After covering Calaf at ENO, I went on to cover Adorno in Simon Bocanegra, Erik in the Dutchman, the Drum Major in Wozzeck and Cavaradossi in Tosca. And that, my friends, was that.
Success I was once told can be expressed as an equation: Success = Quality x Acceptance x Action. So, let me see if I can get this right… Say, you give yourself a score for Quality… er…8/10 or something. As a decimal that’s 0.8. Then, how would you rate your level of Acceptance, that is the Acceptance level you enjoy in your field? 4/10 for that, say… Lastly, Action. How much Action are you taking? Let’s say you score that 9/10. That gives you 0.8 x 0.4 x 0.9 = 0.288!! That is not good! But at least you can see where you need to go to work.
Algebra and maths generally had somewhat eluded me at school, as had the maths teacher’s favourite school-boy beating slipper. As a singer and as a mathematician I could see there was room for development and have worked hard on the former not the latter to do things better. Without an agent at the time, I self-represented and strove for greater acceptance – though this is not something that has come to me easily. Action! I took plenty. I even managed to obtain an audition for the Met and a private consultation with Maestro Domingo. I sang my Luigi aria to him in a fairly small room and had a very convivial chat. I would later cover the tenor lead in I due Foscari at ROH and sang for him again. He was gracious on both occasions and encouraged me. He declared I was ready ‘to sing these big roles’ and then came a BUT… ‘but the big houses will always want a name.’ At the time I didn’t give it much thought, and today I can see what he meant! He was referring to Acceptance.
I read some time ago that once you see someone’s potential, that is all you can see in them. This strikes me as decisive. People develop, progress and grow, and some people will see potential, nurture it, believe in it and help it grow. Others will focus on what doesn’t work and will write you off. That is life and one cannot expect it to be otherwise.
The roles I have sung thanks to the willingness of a handful of people to see and encourage my potential have made me grow and develop in ways I could not have imagined. I am not the singer I was even two years ago. The technical challenges associated with roles like Tristan, Tannhauser and Mahler’s 8th symphony, the desire to overcome them, the input of great coaches and teachers and simply having the opportunity to have a go and learn along the way all bring about the most extraordinary development and growth. It’s a pity such support is so hard to come by.
It’s also a pity that many houses feel obliged to follow when they could lead (…we will always need a name). Leadership takes a willingness to challenge the status quo as Warren Bennis says. Lead the way and the audience will follow…one would hope. However, there’s much more to success than quality, acceptance and action. Expensive PR, influential agents, casting directors’ preferences and allegiances, politics, favouritism, media hype to name but a few other factors may have a small part to play.
Notwithstanding, the myth of meritocracy is pervasive in our world view. Those winning the rat race deserve to be there and those bringing up the rear deserve to be there too! Winners and losers all deserving their place in the race. That is the essence and the pitfall of meritocracy as Alain de Botton asserts. He argues that Fortune (the Goddess is depicted with a cornucopia and a rudder to alter the course of one’s fate) may be a better explanation for success. Fortune can change the course of one’s life in the blink of an eye. Success can show up as can disaster and failure. This belief has the merit of being humbling whereas the culture of ‘deserving’ is inclined to produce ruthlessness, selfishness, and fear of failure. One is either a winner or a loser…
If rewards are perceived to be scarce, it is much harder to nurture the potential of others in case they inch ahead of us in the rat race. As Abraham Maslow argued, when we see an individual ‘succeed’ we may experience ‘a feeling of deficiency’ – as though something is being taken from us (see Steven Covey’s appendix to the Harvard Law School article Who’s got the Monkey for more on this).
Growing up with a famous boxing champion and national treasure in the family, I have always seen success as being about fame and money. I don’t have a great deal of either and must, by this reckoning, be a failure. However, what inspires me is the pursuit of excellence – elusive as it may be – and the desire to be of service to music and music lovers.
The National Opera Studio auditions I took part in in 2009 were a turning point. At the first audition I remember singing Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci and it went well – even that elusive flow-state (in the zone) experience showed up, which was a first for me in an audition.
I was invited back to the second round of auditions and walked in, fully expecting there to be two or three people on the panel and as I opened the door and strode in, I was shocked to see a small crowd of representatives from the big UK opera companies!
Expect the unexpected became a kind of mantra after that experience.
To my surprise I was offered a cover job at ENO – Calaf in Turandot! This was an exciting prospect and a challenge that was right for me at that point in my journey.
In one of my coaching sessions with a key music department member I was told my high notes were God-given, which pleased me. My coach was also astonished that I had another job (at the time I was working as a training consultant). This comment bemused me somewhat. It would certainly not be possible to sustain a singing career on a modest cover fee. Did this mean I was any less of a committed singer and musician?
In any case, the National Opera Studio symposium on The Singers of Tomorrow had already highlighted the theory that some singers with bigger voices were often unable to sustain a career until their voices had matured sufficiently. In the interim, it was postulated, many singers with bigger voices may give up. In the absence of a trust fund, a rich benefactor or a silver spoon it is not surprising that an aspiring dramatic tenor such as myself would have found other ways to earn a living… After all, is this not a common phenomenon among actors?
The National Opera Studio’s scheme to support a singer like me was a godsend. It has subsequently benefitted a handful of other singers and the last I heard it had been stopped due to funding issues! What a pity!
Coaches at the Studio were all fantastic in their different ways and one led me to a teacher in Venice who made a huge difference to me – as he does to a good many excellent singers.
In a mysterious dot-joining way this all led me to my first audition at the Royal Opera House in 2011. I sang Luigi’s aria Hai ben raggione and my Pagliacci aria. As a result, I was – to my sheer delight – invited to cover Luigi in the acclaimed Richard Jones production. Signing on that dotted line meant a lot to me and I set to work learning the tremendously veristic role of Luigi.
A week before the cover rehearsals were due to begin I received a surprise phone call informing me that my presence was required the next day for the beginning of the main cast rehearsals… Jaw dropped so far as to pick up grass stains – I was in the garden at the time.
Luckily, I had learned my part well as after the talk through I was on the rehearsal stage with the stars. I was on top of my cues and this made a good impression. Why covers don’t always learn their music as thoroughly as they should, is a mystery to me! And I was never even remotely interested in being a scout! In fact, I had run away from Cubs as a kid, swearing, after Akela insisted I had to wear shorts if I wanted to continue to attend.
In the middle of that first week there was a music call with maestro Pappano. The stars chatted about their experiences at the Met and I felt a bit of an outsider…
Without further ado or chit-chat the maestro entered and we sang through the piece without stopping. Sir Antonio has subsequently said I was ‘mighty impressive’ in this part and we had further one-one-coaching in which he really planted the Wagner seed that has grown into my now international career! I owe him a lot!
Growing up in South East London, son of a plumber, nephew of a boxing legend, I never imagined for a second that I would become an opera singer.
Mum hailed from a mining village in South Wales and always claimed the singing came from her side of the family. However, my great grandfather, George Cooper, was a handy singer and a talented boxer - or was it the other way around?
Opera was not on the agenda. Maybe plumbing? Definitely not boxing (disappointingly) and suits were equally alien.
The 11 plus - loathed by some - gave me access to the local grammar school, Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Boys' school in New Cross (an apostrophe nightmare).
Kids down my street called me a snob and at school they told me I had to lose the cockney accent. Confusing!
Snobbery cuts both ways and is no better when it's inverted.
Uncle Henry went from the Bellingham Estate to Buckingham Palace. I've gone from the streets of South East London to the Royal Opera House. A humble achievement compared to my uncle. I doubt I will be knighted.
Nevertheless, it takes something to break the mould and the conditioning of the environment one is born into. What's possible? That is the question...
No one in my family had ever been to university before me, no one! My parents were so proud of my achievements and had no clue how to support me in my ventures. They were definitely not helicopter parents. I pity kids who have those.
School opened my eyes to what was possible. University, music, theatre, sport, art - it was all encouraged.
I was good at German for some reason – I still had a lot of work to do on me English (!) and I was urged to apply to university. I went to Durham and got a decent degree.
I liked singing and performing and did a bit at school and uni. I moved to Paris and studied privately with a singing teacher. I switched to tenor and got into the National Conservatoire. I was chuffed. It wasn’t easy though as I had to support myself financially and I got fed up after two years of French operetta!
I can’t really say why it took me so long to break into the opera profession, but it took an eternity. Years of study, struggle, hope, despair and determination. Ironically, I will sing at the Paris opera this year, while most of my peers from the Conservatoire have probably long since given up or are teaching.
My first audition for Opera Holland Park chorus in 2007 was a giggle. I sang, or at least tried to sing, Che gelida manina… This was not a wise choice though I do have a top C. Mr. Clutton advised me to keep working on my technique and I was then offered a place in the chorus of Nabucco and Jenufa at fairly short notice. My first opera engagement…
Opera Holland Park was supportive enough to offer me some small roles and that helped get me started.
The National Opera Studio also backed me and I received coaching there as an ‘outsider’ with a bigger voice. ENO were supportive at first with a few cover jobs. I once jumped in for the tenor in Simon Boccanegra, singing from the side. The then casting director enthusiastically agreed with me when I said to him afterwards that I was amazed at the generous audience response. In his expert opinion, I was ‘unsophisticated’ and there were some better Americans who had come to his attention somehow. It was far better to support them than a ‘talented amateur’ who had had a different job. Also, not having spent 6 years at music college obviously meant I was no proper musician and could never possibly cut it in the rarefied opera world of ENO, Opera North and most other companies in the UK. With the exception of the Royal Opera House that is…
to be continued…