What does it take to be the Casting Director of an opera house? Linda Christmas tracks the rise of the Casting Directors of Welsh National Opera, English National Opera and Scottish Opera, all of whom have a Welsh background.
The Casting Director of an opera house plays a significant role. All three national opera companies, Welsh, Scottish and English, now have a female Casting Director, and all three have a Welsh background. It came as a surprise to discover that Wales has provided such valuable talent to the upper echelons of opera management, but it shouldn’t have: even without the Cardiff Singer of the World, everyone knows that Wales is the Land of Song. Actually, it is not the song that is important; it is the voice. The voice is the most brilliant musical instrument. The Welsh tend to take this for granted and accept that singing is an integral part of community life. It’s what you do in school, in chapel, and in local eisteddfods. All three casting directors used their singing skills to propel them into university.
Kathryn Joyce (WNO) was born and lives in Cardiff.
Joyce: “I was like every other child: I loved to sing! At school when there was something high and tricky, they would say “Kath will do it!” I mostly sang songs from musicals. My parents loved musicals and the first I saw was Starlight Express and I just loved it. I have no shame in admitting that I adore musicals. I didn’t hear my first opera, Madame Butterfly, until I was fifteen or sixteen. I had no career plan and went to Sheffield University to study music and voice. Then a group of us went to hear an Opera North production of Pelleas et Melisande; I can’t remember anything other than feeling lost in it, it totally grabbed me. I was engrossed, in a different world. That was the moment I considered opera singing as a career.”
Michelle Williams (ENO) has a Welsh grandfather and father but was born in Wiltshire.
Williams: “I went to a comprehensive school and music was a hobby. Mum and Dad didn’t play instruments but they were adamant we learn. I learned the clarinet and wanted to study music at A level but there were not enough students to form a class, so I moved to Cirencester college. There I thought singing lessons might be useful in case I ended up being a music teacher; I didn’t know you could have a job in the industry! I was introduced to opera by my singing teacher, Maria Jagusz. She took me to my first opera, WNO’s Hansel and Gretel. That was the first time I had heard an operatic voice.”
Sarah-Jane Davies of Scottish Opera comes from Brecon, South Wales.
Davies: “Everyone would get together and sing around a piano. I had a pretty voice, so I would learn a song and join them. You didn’t have to read music. In chapel you were taught not just to sing the melody, but to sing in harmony. It’s natural for the Welsh to pick up harmonies by ear rather than by formally learning notes. At fifteen, I was looking for a second musical instrument to play. The violin and the flute did not reach out to me, so that’s when I started singing lessons. I hadn’t thought of the voice as a formal musical instrument until then! My teacher was from the Royal College of Music, so after A levels I got a scholarship to the RCM to study voice and piano. It took me a while to find opera. During my first term at college, I saw La Boheme. When I finished my degree, I did a couple of years temping in various jobs before returning to RCM for post graduate work. By then I knew I wanted a singing career.”
At first, all three had wanted careers as opera singers, but Joyce and Williams changed their minds at university.
Joyce: “I loved singing, but not the pressure of performance and being judged. I did a module in Arts Management as part of my degree and met the Finance Director at WNO. He really inspired me to look at Arts Management, and pointed me in the direction of the Arts Management course at the RWCMD. I was delighted to be able to work in opera but not as a singer!
During the course I completed a work placement at WNO, then I stayed on as a Planning Assistant — the photo-copying rung of the ladder. After a few years I took a job in the music department at the RWCMD. I didn’t really want a job in education, but I wanted the experience of managing people. I managed a team of five or six people for two years.
Then my partner, Darren Joyce, Production Manager in the technical department of WNO, got a job at Scottish Opera and I followed him — and fell on my feet. I knew Jenny Slack, Director of Opera Planning at Scottish Opera through my job at WNO, so I made contact to find out if she wanted any help. She did.”
Williams discovered her talent for logistics as a teenager and transitioned to administration while at university.
Williams: “One summer while at Cirencester we decided to do a youth project, so I worked at an Iceland supermarket and saved up £500 to pay for the rights for Les Misérables. I did all the admin for the children to come, child protection and so on plus getting sponsorship from different local businesses. For the next seven years whatever I was doing I would spend the summer organising a project.
I got into Guildhall to study singing at the third attempt. I was accepted to study the clarinet at the first attempt, but I wanted to sing. In my first year at Guildhall, Maria (my teacher) was asked by Longborough Summer Festival to teach their amateur chorus. Maria disliked administration so I did her admin for free and she gave me lessons in exchange. The summer projects grew in ambition and included The Little Sweep, Dido and Aeneas and La Boheme. That’s why I am not a singer, because I was busy organising things!
The Guildhall was a four-year course; I did three years and then a year out as President of the Students’ Union. I didn’t go back for the fourth year. By then it was clear I didn’t want to sing, I just wanted to be in the industry on the administrative side. The first step was to join Scottish Opera as Assistant Company Manager.”
Unlike Joyce and Williams, Davies became an opera singer and remained a singer for ten years:
Davies: “I was in the opera school for what seemed like five minutes when the ENO’s Head of Casting, John Berry, came to the College to consult on the new intake. He was looking for a soprano for the Young Artists Programme and when he heard me sing, he suggested that I shared my time between the College and ENO. I made my debut at ENO as the First Lady in The Magic Flute. I had an affinity to Mozart from early on. His music makes sense vocally, and mathematically the style suited my way of thinking. I like the accuracy required for Mozart. Throughout my ten-year singing career it was Mozart and more Mozart with a bit of Handel thrown in.
I started to become interested in administration through Les Azuriales, a festival just outside Nice. I sang there, and was on a panel to choose young singers, but I wore all sorts of other hats helping in general. Elaine Kidd, Director of Artistic Planning at Scottish Opera came one year to do some workshops in France; we got chatting and she offered me a temporary job helping with administration. I thought I would be there for three months, but that was in 2013! I moved up to Assistant Company Manager, then deputy and now casting.”
Scotland became an amazing link between all three. Each arrived to cover maternity leave or on short term contracts and, changing jobs en route, stayed long enough to learn the special administrative needs of an opera house. Joyce was the first to join, then Williams and finally Davies.
Joyce: “I stayed with Scottish Opera for four years, changing roles until I reached the casting side. Managing the tour, going to highlands and islands, was the best job ever. It was a joy taking opera to communities where they have only one opera a year. Whatever the piece, they would all turn out! We might take one production without chorus and with a small band, or piano, and a reduced running time. Or maybe three singers with a keyboard on the back of a van! I learned so much because it is a producing role. I had to plot out venues, accommodation, and recruit technical staff, lighting and props. It was a rewarding job seeing productions through from start to finish. My time at Scottish Opera gave me a thorough grounding.
I recall Michelle arriving as Assistant Company Manager about halfway through my four years. My husband and I called her Hurricane Michelle! She was so passionate, so driven, she wanted to soak up everything. She will be a CEO running a company one day!”
Williams already had much organisational experience when she arrived in Scotland, but stayed for seven years, five of them as Artists Manager.
Williams: “I started as Assistant Company Manager but my ambition lay with casting, so although my first role was not in this area, I sat in on rehearsals and auditions and eventually moved to casting. It’s difficult to hear voices when you are in Scotland because everywhere else seems so far away. But I did manage to travel a little. At Scottish Opera we tried to support British talent. Elaine Kidd was above me and she had been a director, so she came from the theatrical side and I complimented that by coming from the vocal side.
While there I was accepted onto the Clore Leadership programme. Scottish Opera paid my salary and I developed myself in ways I wanted to by visiting Chichester Festival, the Bristol Old Vic and the South Bank. I was one of the youngest on the programme and I learned a lot about myself and how a big organisation is run. I could benefit from that again to help me to the next step; I love my role as Casting Director, but, yes, I would like to be a CEO one day.”
Davies: “When Michelle moved to ENO four years ago, I moved up to Casting Director. It certainly helps to have a singing background: you need to understand how the voice works. My career as a singer has given me a special advantage: I have detailed knowledge, so can consider singers’ technique, not just what they sound like. I need the admin skills too — there’s a lot of desk work.All three now have similar roles. Their titles and the structure of their companies might differ, but the essence of their job is to find the right voices and the right blend of voices for roles large and small. The process begins years before the first night, as soon as the top echelons, including the Artistic Director and Music Director, have planned a season. The Casting Directors provide lists of possible singers, maybe as many as a dozen beside each operatic character. Then the collaboration starts and ideas are pooled. After that, the Casting Director’s job is to track availability, sanction the final decisions, deal with contracts and keep an eye on artists when they arrive to start the rehearsal process.”
All three need to travel to hear new voices or known voices that are changing. It is far better to see singers in performance than in auditions. They are also responsible for the Young Artists Programme which each company runs to develop talent. Wales and Scotland offer a one- or two-year salaried post which is a stepping stone between college and a freelance career. ENO’s programme is bigger, accommodating about twelve young artists each year, and has a stronger nurturing role. The participants are offered training to suit their needs. They are not salaried, but are paid for the roles they do, leaving them free to make connections and accept roles with other companies.
It is important to note the significant role that has been played by Scottish Opera in the development of these three careers. Williams, who stayed the longest time at Scottish Opera, points out that Alex Reedijk, General Director since 2006, really cares about the development of his staff, even when it means they will fly the nest.
Williams: “He supported me on the Opera Europa Management Course and also in my application of the Clore Leadership Programme where I took a nine-month sabbatical to develop my career further. We went to Scotland to work because of our love of opera and the industry and that hopefully shone through; he saw our passion and let us develop as much as we could.”
That kind of ethos at the top of the company is invaluable because it inevitably trickles down. The names of Jenny Slack and Elaine Kidd came up time and again in these interviews: strong, warm, generous women who reached out to others. As a result, all three Casting Directors said that they hope they can emulate their mentors; not because the arts councils expect it or because it looks good on paper, but because they understand the value of a selfless helping hand willing to develop potential.
Linda Christmas is a journalist and an opera devotee of fifty years.