What's it like to be...an opera singer?
This is the first in a series of interviews with Suffolk creatives, makers and entrepeneurs where we go behind the scenes and find out what it's like to be....in this case, an opera singer.
Sitting opposite Suffolk baritone Mark Saberton, listening to the rich resonance of his voice, it's hard to imagine his being anything other than an opera singer. Mark grew up in a musical family; his father was a music teacher, playing the piano, trumpet and singing tenor and his older brother plays keyboard and occasionally sings in a band. Mark always knew he wanted a career in music, he just didn't know that he would find his voice in opera.
He gained a music degree at Liverpool University, where his main interest was playing in a rock band. “We used to play Velvet Underground covers and 60's stuff, but also modern grunge. We were serious about it, but didn't really have enough discipline” he says.
It wasn't until he moved to London and joined the London Symphony Chorus, that he first discovered he had the potential for singing opera. “Someone suggested I should train my voice, so that's when I started having lessons and did the odd aria. But it was when I went to opera school at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1997 that I realised I could make a living at it.”
Life as a performing artist can be precarious, especially in a country that is not particularly known for its love of opera. According to statistics produced by Operabase, the UK ranks 7th in the world for the number of operatic performances, with 989 performances in 2015/16, compared with 6,795 in Germany, which has the highest number (although Austria has the highest number relative to its population). So what was the attraction?
“Opera attracted me because of the freedom of being on stage; the acting and the drama of it. There are lots of things to think about during a performance, the acting comes to some extent via the voice, which needs a certain intensity to get the emotion across to the audience. You've also got to relax, because every time you're singing, you're effectively holding your breath.”
I've heard the phrase about singers 'keeping the larynx low' - is that really a thing, I wonder? Mark laughs and explains: “Supporting the voice is important. I see it as just natural breathing, trying to minimise the inefficiencies in certain muscles. You concentrate on a smooth flow of air coming from the diaphragm, keeping the airways open and being as relaxed as possible.
The lower larynx thing, I never really thought of that but that is what opera singers do. You tend to find that with music theatre singers, they have a higher larynx, the voice comes directly from the chest and if you listen to Adele, that's what she does. When I teach people to sing, I teach them the classical way, from the diaphragm. That's how we naturally breath and it's the natural way to perform. Keep your shoulders down, let the energy go from your hands, everything should be relaxed.”
Relaxing, breathing from the diaphragm, lowering the larynx, it's a lot to remember, but Mark sees no reason why everybody shouldn't be able to sing opera (to a greater or lesser degree) if they follow those techniques. “They would have to practise every day and some people have natural abilities. My speaking voice has changed over the years because of the training I've had, it's deepened. Some people think they have small voices and find it hard to sing, [but] if they follow the training, their voice will get stronger. A lot of it comes down to confidence. I'm not a natural musician, I've just persevered.” Does he practice every day? “Most days. Some days it's more of an effort and other days you're flying.”
Many operas are written in German, Italian or French and it could be a daunting prospect for the non-linguist to have to learn the words, understand them and then get the pronunciation right. It transpires however, that many touring companies will translate the operas into English to make them more accessible to a regional audience. “There is a move to go back to singing in the original language and to use sub-titles instead” says Mark. “I think serious opera can sound a bit silly in English, it can be difficult to translate to make it sound plausible. But a Mozart comedy or an operetta can be better in English because you get the immediate reaction from the audience. You get the laughs when you're supposed to get them, not half a minute later after they've read the sub-titles.”
Travelling is a big part of being an opera singer and in the week that we spoke, Mark had been on tour in Harrogate, Middlesbrough and Ipswich and was heading off to North Wales a couple of days later. But it does get a bit more exotic than that too. “I've sung in Japan, Vienna and at the Bregenz Festival on the floating stage on Lake Constance, which featured in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace.”
Opera is slowly becoming more mainstream as companies make efforts to reach out to new audiences. It helps that people like Mark perform in regional theatres and put on recitals in small towns and villages, making it less expensive and more accessible.
“When people hear the naked voice, they are blown away by it, because many people never hear live music” he says.
“It's very different from hearing singing using a microphone. You might hear a beautiful voice using a microphone, but it's not the same thing. The response I've had [to my performances] has been very positive which makes me want to continue doing it. As to whether opera as an art form is popular...it's not so much part of our culture as it is in Germany or Italy and it doesn't get as much state subsidy. Having said that, it's no more expensive than going to a football match and if you really want to go and see top quality opera, you can find cheap tickets, even at the Royal Opera House."
Baritones often play the comedy character or villain in operas, roles which Mark relishes. Which have been his favourite? “Verdi's Rigoletto is probably the pinnacle of any baritone's career. It's such a big role, it's probably my greatest achievement. Also Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, when you are on stage for about 40 minutes. It's very intense, so those two roles stick out as my favourites.”
And what about his top three recommendations for those new to opera? “I would definitely go to see an opera in one of the big houses with a full orchestra. But if you want a quick taste of live opera, try a smaller one first and then you can see them on different scales. I would pick La bohème by Puccini, something by Mozart like Don Giovanni or Marriage of Figaro and Verdi's Rigoletto.”
Where to see Opera in Suffolk
There is also the Barrandov Opera (possibly the country's smallest opera house), near Needham Market and open air performances take place during the summer in some of our stately homes and schools. Keep an eye on our events list for further information.