Former Opera North soprano, Jane Anthony talks about Leeds Lieder

Jane Anthony
Photo by Jez Gunnell

Jane Anthony Photo by Jez Gunnell - Credit: Archant

The Leeds Lieder, established to celebrate classical art song, returns this month. Founder and driving force, former Opera North soprano, Jane Anthony talks to Tony Greenway.

Jane Anthony remembers the first time she saw an opera. It was a big moment in her life. ‘I got bitten by the bug very early,’ she says. ‘I thought opera was so glamorous. I still do, of course. My dad took me as a one-off to see Peter Grimes, of all things, when I was a child. But I loved it. That was me gone.’ It was probably this moment that formed her future career as a singing teacher at the renowned Leeds College of Music and a soprano with (among other companies) Opera North, who she stayed with, on and off, for 20 years. In 2004, she also became the founder and guiding light of the Leeds Lieder, a biennial festival celebrating classical art song.

But what is art song, exactly? ‘That term can put people off,’ says Jane, ‘but it’s poetry set to music and people are still writing them today. Art song is always for projected voice — ie microphones aren’t used — and the other instrument is usually a piano. It’s about those two people performing in a room with an audience — and there’s something about the directness and intimacy of that which is so captivating.’

It’s intimate, subtle and beautiful, rather than big, spectacular and operatic. ‘I can’t emphasise this enough, we attract top-notch, world-class, internationally acclaimed musicians and singers. To have that in Leeds is really quite remarkable,’ says Jane. This year the festival includes Canadian soprano Martha Guth, Bavarian soprano Christiane Karg, British baritone Benedict Nelson, South African baritone Njabulo Madlala and the South African pianist James Baillieu.

Distinguished pianist Graham Johnson is this year’s artistic director, and guest of honour is international mezzo soprano Ann Murray DBE who will talk about her life in music.

Because the music heightens the drama of the words, art song can have a powerful emotional resonance but Jane admits that it can also be quite a challenging listen (the songs are often sung in a foreign language) and, as such, has developed something of an elitist tag. That’s all wrong though, she insists. This is music for everyone, simple songs which can be appreciated on any level. At Leeds Lieder, translations are provided so the audience know what’s being sung and to further break down the elitist barrier. Jane says: ‘At the end of a Leeds Lieder song, you can hear the audience breathe. They go “ahhhhh!” as though they’ve been taken away with the performance and they have to let it all out at the end. It’s an amazing effect.’

People who have never been to an art song concert will recognise some of the more famous pieces. ‘Ooh yes!’ agrees Jane, and she starts to ‘la-la’ a melody in her pure soprano. ‘That’s a Brahms song called Wiegenlied — Lullabye. It’s a tune that everybody knows… although I wouldn’t like to say it’s ALL as simple as that.’ Getting the message across that art song is for all can be frustrating and difficult. ‘The divide between us and them seems to be getting wider,’ says Jane. ‘I want to bring the divide closer together by making it more accessible.’

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To that end, the Lieder has developed education projects which are taken into schools, for example. ‘I think it’s fine that it’s generally more mature people who come around to orchestral concerts and classical music,’ she insists. ‘That’s their choice. What I think isn’t fine is when you get to a more mature age but don’t have that choice because you’ve never been introduced to it. That’s a disaster.’

Jane had the idea for the festival when she became frustrated at not being able to find art song concerts in the North. ‘There wasn’t anywhere to go to hear a top-class singer bring subtlety and meaning to these great works. It didn’t seem right to me as a singing teacher that my students couldn’t hear it.’ So she decided to start her own — which was easier said than done — with the inaugural festival taking place in October 2005.

As if that wasn’t enough, Jane also started Young Opera Venture, a professional opera company, in 2011 (‘Everyone thought I was completely mad — I expect I am!’), with a remit to take quality productions to small and medium sized theatres in places that don’t have much live opera at present. ‘Local, affordable, exceptional!’ says Jane. It is touring this autumn and appearing in Halifax and Huddersfield this month.

But, then, talking to Jane Anthony, you get the feeling she doesn’t really have a choice. She can’t turn off her love of opera and classical music like a tap. She loves it with a passion and it’s her mission to promote it. She’s driven. ‘I only perform a little bit these days — I don’t have very much time! But it feels as if I always wanted to sing. When I was a girl there used to be something called Children’s Day in Leeds which featured singing competitions and I remember singing in the town hall. I knew a career as a professional singer would be difficult and I also knew that I would like to teach. That’s what I’ve done all my life – a combination of performance and teaching. I’ve been very lucky.’