Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Listening to opera star sing live in a barn

WHEN singer Phoebe Haines walked into the barn just a couple of miles outside Henley last Friday morning we knew

WHEN singer Phoebe Haines walked into the barn just a couple of miles outside Henley last Friday morning we knew we were in the presence of someone special.

The mezzo-soprano had come to deliver a lecture on Mozart to a small gathering of opera fans, and she was a little breathless. The tube line from her home in Shoreditch, east London, had decided not to function that morning and her journey had been circuitous, to say the least.

“I’ve taken a bus, a taxi, three trains and a car to get here,” she said.

But she didn’t look particularly stressed — or even flustered. Instead, in her diamond-print jeggings and peep-toe sandals, and with her mane of black ringlets tumbling over her shoulders she looked supremely in control.

I must confess to feeling, for the first time in my reasonably long life, a little star-struck. Everything about this young woman is quite extraordinary. The way she looks, her deportment, and the quality of her voice, even when just speaking, are all pretty captivating.

At the age of 24 Phoebe is still studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. This summer she is singing in the chorus with Opera North in a production of Peter Grimes, as well as singing a “trouser role” as Prince Orlofski in Die Fledermaus at a private chateau in the Loire Valley. There can surely be no doubt that she is an opera star in the making.

She had come to Henley at the invitation of Opera Prelude, a non-profit making organisation that was set up two years ago. The idea is that aficionados come to hear a professional talk on opera, and on Friday people had indeed come from far and wide — some from the local area, some from London. There was even a contingent from Austria. Tickets for the event were £15, and all the money is paid to the young singer.

The idea was the brainchild of Fiona Hamilton, who calls herself the “organiser and tea lady”.

She said: “It started completely by accident. I was organising a fundraising concert in Fawley village church and I got chatting to one of the young singers, a mezzo-soprano called Adriana Festeu. I said, ‘I’m so ashamed. I’ve been going to the opera for 20 or 25 years and I simply haven’t got a clue what’s going on’.

“We thought it would be a good idea to start a history of opera course, so we pulled together about 10 people. Adriana is now the course director, and we’ve never looked back.”

The idea is to give upcoming talent the opportunity to share their knowledge, while at the same time earning some much-needed cash.

Mrs Hamilton said: “The greatest fun with the whole thing is finding angles for our lectures. At the moment I’m planning one for the autumn called Last Gasps In Opera, about death scenes and how they evolved, because they tend to be so dramatic.”

Last Friday’s lecture was entitled Mozart’s Women: His Friends, His Family And His Music, and began with Phoebe singing one of his most famous arias, Voi Che Sapete from The Marriage Of Figaro.

Phoebe said later that opera singers needed a “sharp” edge to their voice in order to be heard over an orchestra in a large auditorium; listening to her sing in such an intimate venue to a small assembled crowd of guests felt very privileged indeed.

After the opening aria Phoebe went on to talk about Mozart and in particular, the women who influenced his life. There were stories about his mother, Anna Maria, a self-deprecating soul and a bit of a boozer, who was subjugated by her chauvinistic husband, Leopold.

There were anecdotes about his sister, Nannerl, seven years his senior, whom he became very close to during their endless tours as child prodigies. And of course there were plenty of stories about the women he loved — including the sopranos whose voices inspired him to compose, and his wife Constanze.

In a letter written by Mozart and read out by Phoebe, he described Constanze as “the most homely of all the sisters” in the bohemian Weber family with whom he lodged. “She is not ugly, but at the same time far from beautiful,” he wrote. “She has no wit but enough common sense to fulful her duty as a wife and mother.”

So how important is it for opera fans to know about the composer in order to understand and appreciate opera?

“I think it’s really important,” said Phoebe. “Especially where Mozart is concerned because there’s so much folklore that surrounds him and his relationships.

“Beethoven had perhaps more divine inspiration — he heard music in his head, partly because he was going deaf, but for Mozart his relationships were such a big part of his life that you can’t really ignore it.”

Opera Prelude now runs about 20 lectures a year in the Cadogan Hall in London and six in this venue just outside Henley. The next local event is on Wednesday, June 5 when tenor Joe Morgan will talk on The Buffa Works of Donizetti. Tickets are £15. Visit, email or call 07908 894333.

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