My first job was as a soloist at the Royal Opera House, aged nine. That’s why people often tell me I started at the top and have worked my way down.
The story of my first job sounds like something from a movie. I was a precocious kid. I started playing the piano at six and could sight-read at eight. I loved being on stage and had a loud, sort of Italianate, singing voice.
A teacher at my school was passionate about opera and knew a ballet dancer at the Royal Opera House, who arranged an informal audition. Today, that teacher, Pat Greenan, is an eminent opera agent. But back then, an audition at Covent Garden was a first for both of us. I didn’t know enough to be nervous. I just belted my way through an audition piece to Jean Povey, the lady who was in charge of child artists at Covent Garden.
When I finished, she left the room and came back with a score for Michael Tippett’s King Priam. “Learn this,” she said, pointing at the part of Prince Paris. And that was that. I only learned later that not all auditions go this well.
I made my actual debut as the Shepherd Boy in Tosca, along with a then little-known tenor called Placido Domingo. The first time I heard him sing, I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe the power, the richness, the truth of it. I could feel my brain rewiring itself and telling me ‘follow that direction’. And I have.
I haven’t had a conventional opera career. I’ve preferred to experiment. I slammed physical theatre and opera together to co-create (with Tina Ellen Lee) Opera Circus in the 1990s. More recently, I’ve been leading Impropera, as far as we know the world’s only dedicated improvising opera company – high art meets low humour. I’ve also branched out beyond opera into television, theatre and the business world, as well as seeking to unlock the power of mindful walking through my non-profit initiative, Street Wisdom.
Though I am still performing regularly with Impropera, I’m now more likely to be getting others to experience the magic of great performance for themselves, but the intensity of that first job still runs like a thread through everything I’ve done.
CV: David Pearl
Training: Royal College of Music, Trinity College, Cambridge
Theatre includes: Impropera, Made Up, Songs from Nowhere (with Impropera), Kill Me I Love You, Shameless, King Stag (with Opera Circus)
TV includes: The Score – presenter (BBC2)
Other: Social artist, Street Wisdom mindful walking project
David Pearl was talking to John Byrne. For Impropera dates, visit impropera.co.uk