Learning to let go: Carolyn Sampson interview

Rebecca Toal
Wednesday, November 15, 2023

As she makes her return to the opera stage, Carolyn Sampson reflects on the importance of family and trust in her life as an artist

Soprano Carolyn Sampson | Photo: Marco Borggreve

British soprano Carolyn Sampson returns to the opera stage this month after an extended period of time away from the scene. For some, stepping right back into a role like Créuse in Charpentier’s Médée under the baton of Simon Rattle might feel like an intimidating first performance back, but Sampson’s excitement was clear: ‘I think it’s going to be fun. For me, it was one of those things where everything falls into place. A wonderful conductor-director, some brilliant colleagues, and the Berlin Staatsoper … it’s such an amazing team of people that I respect and really want to work with.’

The last time Sampson forayed into the world of opera was in 2017 when she took on Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with Scottish Opera, a role that she loved and was consumed by, but one that contributed to her decision to redirect her focus towards her family. ‘The way I choose to parent – and I’m a single parent – is to be there as much as possible. And that hasn’t been compatible with opera schedules and two months away from home.’

Especially after the Debussy project, it was an intense time for Sampson: she had just relocated back to England after 10 years in Germany, she had enrolled her children into a new school and separated from their father. The thought of being away for another long period of time felt too much. Was the decision to step away after Mélisande difficult to come to terms with? Sampson is extraordinarily positive about the whole experience. ‘It wasn’t difficult, because that particular production was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever done on stage. I was utterly invested in it. It was so beautiful, utterly beautiful. I just thought, “I don’t mind if this is the last opera I ever do. That’s me going out on a high.” I was so happy with how it went and how the role felt for me. So yes, I didn’t mourn.’

'Singing for me is the most natural thing in the world'

Not only did her operatic sabbatical allow her to spend invaluable time with her children but it also opened up space for Sampson to explore her affinity with chamber music and recital work. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic was just around the corner, bringing with it more time and space than anticipated.

‘At the very beginning when we didn’t know how long anything was going to last, you’d have a score waiting on the piano ready to crack on with … and then gradually I was putting them away as things got cancelled bit by bit. I found that really hard. So I wasn’t motivated to do any work at that point. Singing for me, it’s the most natural thing in the world and I sing all the time. It was very striking for me that in that period, I didn’t want to sing. I think it was very much connected with not being able to make music with other people.’

Homeschooling and supporting her children became her main focus instead, accompanied by relatable and now almost nostalgic tales of iPads and dodgy backing tracks. ‘After that, I reckon it took me about three months to get my mojo back,’ she mused. ‘And that was interesting because I always feel very comfortable on stage. But I found weirdly that I felt quite unsure of myself for about three months and I haven’t really experienced that before.’ Gradually Sampson found herself warming back into her performing and felt more and more at home singing again. ‘I’m quite a natural singer. It’s not meant to sound arrogant, but my voice just kind of works. It’s when I overthink things that I get into a bit of a pickle.’

Has she felt any similarities between building her singing back up post-lockdowns and now revisiting her opera skills? ‘Obviously, it’s very different from recording because you don’t have to project in the same way. I think I'll find that I work a bit harder, physically. Plus, who knows what we’re going to be asked to do on stage! If I’m not careful – because I do so much recital work and recording where you don’t need to be quite as expansive – you can end up in a place where vocally everything is very finely tuned. I think it’s definitely healthy to have to work a bit harder physically sometimes. Not that the intimate stuff isn’t hard work, but it’s a different kind of work.’

Sampson in Scottish Opera's production of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande | Photo: Richard Campbell

Sampson’s down-to-earth attitude is striking throughout our conversation and I ask her what her children think about her job. Apparently her teenage son is ‘fairly circumspect about it’ but her younger daughter, though she loves the singing and performing, hates that it takes her mother away from home. She’s even come up with her own career prospects for her mum: ‘She would like me to be a dog walker and stay at home’. Sampson is rightfully proud of the way she’s let her work and family shift and evolve to stay compatible with one another, though is keen to add that she’s done so with the support of her own mum.

‘Accept all the help that’s offered,’ she advises other single parent musicians. ‘I learned very early on when they were babies that if you’re going to trust somebody to look after your child, then there’s no point stressing too much about whether it’s done in exactly the right way or the way you have in mind. So I learned quite early on to let go. Be flexible, because if you trust somebody enough to look after your child, chances are it’s going to be fine.’ 

You can catch more of Carolyn Sampson on the cover of this month’s Gramophone magazine where she celebrates the release of her 100th album, But I like to Sing. Her performances of Créuse in Charpentier’s Médée take place in Staatsoper Berlin between 19 November and 2 December

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