Fleur du Cap award-winner Lynelle Kenned returns to her role of Maria in The Fugard Theatre’s production of West Side Story which makes its Johannesburg transfer. A trained opera singer, this soprano has quickly established herself as a presenter and musical theatre leading lady. Credits, and talent aside, something that is incredibly striking about Lynelle is how she seems to radiate pure positivity and joy when talking about her career making it known that not only was she born to have this career but that she is living her dream.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I would say that was the 2005 production of Show Boat at The Artscape. I had always been passionate about music but I had never wanted to be a performer or be on stage as a character until I saw that production. The beauty of the music and just the magnitude of what was happening, it is one of those epic old school musicals. It blew me away. After that I spoke to my high school singing teacher and she said to me “if this is what you want to do, you need to go to the Opera School at UCT.” We applied and did the audition and that’s what I studied after high school.
Do you remember a moment when you suddenly realised you could sing? Was there a ‘moment?’
I don’t think so actually. My mom used to joke that I would sing before I could speak properly. I come from a musical family. Everyone plays an instrument. As my background, singing in church, all of those harmonies are harmonised. You sing to hymn books with music notes in them so you learn to read music. Every family in my family has a piano and everyone can play a tune. It was the most natural extension of “ok you want to do this with your life.” When I told my family that they were concerned, “can you make a living from that?” You should follow your passion but if you can have a livelihood from it that then they were on board.
When you were applying to UCT did you know specifically that you wanted to do opera or did you just want to sing?
Yes. Back then I think I had this love affair of what the human voice was capable of doing. I was blown away by the virtuosity of music. I loved the process of developing my voice but what was hard was (that) I came from a background of choral music so the technique is completely different. While you are building your instrument they literally strip you down and break it down to nothing. It is such a competitive environment. Just the feelings of self-doubt or ‘are you going to be good enough?’ It is really overwhelming in a setting like that. While I wouldn’t trade that for anything now because it has enabled me to sing the way I do, I realised early on that life was not for me but so many people do make it big in the classical music industry. They don’t live very balanced or happy lives because in South Africa, specifically, you can’t make a full-time career from being an opera singer. You have to diversify. I just didn’t want to live out of a suitcase going from place to place. I wanted to set down some roots. I am happier for it.
I wanted to chat about the transition into presenting. Why did you chose to do the Top Billing search?
It wasn’t even on my radar and I only went because my mom was insistent on it. She saw the advertising for the competition on television and I went just so that I could shut her up and say “I went, nothing came of it. It’s done.” Then things didn’t turn out that way and I was surprised how well I did in the competition.It’s been four years since I’ve been doing that and it’s just something that I wouldn’t change for anything. What I love about the program is that it is local. You get to see your own country, places that you wouldn’t think of going to and it is very down to earth and laid back. It gives me the freedom because I do that between productions so I am always working. It is security. That is a big deal for artists. If you want to be able to do this you can’t have a 9am-5pm office job but we need to make ends meet even in the months when you are not in a show.
Have you noticed any differences or similarities between presenting and performing?
I must say I prefer performing because it is my passion and it just makes you feel so alive being in front of an audience and feeding off their energy and feeling like you have really created something as an artist. When you are presenting, there is a very personal thing about it. Meeting the different people and just having the everyday interaction that I love which is different from being in a production with someone and getting to collaborate with them and go through that process over weeks or months. Presenting you meet someone in a day, interview and get to know them and the next day you are doing something else. I think it keeps it fresh and interesting. I always want to be stimulated and experience different things because I get bored very quickly.
I came across the video of you performing with Katherine Jenkins. What was that experience like?
That was such a surreal moment. I didn’t expect that we would get the change to perform together. I thought it was just going to be the interview and the day before they asked me “do you know a duet you guys can do together?” I am a soprano, she’s a mezzo so the ‘Flower Duet’ is the most obvious one. One of those out-of-body did that really happen to me? The evidence is there but it still flies over your head in the moment. In retrospect, now, since my mom is no longer around, they have footage of her being interviewed for the clip and it is my favourite footage of my mom. I remember when Orpheus (in Africa) did its second run, she was already in her wheelchair by then and she came to the theatre and she would sit in her wheelchair allocated seat and look up at me when I was singing and she closed her eyes and she just beamed. She had that same look on her face there as she did when she spoke in the video. In the video she said about keeping a seat for her when she is no longer around. It is my favourite footage of my mom still and sometimes I watch it from time to time. I miss her. I miss her so much.
I read that The Fugard kept a seat open for her on one of your opening nights.
She was always the one that never had doubts that this is what I should be doing because it makes me happy. When the seat was there I got some flowers for her and I put them on the seat. I just had a moment centering myself before the show and speaking to her. The cast in that show was incredible. The Fugard was incredible. They all know her because she was a regular at the theatre. They were incredibly supportive and sensitive around when she passed away. I couldn’t have gotten through it without the support of them. They become your friends and family in that moment because you don’t get to switch off. You come to work because it’s what you have committed to so they just end up carrying you through that. There were many conversations in the dressing room. As horrible as cancer is, and it feels like such a personal thing, you are never alone. There are people around you that go through the same thing. When you have the conversations with them, you don’t realise that they are in the same amount of pain and they can relate. That shared humanity is what gets you through all of that. There were many tears in the dressing rooms behind the stage and then you just wipe it off and you go on. I am doing what I love and that makes it ok.
Do you feel as though your opera training has helped you transition into presenting and performing in musicals?
Yes. It is completely inseparable. I find musical theatre to give me more of a freedom than opera ever does. There is no dialogue in opera. It is all sung and it’s underscored. With musical theatre, I really felt like I got a chance to grow as an actress and hone that side of my craft. In the Opera School you must be focused on voice. You know you can sing but getting the actual experience of being in a run for months on end and play around with that is something that only started when I did musical theatre. Operatic runs are a week and if you have more than one cast, which you do in the Opera School, sometimes you are tripled cast. You have four weeks of rehearsals that you split with two other people and then you only get one show. You can’t grow from that. It’s almost like you have broken the ice and now it’s done. With Musical Theatre runs it’s really just digging at it all the time, reimagining it, looking at it from different angles.
What was it about West Side Story that attracted you to the production?
That score is unlike anything out there. I loved the music. I am a hopeless romantic so the story of a musical Romeo and Juliet really appealed to me. I think I only knew that I wanted to be in The Fugard production after I auditioned with Jonathan Roxmouth. He was already cast as Tony and I think I was one of the last people to come in and the first time I met him was when we did the balcony scene where we sang ‘Tonight’ in the audition room in front of the panel and it was just magic. He is like my musical crush. I have such incredible respect for his artistry and his generosity of giving so much of himself to work with. I think straight off the bat there was just this chemistry in the room between the two characters. I knew we could make music together. I walked out of there and I was like “I don’t care if I don’t get cast. It’s fine. This experience was worth the entire process for me.” Then when I found out that I was doing it, it was one of those pinch myself moments. I am excited, after 16 months, coming back to the same piece, I feel it’ll be so fresh and so settled now. I know there are a lot of new members in the ensemble but the principles have mostly stayed the same so for us it’ll be doing a show with people you know and trust. You can explore even more now in those characters. We have all done a bit of living since then and I think the more life experience you have, it bleeds into everything that you do, especially in the characters that you play.
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
The balcony scene is definitely one of them. The duet with Jonathan singing ‘Tonight.’ I think that is just theatre magic. The music and the stage at that moment is incredible. I was lucky because I have a swing for me, Filipa van Eck, who does the Maria alternate. So I got to watch the show, which you don’t always get to do. You don’t always get to see how everything looks from the front. It’s magical. The show is magic.
What has playing Maria taught you?
So many things. I think that role for me, because it happened in such a specific time in my life, we started rehearsals one month after my mom passed away and everything was still so raw and I had to be in denial and suppress my emotions just to be able to work because it is already such an emotional piece. You are constantly on the brink of tapping into your own pain but not letting it overwhelm you and if anything the run and the character taught me that I was capable of handling more than I thought that I could. As a character, she is a gift. She goes through such a journey. You see so many aspects of the character and I think she’s naive at first but then gets to experience this incredible, short and fleeting but real love. That is really all that matters and is important. Her journey at the end is such an emotional scene but that is the crux of it and where it comes down to. We are not all different. The prejudice and the violence and the hate, the bigotry, all of that, we are all hypocrites at the end of the day. If you can get rid of that hypocrisy, there is an energy that binds us together.
What has been you favourite role that you have played?
I think Julie in Show Boat. I think that was the moment for me when I realised that I was addicted to this now and there was no looking back. She is also just one of those characters that gives you so much to work with. I felt so full because it was my first time working with Janice Honeyman. That sealed the deal for me. I loved that role and I loved that the production got to tour to the UK for five weeks and I realised that I wanted to combine my love of performing with my love of traveling.
Do you have any dream roles?
I am about to leave to play my dream role!* Tomorrow, I go to Durban to do the Sound of Music. I grew up with that music and never in my life did I think that I would play that role. That is definitely one of my favourites. There are a lot of things that I still want to sing in life. I would love to do Sarah in Ragtime. I will see how it goes from here. If I can work, I’m happy. I don’t want to set limits. If anything my life has proved to me up until this point that some things you can’t plan but if you keep working hard, when opportunities arise, your destiny has a way of shaping itself. That is where I am at the moment. Live as much as you can. Gain as much experience as you can. Live outside of your work as well. Don’t limit yourself and have an end goal because if you don’t hit that, the only thing that you have is disappointment and resentment whereas if you are open and just work hard, you constantly keep surprising yourself and you get to a place of gratitude as opposed to disappointment. It has worked for me so far. I think it’ll keep working for me because it is a way of embracing life and not shutting yourself off. As long as people give me an opportunity to learn I am keen.
It’s quite interesting that there are a lot of Marias in your life.
I joke about naming my first daughter Maria if it ever comes down to it. The Marias are good ones. The two big Marias. Coincidence? Who knows.
What is something you are most proud of?
Professionally West Side Story was the big one for me so far. I am very proud of what I managed to do, especially knowing how difficult it was for me during that time. This year has just been a year of replenishing what life takes out of you. Performing, you give so much of yourself but sometimes you don’t realise that you are at a deficit emotionally and spiritually. Between productions this year I decided that this is the year to really just take time and look after yourself because if you don’t do that the wheels come off and it gets ugly. People start to self-destruct and you start creating coping mechanisms that aren’t healthy. I was definitely venturing towards not being in a good space with myself. So I took time out and I went and I walked the Camino by myself. It was one of those experiences that will last a lifetime. I cannot recommend it highly enough for people to step outside of your life and be objective of things. The experience became a meditation as a means to an end. I feel like where I am now, my glass is full again and my batteries are recharged. I’m excited to apply this new calm energy to work that is focused as opposed to “I’m in survival mode and things need to get done.” I think next year will be the best year yet.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Virginia Davids was my singing teacher at the Opera School. She had an illustrious career as well but I think, more than anything, she is just so down to earth and she is so set on plowing the expertise back in the next generation of singers. She does incredible work in the community. Up until very recently she had a community choir in Mitchell’s Plain where she lives. She is just the most beautiful example for me of having been a successful artist and a well-rounded person and a lovely person at that. My respect and admiration for her has no end.
* This conversation took place in October of 2016.