London for Australian women.

Samantha Crawford: Soprano opera singer in London

Samantha Crawford: Soprano opera singer in London

Samantha Crawford is a London-based and hugely successful Soprano singer. She has a vocal gift, admirable ambition and a desire to support Australian creatives in London. We met up ahead of the birth of her first child to talk all things success and opera here in London. 

Concert with Sir Bryn Terfel. Copyright Bill Knight.

Concert with Sir Bryn Terfel. Copyright Bill Knight.

As a globally successful Soprano singer, Samantha Crawford frequently finds herself working in opera houses with unfamiliar creative teams and performing to highly discerning audiences.  I asked her to describe that experience. 

“I find it hugely thrilling.  I absolutely love being part of anything that is collaborative - opera, by its very nature, is that.  There is no such thing as the stand-alone opera performance. Working with so many other creatives, who are all really talented in their respective areas, means you get to build something much bigger than yourself and that’s really exciting.  

It is of course challenging and exciting because of the element of live theatre. Opera isn’t filmed scene by scene, so there are no second takes. Sometimes things do go wrong, but you rehearse hoping every eventuality is covered.  

It is a real pleasure to work with so many talented people: conductors, directors, the orchestral players, stage technicians, the backstage crew, the set builders, hair and make-up stylists, the costume designers and of course your fellow singers and actors.

A career in opera is not for the faint-hearted and physical strength and resilience is essential. I ask Samantha to share a little about this aspect of her work. 

“They say of opera that it is the olympics of the singing world.  It does require a huge amount of physical stamina.  

Opera is one of the longest forms of theatre, and most operas fall between 2-3.5 hours in length, longer than your average musical and certainly longer than most plays. (Not including some of Shakespeare’s histories!) There is a lot of text to get through so you do need good shoes and strong legs. It helps you feel rooted to the ground and ‘anchor your voice,’ so to speak. You also need patience to build up to the right roles at the right times.  

Stamina is important. If you jump the gun as a young singer, it can damage your voice.  You just haven’t got the strength of body and diaphragm to sustain that quality of vocal production over a professional orchestra, a chorus which can be 50-60 people, and other soloists.  We do not use microphones for amplification. We never do in opera houses. These houses are designed to help project the voice. For singers, it is all acoustic and the body is our microphone so it is definitely in our interests to respect it.”  

You need really good nutrition and really good hydration. Singers always have water with them and you need to work out a version of eating, sleeping and exercise that works for you in the roles you do.  

I can’t say there is a one formula that fits all because I have observed so many different ways, but you do have to respect your body as an instrument and find out how you can bring your 'A Game' when the curtain goes up.”

There has been an upsurge in women talking about these issues like #MeToo, equality and diversity. I asked Samantha to explain how women generally fared in the opera industry. 

“Gender equality is something I am really passionate about.  Last night I performed at the launch of a new charity called SWAP’ra which is supporting women and parents in opera. 

In opera, women are vastly under-represented as conductors, where we have 96% men and 4% women. Librettists, the people who write the text for operas, consist of 92% men and 8% women.  Composers number 98% men and only 2% women while, for directors, it is 74% men compared with only 26% women.  

There is a big gender distribution which needs addressing.  The good news is that this wonderful charity has been launched and the ripple effect from the #MeToo scandal in Hollywood has helped to accelerate lots of important conversations across the performance arts industries and beyond. I have also seen more female role models highlighted in the media and press that inspire me to push forward for changeg. Two books that helped me recently were, Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ and Edwina Dunn’s ‘The Female Lead.’ I have seen a change in my generation of conductors, composers, singers, librettists, which is really encouraging, and I hope that work continues.”

Samantha enjoys an enormously successful career. I asked her to share her recent experiences and career highlights.

“I have been very fortunate to get the first prize and president’s prize at the 2016 Wagner Society Singing Competition, as well as the Gold Medal with Honours at the 2017 Berliner International Music Competition, and this year I was one of the top ten finalists for inaugural the Hong Kong International Operatic Singing Competition. I’ve also enjoyed performing roles in English Country House opera companies like Glyndebourne and Garsington Opera, internationally in vibrant cities like Vienna, Paris and Madrid and palace opera houses steeped in history such as Théâtre municipal de Fontainebleau and Schlosstheater Schönbrunn.

I love the sheer variety of women I’m asked to portray. During those operas I’ve sung roles ranging from Czech peasant girls, to Viennese countesses, a nun, Spanish noblewomen, a Norse goddess, the Queen of Carthage, a ghost, a lady with magical powers, a repressed Victorian wife, and even a fox. Interpreting these roles to the musical mastery of Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Strauss and Puccini is always worth the study and effort to prepare the role. 

People who have done well in this industry have worked really hard.  I don’t know anyone who just sat around to see their career just fall in their lap.   Everyone is dedicated and committed and that’s exciting to be around.  

Mentorship has been an important part of my career. Since the Wagner competition I now work with Dame Anne Evans and I’ve enjoyed invaluable advice from Dame Gwyneth Jones. Dame Kiri te Kanawa gave me fantastic advice after the Hong Kong competition and I have had a wonderful teacher in the Australian soprano, Yvonne Kenny, who has guided me through repertoire choices and role choices.   So, between them I have been incredibly fortunate.”

Samantha with two of her Australian operatic heroes, conductor Richard Bonynge and my teacher, soprano Yvonne Kenny AM at Australia House.

Samantha with two of her Australian operatic heroes, conductor Richard Bonynge and my teacher, soprano Yvonne Kenny AM at Australia House.

We live in a world that is increasingly focused on success and what makes people successful.  I wondered - beyond role models, mentors and talent -  what else enabled women to succeed in the world of opera.

“I think from my observations it is always combinational. I have seen success from hard-work and talent, that has to go without saying, but there is also an element of luck and right time, right place, and being introduced to the agent who really believes in you and also champions you.  

A lot of it has to do with your mental preparation for entering an industry where you are self-employed.  You will face a lot of rejection.  You need to be good with travelling and you also need to ask yourself if you are okay with being away from your friends and family for easily over half a year at a time with opera contracts. 

Unless you are working full-time in a theatre like in Germany - where they uphold the Fest system of contracts where the opera company build an ensemble of singers, who then usually live in the town and perform all their roles at that theatre -  most UK singers will be freelance, and not all that work can take place in the UK.

Success also depends on your support network. Having three to maybe four trusted voices that stay consistent and act as a point of reference is essential - people that will speak the truth in love to you.  

If things are going incredibly well, you can have a lot more people start to come around you and be your ‘yes’ men and women.  That is dangerous. You can start making poor career decisions, or it can cost you in your personal life, because you perhaps don’t realise the value of going home to loved ones when there are so many opportunities that you have worked so hard to get. 

Equally, when it is a tough time and you are facing rejection, you really need that consistent counsel  -  dear friends will keep you on the straight and narrow and keep you in check as you the deal with the negative self talk. 

Another great tool for preparation was my training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, culminating in the International Opera Course. It prepares you for the volume of repertoire and music you need to memorise. It helps showcase you and put you under the pressure of preparing for auditions and balancing your work schedule. Student days are a great time to press forward learning languages. Speaking German, French and Italian has helped me succeed onstage, but also socially over post-show drinks. It’s no fun being the only one that can’t join in the conversation.

Of course, there are UK organisations which provide essential career breaks. I have been very fortunate to work with fantastic national opera companies in this country - like Scottish Opera, Glyndebourne, Garsington Opera and Opera Holland Park. From these opportunities, you can progress to international contracts, which I have had the good fortune of doing, and you can build from there as conductors and directors become familiar with your work.

Agathe in  Der Freischütz . Copyright Robert Workman.

Agathe in Der Freischütz. Copyright Robert Workman.

Samantha is a founding member of The Creative Professionals Network Australia. I asked her to share a little about the organisation and why is so important for young Australian Professionals in business, government and creative industries. 

I began CPN with my friend Emma Cullen of Cullen Wines in the Margaret River. Emma is a lawyer and knew a lot of lawyers when she came over and was obviously well networked within her industry.  Likewise myself, I knew a lot of Australians in the classical arts world. We realised there wasn’t much dialogue happening between the two industries and we wanted to create a really friendly but professional environment where people could get to know each other. 

A lot of people have passion projects, outside of their main field of employment, and I am very keen to see artists succeed with good business skills as well. So we thought “what if we could get loads of outward looking Aussies into a room?”  If you are thinking about becoming a private chef, or you need a photographer, or you have an app developed and you need to meet some techies, or you need tax advice; then you need a network to find those alternative skills sets.

It can be hard to build a network in a huge city.  Everyone is busy working in very demanding jobs so we created CPN - with the three aims; to connect people, get experiences and maximise opportunities - for the Australian and their British counterparts working in the arts, business, media, law,  hospitality and professional services.  

It is there to facilitate friendship as well.  Obviously, it can be isolating moving to a new city. You might have come from a big network back home, or you might be still missing your school friends so it is a way to come out and meet some Aussies and Brits who are friendly. Those that are keen to explore new business contacts, friendships, and fun or educational experiences.

If we look 20 years to the future, CPN members might be in a position of influence in their company to do charitable work or philanthropic things or sponsor scholarships. I want those opportunities to come out of friendships because they met 20 years ago in London.

Finally, as is customary, I asked Samantha to share her favourite parts of London. 

“I absolutely adore living in London.  I have lived here for 11 years.  I love that it is a cultural hub and a hub of history. The V&A has to be a personal favourite. I try to catch all the visiting exhibitions, especially those on fashion and clothes design!

It really excites me, when I am in the old City of London, to think about how the city has grown from a pre-Roman era.  There are so many buildings and architecture still preserved where you can walk on the streets of history. There are so many corners and moments where you think wow, these incredibly significant events happened here.  Advances in medicine, language, the printing press, new fashions, the abolition of slavery, new operas premiered – the list goes on!

Even just thinking about the suffragettes and the centenary march many women did this year – retracing the steps of those from 100 years ago. We get to walk the streets of history and remember change happens when people join together for the greater good. 

I love the museums and theatre and I really love the people. Covent Garden, the Southbank and Borough Market, Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Hunterian Museum are all spots I enjoy. I am a person who loves people so it is a pleasure to be in such a vibrant city where I am interacting with fascinating people - my life is so much more enriched for meeting them in the process, even if they move away further down the line. I am a big London convert.” 

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