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Profile: Stefanie Kemball-Read, soprano

31/12/2020

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career or interest in music?

I’ve always sung – right from My old man said follow the van on television at the age of seven, through being a ‘chorister’ in my local church (in a non official capacity as there weren’t girl choristers in those days!). Completing my chorister medals gave me a sense of pride and focus in my singing and it slowly became a driving passion. There was a very active music department at my secondary school and it was here, where Andrew Fardell, the choirmaster there, encouraged and inspired me greatly to develop my voice and sing solos. I started taking singing lessons and went on to perform as one of the choir’s lead soloists.  This culminated in a choir tour to Belgium where I sang a number of solos in various sacred works at the tender age of 17.

That feeling of performance was to stay with me and inspire me over the coming years.  It is wonderful to have gone full circle and now also be coaching and hopefully inspiring a new generation of choristers and singers in my work as a teacher of singing and as a vocal coach.

But I was late to professional singing; I did a business degree at Royal Holloway, University of London (although I was busy on the extra curricular music scene both in the ‘serious’ choir there and also on stage finding my Gilbert & Sullivan feet!) and went on to become a City banker initially working all hours and so music had to take a back seat for a while.

Once I’d married and moved to Devon, I joined the South West Chamber Choir and the Plymouth Gilbert & Sullivan Fellowship (I was bitten by the bug!) and once again my passion for music ignited.  I did a number of lead roles in many shows at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal and met some wonderful people along the way.

It was my new singing teacher Ian Comboy who started to further develop my voice and who persuaded me there was really something there to take forward. He encouraged me to apply to Conservatoire and so it was that after auditioning, I obtained a place to study as a postgraduate at Trinity College of Music and found myself back as a student in my late twenties. It was a truly magical experience.  The entire place, the staff and my many wonderful talented friends and colleagues inspired me daily to express myself and to learn more and be better. The course was totally immersive and I was able to further my learning and knowledge performing in many different styles, from cabaret to grand opera and everything in between. I have to thank Eugene Asti and Mary Hill, in particular, for encouraging my belief in my ability to succeed and for all they did to enhance my technique and performance. Also a special word here for my wonderful baroque coach Robert Aldwinckle, who died recently and taught me an immeasurable amount about ornamentation and baroque expression with such acerbic wit and fun! I was honoured to sing the solo in the Brahms Requiem at his memorial service and could just imagine him saying ‘where’s the Handel?!’

I also must thank my hugely supportive and patient husband John, for supporting me through this enormous career change and for his unwavering belief in my talent and tenacity. In such a competitive world where resilience is a minimum standard, he helped me to believe in myself.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

There are too many good singers out there! 50 years ago, one went to Conservatoire, graduated and went into a musical career where there were opportunities for performance and more regular work. Nowadays there are many, many singers and musicians out there, which can make it difficult to carve out a niche.

One of the greatest challenges for me, without doubt, must be combining a family with a professional music career. It is very hard to maintain your contacts and position through maternity leave and particularly when the children are young. There is also often a perception that because you have had a child you would not want to travel or be away from home, or you might have issues with childcare, and so the phone call goes to someone else on the list often without you having the opportunity to say that you have a plan in place! I feel so fortunate to have managed to do a bit of both. My children remind me daily of the beauty and innocent joy in the world and they appreciate music in many different ways. Children are grounding and family life a special gift.  It is lovely seeing one’s children enjoying music in their own ways.

Then there’s the issue of feast or famine: you have to be flexible, and keep yourself in shape physically and mentally – you never quite know what’s round the corner. You always seem to be offered more work when you’re at your busiest and then suddenly everything goes quiet and you wonder if you will ever work again… until the feast rolls back around and so it continues!

No matter how resilient you are, your self-belief can take a knock; auditions can go the wrong way and frequently do! But you have to pick up the pieces and carry on. Keep doing the work, maintain your self-belief and then just occasionally the most wonderful offer can roll in and make all the interim heartache worthwhile.

I couldn’t end by not talking about… Lockdown – in one day, everything in the diary was cancelled. Some companies and arts organisations won’t survive this. Theatres are struggling beyond belief and so many people who work in The Arts are now out of work with no end in sight. But you need to set yourself goals that work for the current environment. I found that during this period or in any lean work period actually, breaking up vocal conditioning done at home into small chunks works well for me. I also try to identify the mood I am in to suit the style of singing and if necessary let rip appropriately!

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

It is so rewarding to collaborate with others to create an event or a show. The bond and spirit of camaraderie and connection this brings is difficult to quantify. It’s as if you create your own family for the duration of the event. Post-show blues is a recognised phenomenon! There’s the wonderful potential for new interpretation and for learning from others. You are an absolute team in the truest sense and the passion that you all have is palpable and electrifying. It is the ultimate collective achievement to be able to bring pleasure to your audience.

As making music is such a collaborative effort, it could be challenging if one of the team isn’t properly prepared – is perhaps unwell, though this is something I’ve come across rarely. But that is when we are there for each other to support, to encourage and to lift them up. The show, after all, must go on.

Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?

I’ve got very eclectic tastes, enjoying oratorio and opera through to music theatre. But specifically I discovered Mozart in my teens and his music remains important to me. I’ve performed many of his operas, oratorios, concert arias and songs and despite his inimitable style there is always something new to discover. Some say that Verdi is like Mozart for bigger voices! Certainly for me as my voice has grown and developed I do see how this simplistic statement can ring true. My love for Verdi began when I first saw La traviata many years ago.  I found the character of ‘Violetta’ mesmerising and it was in that instant that I knew I simply had to sing this role and that opera was my natural ‘singing home,’ where I could use my whole physicality to convey a character’s journey and emotions. It was this which spearheaded my foray into opera. Performing this role for the first time with Kentish Opera was a culminating moment for me that will always have a large place in the memory bank.

Set against these iconic composers, I also have a love of more modern iconic composers – Britten, Bernstein, Schumann, (R.) Strauss and Poulenc, of course, whom I return to regularly in my performance life.

Which performances are you most proud of?

To be honest, I’m proud of most things I do. I think it is fundamental as a musician to foster pride in all you do; to prepare completely and be able to inhabit the glory of the music to express it to others. I guess I am at my most expressive with opera, art song or musical theatre. As a coloratura soprano, I have always been renowned for my vocal acrobatics and extremely high, powerful notes and as time has gone by I continue to sing the vocal acrobatics but with a richer and more dramatic sound which has broadened my repertoire. The role I am asked to perform most often is ‘Queen of the Night’ from Mozart’s The magic flute. I have also been particularly proud of my role as ‘Violetta’ in Verdi’s La traviata and my recent Poulenc performances…

 What are your most memorable concert experiences?

Whilst at Trinity College of Music I had a lead role in Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites. An opera depicting the true, albeit fictionalised story of the brutal act of slaughtering the Carmelite nuns by guillotine, as they would not renounce their vocation.  It has such visceral textures and stunningly intricate harmonies. The opera finale has to be one of the most moving experiences I have ever seen, let alone been part of on stage, as each nun is guillotined until they all lie dead.

By contrast was a performance of Britten’s War Requiem with the 110 piece Trinity Orchestra under the baton of Jan Latham König at Southwark Cathedral – the atmosphere was electrifying and the enormity of the sound and textures produced is again something difficult to quantify and firmly in the memory bank.  A truly collaborative piece.

Other memorable experiences:

  • Performing La Bohème in a horse stud in northern France whilst staying nearby at a convent!
  • Poulenc’s Stabat Mater and Gloria in Chelmsford Cathedral. Poulenc creates an atmosphere unlike any other, I have discovered over my many years performing.
  • Recording the single as Musical Director for the Portsmouth Military Wives Choir number one album with Decca Records.
  • My recent Lockdown performance of Poulenc’s La voix humaine at the Reform Club – a fascinating, nuanced psychological story which examines many themes of mid life, love, loss, acceptance, death; performing it in a 21st Century context using the medium of Zoom to tell the story rather than the telephone brought a fresh perspective to the piece. This enabled me to perform it to camera for online delivery to the audience, which was a whole new experience. I look forward to bringing it to the Portsmouth area soon. Watch this space!
  • Producing, directing and performing a series of both Opera and Musical Theatre Galas in Spain. The latter production involved flying the entire orchestra as well as us singers and a choreographer over from the West End to Southern Spain. A connection and collaboration forged between the client and myself when we met at the hairdresser during my Spanish holiday two years previously!

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

Do it but only if you can’t not do it! It is not enough to want to do it. You have to have the talent and inner drive and passion to make it happen. It is always possible to come later on into a professional career, as I did, so long as you have tenacity, resilience and support, though your expectations may need to be slightly different.

Practise, practise, practise – and perform often!  Join local groups in the first instance. Examine national schemes such as the National Youth Choir or National Youth Orchestra. If you live near enough, the Saturday music schools at the London Conservatoires offer a very high level of musicianship and training from a young age.

Find yourself a good teacher who can inspire you and help you develop your technique and artistry. Can they offer opportunities for shadowing of their professional productions perhaps? I offered some of my singing students the opportunity to attend one of my orchestra/singer rehearsals in London prior to a show, to see what being a professional musician looked like in reality. A mentor can also be a great help.

If you can, consider another string to your bow, such as teaching, Arts administration, accountancy, a provider of complementary therapies, to even out the peaks and troughs and further your own life experience, which you can then bring to your performances.

Do your continuing professional development, so that you keep on learning and improving. There are always new developments and new techniques to be explored.  We never stop learning.

Be flexible and maintain your level of proficiency and practice: you may be asked to stand in for someone at the last minute.

Be on time and be well prepared – this really gets noticed. And courtesy goes a VERY long way.

It’s helpful to find your own preferred angle, niche, genre or production style. I’ve done this in a number of ways over the years, as you can see from my bio. I enjoyed a foray into Spanish song at one point, and was honoured to perform the premiere of a number of Venezuelan songs at the Venezuelan embassy Bolívar Hall.

It’s useful to be able to effectively market yourself and the production you are in. The ever-expanding world of social media is a huge asset to the new musician.

Ultimately, it is the most rewarding and fulfilling career if you can make it work.

How would you define success as a musician?

Reaching a level of technique and performance that you feel can express the beauty of the music and communicate the text or story, which ideally moves your audience. There is something truly humbling about someone who listened to your performance and was moved in some way by it enough to seek you out and tell you.

Making it all work and earning something at the same time.

Feeling fulfilled: giving happiness to yourself and others.

So, what about the current situation?

The Mozart Requiem that was cancelled three times in 2020 (!) is due to be performed in Portsmouth Cathedral on Wednesday 24th March 2021, though it might have to be livestreamed. Again watch this space for more information on a date. This performance is led by Portsmouth Grammar School with the professional musicians who teach at the school making up the orchestra together with some senior school players, the Portsmouth Grammar School choirs, the ‘gapper’ choral scholars performing the male solos and yours truly as the soprano soloist.

It is still too soon for many other places to be opening up with any certainty given the fact that the virus is still rampaging, but in the coming months with the vaccine roll-out we hope that diaries will slowly start to open and live performances will return. I think both performers and spectators have all missed them immensely! More details on my personal performances will be posted on my website once confirmed.

I hope that people will continue to support The Arts: they have kept most of us going in some shape or form through Lockdown! And there’s little Government help available regardless of what you hear in the media. Musicians and all those involved in the delivery of shows, performances, running theatres, backstage crews, orchestra players are falling by the wayside in droves. The training we all go through is long and costly and the preparation behind every performance is far greater than what is seen as the finished article. Music is as professional an occupation as all paid-for services and what’s more one can guarantee that it is always performed with love, passion and integrity.

You can see and hear me perform Rejoice Greatly recorded in my kitchen during Lockdown, in the Musical Advent Calendar on Christmas Eve.

I have a selection of audio clips on my website or you can go on YouTube and watch/listen to some of my past live performances.

For any queries in relation to private singing tuition, you can contact me through my website or via my email: stefanie.read@sky.com.

Links

Stefanie Kemball Read website: www.stefanieread.com

Portsmouth Music Festival: www.portsmouthmusicfestival.co.uk

National Youth Choir www.nycgb.org.uk

National Youth Orchestra www.nyo.org.uk

Trinity Laban www.trinitylaban.ac.uk

Royal College of Music www.rcm.ac.uk

Royal Academy of Music www.ram.ac.uk

Guildhall School of Speech and Drama www.gsmd.ac.uk

Guildford School of Acting www.gsauk.org

Association of Teachers of Singing (AOTOS) www.aotos.org.uk

For details of choirs / choral groups in the Portsmouth area: www.gerontius.net and Music in Portsmouth, of course!

For information on becoming a chorister at Portsmouth Cathedral: www.portsmouthcathedral.org.uk

Dramatic coloratura soprano Stefanie trained at Trinity College of Music, London graduating with distinction from their postgraduate diploma programme.  During her time there, she performed lead roles in every college production, her portrayal of nun Constance in Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites earning her the Paul Simm opera prize. She was also selected to perform the Britten Song cycle ‘On this Island’ at the W.H. Auden centenary concert at the Greenwich Old Royal Naval College Chapel and gained accolades for her performance in both Lieder and French song.  Her vocal dexterity and magnetic stage presence have enabled her to perform across a number of genres from cabaret to coloratura: musical theatre to opera. She excels in exciting and diverse repertoire, ranging from the vocally virtuosic to the delicately expressive – and a bit of comedy added in here and there!

Stefanie has performed extensively throughout Europe and the UK with a variety of opera companies and has appeared in more than 20 leading operatic soprano roles, most recently Violetta in La traviata, Königin der Nacht, Die Zauberflöte, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Adina, L’elisir d’amore and as Nedda in I Pagliacci. She is a regular soloist on the oratorio platform having recently performed as the soloist in Haydn’s Creation, Handel’s Messiah, Orff’s Carmina Burana and Brahms’ Requiem. She has also given many solo recitals at London’s most celebrated performance venues including St Martin-in-the-Fields, St John’s Smith Square and St James’ Piccadilly. In musical theatre, Stefanie has previously played the roles of Eliza in My Fair Lady and Maria in West Side Story, reprising her role as Maria most recently in November 2018. She has performed much of the leading musical theatre repertoire in concerts across the United Kingdom. She has also performed most of the Gilbert and Sullivan leading lady roles in the repertoire.  Most recently, she has just completed a Lockdown performance of Poulenc’s one woman opera La voix humaine; an intense, introspective exploration of the mid-life psyche, which usually takes place entirely on the telephone.  In this unique online live-streamed performance to the audience, it utilised the modern setting of zoom thus creating a new immersive approach mirroring current society.

Stefanie was the inaugural Musical Director for the Portsmouth Military Wives Choir and conducted them to chart topping success after recording a track for their number one album ‘In my Dreams’ from Decca Records.  Stefanie is currently the Artistic Director for the Asociación Arturo Darch, directing, producing and performing in a series of productions in Spain.  Her recent full production for them in July 2018 ‘From Broadway to Hollywood’ with an all star international cast of singers and full orchestra from London’s West End for Patricia Darch in Sotogrande was a highly successful and award winning event.  Like most of the Performing Arts industry, Stefanie has been very hard-hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, however she also has a busy teaching portfolio as a private singing teacher, a coach to the Junior Choristers at Portsmouth Cathedral and teacher of singing at Portsmouth Grammar School and Barton Peveril Sixth Form College, teaching singing to the next generation of performers. All her recent students have gained places at leading Conservatoires and drama schools.  She plans to return to Spain to produce the next Spanish Gala, which will be a unique production of Carmen, when the world is a safer place.  She is also hoping to perform as soloist in Mozart’s Requiem at Portsmouth Cathedral in March 2021 and to bring her Poulenc one-woman opera to the Portsmouth area.

Stefanie continues her vocal training and development with renowned soprano Cathy Pope in the Swedish / Italian school of singing technique.

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