Nadine Benjamin interview: 'You never just sing...'
The soprano on her Brixton childhood, 'silent' music and renewed energy as live music resumes
But for soprano Nadine Benjamin, this enforced sabbatical has been productive in other ways. Developing other skills, she carried on enjoying singing in her head – her voice sings along silently, she says, whenever she hears an operatic role that she has sung.
‘As a singer you never just sing,’ she tells Culture Whisper on the eve of an important new English National Opera performance. ‘We teach, we mentor, we play the piano…. There are so many different parts of yourself. I started composing and was played on the BBC!
‘It was about being of service until my calling called me back.’
Nadine Benjamin sings 'I know that my Redeemer liveth' in ENO's Messiah, directed from the keyboard by Laurence Cummings
That call came with ENO’s specially devised Messiah, a shortened and dramatic version of Handel’s oratorio broadcast by BBC Two at Easter (Sat 3 April, 6PM). One of eight, rather than the usual four, soloists in this version, her big aria is the very well-known declaration of faith, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.
Benjamin was raised in the Rastafarian tradition in a single-parent family in Brixton, where she absorbed many musical influences, and heard the great gospel choirs. But she believes that Messiah speaks to those of other faiths and none. ‘We all spend our lives making sacrifices. We have moments in our life of death and rebirth.’
And while many singers have grown up with Messiah, she came to it later in life. Her aria, she says, one of the most loved pieces of music in the repertoire, ‘is a lot harder technically than it looks!’.
It was an imaginative teacher at school in Tulse Hill who turned Benjamin’s thoughts to a singing career. This Mrs Lake played her a recording of a virtuosic and showstopping aria sung by the Queen of the Night, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and asked her musical pupil whether she thought she could sing like that.
Nadine Benjamin was a mischievous Musetta in ENO's La Bohème. Photo: Robert Workman
But by 16 it was time to earn a living, and the potential singer got stuck into a job in finance. Music stayed at the heart of her life, however, and she spent spare time having lessons and attending courses. As word got round about an interesting new soprano with her unconventional route into professional music-making, important early roles came along: the disillusioned Countess in English Touring Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro, Ermyntrude in Mascagni's Isabeau at Opera Holland Park and auditions at English National Opera.
When she opened ENO’s highly-praised production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with the optimistic 'Summertime', the audience at the Coliseum sat up. And when she played the flirtatious Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème, there was mischief aplenty in the air. Next she appeared alongside fellow soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn in Verdi’s Luisa Miller Luisa Miller, a brilliantly sung production. And then came lockdown.
Nonetheless, she was one of the lucky few singers with new work in 2020, appearing at the Royal Opera House as one of three women in A New Dark Age. This short filmed compilation by Katie Mitchell of music by Anna Meredith, Miss Mazzoli and Anna Thorvaldsdottir wove a story out of the simple act of leaving the house and getting to work in a pandemic – in the case of these three, work meant getting to Covent Garden to sing A New Dark Age...
Having a ball with Elizabeth Llewellyn (right) in Luisa Miller at ENO, Nadine Benjamin plays Laura. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Not everyone has pursued the same dogged path back to music. Some singers, Benjamin believes, having diversified to fulfil ambitions or to make ends meet, may never return to the stage.
With English National Opera on the verge of unveiling its 2021/22 programme, Benjamin just keeps smiling when asked if she will be back on the stage of the Coliseum soon. To a great extent ENO, and its developmental Harewood Artists scheme, has been her conservatoire.
Happy reunions aplenty are in store for singers when they can finally work flat out again in the very collegiate practice of making music for us. But one reunion has already happened. In the audience at Luisa Miller was one Mr Lake, who introduced his wife – that influential teacher who had mentioned Mozart. ‘I had been looking for her for years!’
Mrs Lake had been on the look-out too. The singer whose family name was Mortimer-Smith had adopted Benjamin as her stage name, because the tribe of Benjamin represents the singer's birth month of March in the Rastafarian calendar.
As Clara in Porgy and Bess at ENO, Nadine Benjamin was praised for the opening number, Summertime. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Whatever ENO work is in store, the music in Benjamin’s life does not stop beyond St Martin’s Lane. Her own company, Everybody Can!, which encourages new talent, will stage its third production in January 2022 – Bellini’s Norma, with its demanding title role, to be sung by Benjamin herself, at St James's, Piccadilly.
In the meantime, back at the Coliseum, the cast have put the finishing touches to Messiah – and have got used to being with others again. ‘Everyone would have felt that general wave of anxiety. I haven’t been with so many people for such a long time. But everyone was full of energy and joy.’
As live music-making resumes in May, with in-person audiences, that pent-up energy will be tangible. ‘We’re really rooting for each other. We’re really giving each other as much encouragement and companionship as we can.’
Audiences will surely feel the same way.
Handel’s Messiah, performed by English National Opera, is broadcast at 6pm on BBC Two on Saturday 3 April, and on iPlayer