*** Spotlight on… Lizzie Holmes ***
Working at the resplendent Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End would be a dream come true for me, and our latest interviewee appears in my favourite musical (Phantom of the Opera) as cover for my favourite character (Madame Giry) and in my favourite theatre. You can see her as Madame Firmin when she isn’t playing the strict ballet teacher at the Opera House. I caught up with Lizzie to find out how life in one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best loved musicals is treating her.
So, how is Phantom of the Opera going for you, are you enjoying providing cover for the role Madame Giry?
Phantom has been an incredible introduction to the West End and the professional world of musical theatre. I started as Maternity cover, 2nd cover Madame Giry last year (having just graduated from my Masters at the Royal College of Music) and initially thought I’d only be with the company for a few months! I was therefore over the moon when Meshell Dillon’s maternity cover lasted a year and I was then promoted to 1st cover Madame Giry this year. With 8 shows a week we’re lucky to have such an upbeat and supportive cast and crew (Phantom is notorious for being a great building to work in) – it never feels like I’m coming to work, I guess that’s the strangest thing, to go from being a student where you do this for the love to actually being paid to perform! But the full on schedule (by the end of my contract this year I will have performed in the show 800 times!) means that discipline is vital – to make sure we are always present and alive on stage and listen with fresh ears and new thoughts.
Covering and performing the role of Madame Giry has been a truly rewarding challenge. I think I’m the youngest Giry they’ve ever had so my first hurdle was to create a Giry who was believable and had that natural superiority that she would have had in the Opera Populaire. This year it was amazing to work with Hal Prince himself – the original director – he has such insight into the characters and he gave my Giry his stamp of approval, phew! The character of Madame Giry was originally inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s overbearing and terrifying Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, I imagine Giry to be like a black widow spider observing, constantly alert and absolutely poised, but still with a lot of compassion for her ballet girls, and of course her daughter Meg.
What is your favourite musical number in the show and why?
When I was auditioning for the show (I had 5 rounds of auditions) I was captivated by Managers 1. I love the conflicting stories and the vocal lines and the comedy of André and Firmin’s opening section – I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks! Also, Madame Giry gets a high Bb in it.. I’m a soprano, although Giry’s tessitura is pretty low, so a love of high notes runs deep in my veins!
If you weren’t playing Madame Firman and indeed, Madame Giry – which other role would you be interested in playing?
We’re very lucky that Phantom has such different and exciting female characters. Carlotta for her comedy and vocal fireworks, Giry the secret that she carries and her searing presence that looms over whole rooms and Christine for her endearing innocence, great songs and journey from little girl to woman during the show. Haha, I suppose then, I’d love to play them all one day, the hat-trick!- I wonder if it’s ever been done before?! Phantom is unique in that many cast members do return, Scott Davis who is now Phantom Stand-by started many moons ago as a Swing and our current Raoul, Nadim Naaman initially covered the role 5 years ago!
I’ve been in the audience twice at Her Majesty’s Theatre, watching the show – does it feel as atmospheric backstage as it does in the house? Would you agree that this theatre lends itself to the style of the show?
Ooh, good question. It depends, in the dressing room we have the music over the tannoy, but my Dad was astounded when he came backstage ‘it’s so normal’, people are going about their jobs, heavy costumes being lugged up the stairs, wigs being changed, the sound department checking our mics and cups of tea being made when we’re not on. It’s two different worlds!
But, the theatre is steeped in such an astounding history. I studied opera before joining Phantom and am blown away to know that more than 25 operas by Handel premiered there – let alone the London premiers of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bizet’s Carmen and even Wagner’s Ring Cycle!? Also the fact that we are in a living bit of history ourselves, being a part of Phantom, I am very aware to keep reminding myself how lucky I am, and pinching myself from time to time!
What led you to train for a career in musical theatre and opera?
I went to a very arty school called Frensham Heights which really embraced and encouraged the arts. I always had University in my sights and went off to do an English degree at the University of Warwick with the plan of doing my masters in theatre or musical theatre. Warwick has a thriving artistic alumni – it seems like every show I do there is someone from there, the ‘Warwick Mafia’(!) We have 3 Warwick alumni in the cast and it’s a community that I’m so happy to be a part of. Once at University I met my inspirational singing teacher, Llyndall Trotman who introduced me to opera – and I subsequently auditioned for opera courses. I actually got rejected from everywhere the first time I tried, but the following year was accepted into all 5 top conservatoires in the UK and took up my place at the Royal College of Music.. that was a big lesson in the power of practice and focus!
I wanted to pursue a career in the arts because it means that you’re always learning and collaborating, I think that story telling has such a powerful ability to encourage human empathy and fire the imagination.
What would you say your favourite musical and opera are and why?
Ooh, good question. Musical: West Side Story, My Fair Lady and I’ve recently discovered A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder which I love! Opera: L’enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel and I saw Bizet’s Carmen (that old classic!) at Glyndebourne this year, which was a fabulous and inspiring production – and of course Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Susanna was one of my first opera roles.
What would be your dream role to play or dream show to appear in?
Gosh, I suppose this will keep changing, I would like to be performing until I’m wiser and much more wrinkly – as long as I can keep working I’ll be happy! I’ve been fortunate to have done quite a range of shows, from devising shows with Curious Directive (our Fringe First Winning production Your Last Breath is back by popular demand at the Southwark Playhouse this December), to lots of operas and musicals. I am torn between (or inspired by?) a love of drama, love of comedy and love of music. Each has a unique place in my heart and mind! So for the comedy Glinda in Wicked or Marie in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, any Rodgers & Hammerstein (oh the music!), Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, Mary Poppins, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (or the musical!) and when I’m older Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
What is your advice for anyone wishing to go into the industry and would you encourage people to go for it?
Opportunity abounds, from school you can start building contacts – making connections and honing your skill set. Be proactive, be positive and remember, the only person you’re in competition with is – yourself. But also, be open, travel, take an interest in other things. We are all our own business, and I believe an entrepreneurial mind is absolutely vital – that’s why I’ve set up a company called Debut Opera. I would always encourage people to follow their dreams, but like any dream the reality can often be quite different. I’ve had a number of friends who have bravely left the industry and have found equal, if not more, amounts of happiness in other sectors. Happiness and fulfilment is key in whatever you do!
Favourite things (give me your gut reaction to these questions:)
So fortunate – my life is my hobby! But asides from that I love going to see shows, catching up with friends and revelling in their successes and spending time at the seaside.
Favourite holiday destination?
Istanbul and Melbourne. I’ve never been to Italy, next year I hope! – but I think there too!
Gosh, the Britten Theatre at the RCM and Her Majesty’s is such a beautiful and strangely intimate venue. The Coliseum is stunning too.
Opera singer would be Renee Fleming or Elina Garanca. Musical Theatre singer would be Philip Quast. I am in love with his Javert from the 10th anniversary recording of Les Miserables. So rousing, so heart breaking!
Favourite way to spend Christmas?
With the family, though Phantom certainly knows how to celebrate Christmas too! We have a Christmas Eve and Christmas day off this year so I’ll look forward to dashing home to the seaside to see my family, eat a hearty roast and go for a cobweb clearing, blustery walk along the Dorset coast!
For details of the show or to book tickets for Phantom of the Opera, see the link here: http://www.thephantomoftheopera.com/London
For detail of Lizzie’s company, Debut Opera, please visit this link: http://www.debutopera.com/