Artist of the month: Héloïse Werner1:05, 3rd April 2019
If you think of artists when they start out, they just make art. When you think of painters or artists that make fine art, they just go and do stuff. Maybe it’s especially in the music industry that there’s more a focus on having to audition for things, having to turn up and try and be the person they want you to be. But that doesn’t make sense to me at all.’
It is not only as a soprano that Héloïse Werner says this, but also as a cellist, actor and composer. ‘I’m interested in lots of different things within music. Some singers have this idea at a young age that they want to be an opera singer and they just follow this path. I didn’t have that.’
Indeed, for a while she did not have any particular path in mind. ‘Music was so important to me. I loved it and I was quite good at it so I knew it would be there, but I wasn’t quite sure in what form.’ The Hermes Experiment, the group she codirects that has gathered increasing acclaim over its first five years, is one relatively constant outlet for her, even if its unique line-up of soprano, clarinet, harp and double bass has meant having to generate vast amounts repertoire from scratch. Another is The Coach House Company, a folk group in which she is both vocalist and cellist.
By contrast, she has just finished a run at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse singing music by Laura Moody in a production of Macbeth. And this month she performs her own music in The Other Side of the Sea, her second solo opera project, as part of the Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place. The show has a particularly personal significance for Werner in that it draws on her own bilingual experience. She grew up in Paris, where she joined the Maîtrise de Radio France, the children’s choir school run by French national radio that provides the station with one of its performing groups. But she has lived in the UK since. Arriving as an inexperienced English speaker, she continued her education as a choral scholar at Clare College, Cambridge. She then went on to complete a masters at Trinity Laban.
I’m quite a positive person and rather than being frustrated, I always try and work around it and make it work, rather than moaning about things
‘The Other Side of the Sea is actually about my kind of split identity between English and French. And about my frustration about not really being able to express myself in English as my second language and what happens when it comes to performing in English. There’s another layer of performance: me as an English person is always a performer already.’
The show, having said that, is very much a collaborative work. It is directed by Emily Burns with visual designs by Jessie Rodger, while Werner handed over her insights to writer Octavia Bright to craft into a text. It ends up a mixture of Bright’s words, Werner’s words transformed into ‘weird sounds’ and pre-recorded conversations between the two women.
The initial creative work took place with guidance from Zoë Martlew during a week’s residency at Snape Maltings. ‘What we produced then is nothing like the final thing, but we needed that time. Zoë’s amazing input helped us get started. She is incredible.’ Werner was also able to build on her work on her first solo show Scenes from the End, also directed by Burns but this time with music by Jonathan Woolgar, which she took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.
Collaborative her work may be, but she is an artist who takes a hands-on approach with much of the non-performing side of her career. ‘I enjoy it as well – I knew that at the back of my mind and wanted a way of combining both. I’m always really surprised that not more people do it this way because it actually works: if you really want to make something happen then you’ll make it happen.’
It does mean having to handle her time well, a knack dating back to her time at school, where regular classes were combined with a heavy music workload out of school hours. ‘You get to perform with the most amazing people and be conducted by Haitink, Muti – crazy, crazy things,’ she recalls, adding that this intensive education was provided completely free.
‘It was a very busy schedule, so one thing that La Maîtrise taught me was that you have to be very organised. You had to be quite good at school as well, so they would check you weren’t struggling. It was very intense: you had to do the normal schooling but in a shorter time. You had to go home at night and do your homework like a normal kid, plus all the music things – and I was also doing cello at the conservatoire on the side. I wasn’t pushed by my parents at all; it was me wanting to do it. But it kind of taught me to be quite disciplined with practice and organised with time management. People say you learn that at university but I think I was already sorted that way.’
She is also, she says, beginning to see the benefits of taking time off, a necessary counterbalance for someone so proactive in their creative ambitions. ‘I feel like I’m quite a positive person and rather than being frustrated about things I always try and work around it and make it work, rather than moaning about things. Do something about it! Or don’t do it, if you don’t like it. I guess because a lot of the work I do now, even if it’s working with actual organisations, is still my work so I’m not part of a big organisation. It’s me collaborating with a lot of different people. I’m not tied to silly rules or things that are annoying that might be the case with a big organisation, politics and all that stuff. God, boring!’
On contemporary music
One of the reasons I was drawn to it was because I had a flair for it: pitching and rhythm and all of that. I’m a good sight-reader and I have always been very good at polyrhythms – it came very naturally to me. It doesn’t require too much effort, so I thought: well, I should probably do that!
On time off
It’s really good to go and see the world, just get out of your bubble a bit. I find when I go away I get a lot more creative ideas when I come back, just having the headspace to clear it out. And also just physical distance from a place: I’m going to another country; I’m not going to be in the same place with the same people for a bit.
I don’t feel very comfortable with that idea of having a few rich people being your patrons. It’s a bit weird to me. Even if they have money, why would they just give you some? I find the whole process not very nice, ethically. There’s something about it.
I’m sure they are trying to do more but I find they don’t really teach you that stuff: how to put together your funding application, or show you how to word things, how to put together a budget. Even to show you how the Arts Council portal works. They don’t teach you any of that at music college. Or maybe they try and pretend there’s a class for it, but it would be cool if it were taught in a more practical way, as it is when they teach you singing or playing: to actually make you do it rather than sit through a seminar of slides.
On advanced study
I did a master’s in singing because I needed to acquire a solid vocal technique and tools to create my own shows. It’s vital to have a good technique, whether it’s Mozart or a contemporary work. I had a fantastic teacher, Alison Wells, who completely understood where I was coming from. I still have lessons with her every few weeks. I’ll never stop learning; I learn every day from all the wonderful people I collaborate with – and that’s why I love my job.