A night at the Opera

For this month’s meeting, we had Liz Key talk to us about her career as an Opera Singer and the joys of performing. As Liz is also a Borough Belle member, she has written about her talk here.

It was a joy to come and speak to the Belles at our monthly meeting, to talk honestly and truthfully about my journey in life and my inspirations.

Opera is drama expressed through music. It asks everything of art – it is visual, auditory, spiritual, physical and technical. It‘s an incredibly demanding art form, pulling together a highly skilled team of people each with their own important part to play.

The beginning of opera can be dated back to the 1600s, with Peri’s opera, Euridice. This took place in Florence, by a circle of humanists known as the Camerata. The Camerata wanted to combine the words and music, giving them equal emphasis and not distorting the text, like that of polyphony used in religious music at the time. This was the beginning of the aria as we know it today.

I am one of 48 full-time members of Royal Opera House Chorus, Covent Garden. Back in the day, Covent Garden was a Convent Garden, until it was demolished during the Reformation. Where the ROH stands today is the third theatre to be present on that site. The first dating 1732 was the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

Unfortunately the first and second theatres burnt down (this was in the times before electric light). Today’s theatre was built in 1858. It included the glass and ironwork floral hall and in 1892 was renamed from the Royal Opera House.

There have been some remarkable changes over the past 250 year, changes in social conditions, fashions, and musical tastes. But the ROH has always been a haven for great music, art and theatre in this country and the world, with its immense legacy of traditions and performances.

My journey to Covent Garden began 25 years ago. Originally from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, I was member of the girls’ choir, called Cantamus, Latin for “we sing together”.

This choir was led by and truly amazing and inspirational lady, Pamela Cook. She nurtured and encouraged all the girls in the choir with a firm but kind hand and treated us and expected us to be professional artists. She demanded commitment, hard work and discipline and she gave the same in return. I didn’t know it at the time but she gave me the skills that I was to be using for the rest of my life.

Throughout my teenage years I gained a vast amount performance experience with Cantamus. We toured Europe and Asia and competed in choral competitions and festivals, winning every time! We recorded numerous CDs and appeared on TV and Radio,  including Blue Peter!

It’s thanks to Pam Cook that I am singing today. Those early years with Cantamus are what inspired to become a professional chorister.

At the age of 19, I was awarded a place the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where I spent seven years fine tuning my skills and in 2006, I begin my professional career at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, singing as part of the chorus. The rest, they say, is history and I have just completed my 11th season at the ROH.

The chorus, I feel, is the backbone of an Opera House. We are the most versatile commodity with a vast experience of both musical and dramatic material.

On average each year, our chorus performs around 20 different opera productions. That’s around 200 performances, 275 hours of repertoire calls , 400 hours of production rehearsals, language coaching in French, Germany,  Italian,  Russian, Czech and costume and wig fittings. My typical week involves rehearsing and performing around five different operas. It’s a gruelling six-day-week schedule. Despite it being demanding, it’s a dramatic and exciting world and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

When I’m not singing in the chorus, I’ve been lucky enough sing roles in Suor Angelica, Madame Butterfly, Peter Grimes, Carmelites and Anna Nicole. I teach singing privately at home and I’m part of a vocal group called Covent Garden Voices. We perform at charity and corporate events, weddings and even cruises around the Mediterranean.

Despite all my training and experience, there are two things I have discovered, two things that can never be taught about being an artist.

‘It’s not all about me’
Artists need humility. Any ambition must be fuelled by music, not the desire for stardom. An artist must want to communicate, it’s a life service to the music and for audiences, giving them an escape, an opportunity to listen and glimpse into another world. That is greater than any fame and glory.


‘I will never make it’
The ‘it’ doesn’t exist for an artist. We are always learning and growing. We commit to a slow and steady road, that needs patience and on that journey we honour the music and sing best we can. I hope it will never be ‘perfect’ for then I know I have stopped caring and listening. We are not machines; we cannot put systems into place and just repeat them. We commit to exploration, not the destination, and all I can say is that it’s one hell of an amazing journey.

I set a challenge to all Belles – join a choir or vocal group! Expressing yourself through singing is an uplifting and exhilarating experience. It relieves stress and improves mental and emotional health.

Some people say opera is outdated but I disagree. Opera deals with love and death, joy and tragedy, conflict and peace. Can anyone say that they don’t experience any of these is their lives?

Humanity has a need for live performance. It leaves you with a memory never to be recreated but imprinted on your heart. This is what feeds our minds hearts and souls.