Soprano Helen Bailey, the first recipient of the Buxton Festival Young Artists Bursary, talks about her career and her time at Buxton Festival
Have you always known you wanted to be a singer, or did it develop over time?
I’ve always loved singing and had many chances to perform at school but didn’t actually decide to train formally until after my undergraduate degree in English Literature and a year of teacher training; I arrived in London, intending to study for one year on a postgraduate course at Trinity College of Music, and it turned into eight years, the final four of which were spent at The Royal Academy of Music. I never expected that it would develop into a career; I was always intending to be an English teacher.
How did you land your first opera role?
After singing in the chorus in productions at Trinity College of Music, and having had some stage management experience in two other productions, I landed my first principal role at the end of my first year. A group of students had created their own opera company, Mean Time Opera, and auditioned fellow students for the roles. Bizet’s Carmen was to be performed at Greenwich Theatre, fully staged, costumed, and with orchestra, and I was thrilled to be offered the role of Micaëla. It was an amazing experience but I was well and truly thrown in the deep end as it’s a big sing for a young singer. I lived to tell the tale and would love to sing the role again in the future.
Last year, you were in the Buxton Festival Chorus. What made you apply to audition?
Jane Glover, former head of Royal Academy Opera, put me forward for it in 2012. I was offered a cover role for the 2013 season but was unable to take it up. I was then offered a cover role for the following year, which I had to decline due to expecting my first child in the middle of the festival! Third time lucky and I was able to join the chorus in 2015, covering the lead role in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco. It was such an enjoyable and memorable experience that I returned for a second year last summer, again as a cover and member of the chorus, plus singing in a festival mass.
How did you find the experience of being in the chorus?
Like me, most of the choristers were returning for a second year so it was lovely to be back working alongside so many familiar faces. Singing in the chorus can be hard work but it was lots of fun to play a soldier in the Bellini opera and to be on stage with such excellent chorus members and soloists. The other three sopranos and I became great friends and we were all instantly supportive of each other. We even formed a ladies’ Barbershop group; we practised in the interval during the run and sang at one of the Song at Six performances at the end of the festival.
You are the first recipient of the ‘Buxton Festival Young Artists Bursary’. What does this mean to you?
It is an in incredible honour and an immense confidence boost. Carving a successful opera career is difficult at the best of times, and I have had a turbulent few years. It was particularly hard to regain my motivation after suffering with Endometriosis during my studies and having an operation in my first year of opera school, leaving me unsure as to whether I would be able to have a singing career at all. Luckily, due to our fantastic NHS and the support of family, friends, and teachers at the RAM, I got myself back on track and graduated on schedule, performing the lead in Haydn’s opera La Vera costanza during my second year. Another (more positive) challenge has been having two children in the last two years; I was actually four months pregnant with my daughter during my Buxton debut covering the lead role in Giovanna d’Arco! Although not without its difficulties, being a mother definitely adds to my abilities as a singer as I have experienced a wide range of emotions that I can bring to my performances. I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity by Buxton Festival to be a part of such a creative and hard-working team. The bursary will enable me to have regular singing lessons and produce a demo recording, both of which are essential for a successful career but which I would not be able otherwise to afford.
You’re returning again this year but as a principal in Verdi’s Macbeth. Could you tell us a little more about the character you’re playing?
This year, I will be playing the role of the lady-in-waiting to Lady Macbeth; not only do I witness the famous sleep-walking scene and therefore discover the truth about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s crimes, but I also announce Lady Macbeth’s death to Macbeth.
How has your career developed over the last twelve months?
Just under eleven months ago, I gave birth to my daughter; two months later, I was singing in public again and preparing for recitals and oratorio performances. When she was five months old, I started to rehearse for the two Buxton Festival operas and then my husband and both of our children travelled to Buxton to stay with me for the duration of the festival. Since then, my diary has been steadily filling with engagements for 2017 and 2018 and I have had many successful auditions. However, most of the work that I have been offered has come directly from audience members rather than auditions; it just shows that you never know who is in the audience! Most importantly, over the last twelve months I have felt more at home in the lyric soprano fach than ever before; due to the timbre of my voice, I experimented with Zwischenfach and mezzo-soprano repertoire. However, my voice has settled over the last year and the standard lyric repertoire now feels more comfortable.
How do you start learning a role? Do you approach a role differently each time?
As every good opera school graduate knows(!), it’s important to start with the text. I go through the score and highlight everything that I sing or say and then add a word-for-word translation to make sure that I know what I’m singing and to whom. I was once told by a vocal coach to work hard on the recitative and spoken dialogue as ‘the tunes will take care of themselves!’, so I make sure that I pay more attention to those sections at first. After the textual analysis, I move onto characterisation. One way that I approach this is by underlining in the score everything that any other characters say about me or that I say about myself, which can help to create a more believable, three-dimensional character. Then comes the technical work, which means taking each section of the role in turn and working on it by singing it at home and, where possible, with a vocal coach. Finally, I work on the memorisation, which mainly comes from repetition. I sometimes like to write out my libretto onto prompt cards to help me with memorisation, or sometimes my husband will take the score and sing in the other characters’ lines to test me on my cues. It helps to be married to another singer!
For people who are less familiar with opera, is there a particular album or show that you’d recommend?
La bohème, The Magic Flute, and Carmen are all accessible to an opera novice; they have recognisable tunes and the narratives are easy to follow.
What has been the most memorable opera production that you have performed in?
I will never forget performing in Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park at The Royal Academy of Music, directed by John Ramster. Due to it being a real ensemble piece, along with John’s mesmerising direction, there was a fabulous sense of teamwork within the cast and we created something very special.
What would be your dream operatic role and why?
I have always wanted to perform the role of Governess in Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Both characters are strong, interesting women, although not without their flaws, and suit me vocally.
Is there a particular opera singer you really admire?
Favourite opera singers of mine are Dorothea Roschmann, Sarah Connolly, and Anna Netrebko for their beautiful, unique, lyric voices. One of the best recitals I have ever attended was given by Elizabeth Watts whose stage presence is incredible.
Young singers that I admire are Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson, Thomas Elwin, Katie Bray, and David Butt Philip; as well as having fabulous voices, they all have such drive and determination, and they are all extremely down-to-earth despite their glittering careers!