Three questions before a recital: Helen Charlston

Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston (2018 CMF Artist) answers a few questions ahead of her lunchtime recital at St Bart’s the Less on Wednesday 14th November.

Hailed as “a rather special mezzo” (MusicWeb International), Helen Charlston’s warm and distinctive tone has cemented her as a key performer in the next generation of British singers. She received first prize in the 2018 Handel Singing Competition, was a finalist in the Hurn Court Opera Competition, and in the 2018-19 season she will make her debut with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Handel Messiah) and return to work with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (Bach St Matthew Passion).

For her recital, Helen will be joined by lutenist Toby Carr and their programme, titled Lettera Amorosa, pairs the solo vocal works (a voce sola) of two great Italian composers: Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and Barbara Strozzi (1619-77). It will include Monteverdi’s Lettera Amorosa (published 1619) and his Lamento d’Arianna, the only surviving fragment of his 1608 opera, L’Arianna. The recital follows the highs and lows of love – from languishing looks and sighs of passion, to cries of ‘Let me die’ – something which for Helen makes this music ever relevant.

Some of the music you’re performing is over 400 years old – why do you think it still speaks so vividly to us today?

I guess the words are really important here. Despite 400 years of history, the complications, elations, and inconsistencies of Love, or what it might mean to love, surely haven’t changed much, have they? But it’s more than just a ‘theme of love’. What makes these works so vivid is that they are perfect examples of moments or situations that are so extreme, that the only answer is to vocalise it and sing! Just reading the poetry, or writing it, is not enough. Arianna (in Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna) for example, has to lament and bewail as a physical, gutteral response to her abandonment.

This music also presents a vulnerable scene: just a singer and, in this instance, one instrumentalist. It requires both players to be totally open and honest in what they are doing, which in turn draws the audience into a scene that could in fact be completely contemporary.

How are you benefiting from the CMF Artist Programme so far?

It is wonderful to have such a team of experts so easily to hand! As well as the lunchtime recital, I have been preparing for Tchaikovsky: Notes & Letters where I’m performing alongside three amazing artists (also CMF Patrons): Simon Callow, Roger Vignoles, and Joan Rogers. Joan has been guiding me through the songs and coaching me on the Russian and then I get to sing them accompanied by Roger Vignoles; you couldn’t ask for a greater line-up really! It’s also really wonderful to have a team of people around you who are in your corner and very happy to answer your silly questions and help.

Tell us about a gig you’ve got coming up:

On 18th November I have a concert with Amici Voices, a small baroque ensemble that I run. It’s a rather lovely concert format that we started last year centred around music for the Vespers service, performed in a liturgical setting. We started with Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, but on 18th we look to Handel and the music of the Italian School that influenced him as a youngster in Rome. The programme includes Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Nisi Dominus, as well as a number of rather glorious psalm settings for voices and instruments by Monteverdi, Cavalli, and Finetti. It should be a pretty special evening. Oh, and its free, so the more the merrier…! Secure your tickets here.

Lunchtime Recital
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano) with Toby Carr (lute)
Wednesday 14th November 1pm
The Hospital Church of St Bartholomew the Less
Book to be sure of a seat


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