Great voice, shame about the acting

A new initiative aims to give young singers an all-round training
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The Independent Culture

A clown is English National Opera's new secret weapon. Not a man with red nose and big boots but the clown Marcello Magni who, with his company Theatre de Complicité, is famous for the physicality of his performances.

A clown is English National Opera's new secret weapon. Not a man with red nose and big boots but the clown Marcello Magni who, with his company Theatre de Complicité, is famous for the physicality of his performances.

ENO has invited Magni to perform some of his magic by teaching movement to half-a-dozen young opera singers who have joined the company as part of a pioneering new training scheme.

At the inaugural class this summer, he placed the young singers behind a mask to banish all facial expression. Then he made them use every single part of the body - from nose, to stomach, to toe - to convey character. This is not easy, he says. "It takes time for the body to tune itself." But he was impressed by the singers' efforts.

The point of the exercise is to nurture the opera stars of the future. The ENO's Young Singers Programme, which has secured funding from the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, has given six singers a place in opera company for two years, with training designed to turn them into accomplished all-round performers. So, in addition to working with Magni, there are occasional workshops on improvisation from directors Phyllida Lloyd and Tim Albery as well as voice coaching from people like the American baritone Thomas Hampson.

Training in opera has until recently been a haphazard affair. Before the ENO programme, only the cash-strapped National Opera Studio had borne responsibility for supporting singers - or rather, a chosen few - in early years of voice development.

The ENO scheme suggests a new emphasis on developing young singers (the Royal Opera is expected to announce a similar programme in October) and a change of outlook from opera directors who increasingly want more than a brilliant voice in a wooden body.

Claire Weston, 26, one of ENO's recruits, says: "Singing the notes isn't enough now. If there are two people going for one part and one has the looks and the figure, they're going to pick that person."

Richard von Allan, director of the National Opera Studio, agrees: "There are still certain parts in Wagner where you need an enormous voice and often you need an enormous person to do it. But for the average roles, the audience and directors want the singers to look the part. You rely on the willing suspension of disbelief, but you can't have someone of 16-stone dying of consumption."

Among the benefits for young singers is the chance to perform with the ENO at the Coliseum. Leigh Melrose, for example, is taking the role of Rodolfo in Leoncavallo's La Bohÿme in November at the age of 27. "The opportunity to appear on the ENO stage is a $64-million experience," he says.

He, like the others, seems very grateful and, the ENO admits, that this is part of the calculation. "They will have to leave the company at some point," says Lynn Binstock, the scheme's artistic administrator. "But it would be considered a serious loss for us if they didn't come back."

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