Performing at the Oxford Lieder Festival: an Interview with Raphaela Papadakis

You are about to perform in Oxford. Are you looking forward to the concert?

I’m really excited because I’m in love with this music. This time last year I got in touch with Joan Rodgers, one of the patrons at the City Music Foundation and a hugely distinguished artist, and asked if I could go to tea with her to discuss colleges and my early career. I’d met her a few times before as she used to judge my school singing competition and she had links with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, with whom I had sung a few years before. We met, and she said ‘Oh you must sing these amazing songs!’ She kindly lent me the scores and I went away and listened. Immediately I just thought ‘Oh God they’re amazing!’ I’ve been singing at the Oxford Lieder Festival with [Artistic Director] Sholto Kynoch since 2010, and I suggested these songs for the programme this year. They’re Lieder but not quite conventional, so they’re a fascinating addition.

Let’s focus in on these songs then. Could you tell me what it is about the music which makes it stand out for you?

The versions I am singing are actually arrangements by Aribert Reimann. The Brahms and the Schumann are pretty loyal transcriptions of the original piano part into a string quartet, but in the Mendelssohn Riemann has recomposed the accompaniment, which is wonderfully evocative. You get an exquisitely clear vocal line, almost like the melody in folk songs, which is then set against this weird musical subtext. It brings out a whole different sound world – something altogether darker and more dangerous. He uses different harmonics and effects in the strings to conjure this magical feel.

One of the things I’m really interested in is how you prepare for such songs. When you’re approaching work such as this do you pay close attention to the poems and source texts to begin with?

Absolutely. I’m not a German speaker, so the first thing I do is find a really literal, technically accurate translation of the source texts. I want to know exactly what each word means, and how the phrasing and sentences are structured in the original language. I then try to think how I, in the modern day, would try to express the sentiments in the poems. I often end up with a lot of swearing! I then try to extend and make explicit the feelings that are happening in the poems. Take the Ophelia-Lieder [Brahms]. They are ostensibly folk-tunes, but although a lot of what Ophelia says is beautiful and positive, there is a darker reality which comes from the tragic source text. So I try to overlay the literal meaning of the words with what I think the speaker is trying to say on a sub-textual level.

Let’s come onto to the string quartet. Have you worked much with chamber ensembles of this size before?

I don’t think I’ve ever sung with a string quartet before, although I’ve worked with a lot of different chamber ensembles so I’m very happy working with groups that size. I also see the relationship between singer and pianist as a kind of chamber music, and I’m sure that with a string quartet it will function in a similarly intimate way.

The Gildas Quartet, who performed with Papadakis in this recital. Credit: Ben Ealovega.

In terms of that intimacy, are there differences between this sort of rehearsal and performance, and those of a large-scale operatic production? And how does the relationship between singer and chamber musicians differ with that between singer, director and conductor?

Definitely there are huge differences. That’s why singers love singing Lieder! While it’s amazing working in opera, with all of these brilliant minds telling you what to do, in songs performers become their own directors. It’s really liberating to decide on the effects yourselves, although you do then have to take responsibility for those decisions.


We’ve spoken a bit about the Brahms and Mendelssohn. How do the Schumann songs fit with rest of the programme, and what sort of themes are they dealing with? 

First and foremost the link is Shakespeare. In Romantic-era Germany Shakespeare was an incredibly popular figure, inspiring so many artists and composers. The Brahms songs are all taken from Hamlet, as is the first song of the Schumann cycle, with the text taken from the passage where Gertrude brings news to the court of Ophelia’s death. After this song the Schumann moves on from Shakespeare, with each song exploring the magic and beauty of nature. It’s just completely wonderful.


You studied English at Cambridge before pursuing your career in music. Do you find that you often engage quite deeply with a literary criticism of the source text of a song?


It’s true that the literary aspect, particularly the context around a work, fascinates me. When it comes to singing however, and the purpose that I need to understand the text for, it’s more important to focus on a clear, direct understanding of the text rather than the context around it. It’s so hard to convey the complexities of context when singing. Instead I like to think of my performance as a way of boiling down the emotion in a text to its most reduced, delicious form, and then handing that to the audience.


What’s next for you after the Lieder Festival? Do you have a busy run up to Christmas?

I am incredibly busy! My next project is a new opera, commissioned by the Inner Temple in London, to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. It’s called And London Burned, and I’m playing London. It’s been written Matt Rogers, with a libretto by Sally O’Reilly. I was hoping they would set me on fire but I don’t think that’s going to happen sadly! But it should be a fantastic project.


Looking further ahead, and it’s a mean question, do you have a dream role that you’re desperate to sing?

Ah so many! I guess anything by Mozart basically – it would be wonderful to get to a stage when I could sing some of his bigger roles, such as the countess in The Marriage of Figaro. In my dreams I would love to be a colluratura soprano, but that might be some way off just yet!


Raphaela Papadakis is an exciting young soprano who has already garnered much critical acclaim in her short career to date. She recently performed Schumann’s Sechs Gesänge, Brahms’ Ophelia-Lieder and Mendelssohn’s ‘…Oder soll es Tod bedeuten?’ in two concerts on 20 October 2016 at the Oxford Lieder Festival, alongside fellow City Music Foundation Artists The Gildas Quartet. Before her performances Ben Horton caught up with her to discuss the programme, and her approach to Lieder.

Her next appearance will be in the world premiere of the opera And London Burned on the 27, 28, and 29 October. A full calendar of her upcoming performances can be found here.  

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