Guest post from Thomas Elwin
Ten minute read.
It is just over nine years since I took part in the Jackdaws OperaPLUS project, which in 2011 was Così fan tutte. An intense, extremely busy, and fun filled week. I have very fond memories of my time down there at Jackdaws, working with Saffron and Audrey, my course colleagues, time spent with school children with special needs, and then the performances in the Cheese and Grain of course.
It says a lot for the pull that Jackdaws has that so many from that Così cast have gone on to work in Opera at the highest level. Hannah Sawle (Fiordiligi), Clare Presland (Dorabella), Hannah Bradbury (Despina) and Tim Nelson (Don Alfonso) have all gone on to perform major roles at top Opera houses across Europe, while Sam Queen (Guglielmo) is rapidly developing as one of the go-to singing teachers in the UK (he will be returning to Jackdaws in 2020/21 to run a course).
My own journey since that week has been extremely varied and wide ranging, taking me to opera houses and concerts halls across the UK and Europe, with some incredible highs, and one or two quite significant lows.
At the time of my OperaPLUS course I was just about to finish my vocal studies masters, and about to go on to the Opera Course at the Royal Academy of Music. It was the ideal time to do such a course. For all the lessons, coachings and classes one has as a trainee singer, the opportunities to actually perform full operatic roles are like gold dust and should be jumped at. At this stage, despite being about to go on to specific opera studies, I was very new to opera so this was ideal preparation for the next stage of my development.
In September 2011 I started the Opera course at RAM, and it went off without a hitch. On it I sang a few more complete roles, including another Mozart opera, Tamino in The Magic Flute, and I also sang a role in one of the British Youth Opera productions, in their 2012 season, and continued to listen out for opportunities elsewhere, and consider what step to take next. At the beginning of the new academic year 2012/13, I auditioned successfully to join the chorus at Glyndebourne for my summer after graduation. Then an agent from Germany came to the autumn term Opera, in November 2012, and suggested I might audition for young artist programmes at German Opera houses. This was not something I had considered at all, but I asked a few people about it and then ended up flying to Hannover in January 2013 to audition. It was a very mixed audition, and a mildly terrifying experience – my first audition abroad – but on the back of the opportunity I decided to apply to other ‘YAPs’ (Young Artist Programmes) and soon after I got home from Hannover I was invited to audition in Munich.
What happened next is the first of a few sliding doors moments. After a busy day of rehearsals and lessons at the Royal Academy, in cold January of 2013, I did the same journey home that I had done so many times before. I walked from the academy to the tube, took the Met line to Liverpool St, mainline from there to Manor Park, and a 10 minute walk on the road through Wanstead Flats (a park for those who don’t know it) to my home. Only on this occasion I was followed from Manor Park, and half way along the road through the flats was invited to give my phone and money to two young men carrying knives.
Inevitably I was upset and shaken by the experience of being mugged. It was annoying to lose my phone, and the money, but I was unhurt physically – so I thought.
I flew to Germany again and sang ok in Munich, they decided not to put me through to the next round. Meanwhile I had turned down the place in Hannover because it didn’t feel quite right and the mini German exploration had come to nothing. As a result I applied to the National Opera Studio in London who had auditions a couple of months later.
Over these couple of months my voice didn’t feel right. Slowly and surely parts of my voice that I could rely on were becoming inconsistent. I didn’t think much of it. My final opera at the Academy was a small and easy sing in Eugene Onegin, which would be followed by a few weeks break before heading to Lewes and Glyndebourne in April 2013. I applied to take part in the Kathleen Ferrier competition and was excited for this and the Opera Studio audition. By the time these came about my singing was even more inconsistent, and despite getting through the first round of the Opera studio auditions, both the main audition there and the Ferrier first round were a real struggle.
This was the beginning of April 2013, and on the 6th of April I woke up with no singing voice.
I cancelled some concerts I had that weekend, and just assumed I had a virus or the flu. Yet by the time I had been at Glyndebourne for a month and my voice was still not back I started to really worry. My GP was quite dismissive, nothing that they could see. Then two ENT specialists saw a little inflammation but no real reason to worry or have voice loss. Finally, at the end of June, three months of being mute into a 5 month chorus contract I had been so looking forward to, I had an appointment with an osteopath who had saved me a few years earlier after a car accident.
Within the first minute Michael, my osteo, could tell there were problems. To cut a long story short, it turned out that my physical reaction to being mugged was similar to that of a car crash. The muscles around my neck, shoulders and chest were all extremely tense and locked and Michael was surprised that I could sing at all those initial few months.
I was hugely relieved to have found the cause of my vocal issues, though upset not to have realised earlier and therefore gone into important situations like the Munich, the National Opera Studio, and the Kathleen Ferrier competition auditions without realising that I was fighting a physical battle with myself. Following six months of vocal decline, and accompanying mental struggles, I could now see a way forward. In short, I had to relearn how to use my voice. I had a course of speech therapy with an incredible lady called Maggie Griffith, had an intense period of singing lessons with my teacher at the time, Gary Coward, and had regular osteopathy sessions with Michael.
The summer of 2013 having been a complete write-off, I went into the first year of post studies life without any work at all. I had had to postpone all auditions from April onwards, and was only just emerging into a place where I could use my voice again. I started working at a local restaurant where I lived, I also began teaching piano and singing at a local music school, and spent the rest of the time focusing on getting my voice into shape. I could easily have given up at this point but I had put a huge amount of time, effort, and money into getting my voice back and instead of wanting to stop I had a newly honed focus that had been missing before my voice loss. So I applied for YAPs again, in the UK and in Germany. I tried to run before I could walk and initial auditions were not successful, but in January 2014 I sang to the audition panel at the opera house in Stuttgart and got through to the second round on the day. A success! I returned home and waited to hear more. And waited… and waited. I applied again to the National Opera Studio, and then with nothing coming from Stuttgart, decided to apply for other work.
By the time, two months later, that Stuttgart offered me a further audition I was moments from accepting a job in London. But decided to give Stuttgart a go. The panel in Stuttgart were confused when they heard me, there had been such an improvement in two months. I explained a little about my voice loss, and the fact they were hearing a 5 month voice, rather than a 3 month voice, and they decided to take me onto their programme. YAY!
I can pinpoint the decision to join the Stuttgart Opera as the start of my career proper.
Soon after accepting my place in Stuttgart, I was offered a place on two courses with the Solti Accademia Bel Canto. Firstly a week in Venice on their course for pianists, on which six singers are used a guinea pigs. Then on their course for singers in Tuscany in July, working with some of the best coaches and singers for a few weeks in the Italian sun. Not a difficult time.
Stuttgart turned out to be the making of me. Over my year as a young artist I performed in seven different productions, and over 50 nights on the stage. I sang small and medium roles in German, Italian, French and Russian and just loved the life of working in a full time opera company. The years real highlight came in my last couple of months, when I was covering/understudying the role of Ferrando in Così fan tutte. (Having sung it at Jackdaws in English the music was all there but I needed to fill in the words with the Italian.) I was just in the right place at the right time as the person I was covering ended up being sick for the last two performances and I got the call. Out of seeming despair and the end of a career before it had even started in the summer of 2013, I was now, less than two years later, singing one of the major Tenor roles on stage in a major European opera house.
I owe a lot to the people in Stuttgart, not least the head of the Opera studio there at the time, Bettina Giese, and I was very grateful that at the end of my year in the studio they kept me on a half fixed contract for another season. This meant that I would do a three productions in Stuttgart in the 2015/16 season, two I had done the previous season and one new one, but also allowed me to work elsewhere and I was thrilled to be able to sing the role of Belmonte in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the first time, in a new production in Bregenz, Austria. So in addition for 5 months in Stuttgart, I spent a lovely three wintery months in Bregenz, on the edge of Lake Constance and the Alps. Such a beautiful part of the world. It was also conveniently placed, a four hour train journey away, for me to step in last minute for a few more performances of Così fan tutte at Stuttgart, who then offered me my own performances for the following season.
Around this time I picked up an agent, Jonathan Groves and Helen Hogh at Ingpen and Williams (which soon became Groves Artists), and through them auditioned for English National Opera in summer 2016. Having developed my career away from the UK for two years I was glad that ENO asked me to cover Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni for a new production in autumn 2016. Before this came around, I ended up singing Così fan tutte once more, in the UK and France with Diva Opera, by this point singing Ferrando in Così was almost second nature. At ENO for the Don Giovanni I was covering Allan Clayton, a singer I have always admired and looked up to, and it was great to be working in London. To top it off, Allan was unfortunately taken sick for a few days during the run and I stepped in for two performances, making my London professional operatic debut and receiving a glowing review in Opera magazine for it. An unexpectedly positive start to the 2016/17 season. This was soon followed by my first studio recording as a tenor soloist, singing the role of Alfred in The Mountebanks with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by John Andrews.
The 2016/17 season then became the year of the ‘jump in’, as I found myself stepping in last minute for the whole run of, you guessed it, Così fan tutte with a company called Teatro Barocco. Having received the call just five days before their opening night, I flew out to Vienna and speed learned the production before seven performances in the theatre at the Schloss Laxenburg, a venue used by Mozart himself and an incredible experience. Being in Vienna, and singing Mozart there, was a career highlight and on the back on the contract I was invited back for a production the following season, in early 2018. I went from Vienna directly to Stuttgart, for the production of Così fan tutte I had been booked for a year beforehand, and while I was there I was asked to step in as Telemaco in the new Grange Festival’s first show, The Return of Ulysess, with rehearsals starting just after the end of my Stuttgart contract.
I still remember Jackdaws very fondly, and genuinely consider many of the things I learnt in that week to have been hugely beneficial
Having sung mostly Mozart for much of 2015/16 and early 2017 it was fun to explore Monteverdi for a few months, and also to perform in an English summer opera festival. I was then thrilled to sing my first BBC Prom concert later in the summer but having gone from contract to contract since starting in Stuttgart in September 2014, I was glad for a little time off in the autumn of 2017.
Time off for freelancers is a difficult thing to come to terms with sometimes. It means we don’t have income… but on this occasion it was a much needed break and I knew that I had my contract back in Vienna in early 2018, and also a few performances with the Classical Opera Company who had made me as associate artist for the season.
Sadly, for various reasons, the contract in Vienna did not work out and I was out of pocket by quite a lot of money. Despite working almost non stop for three years up to that point, much of the income had been young artist level fees and I was in no position to lose out on that sort of money. The cancellation really knocked me sideways. My agent managed to get me a little work to fill the time, covering again at ENO in early 2018, but the income lost was never replaced and I have felt that ever since.
Not only did the financial hit affect me, but I slightly lost confidence at this moment too. I didn’t want to be covering, and losing the chance to sing a role again in Vienna felt like a slight on me – though it wasn’t of course. I suspect this confidence loss was felt by audition panels, and I just lost out on a few jobs after this.
It came as a relief then to be invited back to Bregenz again, where I was to sing Jaquino in Fidelio in early 2019, and soon after getting this news I successfully auditioned to be part of Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artist initiative, a mentoring programme including well paid performance opportunities with Barbara conducting.
The Bregenz experience was a slight disappointment compared to the first time there. A number of things contributed to this. The first time I was there the cast were more sociable, and there were more English speakers. It was also a bigger role, a role I enjoyed more and the apartment I was in the first time was better placed for the lake and mountains and the town centre. I left Bregenz the second time slightly less in love with the town than I was the first, and went directly to Munich for two Mozart requiem concerts with the Munich Philharmonic and Barbara Hannigan. This turned out to be a genuine career highlight, something I will always remember.
My final contract of the 2018/19 season was singing the role of Sam Kaplan in Street Scene at the opera in Cologne. Street Scene has a huge cast, and this was a wonderful production with some great colleagues both on and behind the stage. Cologne is a really great city to be in and I was living quite centrally for two months. Yet, with Bregenz running into Munich running into Cologne, I hadn’t really been home for most of the first 6 months of 2019, so was glad for a few months at home that summer.
A few months at home turned into singing the role of Nemorino in The Elixir of Love for a new opera company, Into Opera, set up by a friend I had met at the Grange Festival. I actually sent an abysmal audition tape over from Cologne, but thankfully the conductor for the production was John Andrews who already knew my singing from the recording I had done with him in 2017. We performed the show in a Barn just outside Norwich, to 150 very willing audience members a night. A lovely team of people again and a good end to the 2018/19 season.
Which brings me onto this season… 2019/20. A lighter autumn saw me spending a few days in Venice performing at an Opera Gala, and a couple of weeks in Brussels workshopping new productions of the Da Ponte/Mozart operas. I sang my first, and a week later second, Verdi Requiem and then stepped in very last minute to sing Finzi’s Dies Natalis live on BBC Radio 3 from Maida Vale, with the BBC Concert Orchestra. The main contract for the season though came in the spring of this year, with the English Touring Opera tour of Così fan tutte (yes… that one again) and Bach’s St. John Passion.
Many things attracted me to a tour with ETO. Not least the chance to perform so many times all around the country. So it was a real sadness when the tour was cancelled after just two venues. I have had my ups and downs career wise, and I know we will all come out of the pandemic at some point. Life will continue, music and art will continue and thrive. But it hasn’t felt easy and I would be lying if I didn’t admit to having significant career doubts over these months.
Happily, there seem to be shoots of hope within the industry and I am hopeful for some performances in the near future. I have enjoyed the time at home with my wife and our dog. I have also enjoyed the time to focus on my singing practise and also get fit, but I will jump at the chance to sing on stage again.
I still remember Jackdaws very fondly, and genuinely consider many of the things I learnt in that week to have been hugely beneficial over the following nine years of my burgeoning career.