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Opera training: how to hit the high notes

The Marriage of Figaro at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2016. Photo: Robert Workman
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If you want to train as an opera singer, Britain seems a good place to be based. In the 2017 listing by subject, QS World University Rankings placed Juilliard School in New York first in the new performing arts schools category but there were no fewer than three British conservatoires featured in the top 10.

The Royal College of Music is in second place, while the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland come joint third. Nine British universities, along with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, are in the top 50.

So what are the available pathways for aspirant opera singers in Britain?

“There are many routes and it’s a long, slow burn,” says Hilary Boulding, principal of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, one of the UK’s many successful conservatoires whose postgraduate opera programme has been running for six years. “You have to get the technique right to allow the creativity to come through and that takes time,” she adds.

The most common training pattern is a first degree in music, or surprisingly often in something completely different such as accountancy or medicine, and then a postgraduate opera programme.

“There is a huge diversity among our students who come from many different training and work backgrounds,” Boulding says.

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland runs a well established (started in 1994) two-year M Mus/ MA opera programme that enrols between 20 and 25 students each year.

Semele, a co-production with
Mid-Wales Opera and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in 2017. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis

Timothy Dean is head of opera and his department assesses every applicant on merit. “Talent, potential and ability” is sought and, he adds: “Consideration will be given to relevant experience deemed to compensate for any traditional education.” Successful singers such as Andrew McTaggart, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Elizabeth Atherton and Orlando Mason are graduates of this programme.

Similarly, the Royal College of Music’s one-year artist diploma in opera recruits “students with the potential to become operatic singers” rather than rigidly stipulating academic entry qualifications.

The pattern at Royal Academy of Music is comparable. Its two-year programme, Advanced Diploma in Opera, welcomes applications from potential students who do not have the usual master’s degree “if they are of appropriate performing level”. RAM opera programme graduates include Mary Bevan and Lucy Crowe. Students benefit from working with visiting professors such as Kiri Te Kanawa and John Mark Ainsley.

Not that opera training is all about voice. “Voice is crucial, of course, but you have to learn to fill a large space, usually without amplification,” says Angela Livingstone, RWCMD’s head of opera, performance and choral conducting. “But it’s only one part of being an opera singer. You also need acting skills. And the ability to collaborate and work well with others is essential. Opera performers need to understand how the industry works as well and how to behave in, for example, rehearsals. We also teach our students how to look after their health – because your voice is your instrument and it’s part of your body – and how to manage themselves as small businesses.”

She adds that, like any performance art, opera needs strong team players rather than people with fixations about being centre stage.

Livingstone uses the word “voice-centric” a lot and insists that the best training isn’t. Rather, it should be holistic and “whole person”. Nonetheless, students on most opera programmes can expect two singing lessons a week and performance opportunities both in-house and via partnerships. RWCMD works with Welsh National Opera and RCS has links with Scottish Opera, for instance.

It doesn’t make sense to train for a totally focused career as an opera singer anyway. “Most of our graduates need a portfolio of skills to stay afloat, especially in the early years. They will need to do some teaching, workshops and other tangential activities for which you need good communication skills, so that’s part of the training too,” explains Livingstone.

Guildhall School of Music and Drama offers an MA in opera making and writing, in addition to the usual performance training opportunities. It’s a partnership with the Royal Opera House to develop people wanting to write and compose operas, and runs for one year.

It may all seem pretty remote if, for example, you’re still at school and have decided that you like singing and find opera intriguing. “The best starting point is to see as much opera, theatre and film as you can. Get the feel of how storytelling works on stage. Go to concerts too,” advises Livingstone. “Then get a good singing teacher who specialises in classical voice and will teach you how to look after your voice properly.”

She continues: “You need to read music as well, so some piano lessons, for example, might be a good idea. Work on your languages too – French, German and, most important of all, Italian.”

Postgraduate training is not cheap. Some scholarships and bursaries are available for the most talented individuals in some conservatoires and some master’s programmes are now eligible for student loans. Most UK students, however, have to self-fund tuition fees, such as £8,865 per year at RCS for the two-year course or £12,141 for the one-year alternative. RCM’s year-long course costs £12,500 and RAM’s two-year training is £17,000 per year.

Conservatoires with opera departments are typically strong in professional development opportunities or the next stage of training too. RCS, for example, has graduates who have gone on to Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artist Programme, National Opera Studio and the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme at Royal Opera House.

So it is not a surprise that singers and others who want to work in opera come from all over the world to train in some of these world renowned, high-ranking conservatoires.

For further information on courses visit: rcm.ac.uk; ram.ac.uk; rcs.ac.uk; cssd.ac.uk; gsmd.ac.uk; rwcmd.ac.uk

This feature is part of The Stage special on opera. Read more stories here

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