For more than fifty years, the Kathleen Ferrier Awards have championed the careers of emerging young singers. The competition was launched in 1956 to commemorate the life of the much-loved contralto, who died in 1953 aged just 41. Best remembered for her vibrant and characterful performances, Kathleen had no formal musical training, and began her working life as a telephone operator, while pursuing music on the side. However, a series of encounters with key people in the music industry saw her rise to global stardom. Over the course of her twelve-year career, she performed at venues including Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, and inspired composer Benjamin Britten to write the title role of his opera The Rape of Lucretia with her in mind.
Since their inception, the Kathleen Ferrier Awards have helped to kickstart the careers of singers from around the world. The Awards are open to singers aged 28 and under, who have completed at least one year of study in the UK or Eire. Despite the challenges of last year, the 2020 competition saw soprano Jessica Cale receive first prize. Second and third places were awarded to soprano Ella Taylor and soprano Milly Forrest respectively. The Accompanist’s Prize went to Hamish Brown. Here, we talk to Jessica about winning the awards, her transition from ensemble singing to performing solo repertoire, and her concert warm up routine.
Congratulations on winning the Kathleen Ferrier Awards! Why did you decide to enter and what did the competition involve?
Thank you! I had always wanted to enter the Kathleen Ferrier Awards – it is such a prestigious competition – and I decided to wait to enter until I was at the upper age limit to give myself the best chance of doing well. The competition involved a preliminary audition round to the audition panel (Ryland Davies, Christopher Glynn, Valerie Beale and Rosalind Plowright) followed by the semi-final and final, all this year held at the beautiful Henry Wood Hall in London.
Can you tell us about the pieces you performed in the Final and why you chose them? What were your favourite passages to sing?
In my final programme I presented a Handel Aria from Serse ‘L’amerò? Non fia vero… E gelosia quella tiranna’. The recitative gave me a chance to explore different colours and contrasting emotions before moving into the more agitated aria. The dramatic nature of this opening piece meant I could really get into character and try to forget any nerves that had built up before my performance! I followed this with three songs from Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, a collection of songs that I actually only discovered at the beginning of the first lockdown! They’re all short and fun, exploring lots of different characters and ideas.
Mozart’s ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ from Le nozze di Figaro was next in my programme, an aria that I adore singing for the beautiful line and colours that you can explore within it. I really relish exploring that balance between winding Figaro up and expressing the love Susanna feels for him. I finished my programme with the most beautifully expressive song by female composer, Maude Valerie White, ‘So we’ll go no more a’roving’.
What has winning the competition meant for you?
Winning the Kathleen Ferrier Awards has given me a real confidence boost. I am my own worst critic (as I’m sure many performers are!) and I will often think that I’m not good enough or compare myself to other singers. Winning a competition like this has really started a shift in my thinking – I realise that if other people believe in me and enjoy the performances I have to offer then I really need to start believing in myself a bit more!
When did you realise you wanted to pursue singing? How did you start your career and how has it evolved?
I’m not sure there was ever a big realisation for me that singing would be my career choice. I am from a musical family and sang from a very early age. I started off playing violin as my main instrument which I didn’t enjoy as much – singing just felt so natural to me and when I discovered that you could do it for a job then it was a very easy path to take! I studied for a music degree at Cardiff University before moving to London to explore a career as a freelance choral singer. After a few years I decided that I might want to try some further vocal training and see what my voice was capable of, so I went to the Royal College of Music where I completed a Masters degree in Performance and am now in the final year of my Artist Diploma at the RCM Opera Studio.
You’ve previously performed as an ensemble and consort singer with the Monteverdi Choir and The Sixteen. Can you tell us about your transition from ensemble singing to singing solo repertoire? What were the main differences you encountered, and did you have to adapt your vocal technique?
I have always been an advocate for healthy singing, whatever type of singing that may be, and I have always had very supportive and encouraging singing teachers who have helped to nurture my voice so that it remains flexible and adaptable. As my voice started to develop it was inevitable that I would need to do less choral singing – my voice has naturally grown and warmed up in tone and I am always looking to give beauty of tone and even, legato lines. That’s not to say that you can’t achieve this in choral singing, it is just that the focus in choral singing is less on the individual voices and more about the homogenous blend you can achieve as a whole.
What are the steps you take to embody a character?
When I start exploring a new character I first look at their thoughts – what they might be thinking, feeling, what motivations do they have. Then I will explore their backstory – where did they grow up, how old are they, what relationships do they have with others – you can find a lot out through the libretto or your own research about the opera but I also love being creative here. There are no right or wrong answers, you can make your character uniquely yours and as detailed and nuanced as you like! I will then think about their physicality, how they stand, how they walk, whether they are light or heavy weight. I’ve had fantastic movement and acting teaching at the RCM where I have learnt Laban techniques which really help me to find an avenue in to explore a character.
On the day of a performance, how do you warm up your voice?
I like to go gently on the day of a performance or audition. I’ll try to get an early night and a good amount of sleep the night before and I’ll begin the performance day with some yoga. I drink lots of water and warm drinks and think about how I’m going to fuel myself. If I have a performance in the evening, I’ll probably have a hearty lunch and lots of snacks for the evening. When I have an audition I may be quite nervous so eating little and often is the key there!
I will do a good vocal warm up a few hours before the audition or performance, starting with lip trills and working through to more demanding exercises, and will sing through any of the trickier passages. I’ll then try to give myself an hour of down time and try to do some meditation and positive visualisation. I will then do another shorter warm up just before I go on stage. For me it’s about preparing myself physically and mentally rather than just focussing on my voice.
What are your future plans, are there any particular roles or pieces you would love to perform?
I finish my studies at the RCM this summer with my final performance in the title role of Handel’s Rodelinda which I’m really excited about. The Covid-19 pandemic has put a spanner in the works for the performance industry so it’s going to be a bit of a waiting game until things start up again but I’m hopeful that things will improve towards the end of this year. I would love to perform Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, she’s such a fantastic character. I will also be on the lookout for any Handel roles that I can get my hands on!
For a list of upcoming UK classical music competitions click here.
Main featured image: ©Emma Brown Photography