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Bringing opera to the ethnic masses

A major musical project which aims to encourage black and Asian people into opera – as performers and supporters – is staged in Birmingham on Sunday as part of the city’s Black History Month celebrations.

A major musical project which aims to encourage black and Asian people into opera – as performers and supporters – is staged in Birmingham on Sunday as part of the city’s Black History Month celebrations. Ros Dodd reports.

abigail kelly

Abigail Kelly’s childhood was a busy one – if she wasn’t swimming, playing the violin or having piano lessons, she could probably be found at a tap, ballet or modern dance class or singing in the local church choir.

“My parents decided to throw everything at me – expose me to all kinds of music and dance to see what stuck. Trouble is, that most of it did.”

Only the violin failed to engage Abigail’s interest and burgeoning musical ability.

Abigail’s early introduction to the arts has much to do with her decision to eschew a career in science and plump instead for music.

Today, at the age of 25, she is a rising classical singing star, specialising in opera and with a love of musical theatre.

Her cut-glass soprano voice is much in demand in her home city of Birmingham as well as further afield: she made her Symphony Hall debut singing the soprano role in the premiere of Bob Chilcott’s Christmas cantata And Peace on Earth in 2004 and has sung for former Bishop of Birmingham John Sentamu on several occasions, including at his confirmation service as Archbishop of York, at St Mary le Bow Church in London.

She regularly tours with opera companies.

“Since finishing my postgraduate degree in operatic studies in Glasgow in June last year, I’ve been in constant work, which is nice, because it’s a very competitive business – there are so many people who are as good if not better than you,” she says. As well as earning a living from singing, Abigail – a bubbly “people person” – is keen to encourage more black youngsters to develop an interest in classical music.

“When I went to college, I noticed how few black students there were – I think only two apart from me – even on the jazz course, which I thought was interesting,” says Abigail. “Even now, there are only about 10 classical black singers in Britain. I teach singing at an all-boys’ school and the music provision there is phenomenal; the pupils are given every opportunity to play any instrument they want.

“Otherwise, you only get youngsters from one section of society going forward. That means young black and other ethnic kids look at who’s at the very top of classical music, don’t see anyone they identify with and think ‘maybe that’s not for me’, which just perpetuates the situation.”

Abigail hopes her part-time job with the Black History Foundation (BHF), where she is involved in events organisation, will give her more opportunities to bring classical music, in particular singing, to young people who might otherwise miss out.

To this end, she will be performing at a black opera performance, Sir Willard White and Friends, at Birmingham Town Hall on Sunday which is being supported by the BHF.

“It’s an event to raise funds for a scholarship scheme for black kids – to create a bursary that will be given to a young singer or singers every year to help them get into music college,” she explains.

The recent BBC reality programme Last Choir Standing featured a young black choir from Birmingham called Dreemz, who made it through several rounds despite not having a regular musical director. Their story is an uplifting one, for it shows that young people from disadvantaged areas can, with encouragement and determination, get real joy from singing.

“What’s great about singing is that it doesn’t cost anything; you don’t have to pay for lessons or buy an instrument – enthusiasm is enough. I’m interested to see what impact TV programmes like Last Choir Standing will have. There’s lots of negative stereotyping, so it’s great to see young people, whatever their colour and race, doing something they feel passionate about. I’m sure Dreemz will go on to do really well.

“Being a member of a choir provides young people with life lessons, as well as the actual singing,” Abigail continues. “Going to rehearsal once a week teaches you to stick at something; it provides discipline and time management, the ability to work with a team and be part of creating something worthwhile. If a lot more young people had that opportunity, I think we would see fewer of the type of headlines we’re seeing at the moment. There needs to be more recognition of the efforts and contribution made by the many people who are trying to get young people involved in the arts and music. We should be channelling more money into this rather than government policy.”

Abigail, though, was one of the lucky ones, with parents who supported and nurtured her love of music.

Born in Harborne, she went to King Edward VI Handsworth School for Girls and then won a scholarship to Birmingham Conservatoire, where she studied under Maureen Braithwaite and from where she emerged with a First Class Bachelor of Music degree, the Robert Gahan Award for achievement by a first-year singer and the highest marks in her year. She then completed a postgraduate degree at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.

“It was a hard decision to make to go to music college, because I really loved science and wanted to go into genetic research, but felt I had to try the musical path first,” Abigail remembers.

It’s a decision she hasn’t regretted, as music dominates her life. “In my spare time I don’t really listen to opera unless I’m learning something; I listen to all kinds of music – rock, pop, electronic stuff and I absolutely adore French café music. I’m doing a cabaret with English Touring Opera this autumn, which I’m really looking forward to.

“That’s running alongside a Dvorak tour I’m doing, so I’ll be moving to London for a few weeks.”

Abigail still has another four years before her voice reaches its full potential “if I work hard and keep at it. It’s hard work – I still have to have singing lessons”.

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