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Phoebe Haines - Mezzo-soprano

Interview

1. Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?

So many but here are a few (in no particular order)... Maria Callas, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, W.A. Mozart, Jessye Norman, Tan Dun, Richard Strauss, Sarah Vaughan, J.S. Bach, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Beyonce, Jennifer McGregor, Cecilia Bartoli, Cesaria Evora, Whitney Houston, and my singing teacher - the late great Sanford Sylvan. In his words, ‘You don’t get rich singing the St. Matthew Passion. You just get happy’.

I have always loved Maria Callas – both for her artistry, and also for the numerous setbacks she suffered, both professionally and in her personal life. She seemed to experience everything in her life in extremes, and she brought this huge emotional spectrum to her work. I think that she is yet unsurpassed as a singer, both in terms of her vocal versatility and her capacity for dramatic interpretation. The living singer to whom I aspire is Sarah Connolly, as I think she is a fantastic actress as well as a wonderful singer.

2. Who was your first teacher? Was the saxophone the natural instrument for you?

I have been singing for as long as I can remember, and it was in sixth form at Brighton College that I began to really rigorously study music, both wind instruments and voice (if that’s not a tautology). This in-depth technical approach to musicianship is something which has stood me in good stead in my career and I can trace the roots back to the very moment I arrived there at school. Not only were there plentiful performance opportunities, I also experienced the joy and life-enhancing qualities of choral singing, as a member of the Chapel Choir.

I studied guitar and piano when I was much younger, but my first really inspirational teacher was Neil Carter. Neil comes from a very rich musical heritage, and he has a wonderful, very gentle approach to teaching. I feel that I learnt a great deal from him, both about my instrument and about music-making in general. Saxophone was always a natural instrument for me; it is a very versatile thing and has a lot of what I would consider ‘vocal’ qualities to it. While sound production and breathing technique are distinctive to the saxophone, I feel that there are many stylistic similarities between the vocal instrument and the saxophone.

Throughout my late teens, I learnt academic musicianship, technical skills, the art of performance in diverse environments (and the harnessing of nerves therein) - but more than this, I learnt about communicative power and spiritual meaning that music can have. And indeed in my career to date, music has (at its best!) been not only a career, but a tool for communication, education, therapy, and compassion. Singing in places far away from my home, music has allowed me to give something of myself and also to learn, on a very fundamental level, about what it means to be a human in the world.

3. What was the trigger that started you on the route of singing?

I suppose there was no single element that triggered my singing, as it was something I had always enjoyed. However seeing Joyce DiDonato’s Rosina at Covent Garden in 2006 made me passionate to pursue a career in classical singing specifically.

4. How did you know you enjoyed music so much? Did you always enjoy it?

I have always loved music - singing and playing instruments - but I wasn't always as proficient as I am now; it sounds redundant to say, but it’s easy to imagine, when we see musicians perform or athletes compete, that they have always been operating on a high level. This is not the case at all, and in fact, we never stop practising. It’s amusing to me that when I tell someone I’ve just come from a singing lesson, I am often confronted with a puzzled expression, and the question ‘Oh, you still have to take lessons... Haven’t you learnt how to sing yet?’ I find this funny because it implies that total infallible mastery of an artistic skill is possible.

I like this quotation by the legendary cellist Pablo Casals: he was asked, at age 93, why he still practiced three hours a day. Casal’s response: “I’m beginning to show some improvement”. This truly is the way for all artists and athletes, and I like that this is so. It leaves room for constant growth, interrogation, reframing of, and empathy for one's chosen discipline. So yes, whilst it hasn't always been a straight path or an easy road, I have always enjoyed music.

5. What would you consider to be your ‘break’ into music? Was there a turning point when you knew that you’d be able to make it your career?

It's a good question. For me there has never really been a break, just a steady continuation of... simply doing it. I'm extremely fortunate indeed to have this odd and interesting life, and it really is just that - a life choice. It comes with huge sacrifices and huge rewards, but more than anything, it just is what it is every single day. Harking back to Casals: it's just a continual case of 'doing' the important work, even if only for a little while, every day of your life if you can.

6. You began your formal training as a singer at the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama, under Mollie Petrie. What was it like to be mentored by this lady?

I started studying with Mollie when I was sixteen, and I have to say that initially I was quite intimidated by her. She was a formidable presence, both as a musician and as a teacher, and I felt very humbled to be learning from someone with such a long and distinguished career behind them. The best thing about Mollie was that she didn’t let us get away with anything, so not practising was never an option. It was good to have this sense of discipline instilled from an early age.

7. You then went to the University of Cambridge from which you graduated with a double first. Can you give us an impression of the high points of this successful period of study please?

I adored the academic components of my course at university, and added to that, some of my fondest memories were borne of the vast number of performance opportunities on offer there. The high point for me came at the beginning of my third year, when I played Cassandra in ‘Agamemnon’ at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. The Cambridge Greek Play is one of the university’s many traditions, and it takes place every three years. The play is always performed in the original ancient Greek, and having the opportunity to learn to read and sing in such a beautiful and poetic language was an awesome experience.

One of the other important by-products of my time at Cambridge was meeting harpist (and now Music Therapist at Great Ormond Street Hospital), Katya Herman, a consummate musician and one of my best friends. She truly exemplifies for me in her daily life just how healing and vital music is. I also really loved singing with the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra for all 3 years of my degree, and performing in venues from Budapest Jazz Club in Hungary, to the roman amophitheatre at La Mortella in Ischia. We had so much fun!

8. Can you tell us when and where you had your solo and orchestral debuts please?

I made my Salzburg Festival debut in 2014, as part of the Salzburg Festival YSP. That season I sang Zweite Adelige Weise in Der Rosenkavalier in the Großes Festspielhaus, and Tisbe in La Cenerentola in the Universitätsaal. I also had the honour of singing in concert with the Camerata Salzburg, and at Castell Son Claret in Mallorca as part of my time as a Festival artist. The year prior, I had made my French debut singing Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus with Opéra de Baugé.

9. If you could do a duet with anybody alive or dead, who would that dream partner be?

I would love to duet with the jazz singer Kurt Elling. I think he is an astounding live performer, and his long-term collaboration with pianist Laurence Hobgood has produced some of my very favourite recordings.

10. How often and for how long do you practise?

I try and do a structured practise session every day; learning singing technique is like learning to play an instrument that you can’t see or touch, so it’s important to practise effectively. However, unlike other instruments, the vocal mechanism isn’t as durable as other instruments in certain ways, so I don’t sing for much more than an hour in one sitting.

11. Do you or would you like to teach music?

Over the past 3 years, I have loved working with English National Opera’s Baylis department, going into schools and enjoying singing and song-writing with secondary-aged students. The element of storytelling in opera is such a big interest of mine, and it is an honour to work with young people on these types of skills. They come to the room with so many brilliant and thought-provoking ideas. I do also currently teach one private singing pupil, and I conduct an online choir once a fortnight.

12. How do you balance your music with other obligations? What are the biggest sacrifices?

It’s always a fun game trying to balance normal life commitments with musical ones. I tend to think that life works best when you’re at your busiest, however it’s not always as simple as that of course. The biggest sacrifices are when you have to miss friends’ birthdays and weddings because of pre-standing musical commitments. Luckily I’m blessed with a very understanding group of friends, many of whom are also musicians. At the end of the day, I guess compromise in all areas of life is key.

13. What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a musician?

I have absolutely zero of the requisite skills for this but I've always thought it would be cool to be a CSI...!

14. What’s the biggest challenge in your job?

A job as a performing artist often demands a certain spontaneity; this sounds fun, but when this concept is extrapolated over time, it can be frustrating (i.e. having to miss a family wedding because of a performing engagement etc.) So there are certain sacrifices to be made. However I like to reference a quotation by Joyce DiDonato (a singer whose attitude I admire very much) - you’ll have to excuse me for paraphrasing her but she often likes to remind singers in melodramatic moments in their lives or their music that, whilst the work we do is very important, and can be very beneficial to people, we must remember that we are not literally saving lives. We are not surgeons, with a vulnerable patient in our hands whose life depends on us. True respect is due to people like that, and professionals in all fields who make commensurate sacrifices (if not far greater ones), and don’t receive any of the ‘glory’ or accolades that performers do. I like Ms. DiDonato’s attitude because it instils a sense of levity, and reminds us to maintain our perspective. So I think the biggest challenge in this job is probably similar to the challenges most other people face: maintaining a healthy work/ life balance.

15. What are the best bits of your job?

Following on from the question above, I believe that the times when music is at its best is when it is helping people. Oftentimes this might be in a concert hall, but I also relish settings which are unconventional, and therefore much more immediately accessible for audience members. Recent studies are shedding light on just how important music can be in therapeutic environments, and it is these in which I am really interested. I work with English National Opera Baylis in their outreach and educational programmes; this is honestly some of the best work I have ever done in the field of music because I have the privilege of standing alongside young people who will doubtless be the next DiDonato’s and Peter Sellars’ of their generations. They possess talents and qualities far outside the realm of my own, and it truly is amazing work to help them on their way. I really enjoy environments in which music can help community engagement. Another organisation that I've been lucky to work with is Streetwise Opera, an award-winning company which offers a dependable programme of creative events and workshops for those experiencing homelessness. Closer to home in my native Brighton, I have worked alongside the CEDP (Chinese Educational Development Project) – a fantastic charity which uses a range of artforms from language, to music, to martial arts, to promote community cohesion, engagement, and celebration.

16. What does your day-to-day look like as a professional musician?

Completely different every day, depending on what country I’m in, what I am performing, what I am learning, and how soon my next performance is!

17. What do you think the misconceptions are about your job?

The funniest one I think is that opera singers need to have a specific body type... I find that an odd one...!

18. What’s the best thing you’ve ever done, because of being a professional musician or what’s the strangest thing you’ve done, or been asked to do?

I think in general I really enjoy the contrasts, so I love the idea that whilst last month maybe I stood on a stage many miles away, singing to 5000 people, this week I might be singing in a care home to 8 residents in a small room. These kind of contrasts I relish, because they help me to be flexible as an artist and communicator.

I also feel fortunate to have spent good amounts of time in different locations in order to get a feel for the languages, cultures, and ways of life in different countries, from China, to Austria, France, and many other places. This is something which I feel very lucky indeed to experience.

19. What are your ambitions for your career?

I would like to reach a point in my life where I am accomplished enough professionally and financially that I can sit back, and devote more time to community and educational work. My undergraduate degree was in Education and English Literature, so I would like to use these skills to develop a range of educational and outreach programmes using music as a tool for social engagement. I also really enjoy cross-arts collaborations, so I would like to develop my work with dancers, and also in the field of poetry / literary adaptations/ and fusion and crossover styles. Finding the time to devote to many different projects can sometimes be challenging, so I would love to reach a stage where I can do so.

20. What advice would you give to someone dreaming of a career as a professional musician?

Stick at it!

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