TIME IN with British Soprano Carolyn Sampson: Tadpoles, Family Trees and a BBC Recording of the Year

Nov 19, 2020

English concert soloist, recitalist, and opera star Carolyn Sampson was traveling when governments in Europe and the UK began shutting down in early 2020. In this TIME IN interview, she talks about getting home to England, where she's been making online discoveries with her kids, exploring nature, and looking forward to new projects in the offing.

Among her many engagements all over the world, Carolyn Sampson has been a soloist with The Philadelphia Orchestra in recent years, singing Messiah and Bach's Mass in B Minor with Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  Her new album, The Contrast, with pianist Joseph Middleton, was released in February of 2020. She sings on the recording of Purcell's King Arthur with the Gabrieli Consort & Players, an album named the 2020 BBC Music Magazine's Recording of the Year. 

Here's a selection recorded in isolation to celebrate the award. 

Last March, Carolyn was on 12-day trip to Espoo, Finland to make a recording with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, when COVID surged in Italy, and then Germany shut down. "Everyone kept saying, the UK is about two weeks behind Italy. I was up all night one night, just thinking I need to leave. Otherwise, I'm not going to be able to fly home."

In the end, she stayed one more day to wrap up the recording; then she jumped on a plane, getting home to her family just one week before the UK locked down.

Home for Carolyn is Bedford, England, about 50 miles north of London. It's the town where she grew up, where she's raising her two children, and where she's been riding out the pandemic. She was home when she met me on Zoom on September 17th. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

What's your life been like since everything shut down? Who was home with you in those early days and what kind of things were you doing?

I've got my children, who are now 12 and nine, they were 11 and eight. We've had birthdays, and their father [who lives in Germany] was here, which was lucky; he stayed an extra couple of weeks, because we thought that when he goes back to Germany, we don't know when he'll come back.

But most of lockdown I spent with just me and the kids at home; we see my mom and my stepfather who live very close. We mostly just meet up in the garden and that sort of thing. We've been careful, but we've seen them all the way along, which has been really important for all of us, actually. I've needed that, to have adult company, and they needed it as well, just not to go stir crazy on their own.

So what kind of things do you like to do when you're at home?

Well, in the first few weeks, perhaps the first month or two, I suppose, none of us really realized how long this would go on. And so it wasn't too bad. We did our walks. We discovered new areas around here. I mean, I was born in Bedford, brought up here, but I'd still never been to the woods that happened to be just behind my house. So we discovered that. We found some tadpoles in the pond and went to see them every couple of days to see if they have legs.

It was quite simple.

Walking in the woods.
Credit Courtesy of Carolyn Sampson

We've watched a few more movies than we normally watch. The kids had a little bit more screen time than they normally get, which I think they saw as a big plus. Once they were back at school, after Easter, that was online learning and that was quite intense. That was hard work supporting both of them, especially my then eight-year-old! I got them a secondhand iPad each, and we were trying to figure out all the tech and it's not my strong point either. They got very good at it. They're very quick at typing now. So that was full on.

[But] I didn't sing.

You weren't doing any music at all?

Very little. I found it really stressful and more upsetting than anything else. So definitely for about three months, I just didn't bother. I decided to just concentrate on the kids; doing home and education. I played the piano a little bit instead [of singing].

What kind of music do you like to play?

Oh, Mozart sonatas, and a bit of Mendelssohn; stuff that I used to be able to play when I was 18. I haven't got any better, I've got a little bit worse! But I found it easier just to play the piano and not think about singing.

You were helping your children with their online learning. Did you learn any subjects or brush up on any subjects? 

That was great. It was really nice actually to see how they're taught. Their school was brilliant. They provided a lot of online resources, and they would see their teachers every day on [platforms such as] Zoom and Microsoft Teams. So that was really nice, actually, to have a little feel for what goes on at school and you get an idea about their classmates, who they are.

One of Carolyn's children doing schoolwork in the backyard
Credit Courtesy of Carolyn Sampson

I enjoyed that side of it and some of the subjects. That was interesting. My daughter's this nine-year-old, doing religion and things like that!  I learned some stuff about Islam that I didn't know; things about Sikhism. That was really good.

Were there any activities that you started, or that you revived, that you hadn't done before the pandemic, but you might continue after?

Well, I had the bright idea in the Easter holidays that we would try to trace our family tree, because I thought that was a thing that we could do together, me and the kids. And it would be interesting. We were quite keen on that for a couple of weeks.  And it sort of fell by the wayside, but I want to carry on with that, because it was interesting. We got quite a long way back, just in terms of names and dates.

What I'd like to do now would be to look at, for example, what professions people did. But it's very focused; I'm very English it turns out! We got back to the 1700s, and everyone is in the same parts of England.

Did you have any particular music, films or books that you turn to?

I didn't listen to very much music. I found that very difficult. I remember once just switching the radio on and catching [the opera] on our Radio 3. It's all on Saturday evenings at about 6:30. And it's usually broadcast from Met or from the Royal Opera House. I can't remember where it was from, but I caught the very end of [La] boheme. That piece kind of gets me anyway, but then hearing the applause had a real effect on me, and I just sort of stood in my kitchen and had a little wail, and realized that I missed being on stage.

I didn't feel like I had time to read. I watched things with the children. [But] there's a limit to what we can watch because of their ages. I basically hunkered down and was very inward-looking for the first few months.

And I did a couple of online things when I was asked to, and then actually decided pretty quickly that I would only do them if there was a fee involved, even a small one, because I felt quite strongly that we shouldn't be just doing things for free because you know, we're all there with no income. I think especially, right now, people should be valuing art and the arts.

We talked earlier and you mentioned a new project that you're working on with Joseph Middleton.

Yes, very exciting! What we're doing is recording [Hugo] Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch [Italian Songbook] with Alan Clayton. So that's really exciting. Joe and I are going to record our bits. And then we're going to make a start on our next disc, which is going to be Schubert volume two.

Here's a sample of volume one:

So, that's really exciting! Suddenly there's something to work for.

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