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April 15, 2024updated 07 May 2024 10:09am

Dame Sarah Connolly on harnessing the persuasive power of the arts

The celebrated mezzo-soprano reflects on her upcoming role in Zarqa Al Yamama, the first ever grand opera produced by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

By Aisha Alli

How much is an ounce of gold?
I’d like to think it’s as much as one wants it to be.

How did you earn your first pay cheque?
A job as a hotel pianist, supplementing my income while studying at the Royal College of Music. For a back-breaking three hours a night, I’d perform at some of the best places in London for £25.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever bought for yourself?
A beautiful Bellville Sassoon dress. I wore it when I was a guest soloist at the Last Night of the Proms. I’ll never sell it and I hope my daughter wears it one day.

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What’s the best thing you’ve ever bought for someone else?
This is going to sound strange, but the best thing I’ve ever given someone else was the gift of my daughter to my ex-husband.

Royal College of Music
London’s Royal College of Music has many famous alumni including Dame Sarah Connolly, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir James Galway / Image: Shutterstock

Did you have a defining moment when you realised that being an opera singer was the path you wanted to pursue?
When I was a student the revered conductor Sir David Willcocks told me that I’d have a wonderful singing career one day, and my response was, ‘Well, that’s news to me.’ I look back at that moment now and wonder how he knew.

Were there any opera singers you sought to emulate at the beginning of your career?
I wouldn’t say emulate as much as I’d say learn from. I admired Christa Ludwig, Benjamin Luxon, Dame Janet Baker Brigitte Fassbaender. I’ve now gotten to meet some of them, and it was a really special moment when Janet Baker gave me the Singer of the Year award for the Royal Philharmonic Society.

You’ve just been awarded the King’s Medal for Music, making you the first recipient in the reign of King Charles. How did that make you feel?
I’m not normally good at accepting awards. When I was a child I never won any singing competitions, so to receive an award where the winner is personally selected by the monarch is really special.

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You’re set to star in Zarqa Al Yamama, the first ever grand opera produced by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. What drew you to the production?
I’d heard of the legendary Arab heroine, Zarqa, long before I accepted the part. The story of Zarqa famously inspired Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which is extraordinary. I’m a collaborator, not a diva, so I’m looking forward to working with everyone. To be asked to be part of a whole new opera with a talented group of people all while singing in Arabic – in Riyadh, of all places – is mind-blowing.

Debut of Zarqa Al-Yamama
Zarqa Al-Yamama debuted this year and marks Saudi Arabia’s first foray into opera production

There has been some backlash, with critics arguing that Saudi Arabia is not the appropriate venue for an opera production. What would you say in response?
It’s simple. If we don’t go in with the soft power of the arts to try to persuade people, then what’s the point of all of us living together? The arts have always been the soft power behind so many rapprochements, and it’s astounding in the way it unifies.

What advice would you give aspiring opera singers?
Work on your musicality and learn your craft. Go to the best singing teacher even if it bankrupts you. Learn languages. Have dogged determination. Try new things. David Bowie once said that it’s an important thing to always be a little uncomfortable in life, and those are words I live by. It’s an alive place to be.

Zarqa Al Yamama premiered in Riyadh on 25 April 2024. Find out more here: performingarts.moc.gov.sa/en

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