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Interview with Luci Briginshaw – “It is NEVER too late to do anything”
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Interview with Luci Briginshaw – “It is NEVER too late to do anything”
I can’t believe how much time has elapsed since By Voice Alone!
Well…we had a pandemic!
Yes! How was that for you?
Well, because I found a way to keep singing pretty much throughout, it was really not so bad. There were lots of things I didn’t like of course, but what I LOVED was the complete evaporation of the (self-imposed) pressure to try and get an audition and the envy of other singers’ careers. It was the first time in so many years I was free of that anxiety, and what a liberation!
Also, an important life-line early on was Ben Woodward from Fulham Opera (as was) asking me to play Aithra in The Egyptian Helen by Richard Strauss, originally scheduled for October 2020 but, of course, with ever-increasing uncertainty about when or if it would happen at all. The timing of his email (I think it was 20 March) was so powerful – I think it saved me from despair. I had something to work towards, a reason to get up in the morning, and an affirmation that in some realm of reality I was still a singer and opera was still a thing.
Moreover, an unexpectedly beautiful thing came from the experience of fully learning a role that, in all the uncertainty, I had to accept I might never get to perform. Usually, being so outcome-focussed, we discard the journey of learning music as less important than what it might lead to. But this time, instead of projecting forward to first-night thrills and potential reviews, I really had the space to stay in the moment and simply enjoy this fabulous music for its own sake (and with Strauss, I’d say you really need that space!). Aithra is probably the most difficult role I have ever tried to learn, but having all that free time to learn it was a huge blessing, and I can honestly say it was its own reward.
I think overall I became a much better singer over lockdown, and I will always be grateful for that. It was partially the experience of teaching myself my first Strauss role, but it was also largely due to something completely unique to the weirdness of 2020 life. Never before (unless I was ill) had I allowed myself to let two weeks elapse without doing at least some singing. But during lockdown, especially that first one, time was so bendy I would suddenly realise two weeks had gone by and I hadn’t sung a note. The prompt to notice this was a real need to sing, not based on any thoughts, but only feelings. So then I would sing, and it felt like those two weeks of vocal relaxation were at least equivalent to the best singing lesson I ever had!
That’s so interesting; and how come you were cast in the Strauss?
Ben knew me, as I had sung Adele in Die Fledermaus in 2016 for Fulham and in 2018 he cast me in a new opera, The Prometheus Revolution, at Grimeborn Festival. I think I’m one of the sopranos he thinks of whenever a role requires top Ds, basically. This also applies to Aithra - she sings quite a few Cs and one D, I think– but I was delighted to find there was so much more to the role than that, as I believe I also have a lot more to offer!
I ended up so grateful that the production was delayed by a whole year. With only a few months to learn it, I wouldn’t have sung it half so well. As it was, by the time October 2021 rolled around, I felt Aithra fully embedded in me, and I really, really enjoyed performing it.
Anthony Negus from Longborough came to one of the performances of Helena, and off the back of that offered me the cover of Marietta in Die Tote Stadt in 2022, which you came to see. Although unfortunately you didn’t see the night I sang…
Have you done a lot of covering big roles?
None so big as Marietta in terms of ‘heft’, I think. But I have covered Mimi [La Boheme] for English Touring Opera, just this year. And in 2019, Konstanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio, which in terms of hard vocal work might in a way be the biggest. I do wonder whether Mozart might not have liked the person that he wrote that role for! So many crazily difficult arias, and two of them back-to-back. And then all the ensemble sections are just so relentlessly long and high. It’s a slog! But, of course the music is just brilliant and Martern aller Arten is one of my all-time favourite songs. What a thrill it would be to sing that in front of an actual audience. Hopefully one day…
Speaking of covers, I also got to cover the Queen of the Night at Glyndebourne in Autumn 2020. I had never worked at Glyndebourne before (just done a couple of disastrous general auditions) so it came completely out of the blue, and I know it will have been the convoluted machinations of 2020 that led me to it – so, another thing to thank the pandemic for! I didn’t get to go on, but I felt so fortunate for the opportunity to get down there and make that connection.
Yes, Queen of the Night was one of your showstopping pieces in By Voice Alone.
Yes, and I’m pretty sure my sending out the video to an agent I know must have been the link in the chain that led me there. So thank you, Mel!
Luci took Second Prize and the Audience Prize with her performances of Der Hölle Rache (Die Zauberflöte) and the mad scene from I Puritani. Recorded at the final of By Voice Alone at King's place in 2019
You’re so welcome. You also managed to produce an entire CD during lockdown?!
[Peter Warlock: Songbook, with pianist Eleanor Meynell]
Oh yes, so I did! That had been a couple of years in the planning, but in 2020 the funding came through from The Peter Warlock Society, so we thought we’d better get on with it. We managed to find time in October, just before we went into that second lockdown, and then did an extra day the following April.
I sang 28 songs! Too many really. We recorded them all in two days which was pretty stressful. But again, the lockdown was a gift as it gave me so much more time to practise, which I really needed.
TWO DAYS!! You had fantastic reviews and you were picked up by a label, weren’t you?
Actually I should say three days, as Convivium added one in April ’21 for retakes. Yes, we were picked up by them early in the year, which was jolly handy as I didn’t have a clue how we were going to distribute it, stream it or anything. I was just hoping something like that would happen, and it did. Sometimes you just put your faith in the universe!
To order the CD, please vist Peter Warlock Songbook
Are you somebody who likes to trust that things will happen?
Oh yes. You know, when the pandemic began, I felt I had two choices: I could go down the despair route and think everything was going to get worse, which I could clearly see was a bottomless pit of negativity and really quite frightening, or I could start believing that there is goodness all around. What became evident really quickly was how much people wanted to help each other. There were so many beautiful things happening at that time, I just concentrated on that branch of things. It was the starkness of the pandemic that made me become an even more positive person.
Later that summer, I also started doing Zoom concerts through a website called LockdownPresents.com. This was another life-line and it actually allowed me to earn money by singing, fancy that!
I would sing a 15-minute programme of operatic big-hitters (transferable skills from my busking career) for a £30 fee, of which I received 80%, the rest going to Mind, Age UK and Refuge – very pandemic-friendly charities. The people who set it up did so as volunteers and made no money from it; they just wanted to help musicians, and help people who were missing hearing musicians. And give to charity. It was a totally selfless thing. Shout-out to Steffen Hoyemsvoll and Simone Girardeau – I thank you so much!
Fortunately, I usually got much more than £24 for a concert because people were invited to tip at the end. Quite a few tips were in triple figures, would you believe, and one lovely nurse from Canada once gave me £300! She also wrote me the most beautiful email I think I’ve ever received. I’ll just quote a bit of it: “People in my line of work may help keep people alive, but people in your line of work make life worth living. I had forgotten how much I missed going to the opera until your singing reminded me.”
I mean….can you imagine receiving that email?! That was a good day. What a beautiful person to connect with.
So, LockdownPresents was an absolute blessing: I was making money, I was generating money for charity, I was satisfying my performing urge and I was giving people joy who were stuck at home, or in care-homes. Perfect!
That’s so great! So you’ve done a lot of busking before?
Oh yes; I have been busking in the Lower Courtyard at Covent Garden for over ten years now. It is a wonderful way of making money if I don’t have any other work, which I don’t mind saying is very often the case.
It’s allowed me to continue to identify only as a singer, regardless of whether I am ‘employed’ or not, which for me has been crucial in keeping my focus all these years. And thanks to LockdownPresents, and a couple of impromptu sessions in the park (!) I have been able to keep this thread going, even through a pandemic.
There are so many singers who moved away and/or retrained during that time, and now I think for some who want to come back it’s hard to make that transition. Once you’re in front of an audition panel, your thoughts can be the life or death of the venture, and the thought: “It's ages since I did this” is definitely not an ideal one. You can lose confidence so easily in these situations.
In auditions you need to be so goddamn sure of yourself. When I walk into an audition nowadays, I just think: “This is who I am; I am an opera singer. I am so committed to being an opera singer that I never stopped being one, even when there was no opera.” That’s a pretty powerful thing. Again – thank you pandemic.
I think that strength comes across when you sing. When you took part in By Voice Alone you won the audience vote by quite a significant margin. And in the first round of auditions, you scored the highest of all the participants! I wasn’t judging, but I enjoyed listening to everyone.
Oh wow, and thank you so much for telling me that!! It was such a good concept and idea. I remember going in there and feeling so relaxed and grateful for this chance to sing without anyone looking at me. You don’t realise how much baggage you carry around; not just about what you look like, but what’s on your CV or what’s not on it, more to the point. It’s great to let all of that go and just sing!
I wonder what that distinguished panel thought about doing blind auditions; I guess it's not something they do that often?
Interestingly, since By Voice Alone, English National Opera, the Royal Opera House and some other companies have introduced and experimented with blind auditions, certainly for some chorus roles.
Well, there you go - you are influential! It was an amazing achievement to organise all of it. Just thank you so much.
So, tell me, what are you singing in now? What is next for you?
I am going to be singing for ETO next spring  in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims…
I LOVE Il viaggio a Reims.
Ah brilliant - you will have to see it! It starts at the Hackney Empire on Saturday 4th March (then we go on tour) and I play the Contessa di Folleville.
Wow, that is such a brilliant role! I was Modestina in Wexford about 100 years ago. You are going to have so much fun!
Yeah, it looks like a hoot!
After By Voice Alone, in Autumn 2019 we did Kurt Weill’s The Silver Lake and I played Fennimore. So, I have had a role with ETO before, but this will be the first time I really get a chance to show off what I can do vocally, and right from the start of the tour (rather than just covering and stepping in later).
I like to ask everyone this question: Have you got a piece of advice you would give any young singers starting out? Or anything you wish you had taken on board as a younger singer?
You can come up against so many roadblocks and so much rejection, and it can make you want to give up, but if you feel that this is what you want to do and you wouldn’t rather do something else, then believe in that and believe that that is enough to keep going. That is the simple reason I have never given up singing.
I would also say; don’t bother constructing a timeframe of when you think things should happen by. It is NEVER too late to do anything! Don’t believe in the age-limit story because I’ve always been too old for the upper-age-limit of everything that I have been the right standard to apply for, yet I’m still here. I have only succeeded by sheer dint of not giving up!
I think a lot of people give up because they think they’re too old. This is not a good reason to give up. The only good reason to give up is because you don’t want to do it anymore.
If this is what you want to do and you think you have the potential, and if you have been told by anyone whose opinion you respect that you have enough talent, then don’t be discouraged by how long it might take. Just keep trying because you will succeed eventually.
You don’t have to have gone to music college either; you can just build up experience. Do what I did: sing for amateur companies, get roles on your CV and then subscribe to Audition Oracle.
So, as you didn’t go to college, how did you get into the world of opera?
Just very, very gradually. I had tried to get into various postgrad programmes but never ended up even being offered a place, never mind a scholarship, which I would have needed as my bank balance hovered around zero for a long time after university, and my parents have never had any money. This was distressing as I thought I had to do a singing course to be taught how to sing in an opera. However, luckily it eventually occurred to me that the way to learn how to be in an opera is to be in an opera!
So I sang with a couple of amateur companies, like Brent Opera. I sang Adele in Die Fledermaus with them about a decade ago, and I would love to say it all snowballed from there, but it didn’t really - it developed very slowly.
I also did the Morley College evening class and that was useful as a first step and to meet people. So my advice is: Go and meet people and go and be in operas.
Busking was also very useful; through that, I met an agent and through her I met my first decent singing teacher and also got an initial audition for ETO. That didn’t result in a job, but a couple of years later I got in contact directly with James Conway and was lucky enough to be offered a chorus contract and therefore establish a link with the company. Little bits and bobs slowly add up to a career!
You are obviously a great colleague because you have worked at ETO for a long time.
I have done, I think, five seasons, and about to do a sixth.
I love that you don’t have the usual trajectory but you have still managed to make your way into this industry. Another similar inspiration is Nadine Benjamin.
I think it’s sad that we don’t hear enough about the stories of those people who don’t take the normal route and how they get to where they get.
There are plenty of people out there who could really do with the inspiration. I could have certainly done with it fifteen years ago. I felt so cut off from everything; we didn’t have Audition Oracle then, and I didn’t know how to find auditions.
Because I hadn’t gone to college, I had no contacts – I didn’t know a single opera singer, or anyone in the industry really. My heart sinks to remember the hours I spent on the computer trawling through every opera company’s website. I didn’t know which were amateur or pro, I had no concept of the spectrum of standards between them, and consequently how much point there was in sending a blind email out to the ‘[email protected]’ address. It’s so embarrassing now to think of the emails I sent!
Luci, this is my story as well! Nobody would tell me how to get work in opera and this was my entire reason for starting Audition Oracle. I used to spend loads of time in the library, just the same as you. You could get the odd audition at the back of Opera Magazine and I could never afford to buy it, so a trip to the library it was. Then I got this reputation as someone who always knew about auditions, and this is why Audition Oracle happened. I asked myself what service would I need as a singer to help me.
You have done such a good service to us all. It is exactly what we needed. Hopefully no more young singers have to go through what we did!
Thank you so much and it's been great chatting with you! It’s been lovely to follow your journey, and I so admire your determination and self-belief.
Those are the two elements that you need. Knowing you did it yourself and that you overcame something can power you through. I think self-belief naturally results from tenaciously holding onto your dream and refusing to give it up! If the years pass and you’re still doing that, then surely you’ve got what it takes.
Thank you again Luci, and see you in Il viaggio a Reims!
Come join us in supporting Luci's journey further by booking your tickets to Il Viaggio a Reims!