Pierrot Lunaire and Beyond: Jane Manning in Conversation

Jane Manning OBE is an internationally-renowned soprano specialising in the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. She has given more than 350 world premieres, recorded extensively and held Visiting Professorships and the post of Artist-in-Residence at many universities and music colleges, including Mills College, Keele University, University of Western Austrailia, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, MIT, Princeton and Stanford, Columbia, Cornell and Yale. In 1988, she and her husband, the composer and writer Anthony Payne, formed Jane’s Minstrels, offering various brilliant young instrumentalists a post-study entry into the profession.

Jane holds honorary doctorates from the universities of York, Keele, Durham and Kingston and is a Fellow of both the Royal Academy and the Royal College of Music.

Published works include two volumes of New Vocal Repertory (OUP, with a new, updated edition forthcoming) and Voicing Pierrot (Southern Voices 2012); a guide to her beloved Pierrot lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg, of which she is one of the world’s leading interpreters.

This year, as Jane turned 75, she was nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society award and received a coveted Gold Badge by BASCA alongside Bill Wyman and Bonnie Tyler.

Terence Allbright is a composer and pianist, and a friend of Jane Manning and Anthony Payne. He lives near Petworth in West Sussex, close to their country cottage which is where this conversation took place in September, following Jane’s birthday.

Jane Manning
Photo: Malcolm Crowthers


Terence Allbright: Jane, let’s start by talking about what you’re doing now.

Jane Manning: Well, I’m just about to start a two-year residency at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, as part-time researcher. It’s going to be made up of wide-ranging projects including writing and masterclasses; there’s a Schoenberg study day coming up, a project called English and American Song, and there’s a project centred around my (gulp) 75th birthday which is going to be a celebration of things that I’ve done, and so they’re going to choose repertoire from that. The previous project I did at the Guildhall was Ernst Krenek and before that I did one with Messiaen. They’re quite wide-ranging: they’ve sort of been evolved by some very clever people in charge; Armin Zanner – who’s Deputy Head of Vocal Studies – and Dinah Stabb have developed the idea of having parties instead of concerts as the final presentation, so we had a Krenek party at the Austrian Cultural Forum where an actor impersonated Krenek, and we had interviews and the students handed round canapés, and sang in a very informal environment in front of a specially invited audience.

And during the project you work with the students on that music in classes?

Yes. I have to hear the students first and discover what they’re going to do and talk to them about it. I haven’t met them yet, but the next group I think are in their third year.

Do you have a say in which composers are going to be the subjects?

Oh yes – I think I will. But we haven’t heard the students yet and they’re going to choose things and I will comment and give general guidelines. And I’ve got the fiftieth anniversary of my Park Lane Group debut coming up, at which in 1964 I performed Webern songs, Dallapicola’s Quatro Liriche di Antonio Machado and some of Messiaen’s Poèmes pour mi with Susan Bradshaw at the piano.

And are you going to do all those again?

I’m not going to do all of them myself, but I am going to do Webern’s Opus 23, which are the most difficult of all, of course – I deliberately chose those just to prove that I still can! That’s going to be in June next year for the Park Lane Group again. Some of the Guildhall students I hope are going to take part in that now as well as other young artists that I’ve been associated with.

You’re working with students more now than you used to?

Yes – well in institutions more. It’s been a busy year because of the centenary of Pierrot lunaire in October 2012, with projects all over the place; a small one at the Royal College, a big project at the Royal Academy (which is my own alma mater) when I coached the students and decided which numbers they were going to do and we did a composite performance in the Duke’s Hall on the actual day. I did three of the movements and we had six students; very splendid they all were too – that was very exciting. They also did the Ravel Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé and the Stravinsky Three Japanese Lyrics which of course were heavily influenced by Pierrot as the first real example of that sort of vocal chamber music. I wrote programme notes for the concert and I also gave two lectures: one mainly for composers, about the legacy of Pierrot and the things people have done with Sprechstimme and the voice. I also did a more formal lecture for the public about Pierrot lunaire illustrated with excerpts from various Pierrot performers.

And of course you’ve just done a massive project at Kingston University.

Yes, my big project at Kingston was of course writing the book Voicing Pierrot which was published last year, and I have to say almost got a Royal Philharmonic Society award which was very exciting – but Classic FM beat me to it! Pity to have to compete with a radio station! The award was for ‘creative communication’. Anyway I’ve been very pleased with the way it’s come out; my editor is Graham Hair and the publisher is Southern Voices in Glasgow, but it’s disseminated world-wide and has been received very well. I enjoyed writing it – it’s very personal, very detailed.

I thought it was terribly clever the way you commented on all those other performances of Pierrot without ever sounding bitchy!

That’s the whole thing – there are lots of different ways of doing Pierrot. It was ages before I could bear listening to anyone else doing it because it’s such a personal thing, and if your singing voice is very personal to you, your speaking voice is even more so, and I think you have to make the piece your own in a way while obeying the letter of the score – I’m very very strict about that, I think that’s very important. I can’t bear those performances where
(it’s very rare, happily, these days now) when someone just does any old thing. The instrumentalists are all playing exactly what’s in the score and then some vocalist comes along and just sort of hams around – you know it’s really annoying because it is notated very exactly. Of course it’s contentious how you do that – there’s a lot of skill involved in trying to get the Sprechstimme right while not actually singing.

And what about the theatrical aspect of Pierrot? I mean, I’ve seen you do Pierrot and there seemed to be quite enough theatre just from what’s going on musically.

That’s what I feel very much. I feel that really the drama is in the music, and the detail of the music, especially in what you do with the voice. I think it’s essential that if you’re doing a radio or audio performance it should still come across with great character. So that said, obviously the first performance was done theatrically, you know, in pierrot costume with the instrumentalists behind a screen. And to recreate that original performance is incredibly valid, but I know that Schoenberg himself didn’t like the idea of it being done as a ballet – he didn’t want people to go that far. And I think some people go quite far, but there are different ways: there are some very jolly ideas.

It does happen quite often with musical works, especially with arrangements of things, that if you arrange, for instance, a piano piece for orchestra sometimes you take all the pressure off the music, and it loses its inner tension, and so you could with Pierrot – if you blew it up into some thing too big you would lose all that.

Yes, I’m against that really. One of the times I did it with Psappha they had video projections which were lovely actually: they were symbolic rather than exactly characterising the pierrot subjects – very well done by a wonderful video artist called Kathy Hinde. I did feel nicely private there because really I was in my own little world and of course as soon as there’s a screen up, the audience goggles at it straight away, and you feel you’re having a nice easy time just standing in the corner doing your own thing. So that was a slight problem, and it’s the same in opera because people now regard opera as a spectacle rather than as a musical experience, and I’m very much the other way round.

I suppose that’s how it started.

Yes, I suppose it is, but for me an opera is the music, really. I did the Pierrot performance with Psappha in Manchester without conductor, as I did in the very early performances with Susan Bradshaw’s Vesuvius Ensemble. I learnt it that way, and also did it with Avanti! in Finland many times unconducted. Conductors are a help if rehearsals are short, but for me not a necessity, although I do, of course, enjoy performing it with my own group Jane’s Minstrels conducted by Roger Montgomery.

What about the other music theatre pieces you’ve done?

I think it’s a very exciting genre. Obviously it was born, I suppose, out of the business of budgets – and Schoenberg was a great innovator, wasn’t he? – tremendous. It’s very touching to think that Puccini, though very very ill, actually came to the first performance of Pierrot in Italy. One would like to have been a fly on the wall and listen to what they said to each other. Apparently he was very complimentary about it. Obviously the mega-budget you have to have for opera is even worse these days, when really quite honestly more of the budget goes on production costs than it does on the music, and that’s something to be thinking about. You can get a much more visceral experience, I think, by having the instrumentalists part of the drama: when they’re on stage together the intimacy of it focuses more, hopefully, on the music and drama, and can be done for a much more limited budget than having to pay for a huge orchestra – they’re real protagonists, as in the pieces which were heavily influenced by Pierrot lunaire. Pieces by Maxwell Davies, of course, who formed his own group The Pierrot Players and The Fires of London and they did Pierrot lunaire a great many times with wonderful Mary Thomas, who’s no longer with us, very sadly. And of course he wrote special works for them, adding percussion, and there are a whole lot of works for that ensemble. And it’s very good people are taking up those pieces – it’s supply and demand!

And they can be done in any venue, of course, can’t they?

Yes, of course – in any sort of ordinary little concert hall. You don’t need much, you just need costumes and a few odd props perhaps, and the instrumentalists on stage.

So what have you enjoyed particularly of that repertoire?

Well, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot. Obviously the famous one is Eight Songs for a Mad King which is for baritone; and that’s very exciting, in your face and all of that. It was the time when Max was working with Ken Russell on The Devils.

Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot is based loosely on a Miss Haversham-type character from Great Expectations, though actually her prototype was Miss Donnithorne. Miss Donnithorne lived in Sydney, and in fact I’ve been to her grave. When I was in Sydney a composer friend of mine said ‘I know where Miss Donnithorne’s buried’ and I said ‘can we go there?’

How amazing!

And at midnight we went to this graveyard where the person in charge let us in with his key, bringing his torch and a dog, and we saw the grave marked “Miss Eliza Donnithorne”.

What were her dates – it must have been a long time ago?

Golly, I can’t remember. It fitted – it was a friend of Dickens, you see, who told him about that. Everyone thinks that Dickens based Miss Haversham on Miss Donnithorne, because he’d been told by a friend in Australia about this woman who had been jilted at the altar by a naval captain and had become completely barmy and stayed in her wedding dress with everything decaying. And now and again she came out and the little boys would taunt her, which happens in one of the movements. So there’s this wonderful piece Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot – a tremendous tour de force acting-wise, and you just wear a horrible tattered wedding dress and there’s a horrid old white wedding cake there which is all sort of mouldering with spiders and things. And the instruments have very colourful parts to play. There are a lot of references to Pierrot lunaire – there are many moon references and thematic things that remind one heavily of Pierrot: the particular combination of instruments – two winds, two strings and piano, this time plus percussion which is sort of wackier. I think it’s very exciting. I love doing Miss Donnithorne, because I think doing it as a woman I do feel she was rather sad and pathetic, it isn’t just laughing cruelly at this awful old harridan – this ghastly frumpy old thing.

The piece doesn’t come over like that.

No – there’s something rather tender and touching and wistful. Of course she’s drunk you know – she’s drinking away and all the time she has these memories of being a genteel lady brought up in the Raj with the Indian nanny and all of this. She refers to her rather smart background in colonial India.

I think it’s very sensitively done.

I think it’s very touching, quite moving. And I find that, you know, I can sort of identify with her – she’s not just a horrible character.

No, no definitely not. What about now, contemporary music theatre? Do you see anything around now?

Golly. Well – I’m very proud and very happy, I have to say, to keep in touch with the younger generation, and for my 75th birthday the real celebration was rather touchingly the Tête a Tête Opera Festival which is this really wacky opera festival at the Riverside Studio. They’ve done it for the past few years, with operas by all kinds of composers from all over the place – there are all sorts of things going on. Opera Lite Bites, they call them. It’s a wonderful place for experimentation, work in progress, and things like that – and things that you wouldn’t get done in the normal way. People are still trying things out that are very, very new. Or else people who want a London platform for something they’ve already done elsewhere. Anyway, I didn’t know what I could do, but Bill Bankes-Jones who runs Tête a Tête said ‘we must do something for your birthday – what can you think of?’ And I said I don’t really want to do something I’ve got to memorise and worry about – perhaps I can just come and sight-read some new music theatre pieces just at the last minute. And he said, ‘right we’ll do it like this: we’ll have a deadline of 12 noon on the last Sunday of the festival and at 2 o’clock you’ll perform them, and talk about them in kind of workshop conditions.’ It was great fun, I have to say, it was really wild. There were all sorts of things – there was some very promising young talent.

That’s wonderful for them to be able to try work in progress rather than having to finish the whole thing first.

There was just one you know – who I think is a very good composer, from what we have to say is the [Brian] Ferneyhough category, so therefore the score was actually difficult to read – beautifully neatly written but so many complicated things that you can’t go on, you have to stop. Very frustrating because you can’t sight-read that kind of thing. It was the least suited to that particular situation. Being a Ferneyhough person he said what he really wanted was the struggle – ‘the barrier between the performer and the music.’ But he was very nice and I think he is a good composer. And I would have been very happy to spend more time, but you can’t take the entire time doing that one piece. So it probably got slightly short shrift. But it was beautifully written out, and I’m sure it would work very well eventually, but it was just very complicated with the phonetics.

So were you reading and doing them as just musical pieces, not theatrical?

Yes, just musical. There was one where I was suppose to be on a rollercoaster so I sat on a chair; there was a pianist available – the brilliant James Young. Mostly I talked to the composers and said ‘is this what you want?’ And then I just sort of busked through them. The rollercoaster one was good fun – to have an in-built bit of theatre of that type, it was very clever to do it at the last minute. It was by a very good young composer/singer called Fleur de Bray. I was impressed by the amount of talent around, and quite touched that they sent them all in; all were good young professional-style composers, and I was very happy to get acquainted with them. Stephen Mark Barchan had written Two Little Songs about Spiders for me, and they’re quite charming, beautifully written and very, very nice. Thank God now scores are at last readable because everyone’s got the Sibelius [music-writing software] programme and you don’t have to fight with spidery manuscripts any more.

Now – you never come over as a proud person or arrogant in any way, but there must be some things you’ve done over the years that you are particularly proud of having done.

I suppose Pierrot lunaire most of all because I’ve just worked away at it, and you never quite crack it. That’s what’s so wonderful about a masterpiece like that – there’s always something else, somehow something strikes you each performance, you never get tired of it. I’ve done it hundreds of times and I’ve got two more lined up for early next year. One is a with a mixture of performers including Rohan de Saaram and Julian Jacobson at Kings Place, and I’m going to do one at the University of East Anglia with a group from London conducted by Sharon Choa. She’s just given the Norwich premiere of Tony’s  Elgar Symphony [that’s Jane’s husband Anthony Payne, who completed Elgar’s Symphony No. 3 from sketches Elgar left]. Sharon is Hong Kong Chinese, a very fine conductor indeed, and all-round musician; I’ll be doing that in Norwich in February. So it’s still sort of going on. There are always plenty of lectures and things like that. I suppose I should say also that I was asked by the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh a couple of years ago to do three lectures on new opera, or writing for voice in opera. Though I said I’m not really technically an opera singer, but when it comes to vocal theatre that’s what I think I know about: what people have done with the voice, you know. And so I concocted three lectures. I worked very hard on them, and I am quite proud of those because they did come out rather well, and they asked me back again last year.

Are they going to be published?

I suppose that’s a thought – I put in a lot of work, and my friend Stace Constantinou – who composed a very nice piece for me for voice and electronics, which I really love, setting Chinese poetry – is a great help. He prepared all the examples for my various lectures, including the Academy ones which were quite formal. As I’m pretty hopeless technologically he’s been an enormous help. So I’ve got all these lectures ready, and I can re-jig them: I’m doing the Pierrot one again next year at Keele University. It enabled me to listen to a lot more performances. And in the case of the Britten-Pears thing I listened to some pieces by Helmut Lachenmann and people that I hadn’t really gone into before. Also some stunning vocal writing by Xenakis – I found lots of really interesting examples. And I was really quite naughty at the Britten-Pears School – I couldn’t resist playing the Dudley Moore Little Miss Muffet: my centenary tribute to Britten!

How did it go down?

They all fell about, absolutely. Yes I did it at Manchester as well – I did a couple of Pierrot lectures at the Royal Northern College and Manchester University. I played them that, and of course some were too young to have known about it. It is such a wicked parody, so accurate.

You don’t do the Flanders and Swann one?

No – what’s that one like?

There’s a wonderful song : Ben-ja-min Brit-ten, Ben-ja-min Brit-ten – it’s in 5/8 of course.

(Laughing) Oh yes!

I shan’t put that in! [but I have done!] Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you think we should have?

I suppose going back in the past you know, what I’ve done in opera – I was the original Max in Ollie Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are in Brussels. It was unfinished at the time. And of course one thing I’d like to say is that a stunning piece of music theatre is of course Judith Weir’s King Harald’s Saga, which is an opera all for one person – and it’s gone world-wide. That’s the thing I’m proudest of, or one of them, in that I commissioned it and everybody all over the world is enjoying performing it and listening to it. And that’s how things should be, because I’m rather against this idea of personal vehicles; it may be very nice for your ego – ‘only I can do it, nobody else can’. I mean, that sort of dogged me in a way when I first entered the profession in the ‘60s. Cathy Berberian was the lead person, and I still get slightly annoyed when people say ‘oh you’re just another Cathy Berberian’, or you know, ‘you and Cathy Berberian have got everything in common’. We have nothing in common – she was a mezzo, totally different roles, totally different repertoire. I have in fact not dabbled a great deal in the more experimental repertoire that she did – the Berio and all this kind of thing. I’ve done Circles but frankly Sequenza leaves me pretty cold. I’ve coached it a lot and I think it’s of its time, but the notation is the most interesting thing about it. And you know, I think there’s something a bit dodgy about this idea of women suffering. You know a certain kind of composer wants to see a woman out of control or being hysterical, shrieking away!

There’s an awful instrumental school too – I remember working on the Elgar Cello Concerto with someone who’d studied with someone who played it to Elgar, and therefore this was the only way to do it.

Oh God no. That’s why I say I’m really happy that people do King Harald’s Saga. There’s going to be a concert when some of the Guildhall people who’ve been in my previous projects are performing, and one of them is doing King Harald’s Saga, so I’m actually coaching that again. And I coached it for the Park Lane Group earlier this year as well, and I enjoy doing that – there are different ways of doing it. I mean I know what Judith likes, so I can put them right about various things. But basically it’s like all well-written music – it’s in the score, she’s made her intentions abundantly clear. You go back to the score and look at the details; it’s amazing how you don’t see some things: for instance I initially missed the fact that some of the commas are meant to be observed absolutely in tempo, others are for you to have a little rest. That makes a big difference  – one must mark them all carefully. There are all sorts of things like that which you don’t notice often, as you go skipping through the score.

Do you think you’ve been happy living with a composer because you feel like that, or have you felt like that more because you’ve lived with a composer?

I don’t think it’s made an awful lot of difference. I think I treat Tony rather like all other composers really. It’s very funny: when I first had to do a piece by him I wondered if I’d disintegrate into some sort of sentimental jelly – ‘he’s my husband, I’ll get all nervous’. The work was The World’s Winter, the first piece he ever wrote for me in 1976 – we’d been married ten years, and other people had composed things for me, but he didn’t want to jump on that particular band wagon. And so one day Amelia Freedman of the Nash Ensemble rang up and said ‘Jane, we are going to commission a work from your husband for the Cheltenham Festival?’, and I said ‘have you asked him – I’m not sure he’s ready to write for me yet.’ He always said he didn’t want to yet. But anyway he did just feel he might by then. It was quite an occasion – it was that brilliant hot summer of 1976. Lots of our friends came specially to the concert, which was lovely – from all kinds of far-flung places. And Brian Elias was one of these friends and he said he watched me as I got ready to sing, and he said they all wondered whether I was going to be different because it was my husband’s piece and not theirs. And he said ‘I saw you sort of straighten up and I thought yes she’s just going to treat him like any other composer.’

And I did – that’s how it felt, it felt just the same: this is the composer, the fact that he’s my husband is neither here nor there, he’s the composer and that’s what I’m thinking about, because I always am you know. When I’m doing a premiere or something I do think of the composer. I think it takes away your stage nerves in a way if you’ve got something to concentrate on, someone to whom it matters even more than it does to you. I think it’s a big responsibility, but I like that, it stops me being nervous, it’s got to be good, it’s got to be right, it makes you concentrate. Much better than you thinking ‘oh dear, oh dear, I wonder what they’re thinking,’ and what’s coming next. It’s good to feel that someone who really needs you there. Very important.

That’s a nice place to stop, I think.

Yes, yes!