Melinda Hughes enjoys an evening at the National Opera Studio with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and the James Bond of opera
There are a few salons of note in London where you can hear the finest instrumentalists of the moment and catch the opera stars of tomorrow. Thanks to benefactors such as Bob Boas, Ian Rosenblatt and Sir Vernon Ellis, you can (if you get yourself on the list) be met with a glass of champagne and spend a divine evening listening to anything from violin recitals to opera galas.
Recently I was invited to the hottest ticket in town. Sold out the afternoon the email came into my inbox, an evening in conversation with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa with Young Artists from the National Opera Studio was not to be missed.
The last time I attended a live interview with a superstar singer was Chaka Khan at Ronnie Scott's. (My musical tastes vary.) It's always fascinating to get an insight into the life of someone whose life has been totally engulfed by her art form.
Kiri was engaging and funny as she chatted to the head of music at NOS, Mark Shanahan. She remained diplomatic about troublesome co-workers and let slip her shopping addiction, a weakness I heard about years ago as a colleague had to fish her out of duty free as they were closing the gate.
She was also firm with her new prot’g’es at the National Opera Studio. 'Work hard and then work harder' were her instructions, something which will resonate even more today than when she was at the studio (then called the London Opera Centre): back then there was less competition, more jobs and much more mentoring. It's tough for today's singers.
The National Opera Studio takes only twelve lucky Young Artists a year. This is the final step in their opera training before launching a career. It's the fine-tuning, the perfection of language, the honing of repertoire, the perfection of stagecraft and, most importantly, of their vocal technique. What's more, it's free for the Young Artists (although they have to support themselves) so the NOS relies heavily on sponsorship, partly from the Arts Council, partly from the UK's six national opera houses and mostly, of course, from private sponsorship. The National Opera Studio needs to raise ’300,000 a year to help these talented young singers achieve their dream.
With Sir Vernon Ellis as their chairman, they are in good hands, but even more exciting is the recent appointment of a dynamic and notably young chief executive, Emily Gottlieb. This was a brave and fantastic appointment, for this lady already has some pretty good ideas tucked up her sleeve, including a festive evening of English song with Susan Bullock CBE at St Giles Cripplegate on 10 December. Gottlieb knows her stuff too, having spent many years as a hands-on manager of the Royal Opera House, looking after the likes of Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel and Placido Domingo.
We had a chance to hear the stars of the future with performances dotted in between Kiri's interview. I was struck by some unusually beautiful voices, namely Angela Simkin who sang a delightful Cherubino; James Loelu who had a wonderful Tito Gobbi resonance to his voice; and the ridiculously handsome Dingle Yandell, who serenaded Dame Kiri with Gershwin's 'I've got a crush on you' just to prove it's not all Verdi and Wagner. Yandell will certainly give Erwin Schrott a run for his money in a few years. I have already named him the James Bond of opera.
Dame Kiri has established her own foundation to offer mentoring, financial support and career guidance to young talented singers, having acquired support from Rolex, UBS, ASB Bank, BNZ and Fragomen. It is, after all, a very expensive business. I remember never having the money to travel to auditions abroad and saving for months for a new concert dress, but if these singers are lucky they will have a stellar career gracing the world's top stages, earning them hundreds of thousands of pounds. It's a long-term investment in our cultural future, and a worthwhile one.
My boyfriend Mr Legris bemoaned the lack of real bowties amongst the male singers and has offered to buy one for each singer and give a bowtying masterclass. Well, it's a start.
There will be other salons and many other events in the coming year. To become a friend, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Photographs by Robert Workman for the National Opera Studio