The Voice of Black Opera: ‘Our vision is for UK opera to be as ethnically diverse as Team GB’

Abigail Kelly stars in the OperaUpClose production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Photo: Christopher Tribble Abigail Kelly stars in the OperaUpClose production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Photo: Christopher Tribble
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After a report last year bemoaned opera as ‘shockingly monocultural’, diversity on UK stages is improving. Yehuda Shapiro looks at how the industry is catching up  with other areas of the performing arts and talks to the founder of a competition set up to promote rising BAME opera stars

In 1961, the young Missouri-born mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry caused both a sensation and a scandal when she became the first black singer to appear at the Bayreuth Festival. Wieland Wagner, who cast her in Tannhauser, countered the reactionaries by asserting that his grandfather composed “for vocal colour, not skin colour”. Bumbry herself recently told the BBC she was “standing up for my people from the point of view of racial equality in the arts… I had my job to do, I was chosen for this role in this place and I wasn’t going to let myself down.” She added: “There’s no reason for me to back away from something I can do.”

Caroline Modiba
Caroline Modiba. Photo: NOS-Malcolm Johnson

Bumbry rose to the heights of her profession and now, at the age of 80, remains active as a teacher and mentor. She is also, with Lord Boateng, a patron of the Black British Classical Foundation, the charity tackling the under-representation of ethnic minorities in opera, which has just announced the 2018 Voice of Black Opera competition.

With finals scheduled for October next year, the competition aims to showcase “the Commonwealth’s finest up-and-coming BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] opera singers”.

It was launched in 2009, when British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn won the Sir Willard White Trophy, named after the Jamaican-born, US-trained and British-based bass-baritone whose distinguished career now stretches over five decades.

Vincent Osborne, artistic director of the Black British Classical Foundation, says: “The Voice of Black Opera is about more than finding fabulous voices. It is about demystifying, inspiring, and creating platforms. Talent has to be grown across the board. The raw talent is there, and you don’t hear artists complaining about their conservatory training, but it’s also a matter of access to signposting and opportunities.”

In Britain, inaugural winner Llewellyn has since appeared at the English National Opera, English Touring Opera, Glyndebourne and Opera Holland Park, while engagements in Germany and Denmark have also developed her repertoire. Her US debut comes next year – not in one of her Puccini, Mozart or Wagner roles, but as Gershwin’s Bess.

Ronald Samm. Photo: Jack Liebeck
Ronald Samm. Photo: Jack Liebeck

As the London-born soprano’s trajectory suggests, opera singers compete in a global market, and it is highly demanding. Multinational casts have long been commonplace. African-American opera singers first made an impact on Europe’s stages in the 1950s, while the last couple of decades have seen performers from South Korea and China become part of the mainstream. Likewise, South African talent has risen up the international ranks in the post-Mandela era. In the UK, soprano Pumeza Matshikiza and bass-baritone Simon Shibambu (both alumni of the Royal College of Music) have gained high-level exposure and experience through the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.

British-born singers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, such as Afro-Caribbean, South Asian and African, are also part of the mix. For all this, a report published last year, Opera Training for Singers in the UK, quoted interviewees bemoaning the “shockingly monocultural” nature of the operatic sector.

It even concluded that the situation for singers from minority ethnic backgrounds “has not improved, indeed has probably deteriorated, over the last 10-20 years” and that “the sector has not had conspicuous success in a gradualist approach towards rectifying its equality imbalance. There is a strong sense… that radical action is now required.”

That report was commissioned by the National Opera Studio, a training centre that works in partnership with six UK opera companies. Among its past and current students are Llewellyn – the first winner of Voice of Black Opera – and three of the performers at this month’s gala to launch the 2018 competition: Caroline Modiba, John-Colyn Gyeantey and Ronald Samm.

The studio is currently preparing to take constructive, grass-roots action with a programme called Diverse Voices, which each year will support up to “eight emerging singers from groups currently under-represented in opera”.

Nadine Benjamin
Nadine Benjamin

Diverse Voices will draw on the mentoring skills of soprano Nadine Benjamin, a certified high-performance coach and winner of the Brixtonian Award for the most promising voice at the 2009 Voice of Black Opera.

Recently, she played Tosca for English Touring Opera and Musetta (in La Boheme) for Scottish Opera. In 2015, she produced a fringe staging of Verdi’s Otello in London, singing Desdemona beside Samm in the title role and South African-born Denver Martin Smith as Iago. “The cast for Otello was white, black, Asian, Israeli, French,” explains Benjamin, “and the director – a young white American, Rebecca Dale – took mental health, rather than race, as a theme.” Otello was portrayed as suffering from post-traumatic stress. “It’s a matter of thinking outside the box and integrating these old stories into our society, of making the stage representative of the way we live in this country,” she says. “When I started learning the role of Desdemona, people told me that no one would cast me in it.”


Stars from voice of black opera

Nadine Benjamin
The soprano has performed roles including Madame Butterfly, Aida and Tosca, and in 2018 sings Countess Almaviva in English Touring Opera’s Marriage of Figaro.

Caroline Modiba
Currently training at the National Opera Studio, the soprano comes from South Africa and took postgraduate studies at Birmingham Conservatoire.

John-Colyn Gyeanteay
An alumnus of the Royal College of Music, tenor Gyeanteay has appeared with companies including Scottish Opera and English Touring Opera and at every major concert venue in Britain.

Ronald Samm
Born in Trinidad, Samm has built a reputation in some of the most demanding tenor roles in the repertoire, such as Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Siegmund and Siegfried and Leoncavallo’s Canio.

Simon Shibambu
After studies at the Royal College of Music, in 2016 the South African bass-baritone joined the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and he has now sung a number of roles at Covent Garden.

Benjamin believes that it is important for questions about race to be discussed openly: “If these things aren’t spoken about, there are no spaces where you can deal with them. As performers, we sometimes need to look at where we are limiting ourselves through our own thinking. If you want to be an opera singer, you need to keep asking the right questions.”

John-Colyn Gyeanteay
John-Colyn Gyeanteay

In 2015, Benjamin starred as Russian exile Nadia in Birmingham Opera’s production of Michael Tippett’s rarely seen The Ice Break with young British baritone Ross Ramgobin as her son Yuri. The two roles in the opera that Tippett conceived for black singers were taken by a Tongan tenor and an American mezzo-soprano.

Under its artistic director Graham Vick, Birmingham Opera has built a reputation for diversity and encouraging community participation. Jean Nicholson, now a consultant and producer, was the company’s general manager for 14 years. “Birmingham is a very multi-ethnic city and this needed to be reflected in the company’s work. Graham has proved it can be done. What always mattered was whether Birmingham Opera would mean something to the people in Birmingham. There was no expectation that the approach would work everywhere.”

Nicholson is concerned, however, that the diminution of musical education in state schools, as catalogued by Ofsted, will limit the potential for diversity in the British component of the operatic workforce. “This is all part of the greater question about how we encourage and develop musicians in the UK,” she says, “but people working in opera are aware that diversity is increasingly important in building opera’s artistic strength… Diversity gives rise to unexpected creative results.”

Simon Shibambu. Photo: Chris Gloag

One fringe opera company offering opportunities to young singers from diverse backgrounds is OperaUpClose. Soprano Abigail Kelly stars in its current production of The Magic Flute.

When he founded the Voice of Black Opera, Osborne’s aim was to highlight an existing wealth of talent. Eight years on from the inaugural competition, three of its original finalists – Llewellyn, Benjamin and the baritone Peter Braithwaite – are forging mainstream operatic careers. Two of the others, Alison Buchanan and the tenor Bernard Abervandana (the stage name of Lloyd Newton, who died earlier this year), joined forces in the avowedly diverse fringe company, Pegasus Opera.

Now, Osborne feels strongly that: “There is a need for black people to be both on stage and behind the scenes, in the chorus and in the management team. Our ultimate vision is for the British opera industry to be as gloriously ethnically diverse as Team GB at the London and Rio Olympics.”

For more information, visit bbcf.org.uk