Interview with Rebecca Caine
Rebecca Caine is an international singer and recording artist, performing in opera and musical theatre in Europe, USA and Canada. In Toronto she made her North American debut in the title role of the opera Lulu, and in London’s West End she has performed leading roles in The Phantom of The Opera and Les Miserables.
When asked what the experience was like appearing in The Three Phantoms tour, Rebecca replied:
“Like being Shirley Maclaine in The Rat Pack, like being a crouton floating in a testosterone soup. Wonderful! Singing with those men, how lucky am I? It’s the best gig and a barrel of fun.”
Rebecca very kindly took some time out this week to answer some questions about herself and her career. A brilliant read!
You were born in Toronto, Canada. How old were you when you decided that you wanted to be an opera singer?
I was five. My parents were wonderful about taking me to the opera. I demanded a pair of castanets after seeing a touring Carmen. Stagey! They took me to see Turandot at The Met with Neilson and Corelli at age six. My mother still has my little dress. I think she’s going to get it stuffed and mounted in a wall cabinet.
Can you describe the process leading you to attend the Guildhall School of Music in London and your time there?
For various reasons I didn’t finish High school and arrived in London age 16. My parents took the decision to send me to music school so I went to Guildhall at a disastrously young age, 17. I rather fell between the cracks while there. It was very difficult living in a big city with no family to support me, in those days one only rang home (the USA) in an emergency and I struggled.
London was such a different place in the late 70s. It seemed like the Third World after the comforts of N. America. I wasn’t one of the chosen few in a class that only produced two other professional singers. I don’t know anyone that enjoyed the Guildhall back then. Guildhall and I came to a mutual decision that I should leave and at 19 I struck out into the big wide world.
Your career has been divided between opera and musical theatre. Do you have a preference for being a singer or a musical theatre actress, or happiest combining them both?
I consider myself a Hybrid (NOT a Crossover) – a term coined by Patricia Neway, the opera singer who created The Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. I don’t really differentiate between opera and musicals. There are roles I love and roles I don’t. It’s all good singing and acting and I’ve always made a traditional legit sound.
I’m proudest of my opera roles: Lulu, Vixen, Marguerite, Violetta, Gilda and a few more including contemporary ones and ones actually written with me in mind. I’m best known for two musical roles, neither of them as interesting as the women (animals and men!) I played after. Opera is more of a challenge – I’ve sung in French, German, Italian and Czech and of course, vocally it’s a great deal harder.
Where did you make your professional debut as a singer or an actress?
Back in the day you had to get your Equity card, companies only had a few to give out and they were hard to get. Then one had to do a certain amount of weeks, 40, I think, out of town before you could work in the West End. You couldn’t work without a card. I got mine from a small touring opera group and made my debut in the chorus of Kiss Me, Kate and as Despina in Cosi Fan Tutte.
You made your West End debut at the age of 19 as Laurey Williams in Oklahoma, how would you describe this experience?
After nine months of touring my teacher’s agent sent me to audition for Laurey in Oklahoma for Cameron Mackintosh. I thought it would be helpful to experience a big audition and was shocked to be offered the role. I must stress, though, that the pool of talent was much, much smaller in those days and there was less star casting and it was possible to walk into a West End lead. It was a big gamble, however, for Mackintosh to take such a chance with me.
You then toured the UK as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. What did you enjoy most about the show and the tour?
I think it was too much too soon for me. Although I feel I managed the role onstage I began to suffer quite badly from depression during the run. I was the youngest person in the company, Tony Britton, my Higgins, was 57 and fairly “old school” in regards of his treatment of women’ no matter how much younger than him they were. A great delight was Anna Neagle playing Mrs Higgins. She was a direct line to Gertie Laurence, Jessie Matthews and the pre-war stars. She’d even worked with Errol Flynn. She was kindness and class itself and I felt privileged to be near her. She gave me a shawl to wear in the wings and I treasure it still. It was also amazing to be directed by Alan Jay Lerner. Although, reading his autobiography and also Julie Andrews’ description of creating the role, I think, he too, was old-fashioned in regards to his estimation of young women’s intelligence. There were line readings and when he left he told me to take any directorial problems to my leading man, which was problematic. Alan was witty, funny, fascinating and living history though, and I will never forget the experience.
While performing in the chorus at Glyndebourne you were asked to join the Royal Shakespeare Company where you created the role of Cosette in Les Miserables. Can you tell us about this journey and how it felt creating the role?
After Fair Lady, to recover, I took some chorus work in the now defunct New Sadler’s Wells Operetta Company and became a junior principal after 2 seasons. I then auditioned for and got my dream role of Maria in West Side Story in the West End. I’d been booked to do Glyndebourne chorus, a right of passage for good young singers in those days and considered an important thing to do. Rather than postpone Glyndebourne till the next summer my (subsequently fired) agent turned West Side down without consulting me and I went to Glyndebourne very upset at having lost out playing Maria. It must have been fate as whilst crawling around the floor pretending to be Tintin’s dog Snowy in an improv I was spotted by Trevor Nunn and suddenly found myself washed and brought to his tent at the Barbican.
Cosette was a larger role originally; it’s been cut down to nothing. I don’t remember much about it all to be honest. An endless 3 month rehearsal period, weeks of improv, staggering around on a turntable in the dark, dresser’s weeping because they couldn’t tell one set of grey rags from another in the quick changes and, this is interesting, a real unpleasantness directed at us not just by the critics but by the rest of the biz. I was reminded of it when people were gloating over the failure of Gone With The Wind a few years ago. There was a feeling we were pretending to be Nicholas Nickleby, the previous hit that Trev and John had had, were somehow a fake and ripping off the RSC to boot. All forgotten now.
It was a stunning cast, Ball, Willetts, Polycarpou, Bev Klein, Caroline Quentin, David Burt, Sue Jane Tanner, Frankie Ruff, Clive Carter, Allam, Alun Armstrong. Smart people who took no prisoners. I loved them and was proud to be one of them. I still am. I think only us and John Caird and Trevor, the people who were actually in the room, knew how much of a hand we had in creating that piece.
I do clearly remember the reaction of the audiences. It was extraordinary and I was too young to fully understand the reality of it. It was another hit show, yes, but who knew it would become what it’s become? That’s thanks to the cleverness of Mackintosh and the casts of actors who have come after us and made it flower, grow and develop while they themselves flourished. We now have a whole generation of stunning musical theatre actors that did not exist before. I’m humbled to be a part of the beginnings of something that has come to mean so much to so many people.
What was the most important aspect of Cosette’s character that you wanted to portray?
I wasn’t aware she had one. That’s a JOKE! Oh, you know, orphan, yada, yada, loyalties to Valjean, yada, love of Marius, yada. It’s hard to talk about a role one made in 1985!
While playing Cosette you returned to Glyndebourne as Amor in L’incoronazione di Poppea? What is it like singing at this famous venue and in this role?
It was very exciting and exhausting because I was still in Les Mis at the same time. Commuting to Lewes, and Amor was onstage all night watching the action. When I finally sang my aria in Act Two I flew. Flying hurts and is a discombobulating experience because you are not in control of your movements. One night I was flown smack into a wall mid-aria thanks to an inebriated fly man! Good times! I loved every second, flying over a naked Maria Ewing.
Following your successful run as Cosette you then joined the original cast of Phantom of the Opera to play Christine Daae opposite Michael Crawford. Having originated the role of Cosette, what was it like joining an established cast?
It wasn’t easy. Having just come from such a solidly democratic company, I found POTO six months after it opened a very different situation. I was the first one to come in from the outside and that for only two shows a week as alternate. I would say it was definitely the unhappiest job I ever did. I left before the end of my contract. Although it is always assumed that this had something to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber, it did not. After I left, Andrew offered me alternate/takeover on Broadway when Sarah Brightman finished. I decided I didn’t wish to risk repeating my London experience and when they offered me the start up of the Canadian Production I jumped at riding the horse that threw me, and making it a good experience.
What are your favourite songs from the Phantom of The Opera?
Crikey, after you’ve done a show 6 times a week for several years I don’t think you have a favourite. The Act Two trio was an enjoyable scream. It’s an odd sing, Christine. It actually lies quite low in the voice.
You returned to Toronto to play the part of Christine there. How did you feel about going home to your place of birth to perform the role?
I felt a bit of a fraud really. I’d left at age 3 to live in the US and was brought back because I’d been tried and tested in the role. I don’t think that real Canadians were really given a shot at it. That said, I couldn’t fault the kindness and generosity that the industry there extended to me. It was a beautiful production and there is a long tradition of theatre there obviously, with Stratford and Shaw Festivals and a huge sense of pride was taken by all that worked on the show. We were also given permission to record it because Colm Wilkinson was our Phantom and I think it was felt it must be preserved. I consider myself hugely lucky to have recorded both Christine and Cosette.
How does the audience in Canada compare to that of the West End?
While playing the role of Christine in Toronto you were also learning the title role of Lulu, which you then went on to play. How did you manage to balance performing Christine with that of learning the new role?
I found it a gift! I’m very goal-orientated and need something to work toward. It kept me fresh and I really had to up my chops, as Lulu is one of the most demanding roles of the 20th century vocally not to mention dramatically. Fiendishly difficult musically, it took a year to learn. I’d hoped the Canadian Opera Company might offer me something but I thought, you know, Barbarina or something like that so I was amazed to be offered such a part, it was a great act of faith. It was my first major role with an International company and first German role. Lulu is the professional accomplishment of which I am proudest.
You have performed in many operas since that time. How has your voice developed or changed during your career?
I’ve been singing professionally now for 32 years so yes! It’s fuller and the bottom part has darkened. I teach a bit now and that has really upped my game. I wish I’d done that earlier. I love to sing now more than at any time in my life and feel very in control technically in a way I wish I had when I was inundated with roles in my 30’s. It’s still the same kind of voice though, light lyric, meaning I couldn’t move into heavier repertoire as an opera singer which is a shame although consequently my voice is still fresh.
I understand that due to many of your stage roles being played in a wedding dress that this influenced your choice of wedding venue and you married your husband in a field. What can you tell us about this?
Yes, I was actually just coming out of my Wedding Dress role era and heading into my Black Stockings and Suspenders period but didn’t know it. It became a joke eventually. Mozart? – Stockings. Haydn? for God’s sake – stockings, La Traviata? – take my dress OFF – Take my frock off during Sempre Libera and yes, you guessed it I was sick of wedding dresses and would have happily married in shorts and a t-shirt. I should have taken more interest in my wedding dress. I regret it now. As far as the stocking thing is concerned it’s when they STOP asking you, you should worry!
You recently appeared with the Three Phantoms on Tour. How would you describe this experience?
Like being Shirley Maclaine in The Rat Pack, like being a crouton floating in a testosterone soup. Wonderful! Singing with those men, how lucky am I? It’s the best gig and a barrel of fun.
You have performed alongside several leading men in operatic performances and also in musical theatre. What is the most important aspect of their role in order to get the best out of you as the leading lady?
Laughs uproariously I don’t think they see it like that! As far as I’m concerned it’s always been the other way around. It’s a man’s world.
You have already starred in two of the West End’s classic musicals. What other musicals would you like to appear in?
I’ve pretty much done all the roles I wanted to do and the ones I didn’t it’s too late. Not differentiating between the genres, I’d say – Lady in The Dark, Kiss Me Kate, Sally in Follies, I’d like a shot at Marguerite, the musical not the opera Faust. The Governess or Miss Jessel in The Turn of The Screw, Birdie in Regina. Love to have a go at some Noel Coward. It’s about appropriate roles now and there isn’t a lot hence so much concert work.
What do you like to do to chill out away from the stage and music?
I’ve a big garden in the country I love to work in.
What message would you like to give to your supporters?
Many thanks Rebecca for a fabulous interview!
You can follow Rebecca on Twitter @rebeccacaine
Interview by Neil who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1
Updated 27th November 2015