Rachel Nicholls, soprano

Who or what inspired you to take up singing, and pursue a career in music?

My grandfather who was blind realised I had perfect pitch when I was a baby. He had been an artist before he lost his sight, and he found great comfort in listening to classical music. He realised I was singing the pieces we listened to together back to him in the right keys. My other grandfather took me to my first opera (La Bohème) when I was 12: I immediately knew it was what I wanted to do.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was very lucky to grow up in Bedfordshire. I had a wonderful music teacher at school – Michael Gleeson – and we had a wonderful country music service, led by Michael Rose OBE. He spotted my potential and arranged for me to attend Trinity College of Music as a Junior on Saturdays while I was still at school. Later, I was lucky enough to sing a lot for Peter Seymour, at the University of York, who fostered my deep love of historically-informed performance and Baroque Music. At the Royal College of Music, I met Sir David Willcocks, who I sang for many times at the beginning of my career. I thought he was wonderful – so incisive. My teacher Kathleen Livingstone was a terrific mentor at the RCM, and I had coaching with David Syrus from the Royal Opera, which was always the highlight of my week. It was at the RCM that I met my friend and accompanist Paul Plummer with whom I’ve worked ever since. After music college, I studied with Richard Smart. He helped me navigate the transition from baroque music to grand opera. He was a wonderful teacher who really understood big voices. Lastly, and most importantly, my mentor from when I first dipped my toe in Wagnerian waters to the present day is Dame Anne Evans. Dame Anne has been an absolute inspiration, and an amazing support. She is a hard taskmaster and won’t accept anything less than my best, which has made me double my efforts to make her happy. She is also a warm, generous and loyal friend, always finding time to talk and counsel whether things are going well or not. She has guided my career and taught me more than anyone else about singing, text, and the wonderful music of Wagner and Strauss.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do was to sight-read the role of Jenifer in Tippett’s “A Midsummer Marriage” in the concert performance for Richard Hickox at the St Endellion Festival when another soprano was ill. That aside, the Ring is a huge challenge and I took it on right at the beginning of my Wagnerian journey. Equally taxing, are the roles of Isolde and Elektra. All of these roles have an epic scale about them in terms of length, complexity and emotional range.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

That’s a difficult one. I’m very proud of the production of Elektra I was involved in in 2017 at Theater Basel. I’m proud of everyone involved in it. Erik Nielsen is a wonderful conductor, we had a superb cast, and I had a real meeting of minds with David Bosh, the director, and Barbora Horakova-Joly, the revival director. I found the whole process completely inspiring and I could not have been luckier for my first Elektra.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I am very lucky to have a fantastic team at Groves Artists who plan my schedule carefully. I like to keep a mix of familiar repertoire and new challenges in each season when I can, and a balance of opera and concert work. I very rarely turn down the chance to sing Isolde – Tristan jump-ins have scuppered my holiday plans for two years running now, but I don’t regret it for a minute!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I love singing in the Bridgwater Hall in Manchester – the acoustic is very friendly, as are the backstage staff. If anywhere, that’s the concert venue which feel most like “home” to me. I also love singing in our beautiful cathedrals throughout the UK.

Who are your favourite musicians?

That’s impossible to answer. Well, I will have to say my friends Masaaki and Masato Suzuki and all at Bach Collegium Japan, who I am delighted to say I still sing for regularly, even after changing repertoire from Bach to Wagner.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I will never forget singing the Serenade to Music at the BBC Proms, or the time during a recital in Salisbury when a butterfly landed on my hand while I was singing Duparc’s Phydilé.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Longevity. Seriously, I know I am so very blessed to get to do my hobby as a job but being a professional musician is hugely challenging and very hard work. Anyone who sticks at it through the good times and the bad and can keep loving making music through thick and thin, has my greatest respect.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Hard work and reliability. They’ve stood me in very good stead always. Also try to be a friendly and pleasant colleague, but don’t be afraid to stand up for things you think to be essential. Nicely. Don’t EVER be a diva.

What is your most treasured possession?

My border collie, Juno. Does she count? She’s the light of my life and my best friend.

Rachel Nicholls performs Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Orchestral Songs with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra and Ryan Wigglesworth on the 7 January 2019.

Tickets and more information


Rachel Nicholls is now widely recognised as one of the most exciting dramatic sopranos of her generation. Her Brünnhilde in complete Ring cycles for Longborough Festival Opera in 2013 received the highest critical acclaim.

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(Photo by David Shoukry)

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