Héloïse Werner interview – ‘Scenes from the End’
Héloïse Werner is a soprano and a cellist with a particular interest in new music, and music as a form of drama. She is carving a path which is totally her own, and creating lots opportunities for herself and others. Aside from her work as a soloist, she is also making waves with her contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment (harp, clarinet, voice and double bass), and she is a member of the new vocal ensemble SHARDS. Héloïse is fast becoming an important player in the new music scene, and she is definitely one to watch.
Héloïse is currently appearing in a one-woman opera called ‘Scenes from the End’. The show is a brand new collaboration with the composer Jonathan Woolgar and explores the concept of grief. The piece is written for solo soprano from start to finish, and as such it is a real exploration of the voice and its dramatic potential.
What’s your musical background, and how did you get to where you are today?
I spent my childhood in Paris. I went to a normal school and did the French BAC (scientific section), but alongside my studies I was also part of the Maîtrise de la France (the French national radio children’s choir). I went to school in the morning, and then in the afternoon we would have choir practice. It was an amazing musical education, and we got to take part in lots of incredible productions – we went on tours, regularly performed on French radio and television, and got to sing with all the big orchestras.
I’m from an academic family, and I was always torn between music and science. After my studies at school I very nearly became a doctor. I actually did a week of medicine, and then I dropped out knowing that it wasn’t quite right for me. I deferred my entry and decided that I wanted to pursue music. At the time I was predominantly a cellist but I knew that I didn’t want to study at a conservatoire. In France, music degrees that universities offer just aren’t very good, so my friend Josephine Stephenson suggested that I applied to courses in the UK. I won a place at Clare College, Cambridge, and I started my music degree in 2010.
Cambridge was an amazing time. I sang in the chapel choir, and I was playing loads of cello. In my second year I started to take singing more seriously; I took more lessons, and I got involved in some opera productions. I also took some modules in composition which helped to further my interest in new music. Then in my third year I did a recital of lots of contemporary music, which went down well and it left me thinking about how I could take it further.
How did you come to be interested in contemporary vocal music?
As part of my final recital I performed some of Georges Aperghis’ Récitations, and I really engaged with the theatricality of the whole work. I have always loved acting. I think I needed to find a way to merge acting and singing. The obvious road for that might be opera, but I think there can be an expectation attached to opera. I sometimes feel that people want opera singers to sound a certain way; when the music is well known then the singers are expected to perform it in a way that is familiar and ‘appropriate’.
Learning and performing the Récitations appealed to me because the work is so open. I felt like I could make the performance my own – there was so much room for interpretation and invention. There is also an inherent theatricality to the work, and the voice becomes part of the drama. You have to build your own vocal character to perform it, and every interpretation of the work is completely different. I think this was a significant step for me.
Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about some of the other projects you are involved with?
After university I founded an ensemble with a few friends called The Hermes Experiment, and we’ve now been going for nearly three years. The idea was to perform lots of new music, and since we first formed we have commissioned over thirty composers. We are also interested in playing with free improvisation and collaborating with other art forms. One of our recent projects was a ‘musical exhibition’ with photographer Thurstan Redding, where six composers responded to a different photograph. At the moment we are working towards recording an album with record label and clubnight Nonclassical. We were lucky enough to win the Nonclassical ‘Battle of the Bands’ back in 2014, and since then we’ve performed at quite a few of their events.
I also play with a folk band called The Coach House Company. The band formed at University and we play a combination of our own compositions, fused with traditional jigs and reels from the British Isles. There is no lead singer, and so the singing is shared between all five of us. We started out performing at parties and for friends, and since then we’ve played all over the place, including a couple of festival appearances. We released our first EP in 2014, and we are launching our second EP, ‘Maiden Tales’, in September.
Other than that, I have recently joined a band called The Amazing Devil (on cello and vocals). We have just released our first album called ‘Love Run’. It is such a fun band to be a part of because there is lots of dressing up and theatre involved in our live shows. The two lead singers are both actors and met on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Performance is a big part of what the band is about, and I love that side of it.
I have also recently started singing in a new vocal ensemble called SHARDS. It is an interesting group of singers because everyone involved has their own project alongside, and it is a really diverse mix of people. The idea behind the choir is that it is collaborative. It was formed to support lots of different artists at the Barbican as part of a weekend curated by Nils Frahm called ‘Possibly Colliding’. Across the three days we performed alongside Wildbirds and Peacedrums, Anna von Hausswolff and Nils Frahm.
What do you think the future of vocal music looks like?
I think the future of vocal music lies in improvisation and exploring. I’m fascinated by the voice as an instrument, and how it blends with other instruments. I think there’s a danger that as new technology develops we will become reliant on it, but actually there is still so much further to go with the voice in its natural form. My personal interest lies in theatrics and performance, but I also think there are lots of colours and sounds still to be found. One of my musical heroes is Meredith Monk, and it is amazing to think that she is still covering new ground and pushing the boundaries.
What’s the story behind ‘Scenes from the End’, and how did it come to be?
A couple of years ago we commissioned Jonathan Woolgar to write a piece for The Hermes Experiment. He came back to us with an amazing work called ‘Scenes from the Garden of Love’, and it was very theatrical in style. We really enjoyed performing it, and off the back of that I asked him if he would write me a solo piece. Jonathan shares my interest in exploring drama in vocal writing, and so I thought he’d be an interesting composer to work more closely with. He wrote me an a cappella collection called ‘Six Dream Songs’. The songs were not staged, but they were dramatic and theatrical. I performed them at various events and recitals, and it always felt right. When I had the idea of doing a full show, Jonathan was the obvious composer to collaborate with.
There are two main motivations behind the show. The first reason is simply that I had always been interested in exploring the boundaries between theatre and singing, and I was curious to see how that might work in a one-woman show. I felt like there was a lot to explore, and the show aims to demonstrate just how much can be done with just one voice. The other reason relates to the theme of the opera – it is a performance about grief and death. I’ve experienced grief in my life, and I think it is something we are not good at talking about. I wanted to create a show which encouraged the audience to think about how we prepare for loss, and how we deal with grief, whether it be our own grief or the grieving of others.
What should people expect from ‘Scenes From The End’, and who should come and see it?
‘Scenes from the End’ is somewhere between an opera and a play. It is a solo performance which lasts for about 45 minutes, and it is mostly sung (although there are some sections which are spoken and whispered). This is a show about grief but I want people to enjoy it. There is obviously an emotional side to the performance, but it is also quite funny in parts, and I hope relatable and moving.
This is a show for everyone. It is not targeted at any particular group, and you don’t need to be musically educated to find a way into the drama. The aim is for it to be direct. There is a perception that contemporary vocal music can be a bit ‘cool’ and inaccessible, but we have tried really hard to make that not the case. We’ve been working with a fantastic director called Emily Burns to make the show as clear as it can be.
Are there any specific influences behind the opera?
This is maybe more of a question for Jonathan, in terms of the composition. But from a performance perspective lots of things I’ve seen and enjoyed feel relevant to the end result. When the idea for the show first came to me I was inspired by seeing Sarah Dacey perform. I suppose I should also reference Luciano Berio’s Sequenza, which made a real impact on me. In some of the more rhythmic sections of the work I’m aware of the influence of minimalism, and composers like Steve Reich. However, the real source of inspiration and the foundation from which the whole concept was born was the piece that Jonathon wrote for Hermes a couple of years ago.
‘Scenes from the End’ is still quite operatic in style, and I suppose the whole history and tradition of opera is significant. It would be impossible to ignore the influence of the great operatic arias and performers.
What do you want people to take away from the opera?
I want to stimulate a discussion about how we deal with grief. One of the aims of the project is to promote a wider perspective on the world of grieving within humanity. People don’t talk about death, and it’s not part of our upbringing so when we’re faced with it we haven’t got the vocabulary we need to respond. I think the opera would be a success if it managed, on some level, to open the conversation. I don’t think the opera offers a solution, but I hope that it encourages thought and starts a discussion.
What are the future plans for the opera, and where do you think it will go next?
Well, the show opens in Camden for two performances and then we go up to Edinburgh for the festival. We also have some performances booked at the Tristan Bates Theatre in December (6th -10th). I’m hoping that a few more opportunities will arise off the back of some of these performances, and I would love to take it to a couple of festivals next summer.
Looking further ahead I am thinking about doing another show. Possibly about childhood and memories. I’d write all the music myself this time and probably collaborate with a librettist. It would be another vocal piece, but I’d also like to consider working with electronics and maybe even include some sections for cello.
‘Scenes from the End’ will be showing at the Camden People’s Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe, on the 10th and 11th August. The opera is then showing in Edinburgh from the 22nd – 27th August. To find out more about the show and to buy tickets click here for the Camden performances, and here for Edinburgh. For more information about Héloïse and her various projects see her website.