Samantha Hankey: ‘People tell me I don’t look like an opera singer’

·4 min read
Role reversal: the New Englander, 30, is set to appear as Ruggiero in ‘Alcina’ - Andrew Crowley
Role reversal: the New Englander, 30, is set to appear as Ruggiero in ‘Alcina’ - Andrew Crowley

“I really love playing pants roles,” says Samantha Hankey. “Or ‘trouser roles’, as you say here, right? I find playing a man on stage incredibly empowering. I really notice the amount of space I can take up. And the costumes are so much more comfortable. I’ve never been a fan of corsets.”

On the brink of her British opera debut as the dashing knight Ruggiero in Handel’s Alcina at Glyndebourne, the 30-year-old American mezzo is marvellously self-assured. And so she should be. In 2018 Hankey won the inaugural Glyndebourne Cup, with judges praising her “amazing stage presence, beautiful voice and wonderful musicality”. She’s proud to tell me that her £15,000 winnings enabled her to pay off the last of her student loans, two years after graduating from New York’s Juilliard School.

It’s been quite a journey for the “shy, awkward” only child of an unemployed single mother from Massachusetts. Talking via Zoom after a long day of rehearsals at the Sussex opera house, Hankey tells me she got her first taste of opera aged nine, when her choir performed in a local production of Bizet’s Carmen. “But I wasn’t listening to classical music at home,” she says. Growing up, Hankey preferred pop. “Beyoncé, Panic! At the Disco… And I went through a period of listening to intense heavy metal.”

Her mother, a design school graduate, encouraged her to follow her love of singing and sent her to the local performing arts school aged 15. It was there, after hearing another student sing Samuel Barber’s beautiful “Sure on this Shining Night”, that she realised she wanted to become an opera singer. With a voice that has been described by critics as “luscious” and “vividly dramatic”, Hankey has been in demand ever since graduation.

She opened the season of the Gran Teatre del Liceu Opera Barcelona as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, played Dorabella in Così fan tutte at San Diego Opera and thrilled as Octavian in Barrie Kosky’s Der Rosenkavalier. She has a bright, millennial approach to the mezzo’s job of playing male roles. “I’m interested in the subtleties of gender. After playing Dorabella in a tight-fitting dress in February, I’ve played a series of men and noticed that I move differently… We see men as being more confident, perhaps more aggressive. Women are softer, more polite.”

Wearing the trousers: Samantha Hankey rehearsing 'Alcina'
Wearing the trousers: Samantha Hankey rehearsing 'Alcina'

Has Hankey ever been able to take that traditional male swagger with her when she leaves the stage? “I think the roles that I’ve been exploring have influenced me. Perhaps in terms of confidence. Maybe taking little bits of them into who I am.” She tells me she’s currently reading a book about gender. “It’s about how we are creating a new language, with our use of pronouns. It’s incredible, the progress we’ve made in the last few years in terms of accepting people.”

While pop culture has embraced the millennial attitudes to identity, the classical world has been more socially conservative. I ask Hankey if she feels that changing, and she nods emphatically. “Absolutely. And it’s time.” She feels she’s experienced the “micro-aggressions” from people who tell her she “doesn’t look like an opera singer”. Her response is always: “Well, what does an opera singer look like? The job is to portray other people on stage. It’s not a job that only belongs to one type of person, one standard of person. Opera needs to be inclusive. More people deserve to be seen on stage. Representation really matters.”

She tells me she has “so many role goals” for the future, but another big ambition is to record a film score. “I’m a huge movie fan,” she says. “One of the reasons I love this fabulous new production of Alcina is that the sets and costumes are based on Italian movies from the 1960s.” She grins. “I often notice opera in movies. Either its the same seamless Callas recording or a chopped up ‘Habanera’. I don’t understand why they cut it up the way they do.”

But for now, Hankey is soaking up the “magical spirit” of Glyndebourne. “I love watching people arrive at 2.30pm in black tie and start unpacking their picnics and setting up their candelabras.” She grins. “I know people come to the opera as an escape from reality. It is fantastical. But as a young person I know there is also something about being able to relate to the characters on stage and saying: that character reminds me of who I am or who I want to be.”

‘Alcina’ opens at Glyndebourne on Saturday; glyndebourne.com

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