Breaking barriers - the creation of Glyndebourne Academy

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Glyndebourne’s Vocal Talent Consultant Mary King outlines the roots of the Glyndebourne Academy project.

In 2008 there was a conference at the National Opera Studio called The Singers of Tomorrow. What struck me most was the discussion about the lack of diversity amongst young opera singers in professional training. It set me thinking: why – when vocal talent can emerge out of a body of any size, shape and colour – should opera singing be the domain of the white middle-classes? What should (and could) be done about it?

By 2010 I had talked a lot with the then Head of Education at Glyndebourne, Katie Tearle, and we began to unravel some of the reasons for what we were seeing. Changes to education policy meant that you could not guarantee a grounding in musical knowledge within schools as provision was patchy. School singing outside the curriculum (assemblies etc) had declined, and what there was, was more likely to be popular than classical. Budgets to local Music Services had been cut – meaning that subsidy for individual singing lessons was harder to come by; and conservatoires’ increasingly international and academic remit made competition for places fierce. Now, as all experts will agree, operatic voices don’t spring up ready-made: they are the six-months in-the-soaking Christmas cake rather than the instant stir-fry. You need a good basic instrument, capable of pleasing tone, good range and projecting power; a good ear, for pitch and rhythm and also for language; a sense of physical freedom and a lack of self-consciousness – the list goes on and on. Because the range of skills is so vast, it takes a long time to bring all the strands together. This is not – and never has been – fundamentally about talent; it is actually about talent + opportunity and understanding + time + hard graft.

And how does that affect the lack of diversity in the music profession? Well, if you go to a fine school – whether state or private – with a great music department, and your interest is awakened and recognised early, then all can be well. But if not, and you do not discover your potential until the age of 15 or 16, you’ve a lot of catching up to do. With no access to good musical education and advice, it is difficult for a late starter to really compete at conservatoire entrance-stage – with the finely taught, well-drilled, linguistically fluent, confident, sight-reading skilled candidate. To be blunt; learning to sing well requires money. One-to-one lessons, once a week, with a reputable, safe and positive teacher (and none of these is a given) – for some years before entering a conservatoire (and maybe seven years after), does not come cheap. Diligence and commitment there may be, but the financial outlay is quite beyond the means of many, and in the current economic climate, this probably won’t change.

We wondered: could we identify a small group of exceptionally talented young singers who had fallen through the gaps in provision and take them through a process that would make a difference? Glyndebourne was willing to try and the Glyndebourne Academy was born.

A pilot programme in 2012 provided eight young singers, several of whom were entirely new to opera, with seven days of intensive instruction in operatic vocal technique and performance. Academy sessions covered vocal coaching, training in movement and drama, language coaching, work on notational literacy, discussion sessions about vocal types, career considerations, support networks and the range of skills development needed for an operatic career. Throughout the winter of 2012, each singer received continued support in the form of advice and resources concerning how he or she could continue their operatic development until such time as they were able to attend music college or other formal training.

The Glyndebourne Academy was the impetus our singers needed: they commented on finding new resolve and many practical skills. They are continuing to excel with the majority of participants going on to further training; three are at conservatoires with others pursuing personal study.

So what lessons have we learned? That this may be only a drop in the lake, but we know we have gone some way to meet a need. There are many barriers to progress at the top level, but when you have talented, eager and determined singers (and equally energised and skilled instructors, of course) you can go a surprisingly long distance in a short space of time.

Obviously Glyndebourne Academy is no replacement for on-going intensive training, but this process definitely gives us time to turn people to face forward, and give them advice on where they need to focus their energies.

This time around we have narrowed the age range, and are concentrating on the 16-26 age group. If Glyndebourne can get the Academy programme right, I feel it will contribute to strengthening the depth of talent in the UK, and go a long way to ensuring that opera is indeed for everyone with the voice, drive and focus to explore it.

Recruitment for Glyndebourne Academy is open until Monday 16 February 2015.