British Youth Opera is celebrating 25 years of giving young singers an opportunity to cut their operatic teeth in a safe environment. Nicola Lisle reports

Think of almost any current British opera singer and there’s an even chance that he or she will have come up through the ranks of British Youth Opera. The company’s alumni list reads a bit like a Who’s Who in British Opera: Peter Auty, Christopher Maltman, Mark Stone, Clare Rutter, Heather Shipp, Lucy Crowe, Wendy Dawn Thompson, ‘Go Compare’ tenor Wynne Evans   ̶  the list goes on and on.

All of this, of course, is testament to the success of a company that was launched 25 years ago to bridge the gap between music college and a professional career. Many of the singers who cut their operatic teeth with BYO have gone on to sing with the Royal Opera, Glyndebourne, ENO and other leading opera companies, both in the UK and overseas.

BYO’s 2010 La bohème, with John Pierce and Susana Gaspar

‘It was a turning point for me,’ says Meeta Raval, who sang Magda in BYO’s production of La Rondine in 2008, and is now singing with Opera North. ‘BYO does so much good nurturing young singers and giving them a platform. Sometimes it’s the first exposure to the national press as well. BYO definitely kick-started my career, because people knew who I was after that.’

British Youth Opera was the brainchild of former Labour MP Denis Coe, himself a keen amateur musician and opera lover. He tested the water with a production of The Marriage of Figaro in Cleveland in the summer of 1986, and was so buoyed by its success that he was inspired to set up a full-time training company.

‘Denis’s purpose was to give young singers a taste of how it feels to be in the profession,’ says artistic director Peter Robinson, who has been associated with the company from the beginning. ‘In other words, we should try and replicate as closely as possible the circumstances of a professional opera production, which is pretty much what we still try to do. The company’s aims and ambitions have stayed consistently the same all those years.’

That professional approach, and the quality it produces, was immediately apparent when I sat in on a rehearsal of one of this year’s productions, Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera. Despite the obvious youthfulness of the performers, there was never a feeling that these were mere students.

It’s been invaluable for me. I’ve been able to grow in confidence, but in a safe and nurtured environment
– Katy Crompton

Peter Kirk, who played one of the Three Actors, is currently studying at the RCM Opera School and has already performed professionally with ENO and English Touring Opera, but BYO offered him his most challenging role yet, and he was clearly relishing the experience. ‘It’s been fantastic,’ he says. ‘The great thing with BYO is that they look after their singers, so you feel well nurtured. Everyone really cares about what they’re doing, so there’s a lot of pride in it, and I feel like I’ve learnt a lot.’

Fellow Opera School student Katy Crompton, who sang Marenka in this year’s The Bartered Bride, agrees. ‘When you’re at college, although you’re learning a great deal, there’s always that element of not feeling like a professional. Coming to BYO, you walk in on the first day and you are a professional opera singer, and that is a brilliant feeling. You don’t feel hindered by the fact that you are still a student. It’s been invaluable for me. I’ve been able to grow in confidence, but in a safe and nurtured environment.’

One of the ways in which the company nurtures its young singers is to select the most appropriate repertoire. ‘The first thing BYO did was Don Giovanni, and that was repeated the following year along with The Marriage of Figaro,’ says Robinson. ‘Those Mozart operas have been the backbone of the company ever since. We don’t do one every year, but we return to them fairly frequently. Apart from the fact that they’re incomparable masterpieces, they offer fantastic material for young singers to work on.

‘We’ve got to be careful that we don’t pick things that are too ambitious for young voices. We try and do one fairly big chorus piece each year, and another piece that doesn’t involve the chorus so much. Training the chorus is as part of our work as training the principal singers, so ideally the chorus would be about two dozen.’

For the last few years, around 400 hopefuls have auditioned for BYO’s annual opera season, and this gets whittled down to a shortlist of 100 before final selections are made. Auditions are open to anyone currently in full-time study at a British music college, or those who are about to start or have recently completed their studies.

Robinson is keen to emphasise that BYO doesn’t just nurture young singers    ̶  the company also trains budding directors, conductors, repetiteurs and other members of the production team.

Training is not confined to the opera season, either    ̶  the company also runs a programme of Easter workshops, and offers masterclasses by the likes of John Tomlinson and Kiri Te Kanawa.

After early seasons at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Wimbledon Theatre and the QEH, the company now has permanent residence at London’s Peacock Theatre. It also has a permanent orchestra, the South Bank Sinfonia – which, like BYO, is a training ground for young musicians. ‘Both those things, which have happened within the last ten years, made an enormous difference to the artistic security of the company,’ says Robinson.

On 18 November the company will celebrate its silver anniversary with a gala concert at Cadogan Hall, which will bring together alumni from the last 25 years.

One of the soloists will be Rosemary Joshua, who sang the role of Zerlina in the BYO’s first production, Don Giovanni, in 1987, and has gone on to enjoy a major international career. ‘It was a wonderful experience,’ she says of her time with BYO. ‘It was my first experience of being constantly around musicians and singers, and having a director and a conductor. We were being trained in a professional manner, and given a taste of how it would be in the profession. It’s a fantastic opportunity for any singer.’