainment called Haydn’s London Ladies. There’s a great narrative about Haydn’s two visits to London during the 1790s that links together five women who were friends and fans of his, and around whose stories much of his best vocal music fits. I lead the audience through the stories, introducing the various Ladies, and sing the music associated with them. The project originated in a conversation with my father, a bona fide Haydn expert, who mentioned something about “Haydn’s girlfriends”. I was intrigued as I had the rather stereotyped view of him as a slightly formal old man, but it turns out he adored female company and was hugely in demand socially while he was here in England.
Do you have a preference for singing music by particular composers or are you open to all forms of music, old and new?
I am open to all kinds of music. I love inhabiting a dramatic character, regardless of who wrote the music and when. Whether it’s in an opera or a three-minute song, if the composer has created a world that I can find a way into, then I will enjoy it and hopefully so will the audience. I have done a lot of contemporary music and my choices in that area tend to favour works that have strong text and/or narrative rather than existing for the sake of the vocal sound alone.
You’ve recorded two solo CDs for Champs Hill records. Do you have plans to record another album soon?
I’m so lucky to have recorded commercially several of the works that I have commissioned myself or been associated with, for the Champs Hill and NMC labels. There are already so many fantastic recordings of established works that I feel best able to contribute when I can add a new piece to the recorded repertoire. We’re planning a recording of Mary’s Hand in due course, but that’s secondary to getting the show out on tour.
Let’s talk about Mary’s Hand: how much historical research did you do and what kind of things did you study to understand Mary’s character?
I did a lot of reading around the subject, on the Tudors generally and on Mary specifically. There have been a couple of excellent biographies of Mary in the last few years, which substantially rehabilitate her reputation. Our writer-director, Di Sherlock, and I made a couple of field trips, to Catherine of Aragon’s tomb in Peterborough Cathedral, and to the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey which feature in Mary’s Hand. I learnt more about the Reformation and the form it took in England, to get a sense of how the new religion and politics were so fatally entwined for Mary. Luckily 2017 was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so there was plenty of information around.
What do you find most fascinating about performing the role of the Queen?
Mary wanted to be a good daughter, queen and wife but she was totally uncompromising because of her innate sense of what was right. Her transition from cosseted child to lonely adult was traumatic as a result of the events following Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and pursuit of a son at any cost. The domestic and religious convulsions at court over the next twenty years affected Mary deeply. Her relationships with her father and half-siblings were characterised by an exhausting mixture of fear, rage, love, duty, pride and stubbornness. In spite of this, she achieved moments of greatness, but her biggest failures were also her most public and painful. It’s an extraordinary life.
Have you come across any challenges with performing the role from a music or acting standpoint?
In acting terms, my journey from a young, light-hearted girl to an older, disappointed woman is not entirely chronological in Mary’s Hand (because of the nature of the piece, which is dictated by the audience’s choice of playing cards). However, for the audience’s sake, it still needs to be clear where I am on the continuum between those points at any particular moment.
From a technical vocal point of view, it’s challenging to swap back and forth all the time between sung and spoken text – when we were developing the piece we had to be attentive to issues of balance and critical information needing space around it for the audience to catch the meaning.
Di Sherlock wrote the words and Martin Bussey composed the music. Before and during rehearsals, have you had time to collaborate with the writer and composer?
Martin Bussey approached me after hearing me sing to ask whether he could write something for me. I introduced him to Di Sherlock (with whom I had wanted to work for a while) knowing that she had previously written about the Tudors and knew the territory. From the outset, we worked as a three, with meetings and sing-throughs to discuss the material as it developed.
What is it like working with them?
It has been fantastic. This has been the closest collaboration I have had with a composer and librettist and I love being this deeply enmeshed in the process – it undoubtedly helps my performance to have been there on the whole journey. Of course, we wanted to make the best possible version of Mary’s Hand, which meant that we asked a lot of questions of each other and occasionally had to negotiate a compromise! We had a try-out back in April with an invited audience of colleagues whose feedback was invaluable in helping us to finesse the piece for public performance.
How do you want the audience to feel when they’ve seen Mary’s Hand?
I want the audience to feel moved by Mary’s human story and to reconsider what they may have taken for granted about her. Her story is full of resonances for our own lives and many of the issues she wrestled with as monarch are still being discussed today.
Do you have any upcoming concerts or shows after Mary’s Hand?
I’ve got a bit of a rest over the summer, then I am giving two performances of my previous solo show, Vivienne – one to open the Poetry Swindon Festival and the other at the Little Venice Music Festival, in a newly expanded orchestration by the composer. I’m also appearing at Oxford Lieder for the first time, which I am very excited about.
What advice would you give to an aspiring opera singer?
Identify what you can offer that is different from other people, whether vocally, musically or dramatically. And keep the faith.
Mary’s Hand is showing at Holy Cross Church on 8.30 pm as part of Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival on 1 August to2 August. Click here to book your tickets now.
For more information about McCaldin Arts, click here.