Jennifer Coleman talks World Opera Day
PUBLISHED: 11:56 12 October 2020 | UPDATED: 11:57 12 October 2020
The Berkshire born soprano and X Factor star on her career singing for the Flemish Opera in Belgium
When the first World Opera Day was launched last year, 25 October already boasted musical significance since the chosen date coincided with the birthdays of two celebrated composers, Georges Bizet and Johann Strauss II. Opera is enduring an unexpectedly lengthy interval right now, of course, but you know the saying, every cloud... Well, one positive outcome from current performance restrictions is the return of Berkshire soprano Jennifer Coleman to her Slough family home, where we discovered the pandemic hasn’t dulled her enthusiasm for her chosen profession.
“Every day is World Opera Day in my world!” she says. “Music always felt like my destiny and when, as a child, people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, there was no question in my mind – singing. I just didn’t realise it would be opera.”
Speaking from the house in which she grew up, the vivacious 31-year-old is using an enforced break from work to enjoy her surroundings, including the nearby ‘magic kingdom’ of Windsor, which still retains a childlike appeal. She’s also been spending time watching YouTube videos for tips on how to deal with her curly hair, which is generally straightened for performances. “I’m embracing my curls,” she laughs, before we hone in on early musical exposure, which included choral singing at school and performing opportunities with Berkshire Girls’ Choir. Solo singing lessons followed until, at the age of 17, the world of pop music tempted her.
“I applied to The X Factor,” she says, recalling the open day when several thousand people turned up to audition before chosen applicants were called back to sing in front of the producers. A selected few were then asked to sing to a panel of judges led by Simon Cowell. “I got to the bootcamp stage and had a lot of fun,” says Jennifer. A slight pause precedes a personal admission. “I realised there’s a lot of pressure being in the spotlight and that made me value my anonymity. Also, I learned that pop singing was not the right direction for me.”
Instead, as Jennifer’s voice “went in the direction of opera”, she took up a place at the prestigious Royal College of Music. Three years spent studying for a Diploma and Masters at “this most beautiful building in South Kensington” were life changing. She reveals: “You’re surrounded by top musicians from across the world; the standard is so high. You’re pushed to the edge, then pushed again. In the professional world there are directors who push you so you have to have that experience. Everyone who comes out at the end is focussed and determined, so highly employable.”
As a reward for dedicated hard work, Jennifer combined her desire to see the world with a job as a singer on a luxury cruise ship, where she soon recognised the skills involved in complex choreography while singing popular scores. Returning with a plan to audition “all over Europe”, she got no further than Belgium after being offered a role with Flemish Opera, the first company to which she had applied.
If an image of singers standing motionless is your default view of opera, I’m relieved to hear that traditions have moved on. “Singing is only half the job,” Jennifer says, as we discuss the growing expectations of an audience. “Park and bark has definitely gone out of fashion. That wasn’t good enough.”
There is, however, another custom that remains entrenched; the lavish costumes worn by female opera stars are heavy and cumbersome. Perhaps there’s a lightweight modern alternative I haven’t heard of? Apparently not. “This is why we have so many dress rehearsals,” Jennifer explains. “A weighty costume changes everything. Corsets might be historically accurate but I need to be able to breathe fully. With lights on you as well, it gets very hot on stage.”
Purists might balk at the notion of opera performed in English, but Jennifer is refreshingly positive about the need to reach audiences even if the emphasis, and rhythm, of words differ when a song is taken out of its native language. Besides, opera isn’t engulfed in our culture in the way it is in parts of mainland Europe, although there is definitely a downgrading of elitism here and, Jennifer says: “Opera can be current, contemporary and relevant.” Which brings us to one of her favourite roles, Theodora. “Handel’s music is so far ahead of its time; I can imagine parts of the orchestral score as Elton John’s writing. This is opera at its best.”
Immersing herself in music that oozes such appeal is, for this rising star of Flemish Opera, a way to get into character and is why she dedicated “the best part of a year” learning it. And dream roles? Leïla in The Pearl Fishers is top of her list because of the “beautiful, unusual cadenzas” the character sings. Oh, and two men fighting over her, not to mention the “funky costumes” demanded by the role. “Costumes are part of why you want to take on a character,” Jennifer adds. “But for music alone I would choose the maid Susanna in Figaro, or maybe Cleopatra.”
Meanwhile, last year’s headlining at the York Proms remains a career highlight, although her sights are set on even more iconic venues. “My ambition is to sing at the Royal Opera House,” she says. Jennifer reveals this in her typically fun and friendly manner, but there’s no doubting her underlining competitive streak: “Opera is like choosing to do life on hard mode. You have to keep on top of your game. Your voice is your weapon of choice and you have to constantly push yourself, be a master of languages, a people person, and deliver recording quality every time, making sure your standards never slip.”
This year, Jennifer has appreciated strolls along the River Thames and swimming in her local pool. But right now, she is ready to return to her calling. “Entertaining art forms connect with people in a way that distracts them from their life,” she says. And what better distraction could there be than one of the county’s most talented musical prodigies?