Soprano Natalya Romaniw interview: 'My mum liked the chorus best!'
The lustrous soprano Natalya Romaniw on playing 'I Spy' in Ukrainian, the great opera heroines, and corsets
Often this arresting soloist is an instrumentalist – you probably have a favourite. And sometimes it’s a singer. Cue Natalya Romaniw, the Welsh-born soprano whose steady and now seemingly limitless career is marked by three important appearances in quick succession this year.
Back-to-back come roles in three markedly difference pieces. When we meet at the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane, home of English National Opera, Natalya is in the closing stages of rehearsals for the company's brand new opera, Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel. Next comes Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at Garsington, and then, in June at Opera Holland Park the title role in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.
Natalya first came to the music world’s attention in 2009, when she represented Wales at a very young age in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition that has been the springboard for many careers. Many prizes followed, and study in the US and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama taught her, she says, technique on the one hand, and artistry on the other.
Natalya Romaniw thrilled audiences as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at Garsington in 2016
A singing career was by no means a foregone conclusion, however, although looking back, Natalya took for granted as a child one very unusual opportunity. Growing up in a single-parent family, she was taken every week by her Ukrainian-born grandfather to the Ukrainian club in her home town of Swansea. There she heard traditional songs sung by big East European voices that plumb the depths. Once you know that, everything falls into place. For Natalya Romaniw, who owes her name to that side of the family, has already become a noted Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with performances at Garsington in 2016 and for Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera.
The Scottish Opera production, directed by the Royal Opera House’s Director of Opera, Oliver Mears, was notable for the haughty Onegin’s first entrance, on horseback. Once on stage, this mighty steed did what horses do after a good meal of hay. Did that happen every night, I wondered. ‘No, only on press night!’ she laughs ruefully. ‘It’s such a poignant moment when Tatyana meets Onegin and I didn’t know that horses lift their tails… Children and animals!’
The adjective often applied to this full-bodied voice is ‘opulent’, a reflection perhaps of her admiration of the great, rich voices of the past, above all Maria Callas. And so it is good to hear that Natalya’s first Tosca in the UK is soon, in Glasgow. A London Tosca is sure to follow. Also ahead are Dvorak’s Rusalka and, for ENO, Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.
Natalya Romaniw, standing at table, in the title role of Jenufa at Grange Park in 2017. Photo: Robert Workman
But in the meantime, she has to get to know other heroines for the first time. When she returns to Garsington it is as Marenka in The Bartered Bride. In Smetana’s opera, parents with an eye on a lucrative match want their daughter to marry, but Marenka has other ideas…
‘It’s the first time that I’ll be exploring this role,’ says Natalya, ‘and getting into the nitty gritty comes with the production. But the sense that I have of her so far is that she is very vulnerable, quite clued up, a little bit feisty, quite fit. I think that she’s going to be a little bit different from traditional heroines. I don’t think she stands for much nonsense. She’s a little less wishy-washy than some of the characters I play. She’s got a stronger temperament, and she is not as romantic.’
Singing in Czech, as she also did movingly in Janáček's Jenufa at Grange Park Opera in 2017, she will be calling on the folk tradition of her childhood. She loves languages and has a smattering of Welsh – Games of ‘I Spy’ as a child meant that she picked up Ukrainian words from the grandfather she called ‘Dido’, and phrases that he used.
‘I have this connection to Slavic music. When I first learned a Russian scene it was Tatyana at the Guildhall, and I remembered Ukrainian phrases that were the same, like ‘I love you’. When her mother first saw Natalya in Eugene Onegin she was most struck by the surging Act I peasants’ chorus. ‘She said, “I loved you, but my favourite part was that!”.
As Mary Kelly in Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, Natalya Romaniw encourages her daughter to study. Photo: Alastair Muir
Natalya is no stranger to ENO: she sang Mimi in La Boheme there last year. But she bravely took on the role of Mary Kelly, which dominates The Women of Whitechapel, once work on the opera had started. The part was originally written with fellow soprano Claudia Boyle in mind, and when she withdrew from the production, composer Iain Bell tailored it to Natalya’s voice. ‘It’s a little bit higher than I would normally sing. It’s not hugely taxing, but it sits at a slightly higher pitch.
'In real life, Mary Kelly was born in Limerick, moved to West Wales when she was young, then to Cardiff when she married, and sadly divorced, and she became a prostitute in Cardiff, then came to London. She is significantly younger than the other crime victims in the opera. We’ve given her a child and I read to the child. As Mary, I think that it’s very important for the child not to have to do what she’s had to do. Literacy is freedom.’
Mary’s hard-knock life could hardly be more different from that of Iolanta, a princess protected from the knowledge that she is blind. It is only when a duke invades her sanctuary and falls in love with her, that she learns the truth: unable to identify for him the colour of the roses in the garden that she enjoys for its scent, she understands at last what it is that she has been missing in a life that she knew had a mysterious limitation. ‘When she sings, "What is white? What is red?" it is just the most heartbreaking moment.’
In Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) at Opera Holland Park, Natalya Romaniw sang Lisa
Iolanta, which Opera Holland Park stages with the comedy Susanna’s Secret, has some of Tchaikovsky’s loveliest music. ‘If I ever get married I want the string quartet at the beginning of the Overture. It’s so beautiful!’ And returning to Opera Holland Park will be a real homecoming.
'Opera Holland Park have had my back since I was very young.’ Here she has sung three times, most recently in 2016 as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. ‘They are just so supportive of you, and even though acoustically it is tricky, the support and encouragement you get from the company is just overwhelming. Garsington is just the same.’
For a woman singer, apart from the score there are other practical elements to the performance, notably the wig and costume. Singers are divided between those who like to be corseted – they can push their diaphragm against the corset – and those that don’t. ‘I love wearing a corset! Sometimes you have so many layers of costume to negotiate, and then sing, which is why it is always paramount to really have the role in your body and your voice, so that it doesn’t become stressful when you start to add the shoes, and “oh gosh I have to climb the stairs in this big heavy dress”...’
Jonathan Tetelman as Rodolfo and Natalya Romaniw as Mimì at ENO in 2018. Photo: Robert Workman
But no one escapes the wigs. Unlike some costumes, they are not heavy, but the hair has to be plastered down first. ‘I always sweat!’
In the end though, for all the gorgeous gowns and make-up, it’s all about the voice, and make no mistake, this one really is special. Natalya modestly attributes hers almost to accident.
‘A lot of singers that I came across always wanted to be singers, and I feel guilty because it wasn’t something that I aspired to at a very young age. All I knew was that I loved to sing and act and I did a little bit of dancing. But singing is not something that I set out for.’
I marvel at the golden glow in her voice, but Natalya deflects the credit for this distinctive timbre, as though it just arrived by itself. ‘I think it comes naturally, that golden glow; that’s my gift.’
Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, ENO, Coliseum until 12 April; The Bartered Bride, Garsington Opera,29 May to 30 June; Iolanta, Opera Holland Park, 22 July to 3 Aug