A Star is Born

Article by Denis Coe

In the years since I founded the Company in 1987, British Youth Opera has developed a variety of activities which complement the central training and performance period in the Summer. Appearances at major venues like the Wigmore Hall, The Queen Elizabeth Hall, and St John’s Smith Square give BYO singers and instrumentalists opportunities for concert and recital work.

An association with major charities has enabled BYO singers to appear at prestigious locations like 10 Downing Street, St James’s Palace, Windsor Castle, Chequers, and stately homes in other parts of the country. The Company has also presented several major productions at the Covent Garden Festival, been involved in educational work and taken singers abroad. This year sees the production of BYO’s first recording which will feature the outstanding summer production from last year of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia.

Naturally the Summer Season remains BYO core activity. The performance of fully staged operas at major theatres in London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Swansea, Cambridge and elsewhere is preceded by a period of rehearsal and training under experienced professionals.

BYO has also pioneered the “link” systems which gives all BYO’s principal singers an opportunity to work on their roles with distinguished international singers who will almost certainly have already performed the role. Artists who have given this magnificent voluntary help include: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Dame Felicity Lott, Sir Thomas Allen, Robert Lloyd, Stuart Burrows, Valerie Masterson, Richard Van Allan, John Tomlinson, Andrew Shore, Jean Rigby, Lilian Watson and former BYO alumni like Jasan Howard, Rosemary Joshua and William Dazeley.

These fine artists often remark how they wish that a similar scheme had existed when they began their careers and, indeed, that BYO had been established then!

Each year BYO auditions over 200 young singers aged 22-30 years from all parts of the country and it is often the first time that individual singers have worked on a major production outside their own colleges. This bring together of talented young musicians can be quite challenging when singers suddenly find themselves moving from a positon of being outstanding in their individual colleges to be one of a number of equally gifted ones from elsewhere.

By the end of a BYO Summer Season its members will have been given a flavour of what it is like to be a full-time professional in an Opera company. They work as an ensemble where all are valued equally and they have the opportunity of presenting their work in leading commercial theatres and, within a strictly controlled environment, they experience the stresses and the strains, as well as the joys of working in Opera. Inevitably the actual level of operation which is possible each Season depends on the financial support which BYO can attract and having little or no public funding over the years has made that task extremely difficult.

As a former Council member of the National Youth Theatre and now one of its Vice Presidents, I was closely involved with national youth companies long before I established British Youth Opera.

Experience with these companies leaves me puzzled and dismayed that they have been denied any major public funding. They self-evidently represent and nurture the best young artistic talent and the future of the Arts in Great Britain is in their hands. Being an optimist by nature I hope and believe that this past neglect by public funding bodies can and must change.

In spite of major funding difficulties BYO remains confident about the future. It has established excellent relations with the music conservatoires and BYO will always be grateful for the support which they give to the Company.

Equally, the opera companies have come to recognise that BYO can be a highly important stage between the conservatoires and themselves. Links and also been established with teachers, agents, and other prominent organisations working with young singers like the National Opera Studio, Clonter Opera and Opera Holland Park, the latter to whom I am indebted for the invitation to write this article.

For those at the top of the profession, opera singing can be a glamorous occupation. The sublime fusion of music and drama, the status and recognition and the financial rewards can be a heady mix. But the travelling, the isolation, and the vulnerability of the human voice, to say nothing of the idiosyncrasy of directors, conductors and opera administrators can all take their toll.

“Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington” can seem painfully prophetic to a singer who, after years of training, sees the early promise of a successful career vanishing as offers of operatic roles fail to materialise and other talented young singers are preferred.

Poor teaching, lack of direction and professional advice, unsuitable roles or too many performances over a period can all contribute to the early end of a promising career.

Admittedly there can be few professions where the “highs” and the “lows” are more intense and no amount of planning can alter this fact. Nor should it; at its best opera is an intense and emotional experience.

Nevertheless, anyone who cares about opera should also be concerned that those who enter the profession do so with as much encouragement and structured help as possible.

The young singers’ programmes which are run by the opera companies are increasing and there are other hopeful signs of an awareness of the need for improvement in this area. Long term solutions, including the possibility of a national opera centre, will need a substantial investment of money and resources and I hope that all who care about the future of opera in this country will give much thought to the best ways of nurturing the wealth of talent shown by today’s young singers. Certainly I am proud that, over the last 14 years, BYO has played an important part in this work and I look forward to it having a continuing significant role in the years ahead.