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…