Nina Kristofferson – being Billie Holiday

Nina Kristofferson in the Billie Holiday Story. Picture: Roy Tan

Nina Kristofferson in the Billie Holiday Story. Picture: Roy Tan

Musical Theatre Review’s Cameron Smith catches up with actress and singer Nina Kristofferson as she prepares to take her show, the Billie Holiday Story, on tour.

As one of the foremost jazz singers of the 20th century, Billie Holiday was a unique talent. Well, it takes one to know one. Nina Kristofferson is not only a successful opera singer (Porgy and Bess) and classical actress (Medea); she is also, remarkably, an experienced jazz (and hairbrush) vocalist.

“Often my parents would have a bit of jazz and blues in the background, I would pretend to be a famous singer, hairbrush in hand, singing along.”

Among the greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan, one singer in particular made a lasting impression: “Billie Holiday’s voice stood out. Her tone is completely different. That mournfulness and soulfulness in her voice really calls out to you.”

Now Kristofferson is making an impression herself with her self-penned show, the Billie Holiday Story. After successful runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and London’s Charing Cross Theatre, the show is set to tour with a five-piece jazz band led by Allan Rogers.

“I still really enjoy singing her songs and when I think of having the band with me, I get really giddy and giggly with excitement. To actually find myself in similar shoes as her is a great honour.”

The show is a mixture of songs and biography. For example, the number ‘Don’t Explain’ is mingled with a monologue dramatising the real-life incident that inspired the lyric, the moment when Holiday found lipstick on her husband’s shirt. The intention is not just to perform a gig but create a genuine bit of theatre.

“Communicating both the drama and the song and weaving it in such a way that one minute the audience are listening to you singing and then, suddenly, the drama in her story comes out… it helps the audience to hear the song in a different way and open it up to other possibilities.”

There was certainly plenty of drama to draw on from Holiday’s life, from childhood deprivation and abuse to racism, drugs, even imprisonment, and Kristofferson hasn’t been afraid to tackle these issues head on.

“We all have a viewpoint on Billie. We think we know everything about her, but one never knows everything about anyone. It’s an eye-opener, the peeling back of her emotions and what she went through. I just wanted to put that on the table and not necessarily have any judgements about her but just enjoy who she was.”

Then there is that one-of-a-kind voice. It’s something that Kristofferson wants to capture without trying to mimic too precisely.

Nina Kristofferson's Billie Holiday Story - flyer - Copy“I wanted to introduce people to her characteristics – her little quirks, the wonderful way she would phrase something without having to copy her exactly. Otherwise I sell the audience short because they can always go away and listen to recordings of the real Billie Holiday. It keeps the whole show open so people can watch it without thinking ‘Oh, she doesn’t sing exactly like that’. You don’t want exact comparisons.”

It’s certainly a far cry from her classical training and the ‘clean’ vocal timbre required for opera. There can’t be many singers who could comfortably switch between such diverse genres.

“When you’re doing classical, it’s strict. When you’re doing jazz, there’s a looseness and a playfulness, I’m really lucky. I can sing really cleanly or I can dirty my voice up. But that’s because I’ve always done it. Had I not done it since I was very young, I’m not sure I’d be able to do it now.”

As well as the voice, there’s the trademark Holiday look: vintage 1940s dresses and the iconic gardenia flower in her hair.

“I love it. I’m a modern girl but I love dressing up. It’s like stepping back in time. The minute you step into that outfit you move differently.”

She is also working on a new show based around Nina Simone and, between Billie and Nina, it’s hard to think of two more difficult singers to take on (“I know. I must be nuts!”). The fact that she can is a testament to her own uncommon talent and the developing Nina Kristofferson story.

The tour of Nina Kristofferson’s Billie Holiday Story begins on 1 April at the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre and continues until 8 May.

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