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…