Our students have plenty of opportunities to achieve their dreams outside of the classroom and to give back to the community. Some of our vocalists are currently touring with the spectacular Welsh National Opera and, so far, they’ve visited, Cardiff, Llandudno and Bristol performing Play Opera Live! This out-of-this-world show aims to introduce families to the wonder of opera and get more people excited about it. Head to Instagram and click on the ‘Vocal Takeover’ highlight to go behind-the-scenes of the tour.
It also happens to be ‘World Opera Day’ on 25 October 2023. So, to mark this special day and to celebrate our collaboration with the Welsh National Opera, we spoke to vocal coach Libby Burgess about what it takes to become an opera singer and why she loves this art form.
Why do you love opera?
The best thing about opera is you have all these different aspects coming together. You’ve got music and words but also staging, scenery, costumes, lighting, and movement – it’s an immersive way of experiencing stories.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about opera?
When people think of opera, they often think of really loud singing in a huge space, and actually you don’t have to have a massive voice to sing opera. You have to be interested in storytelling and the music, and what the music is telling us, and you have to commit to character and drama. It’s not about making the most noise, especially when your voice is still growing.
What are the challenges of teaching and learning opera?
For young singers, like we have here at Chetham’s, part of the challenge is that their instrument, their voice itself, is still developing. It’s like someone playing clarinet and having to physically build the instrument as well as learning how to play it. Some are not ready to sing certain operatic music, but they can still develop all the skills they need.
Another challenge is that to put across a character really well, you have to sound like you speak that language fluently. You have to know how to pronounce all the words and you also have to know every bit of meaning, not just literal meaning, but the subtext and the nuance. You have to put the character and emotion into a language you don’t speak.
How do you go about training young people to sing in a foreign language?
We do a lot of work on the sound of the language, the different vowel and consonant sounds. We do work on meaning and ways of integrating the meaning with what you’re singing, swapping between English and Italian or French, and always trying to link to the narrative.
What is your advice to people that have never experienced opera before?
With opera, the best thing to do is to see it to get the whole effect of it. It’s the most amazing type of music! You’ve got everything from dramatic dark stories, like Peter Grimes, to huge romantic stories like La Boheme. You’ve got opera that is modern and gritty, and others are timeless and funny. There’s really something for every moment.