Behind the Voice: Janice Chapman

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Australian-born soprano and vocal coach, Janice Chapman made the singing-world stand to attention with her groundbreaking publication, Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice. As professor of voice at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Royal Academy of Music in London, Janice has attended to the vocal needs of some of the world’s leading classical singers. In the Australia Day Honours of 2004 Janice was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia ‘for service to music as an operatic singer and teacher of voice, and as a contributor to research into human sound production and vocal health.’ In 2010 she was made a Fellow of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Janice speaks to us about her early career as a soprano, her memories of Benjamin Britten and her work as a teacher.

What did the opportunity to study in London mean to you as a young student in Australia?

As a young student in Adelaide my dream of becoming a professional singer was fuelled by what I could hear on the radio and see when there was a visit of an opera company to Adelaide. The opera stars in London were held up like ‘gods and godesses’, rather than real people, especially as I had never met any of them in the flesh. When I left Australia in 1962, I was totally unprepared for what lay ahead of me. I started study at post-graduate level in the Opera School at the Royal College of Music and thus began a huge ‘education’. We went constantly to the opera, paying the 10 shillings to the doorman at the Royal Opera House to be let in to stand at the back of the balcony. We sat in the College seats at Sadlers Wells and saw everything that it was possible to see in the city. It was a very exciting time indeed. I heard the great singers of the day (usually from a great distance), and gradually became aware of what was going to be required of me if I ever ‘made it’ down onto that stage.

What are your recollections of touring with the Sadler's Wells Opera?

My memories of my first season touring with Sadler's Wells Opera, were not particularly good I have to say. I sang the Countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro twice a week for 37 weeks, all round the country. The pay was so small that I couldn’t afford to travel back home between shows, and I was missing my husband and family hugely. I suppose the good things were there, but I only really remember feeling that life would hardly be worth living if I had to do this sort of thing forever. At the end of this tour my husband and I decided to start a family. In later years I was involved with the English National Opera and the English Opera Group who also toured, but these tours were much more manageable. I remember running down the street in Newcastle in full make-up to get the sleeper train back to London, so I could be home to get my two sons up in the morning.

Tell us about your relationship and collaboration with Benjamin Britten.

When I was still a student at the London Opera Centre I was invited by the English Opera Group to go with them on the Russian tour. We took three Britten operas: Rape of Lucretia, The Turn of the Screw, and Albert Herring to three cities (Leningrad, Riga and Moscow). I had to audition for Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at their flat in St. John’s Wood to get the job, and remember feeling very nervous. However, they liked me, and I had for many years a lovely relationship with them and with the EOG.

The roles I sang were Miss Jessel, Lady Billows, and Ellen Orford. Ben asked me to do Mrs Grose at the Aldeburgh Festival with him conducting. This was an amazing experience and probably the musical highlight of my career, as the wonderful Heather Harper sang the Governess, with Peter Pears as the Quint. A few years on from this I was asked to sing the role of Mrs Julian in the world stage premiere of Owen Wingrave at the Royal Opera House. Ben was always very nice to me for which I was grateful. He didn’t like sopranos who “put on airs”. It was a huge privilege to work with him.

As a performer, had you always considered pursuing a career in pedagogy, or was it something you fell into?

When I was busy as a singer I had no thoughts about teaching, but a lull in my career and some vocal problems I had been having made me take an interest in the medical and scientific approach to voice. This changed my perception about singing, and I began by teaching some school girls at Coloma School in Croydon. The rest is history, as I became seriously interested in vocal pedagogy over the next 10 years. I sang and taught in tandem for some 20 years or so. After that, the teaching really took over.

What were your initial thoughts on the manner in which singing was taught before you wrote, what many consider, the ‘bible’ of singing, and why did you decide to write the book in the first place?

Singing had been taught without the benefit of any real knowledge about how the machinery really worked up to the 1970s, then a camera and a light source was put onto a fibre-optic scope, and we could actually see what was going on in a live person. So singing had to be taught before that time by empiric means, using demonstration, imagery and sometimes even straying into the world of ‘magic’. Teachers sometimes had Svengali-like control of their students, and singers were very dependent on them. Nowadays we are able to work from a completely different perspective, backed up by a different sort of knowledge...thank goodness!

I did not really decide to write the book alone. Dr. Ron Morris came over to the UK from Australia for some lessons, and with the insistence of some of the singers there whom I had taught, insisted that I write down what I had been doing for the past 25 years. He helped me to write it, and once I had agreed to do it, it was not an onerous task. It was rather exciting and fulfilling in fact. I had also undergone some psychotherapy sessions in order to rid myself of negativity around the subject of my own singing, and this cleared the way for me to embrace my ‘teaching self’.

An enormous amount of research and analysis went into the writing of this book — what was the process behind the structuring of such a multidisciplinary examination of the voice, and indeed of teaching itself?

I had become involved with the multidisciplinary work in voice at the beginning of that movement in the UK, and started going to all sorts of events and training seminars, which were about the voice, but not necessarily about singing. I guess this built up into a different sort of understanding about how we might teach in the future. In the book, I have involved other authors from across the multidisciplinary voice work, especially from the British Voice Association, which I helped to set up back in the 1980s.

You are highly regarded for your work with Laryngologists and ENT Surgeons — how did you become involved in the area of rehabilitating damaged voices?

Through the British Voice Association I have maintained multidisciplinary contacts and refer singers to ENT departments, Speech and Language Therapists, Manual Therapists, and Psychotherapists when they are needed. All these disciplines in turn refer singers to me when it is considered that interventions in matters of vocal technique are at issue.

How have the needs of a singer changed from when you first set out on your own musical journey?

The needs of a singer have changed greatly since I started out in the 1960s. The industry has changed; travel has made it possible for a singer to sing in London one night and New York the next. The demands on singers, especially when they achieve fame, are huge and need to be carefully monitored. Their life-styles are always at risk; their personal relationships are under pressure, and their precious voices, on which they rely, need to be cared for. I think it can be a very lonely and hard existence for them, and we need to warn our aspiring young students of what is really in store for them.

What are the important factors in maintaining vocal health?

Vocal health...you need a whole article to discuss this, but good general health and good technique are crucial factors. Then the obvious things like avoiding noisy smoky environments, keeping hydrated, being calm and secure in preparing the work, having regular check-up lessons no matter how famous you become etc...

In the sphere of classical music many performers end up teaching without any real pedagogical training — what are your thoughts on this?

I am aghast that there is still little awareness in some Tertiary institutions of the fact that fine singers do not necessarily know how to teach. The two disciplines involve different skills and anyway, there should be a mandatory 10,000 hour teaching requirement for any teacher before they are let loose on our precious young undergraduates! The idea of a College inviting a famous, recently retired, diva/divo to teach without any training in the art or science involved in teaching, is no longer viable in my view and should be discouraged.

What advice would you give to early-career teachers of voice?

Read the pedagogical literature and choose which direction you wish to follow. Arrange to ‘sit in’ with good teachers, and watch and listen to what goes on in their studios. Remember that you are an ‘ongoing learner’ for the whole of your teaching career.

What are your thoughts on the opera stars of today?

Opera stars today are wonderful people mostly who live very pressured lives and make huge sacrifices for their art. They should be highly paid and loved unconditionally.

You’re obviously a highly motivated individual — what drives you?

I have always been energetic and had a ‘lust for life’, and hopefully it will see me out. I love the human voice and its possibility to create such wonderful feelings in an audience, to change the way people feel about themselves and their fellows. What a privilege to work in this field, especially as a teacher in my late 70’s!

Having been touched by cancer, how have you dealt with its intrusion?

I had a year out with colon cancer 8 years back, and I think this has given me the feeling of everything following being a bonus to be relished and enjoyed. 2 years ago I lost my husband of 52 years to cancer, and my work has kept me going through that. He was hugely supportive of me through thick and thin and I miss him!!!

What are the great loves of your life?

He was the great love of my life, then my two sons their wives and my three grandsons. I’m so happy that I did not sacrifice family life for just a career. Perhaps with hindsight, my horrible first year’s 37 weeks touring with Sadlers Wells did me a great favour.

How will you be spending the summer months this year?

In the summer I will go to visit my Australian family in Broome, where my son and his family live. I will swim in the Indian Ocean, lie on the beach, walk and go fishing too...not a singer in sight for miles!

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