Nicola Lisle talks to star soprano Rachel Nicholls

Wagner is 200 years old this year and the Oxford Symphony Orchestra is celebrating in style with a magnificent gala at the Town Hall. Joining them is soprano Rachel Nicholls, whose debut as Brünnhilde at Longborough Opera last year established her reputation as one of the leading Wagner singers of her generation.

Born in Bedford, her natural musicality was apparent almost from birth. “When I was a small baby my grandfather realised I had perfect pitch,” she recalls. “He was blind and had a wonderful ear for music and realised that I would sing back melodies I had heard on the radio or TV in the same key that I had heard them. He died when I was just five, but he asked my parents to encourage me to learn an instrument, which they did.”

Rachel started playing the violin and piano before taking up singing lessons at age 14, and was lucky to be surrounded by a supportive family. “My parents have always been wonderfully supportive of my singing, from giving me lifts to and from rehearsals when I was at school to helping me financially while I was training at the Royal College of Music, and nowadays still coming to every performance they can manage. I couldn’t have done it without them.

“My other grandfather, who is passionate about classical music, took me to the opera for the first time, bought me my violin and paid for all my singing lessons until I left university. I couldn’t have done it without him, either.”

A s with many budding musicians, Rachel spent her schooldays playing in orchestras and singing in choirs. At the age of 16, she was awarded a scholarship by Bedfordshire County Music Service to attend the Trinity College of Music Junior Department. She adds: “That was a wonderful experience. I also sang in Bedfordshire Youth Opera, now the New Bedfordshire Youth Opera, which I help fundraise for. “I think these opportunities had a major part to play in giving me the confidence to pursue a career as a professional musician. I am immensely grateful to my school and to the county.”

Rachel started her professional life singing Baroque music, but has since moved into the operatic repertoire. Her debut with the Royal Opera, singing the Third Flowermaiden in Wagner’s Parsifal, was very much a taste of things to come, culminating in that glorious Brünnhilde last summer, which effectively announced her arrival as a Wagnerian specialist. So what is the appeal for her?

“Wagner just seems to be on a different scale to everything else,” she says. “The music is epic. To sing it I need to engage my whole body in producing the expansive sound that will carry over the orchestra and that’s a really good feeling. “But more than that, it’s just so varied and beautiful. I feel privileged to have the chance to sing Wagner.”

At next week’s concert, Rachel will sing Brünnhilde’s Immolation from act three of Götterdämmerung and the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The programme, conducted by Robert Max, also includes the Prelude from Die Meistersinger and other operatic highlights, all adding up to a veritable Wagnerian feast.

Wagner Bicentenary Concert Oxford Town Hall Saturday, November 23, 7.30pm Tickets: 01865 305305 or