An exciting young singer with a Newcastle connection is making her Opera North debut at the Theatre Royal next week. DAVID WHETSTONE talks to rising star Meeta Raval
LIFE looking a little grey and mundane? Nothing much to look forward to, with Christmas – whatever the prematurely tinsel-strewn shops may be telling you – still some way off?
Then three cheers for the opera, a world in which the grey and mundane rarely figure.
Opera North return to the Theatre Royal next week with three new productions. In the words of the theatre press office, they introduce us to: “Mozart’s anti-hero Don Giovanni, a legendary but damned womaniser; Gounod’s Faust, who makes a fatal pact with the Devil; and Janacke’s Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case, weighing up the odds of eternal life”.
Damnation, devilish pacts and yearning for immortality sound more than a match for a dark autumn.
As it happens, the seasonal visit by Opera North also introduces scintillating singers, including Meeta Raval, a BBC Cardiff Singer of the World finalist making her Opera North debut.
Already garlanded with prizes and enthusiastic notices, Meeta comes to us as Donna Anna in the new production of Don Giovanni, Opera North’s first for seven years (and directed by Alessandro Talevi who delivered a brilliantly creepy production of The Turn of the Screw two years ago).
“I was born in 1983 in Staffordshire, I’m a Stafford girl,” says Meeta, cheerily taking up the invitation to provide an autobiography in a nutshell.
“I come from a family of four – mum, dad and my sister Deepa who’s a doctor. My father is a dentist and my mother’s a dental practice manager, so we’re a medical family.”
Meeta, clearly, got diverted somewhere along the way.
“It all happened when I was about six,” she continues. “My father in those days was a very keen amateur geologist and when I was six and my sister was four we used to do these fantastically long car journeys to Ullapool in Scotland.
“My parents had this selection of music to occupy us. It was really varied but we had a lot of Led Zeppelin, a lot of Bollywood and also Maria Callas’s Greatest Hits.”
Callas, the great soprano, changed Meeta’s life on the road north.
“When I heard her singing for the first time it was on one of these car journeys and the effect on me was so profound. I didn’t know what she was saying but the feeling in the voice communicated itself to me.
“It moved me even as a really small child. I used to think it was amazing the way this lady could hit the top notes and the emotion coming out of them. I thought I wanted to do it myself.”
At nursery school, Meeta’s teacher advised her mother to organise some singing lessons. The singing teacher they approached was reluctant, suggesting they return when Meeta was 12 or 13.
“But in the end he gave me one singing lesson, aged six, and he said straight away, ‘I’ll start teaching her’.”
Looking for ways to encourage their daughter, Meeta’s parents enrolled her at a local amateur dramatics society. “My first role, aged six, was as Molly in Annie, the musical, and I learned the whole part by ear because I couldn’t read music.”
Meeta became a regular winner at the Dudley Festival and her parents became aware she had a talent worth nurturing.
At the age of 11 they sent her to board at Wells Cathedral School, in Somerset, where she became the first head girl chorister in the country.
Looking back, she says her first two years at boarding school, away from family, were “tough”.
But she says: “It made me the person I am to an extent. It means that from a very young age you have to be independent.
“My parents have been supportive but my father couldn’t help me in the same way he could help my sister. Coming from a medical background, there was common ground.”
Meeta went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, graduating with first class honours, and then the Royal Academy of Music where she won two prizes and was awarded a diploma of distinction.
In 2010 she completed her studies at the National Opera Studio and last year she represented England in the hotly competitive BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, reaching the final where, she says, the pressure was “immense”.
Evidently it didn’t faze her. “I think it was the best experience I’ve ever had and the most enjoyable,” she says. “I didn’t see it as a competition although I knew I wanted to make the final because you get this incredible coverage.”
Coverage or not, at 29, Meeta Raval is in the first phase of what promises to be a glittering career.
She attributes her successes so far to hard work and being lucky enough to fall under the influence of key people at the right time.
But if she sounds like a singer in a hurry, she explains that she’s been at it so long.
“A lot of people don’t come to opera until they’re 18 or 19 but I’ve wanted to be an opera singer since I was six years old.”
Next week she will be in Newcastle, singing the part of one of Don Giovanni’s many conquests, and it may feel a little like a home from home.
It turns out that Meeta’s great uncle is Hari Shukla, the tireless equality campaigner and vice-chairman of the Newcastle Council of Faiths. “His wife is my grandmother’s sister,” explains Meeta, which suggests there will be some familiar faces in what is likely to be a wholly supportive audience at the Theatre Royal.
Opera North are at the Theatre Royal next week performing Faust on Tuesday and Friday, Don Giovanni on Wednesday and Saturday, and The Makropulos Case on Thursday. Box office: 0844 811 2121.