By Martin Pickard, Head of Music, Opera North
A few weeks a go there was a flurry in the press about how ‘posh’ the current batch of British pop singers were. Producer Pete Waterman suggested that snobs in the recording companies were favouring privately-educated performers like Lily Allen and Chris Martin, and not signing working-class acts any more. Meanwhile James Blunt’s mum rang the Today programme to defend her son – he had got where he was on talent, not because he had Harrow and Sandhurst on his cv.
The world of classical music is much smaller (and less lucrative!), but we have similar concerns. As Head of Music at Opera North it is part of my job to keep an eye open for the opera singers of the future. Along with others in the opera world I have a nagging feeling that the talent which arrives at our door is coming from a narrower social background than before.
Opera singing is of course a tiny and very competitive profession, but it should in theory be open to all classes – a voice, after all, is the only musical instrument that you don’t need money to buy. The problem seems to be that institutions which used to spot vocal talent at an early age and nurture it – in particular the state schools – are increasingly unable to do so. There is a feeling that only those lucky enough to be given early musical grounding by their parents, or by the more exclusive kind of school, get as far as the conservatoires, let alone into the profession.
This is not to criticise the current excellent batch of young singers, of course – Britain is enjoying a golden age in the performance of Baroque and Classical music, and this is partly fed by the Oxbridge choral tradition. But for the kind of big operatic voice that comes up rarely in each generation – the Siegfried-type tenor, the Tosca-type soprano – we seem to have managed to cut off a whole potential source of supply. Brian McMaster, formerly head of Welsh National Opera, organised a symposium a couple of years ago to look into this very issue: why are the less well-off (and other groups such as the ethnic minorities) so under-represented in the British singing profession?
The question is important not because we want to be social engineers, but because it is in our own interest. Talent, and in particular vocal talent, is our raw material. We have no interest in missing out on the star voices of the future, wherever they might come from. Right now our Education Department is setting up the Opera North Children’s Chorus, which we hope will enable children from all backgrounds to find their singing voice, and in a few cases – who knows? – to become serious lifelong singers.
Just as I was reading the articles about Pete Waterman and James Blunt, news came through that Dame Margaret Price had died – one of the great British opera singers of our time. The obituaries said that she would never have taken up singing professionally if her talent had not been noticed and encouraged by a school music teacher in South Wales. I wondered whether a Margaret Price could still emerge from our educational system. The Opera North Children’s Chorus is no substitute for high-quality music education in schools, but we hope that it will be able to nurture singing talent in the way that that Welsh schoolteacher once did – to the benefit of us all.