The Moderate Soprano Star Nancy Carroll on Singing Ambition, Opera Appreciation & a Sondheim Dream Role

The Moderate Soprano Star Nancy Carroll on Singing Ambition, Opera Appreciation & a Sondheim Dream Role
Nancy Carroll in "The Moderate Soprano"
(Photo: Johan Persson)

Nancy Carroll won a 2011 Olivier Award for Best Actress for her searing and stylish performance at the National Theatre in After the Dance and is rarely long away from the London stage. Known more widely from TV's Father Brown, she can currently be seen appearing opposite Roger Allam (the original Javert) at the Duke of York's Theatre in Sir David Hare's opera-themed The Moderate Soprano. The play casts Carroll as Audrey Mildmay, the English singer who, with her husband John Christie, helped found the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in East Sussex, south of London, in the 1930s. The charming and gifted Carroll took time one recent evening to discuss artistry and artists and whether she might ever give singing a go.

An obvious question to start with: do you have a "moderate" soprano?
You know, I think having kids has made my voice even lower. The shape of your ribs change, causing them to expand, and on top of that I've spent five or six years screaming at children: I'm now probably a mezzo [laughs].

What in your view is the appeal for a West End audience of The Moderate Soprano, which was first seen a season or two ago at north London's Hampstead Theatre prior to this transfer?
To me, it's a fascinating story about something that should never have happened: here was a garden in Sussex during the inter-war period when Britain was not in a sound place that gave birth to one of the leading cultural achievements we have [the world-class Glyndebourne Festival Opera]. And all of that was due to this mad, brilliant, eccentric man [John Christie] who was married to a woman [Carroll's character, Audrey Mildmay] who drove the dream to fruition.

How would you characterize Audrey?
She sort of "translated" John in a way, and came in with her calm and her charm, which had a winning effect on people. And against this most English of couples were three Europeans [Fritz Busch, Rudolf Bing, Carl Ebert] who had made themselves unpopular in Hitler's new regime and were given a safe haven by the Christies.

So, the story is really one of the survival—the rebirth, even—of culture?
Very much so in that what could have been a massive artistic disaster became this beautiful thing that exists to this day. This is a story about making art, and that's what has driven David [Hare's] entire life and work. At the same time, the marriage between John and Audrey should sit at the heart of the story. If Audrey had loved animals, John would have built her a zoo!

Were you surprised at the famously leftist Hare writing a play about one of the most elite cultural destinations in the world?
Not really, I have to say. Here you have three foreigners making their way afresh in England and this extraordinary woman in their midst, who helped make their new lives happen. I think the play is really about anyone trying to make it in impossible circumstances, and I love taking on the responsibility of someone whose name should be more widely known. David is such a romantic, and he writes so beautifully for women.

Spoiler alert: is it difficult playing someone who met such an untimely end?
What's quite amazing to me is that Audrey died in 1953 at age 52, leaving John entirely bereft, and to this day we don't know exactly what she died of. What we do know is that for a number of years after the war, she had her hand in a lot of different cultural pies—the Edinburgh Festival to begin with—all the while dealing with the most extraordinary illness that she largely put to one side until she couldn't any longer.

Is opera an art form in which you take an interest?
It's not an entirely new planet to me. I grew up listening to Mozart, and my dad is a massive fan. Sixteen years ago, Jo [husband Jo Stone-Fewings, also an actor] and I were given tickets to Glyndebourne as a wedding present. It was Handel's Theodora, and I'm afraid to say a lot of it went over my head [laughs].

As a result of doing this play, will you and your castmates have unlimited access to Glyndebourne for the rest of your lives?
Hah! They've invited us down to see a production this summer, and I hope we'll be able to go as a company. But I don't think "unlimited access" is on the cards.

How do you look back on your phenomenal success opposite none other than Benedict Cumberbatch in After the Dance, the Terence Rattigan play that brought you a Best Actress Olivier in 2011? [The production won four Olivier Awards in all.]
You can never tell the effect any character is going to have on an audience, and I always feel that whatever accolades may come have to do with the writing; the credit should really be given to Rattigan. That said, I think we all felt on After the Dance that we were on to something very special. Here was an unknown Rattigan play that turned out to be an unexpected success for everybody.

Did you know Benedict already?
I did. We had worked together on a TV mini-series [in 2003] called Cambridge Spies, with Tom Hollander and Toby Stephens. There was some talk after our National run that After the Dance might go to New York, but schedules didn't work and that didn't happen. I'd love to work onstage in New York but you have to wait to be asked. As an actor, you go where you're wanted.

What about seeing you in a musical, after starring in a play steeped in opera?
Oh God, I would love it, absolutely love it, though it would have to be the right sort of musical. I auditioned for Grand Hotel at the Donmar and had a session with the musical director and was completely in my element. What I didn't have were the legs to follow all the dance moves.

Don't you think you'd be a natural for Desiree in A Little Night Music?
I do have that comedy crack in my voice, so maybe. We saw the production they did last year at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, where the cast all played instruments, and it was just heaven. But I haven't had that conversation about Desiree yet: maybe I should!