British lyric soprano Nadine Benjamin is in increasing demand on both the operatic stage and the concert platform.
Nadine recently released her first single, Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ and her debut solo album, ‘Love and Prayer’ and you can currently see her in action in the English National Opera’s production of La bohème at the London Coliseum.
TBB Talks caught up whilst she took time out from rehearsals…
Please introduce yourself …
Hi, my name is Nadine Benjamin, born in London and raised by Jamaican parents. I am a soprano, mentor and Certified High Performance Coach.
Your first memory of hearing an opera song which made an impact on you…
My first memory of an opera that made an impact on me was watching the great soprano Maria Callas sing ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee‘ from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. I can’t remember where I was, but I do remember feeling so moved by the sheer commitment and truthfulness in which the aria was sung. The video was in black and white on YouTube and it inspired in me a need to communicate with the world in a similar emotionally honest way.
You grew up in Brixton, how much of your background and upbringing influenced you as a black woman in such an exclusive environment like the opera world?
The environment I was raised in gave me some very nifty tools. To think quickly on my feet, to be flexible, focused and able to turn my hand quickly and efficiently to any task I was asked to do. Believe me, these skills are so useful when learning music, being on stage, communicating with a colleague or team and taking instructions. I was also brought up in the church, so the discipline of prayer with time to reflect and have gratitude in my heart were a blessing. It is a great way to bring me back into focus before I go on stage.
Where did you study?
I studied privately with the help of individual sponsorship. I had to look for this opportunity as I was not accepted into any music college at the time. I realised that if I wanted this badly enough, then I had to find another way to make it work.
How have you developed your craft?
By working on it daily, going to summer schools, being mentored by the greats and the skillful, listening and watching others, being willing to learn and keep going even when times get tough and I considered giving up. I have also never been afraid to ask questions and find the answers I need.
Your biography describes you as a ‘Lyric soprano‘… what does that mean?
Lyric soprano means that I have a warm, full voice.
How does it differ from being a ‘regular‘ soprano?
There aren’t really any ‘regular‘ sopranos as there are many types of sopranos. For example, a ‘coloratura‘ soprano describes a voice that is able to move quickly, cleanly and efficiently whilst keeping the sound beautiful and engaging. Lyric soprano is the description which fits my voice.
What technical abilities do you need to be an accomplished soprano?
Well, you need to learn how to build your voice technically so that you are able to sustain the legato line, stamina, and consistency that is needed in order for you to be able to deliver a role that could mean that you are on stage for three hours. This is best learned with a voice teacher and supported by a vocal coach. You also need to be able to keep a cool head and a mind that is willing to pay attention to detail.
Do you ever ‘cover‘?
Yes, I normally cover roles that I will do in the future but I am not ready for right away. Covering is a very important aspect of being a singer and for me, it is about truly supporting the lead that you are covering. I must make sure that my role is fully prepared on day one of rehearsal and the lead must know that they can rely on me to deliver if they need to call upon me.
There’s an assumption that Opera is an upper-class and primarily white people’s pastime, have you seen any changes in those who attend the opera?
Yes recently I was in Porgy and Bess at English National Opera and the theatre was packed with a varying, diversified audience it was so inspiring. I also watched one of the young people’s operas in response to the same piece run by the ENO Baylis team and it was so moving to see a reflection of the world on stage in its many colours, shapes, sizes, and ability.
Are there any initiatives to diversify this space?
Along with the main opera houses, the National Opera Studio are working towards making a pathway that allows people of diverse backgrounds not to get lost along the way. They are working to create a route that will allow access for every level that a singer would have to go through in order to make it to a main stage. This programme is called Diverse Voices.
Are there more of you?
There are quite a few Black opera singers now and it is such an amazing thing to be working alongside so many of them at some point over the next few seasons.
Who should we be looking out for who is British Black and in the operatic world?
Elizabeth Llewellyn – soprano, Sarah Jane-Davies – soprano, Peter Brathwaite – baritone, Keel Watson – bass-baritone, Gwen Ann Rand – soprano, Abigail Kelly – soprano, Byron Jackson – baritone, Ronald Samm – tenor, John Colyn Gyeanty – tenor. There have been great British black singers in the previous generation, such as Hyacinth Nichols – soprano, Maureen Brathwaite – soprano, Ruby Philogene – Mezzo-soprano.
Tell us about this latest production, what’s it all about, and what’s your role?
The latest production I am in is La bohème by Puccini- a story of bohemian life and love in the 1930s during Christmas. Four young artists share a room in a house and struggle to eat whilst making art. One of them, Rodolfo falls in love with Mimì, a gentlewoman who lives downstairs. Their journey takes us through his pain in loving someone who is sick and her dealing with her illness – tuberculosis. Another of the housemates is Marcello and he has a love-hate relationship with my character Musetta. I am totally in love with him but he cannot afford to keep me in the manner that I am accustomed to – plus he is a very jealous man which makes me feel trapped. Their story takes on their constant splitting up and getting back together. By the end I have left Marcello and Mimì has left Rodolfo but we are all reunited because Mimì is near death and wishes to be with her true love. At her request, I bring her back to Rodolfo so that she may share her last moments with him.
How has working on this production differed from previous and of all your roles?
I have had to step up to a whole new level and a new set of pressures. In May 2018 I was made an ENO Harewood Artist which means I am supported and mentored until 2020 as I continue to grow and develop.
Which has been the most challenging?
This is my second role with the English National Opera and it is challenging because it requires me to be rhythmically sound, to be able to move well, act well and sing amazingly. I have also had to step up around lifting my sexual presence on stage and not being afraid to show the many colours of a woman’s character.
Which has been the most fulfilling?
All roles are fulfilling because each one stretches me in some new way. Every role requires me to push myself outside my comfort zone and develop from within in order to be authentic to the character that I wish to portray on stage.
Which role/song do you dream to play/sing?
Leonora in Il Trovatore – my voice loves singing the music of Verdi and it is such a joy to be able to know exactly where I want it to go to with my voice and career.
I suppose instinctively one would compare Opera to a musical, but would that undermine it? Are they comparable in technical strength needed to perform day after day, night after night
I don’t think it is a question of undermining – they both require different levels of discipline and different tools to make them work. They are both very precise art forms and need the same attention to detail in order for them to tell a story that an audience can relate to. You can do a musical 8 shows a week but you cannot do this with an opera. The maximum operatic performances you want to do in a week is three and preferably no more as the vocal muscles used to stretch the voice to its limits. This is why technique becomes paramount when delivering a role on a main stage.
Who are some of your favourite musicians outside of the classical world?
Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Keen, Nickelback, Goldie, Goldfrapp, Massive Attack, Usher, Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, India Arie
If you ruled the world … you’d
A, give every child music lessons to include theory, piano, and voice. B, come up with a way for everyone to heal themselves by thought alone and, C, teach everyone how to manage personal and business finances so that they could use these tools to create prosperity for themselves and others.
Are you prepared for Christmas?
Yes, I have already got several Christmas lunches with people I love and care about.
No presents this year.
Complete including winter coat!
Who’s doing the cooking?
I am on holiday for Christmas so I will be cooked for – yay!
Nadine recently released her first single, Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ and her debut solo album, ‘Love and Prayer’ find out more here
La bohème runs until 22 Feb 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.