Saturday 12 December 2015

Creative entrepreneurship - an encounter with Lizzie Holmes, of Debut opera

Marie Lys singing at 60th birthday party
Marie Lys singing at a 60th birthday party
You have graduated from music college, and are looking at post-graduate training and gaining experience in opera, there is only one problem; where does the money come from? Most young singers end up working somewhere, often in a non-musical environment, whilst they pursue their career. And some talented singers never ever make it into the opera house as economics force them to take career in the commercial world. 

But the young soprano Lizzie Holmes is developing a solution. Her company Debut Opera, whose mission statement is 'Debut Opera brings together the UK's brightest emerging opera singers & pianists to provide unparalleled musical entertainment for corporate & private events', provides young opera singers for private events, thus giving the singers a form of income derived from a genuine musical source. Whilst those hiring the singers not only get high quality entertainment but the real chance to hear ‘Tomorrow's stars, for your event today'.

Lizzie Holmes of Debut Opera
Lizzie Holmes of Debut Opera
In person Lizzie Holmes is bright, lively and engaging and we prefix the more formal part of our interview with a general discussion about the perils of young singers being pressured to do too much to soon, a chat which soon veers into some of my reminiscences of great singers of the past. But once she is talking about Debut Opera, Lizzie is focussed and direct, clearly passionate about the subject and making you wonder why no-one has done it before. 

Between the ages of 25 and 35 most singers have an income gap, granted they are building a career by being on young artists schemes, singing with a small touring opera company or doing oratorio but it is only with experience that a liveable wage comes. Coming out of college with a degree can be an amazing experience, but you are then facing a £20,000 per annum bill for post-graduate study whilst trying to earn money working in a coffee shop. Lizzie comes from a family of non-musicians so the idea that you are a young artist until you are 35 was alien to them. But she was in a similar position and when she sang for someone’s wedding, it struck her that she could do a better job so she has set up Debut Opera.  Generally when events firms provide singers for corporate and private events they often come from a musical theatre background whereas Debut Opera’s roster of performers are all highly talented opera singers.

Die Fledermaus at the Royal College of Music
Die Fledermaus at the Royal College of Music which
featured Debut Opera artists Gemma Lois Summerfield as
Rosalinde & Julien Van Mellaerts as Eisenstein

Currently the firm has 12 singers and pianists on their books, all conservatoire trained and these include soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield, who won the 1st prise and song prize at the 2015 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, baritone Timothy Nelson who was a Jerwood Young Artist at Glyndebourne for 2015 and makes his Royal Opera debut in 2016, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts who won the 2015 Maureen Lehane Vocal Awards at the Wigmore Hall and pianist Ian Tindale who won the Help Musicians UK Accompanist's Prize in the 2015 Kathleen Ferrier Awards

Lizzie herself studied English Literature at Warwick University and only discovered opera whilst there. She failed to get in for any Masters courses in Vocal Studies but with a perseverance which seems characteristic she applied again the following year with some success. Last year she sang Poppea in Ryedale Festival Opera's production of The Coronation of Poppea (see my review), and this year is working full time, albeit in musical theatre. She is currently appearing in The Phantom of the Opera!

Lizzie feels that so many normal people, as she puts it, do not really know what an opera singer sounds like and that being presented with these vivacious young performers, often the same age as their children, can be a delightful revelation. Debut Opera thus provides real opera singers, with a live piano enabling someone to have such entertainment at their 60th birthday party and to be able to say in the years ahead that so and so sang at my 60th before they were famous.

Julien Van Mellaerts & Peter Aisher performing at a Debut Opera event
Julien Van Mellaerts & Peter Aisher
performing at a Debut Opera event
Of course, plenty of people might have the idea but not everyone goes ahead and implements it. Lizzie did economics at A-level and has remained interested in the subject. Her best friend from school, Amelia Humfress, is CEO and founder of Steer, a firm which teaches people computer coding and web development. The success of this, spurred Lizzie on to do her own venture.  She has also been getting advice from Philip Carne MBE, trustee of the Richard Carne Trust.

And music colleges are now recognising that young performers need training in these areas. The Guildhall School has introduced its creative entrepreneurship course, and at the RCM (where Lizzie studied) there is professional skills training to ensure performers are business savvy.  As people are discovering, the skills needed to be creative can often transfer to entrepreneurship too. So Lizzie has also been getting advice from the Creative Careers Centre at the Royal College of Music.

It clearly helps that Lizzie has a community of people to support her. But she comments that every event that she has done has led to something else, and it is clear that Lizzie combines both musical  and business entrepreneurship talents.

Participating in such commercial events can have other advantages too, beside the obvious financial ones. Lizzie did her first such event during what was a tough final year at college (she got through three different singing teachers), a period when it is easy to lose the sheer joy in performing. But singing a someone's party, a quartet of two sopranos, tenor and baritone, left the young singers buzzing and reminded them of the real magic to be had in performing. She clearly feels that people can be captivated by such performances, and she talks about the magic of singing and story telling.

Another potential advantage is that if one of the audience admires a particular singer they can sign up to receive updates on future performances that they may give thus enabling them to follow a budding career, and giving the singer potential future audience members. Between 25 and 35 is an exciting age for a singer; I have experienced this myself, as we have seen young singers in performances at college and gone on to follow their development through British Youth Opera, English Touring Opera and one to greater things, all the time enjoying hearing how they develop as an artist.

Lizzie also admits that running Debut Opera gives her something that she can be in control of. For much of a singers life you put yourself in the hands of someone else, whether it be going to an audition or submitting to a directors whims. So it is heartening to see a young singer putting a talent for entrepreneurship to good use and hopefully making a real difference.

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