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'As a mezzo you usually play boys' Farmer's daughter Rebecca Afonwy-Jones will be pulling on some glamorous gowns - for a change - DURINGWELSH National Opera's new season.The mezzo soprano chats to Karen Price about her rise from country girl to singing star.

Byline: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones

REBECCA Afonwy-Jones was at her family farm, near Montgomery, when she received one of the most important calls of her life.

Welsh National Opera was preparing for its final night on tour with Berg's production of Lulu but the singer playing Countess Geschwitz was unable to perform.

So after an emergency dash to Plymouth, the 35-year-old understudy made her debut with the Cardiff-based company.

"I got the call on Easter Sunday and was told, 'You're on!'" says the mezzo soprano, recalling the moment she heard she would be performing with WNO for the first time.

"I was at the farm in Wales and the performance was in Plymouth. I travelled down on Easter Monday and the show was on Tuesday so there was a bit of time. As this was the last show of the tour the rehearsals had finished five weeks earlier. I had to go for costume fittings and I remember lying on the floor of the dressing room and thinking: 'Oh my god!' "The performance started at 7pm and at 20 past six I had a session with the pianist and then I was on stage. But it was just amazing. I cut my teeth with WNO that night - April 2, 2013," she says, reeling off the momentous date.

And it seems that she certainly made an impression as just weeks later she was made an associate artist with the company and is now about to perform in La traviata.

The Verdi opera is part of a trilogy, under the theme Fallen Women, being staged during the company's spring season. It opens at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff tomorrow with a new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. The third opera in the series is Boulevard Solitude by Hans Werner Henze.

Afonwy-Jones, who was named by Box Office as "one to watch" in 2014, is singing the role of Flora in La traviata, which tells the story of Giorgio Germont who has realised that Violetta, the fallen woman he drove away from his son, Alfredo, was the best thing that will ever happen to his inexperienced boy. But his realisation comes late in the day as Violetta's health is getting worse.

"It's a supporting role but it's a wonderful role for a young singer," she says of Flora. "While there's not a massive amount of pressure, when you're on stage, my god you're really on stage.

"I also get to wear some amazing big dresses and ridiculous wigs.

"When you're a mezzo you usually play boys, animals or old ladies but Flora is super glamorous, although she's not quite as elegant as Violetta," she says of the leading soprano role played this time round by Linda Richardson.

Afonwy-Jones, who studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, has been enjoying learning from experienced opera stars, like Alan Opie (Georgio Germont) during rehearsals.

"He just delivers. You really feel that you're in the presence of someone who is highly skilled and makes it all look effortless. And it's wonderful watching Linda as Violetta. During downtime, I've enjoyed chatting with her. We're both farmers' daughters."

Afonwy-Jones, who is currently overseeing the conversion of a 16th-century barn at the family farm, got involved with music while she was at boarding school in Shropshire where she was a chorister. After studying English literature at Oxford Brookes University she was a jazz and musical theatre student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. But it was while working as a medical secretary at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, that she became involved with the BBC National Chorus of Wales and Tim Rhys-Evans' mixed choir Serendipity and the music director encouraged her to move into the opera field.

After graduating, her first job was with Scottish Opera where she sang the much sought-after role of Carmen. But she reveals the hours leading up to her debut went far from smoothly.

"I remember waking up and thinking, 'I don't have a voice,'" she recalls. "I was having some kind of allergic reaction and had to book an emergency appointment with Scottish Opera's GP. It had never happened before, I was given antihistamines.

"On the day of a performance, you have to tell management by 1pm that you're fit. I took the antihistamine during the doctor's appointment and came out at 12.45pm. I had to make a decision at five to one as to whether I would go on. I didn't feel fine but I told them I would be going on. Luckily there wasn't a problem and it was a great show actually."

Now she's hoping that the run-up to the opening of La traviata will be a little less eventful.

"I'm excitied. It's very theatrical and accessible and has music people will recognise. My parents, Alan and Sandra, will be there on opening night - they wouldn't miss it."

A pre-season talk about the theme Fallen Women with WNO's artistic director and chief executive David Pountney takes place at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, tonight at 8pm. MANON LESCAUT Manon Lescaut is the classic Fallen Woman. Puccini charts her rapid descent from innocent to criminal with feverish intensity in this new production.

Where? Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, tomorrow and February 15, 22 & 27; Venue Cymru, Llandudno on April 2 & 4 LA TRAVIATA Verdi's tale tells the story of Giorgio Germont who realises that Violetta, the fallen woman he drove away from his son, Alfredo, was the best thing that will ever happen to his inexperienced boy. His realisation comes late in the day as Violetta's health is getting worse. Can Germont repair the damage before it's too late? Where? Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff on February 11, 16, 21 & 25 and March 1; Venue Cymru, Llandudno on April 1 & 5 BOULEVARD SOLITUDE Manon and Armand are in love. But can their love survive when a world of sex, drugs and crime intrudes on their happiness? This is a new production of Hans Werber Henze's opera.

Where? Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff on February 26 & 28; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, on April 3
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 7, 2014
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