Profile: Bibi Heal, soprano, and the Chichester Singers

An interview between Simon O’Hea and Bibi Heal

On Saturday 15 June, Bibi will be joining the Chichester Singers at the Cathedral for a wonderful summer evening of buoyant musical colour, contrasting the rhythmic energy and jazz influences of John Rutter – Birthday Madrigals and Shearing – Songs and Sonnets with the vibrant Spanish sound world of Ramirez – Misa Criola.

Simon

Tell me a bit about your relationship with the Singers. I have seen your name crop up quite a few times in connection with them.

Bibi

Jonathan Willcocks was the first conductor to book me, from an audition when I was in my very first year at the Royal Academy of Music, and we did open auditions for various conductors. I’ve worked for him ever since, which is why I pop up in Chichester quite a lot. It’s been the most fantastic kind of partnership! One of the brilliant things is that over the years, the repertoire we’ve done has evolved as my voice has changed and grown. And he does such interesting programming; there’s so much personality and colour, always something extra to give.

One of the things I enjoy most in any of the repertoire I’m singing is the storytelling element and the connection with the audience. I think Jonathan shares that – maybe that’s why I get to come back to Chichester!

This concert has a huge range in this respect: the Mass, which I’ve never done before, has an amazing colour, you’re immediately steeped in that world. And then to do the songs is a real treat, especially in an acoustic like Chichester: you don’t often get to do songs in that acoustic.

And again, he’s been interesting with it, splitting some into duets, being playful and animated. And the jazz! That appeals to me because I grew up singing jazz with my tenor saxophonist Dad. I only discovered classical musical around 18, having grown up singing jazz long before I discovered any of the other music that I now cannot live without.

One of the songs, the Rodrigo, is from a set of four called Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios; they’re a pastiche madrigal, very simple and of the people. Two of them are heart rending and two of them are very cheeky. I’m doing one of the cheeky, fiery ones. I sing them often, with piano or guitar, and they work incredibly well in both arrangements.

Jonathan programmes so well, the audiences can always trust they’re going to have a really interesting evening.

Simon

So, let’s talk about the most important influences on your musical career – maybe you would like to mention some people who have influenced you or some strange situation that that meant that you end up in the career that you’re in.

Bibi

I didn’t know anything about classical music or singing or anything until I was almost 18, but I had always wanted to be a dancer. I was a bit directionless, but I went for an audition at a local performing arts college that that my mother set up in in desperation, and enrolled immediately for singing, dancing and drama.

My first lesson was with their new music teacher, Birgitta Kenyon, just a few years older than me. She was absolutely fantastic, completely pivotal. She gave me a Schubert song to learn, said “listen to Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert, get Janet Baker’s song recording, get Margaret Price singing Strauss…” And I pitched straight in on the first lesson. I’d learnt the song by the next week, bought the CDs and utterly devoured them.

There was this whole world that I had no idea about. My second lesson, I said “I’m going to be a singer. What do I have to do?” But I couldn’t even find middle C. I was literally clueless. She told me, “Well, you’ll need your Grade 5 theory, get A level Music, get a Music degree and then go somewhere like the Academy.” And I was so clueless, I did just that. I went home and told my mother “I’m going to be a singer, and Birgitta says I have to do these things.” She said, “Well, thank the Lord for that! Right, then.” She called the office (the Academy of Dance and Performing Arts in Bury St Edmunds) and signed me up for the lot. In a year, Birgitta got me through Grade 5 theory, Grade 8 voice, Grade 5 piano, AS level Music and so on, completely propelling me into the entire classical music world with a grounding in oratorio, opera, all song repertoire in 5 or 6 different languages.

Then, my irrepressible mother sweet-talked me into Norwich College to take A level Music and English, then on to UEA to read Music, staying local to home so I had Birgitta as back up. And she’d gone to RAM, so I thought I’d do that too. And I did.

In my final year at RAM, I managed to fall into an incredible opportunity playing Barbarina at Garsington Opera, having not even studied on the opera course. Leonard Ingrams heard me in a concert and gave me the role, which was extraordinary. One of the cast, bass Graeme Danby, realised that I was completely clueless, and took me completely under his wing. “Do this, do that, be ready. You were late. Don’t flap like a penguin.” and so on. At Garsington I secured an agent, and Graeme mentored me, taught me, gave me contacts and concerts for the next few years. Incredible generosity and a hugely transformative time.

Another major mentor was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. She was testing the waters of teaching, and I was her very first student, she called me her guinea pig! I used to stay at her house, have a few lessons and just immerse myself in everything. An unbelievably privileged time.

And the other huge influence is Barbara Bonney with whom I did a masterclass at Wigmore Hall, when I was still at the RAM. She was my absolute hero and a prime example of what my singing ought to be. She offered to teach me, and she helped me, gave me opera roles and was immensely helpful in a million ways. Later, my career went in various different directions and so did hers, but I’m thrilled we are back in contact. For the past year we have worked online every week; technical lessons, check-ins, strategy. Whatever is needed.

Simon

To describe how you’ve got to where you are by that rather tortuous and circuitous route is fascinating and I think that will be very inspiring for people to read.

What have been the sort of some of the greatest challenges that you’ve faced in your musical career?

Bibi

I was carried along on such a tide of help and mentors and a sort of natural ability. I obviously had a fairly natural voice and an ear for the music and languages, but I enjoyed the process so much, I constantly couldn’t believe I was in such a situation, with such people. I’d come from a farmhouse in completely rural Suffolk. And there I was, living in Primrose Hill (again, a happy accident). I was having a ball and was drinking it all in. I was incredibly earnest, absorbing information from everywhere, but I didn’t quite know how to filter it to apply to me. Every bit of advice, every technique, everything I saw I would apply, without any common sense or perspective.

So as my voice began to mature, when you have to make various technical adjustments, I had simply no idea what to do. Everything up to that moment had always worked just through youth and enthusiasm. And if you’re lucky, when you leave music college, you’re known as a promising singer. I was given the hugest opportunities on promise. But there comes a day when you have to come good on that promise; show a knowledge and a skill beyond just luck and talent and inspiration, and at that point I wasn’t clear. I’d always done such varied repertoire; opera, oratorio, song, jazz… so I was still applying everything at all possible times.

Actually it was a friend, an incredibly technically good singer and my one of my best friends, Sena Larard who saved me then. I was saying “it’s killing me. I just do not know what to do”. And eventually, after sympathising, as you do, she said “but it’s all pretty simple.” I said “Is it??!” And it was. It was like she just patched all the holes in the wall, it was amazing. And suddenly, off we went again.

Simon

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of working with other musicians?

Bibi

When it’s right, it’s everything. I absolutely thrive on it. When you meet somebody who’s on the same musical wavelength, it is magic. It just flies. I suppose you’re always seeking out ways in which you can really bring that element to somebody else, and also find that element from somebody else. For me, finding the right ingredients, finding that alchemy is everything.

I have a song partnership with pianist Stephen Barlow, and we run a song project called Song Surgery. When we started working together as a recital duo, I realised, “I completely understand your playing”. It didn’t mean I could always immediately do what I wanted to be able to do, but I could hear exactly. There are certain musicians you meet and suddenly you really know what you’re striving to create. I think that’s a millstone really worth having.

Simon

Are there any composers for which you have a particular affinity?

Bibi

Mozart. Because there’s humour and humanity and drama and story in every note he wrote. It requires the utmost precision and delicacy and grace and bloody technical perfection that you’re going to hammer at your whole life. But it’s so worth it. It’s not often that you get that much fun and fizz and beauty or desolation and everything else from music, but you’re not allowed to just go nuts and hurl yourself at it. You have to have built it correctly in order for the music to really speak, really fly.

There is no better role than Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro. It is an absolute dream! It’s beautiful and wicked and playful, everything you could need.

Simon

And I guess Mozart’s works are the ones that you feel you also perform your best in because you identify so closely with him.

Bibi

Yes, but Haydn as well – very similar to Mozart in many respects. His Creation is probably my favourite oratorio, because it’s all storytelling.

Simon

Great. Do you have any very memorable concert experiences as a performer, listener, critic.

Bibi

One of one of the incredible things soon after I left the Academy was because of Barbara. She cast me in Figaro at the festival in Gstaad. She was singing Susanna in an incredibly starry cast, Gerald Finley, Della Jones… and I was Barbarina. It was not a traditional theatre but a sort of permanent acoustic tent, which meant we were always onstage and visible. Jonathan Lemalu, a huge Samoan bass, was singing Bartolo. He had been given talcum powder to make his black hair look grey. It was so hot and at a certain point ‘offstage’ he pretended he was having a shower and shook his bottle of water over his head. But the lid was off and he doused himself in full view, talcum powder and makeup streaming down. I was utterly hysterical – as was Della!

My first job via the Academy was for Jonathan Willcocks, who’d apparently gone to the office and said “I need a smiley soprano for a concert at the Albert Hall.” And when I got the job, a singer friend who was setting up my website and domain, made it ‘smileysoprano.com’. On his reasoning that I got the job not because I can sing, but because I can smile! My email was smileysoprano for 10 years after that.

Simon

What advice would you give to students embarking on a on a career in music?

Bibi

Learn how to apply what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing to your own situation. My teacher at the Academy was Janet Price. She was wonderful and used to say “Blinkers on. Don’t compare yourself to others.” What matters is identifying what you need to work on and working out how those things are going to help you. So you very often need an ability to be able to go against the tide and stick to your guns. But I think the main piece of advice is, only do it if you simply cannot imagine doing anything else. Then you’ll find your way.

Simon

How do you define success as a musician? It’s a bit of an odd question, but I like asking it because people come at it from lots of different angles.

Bibi

Having the capacity to progress constantly, to feel like you’re constantly edging forward, performing better, learning more, finding more. Realising “ooh but that’s cool… maybe we should do this project… and then oh, wow, that’s demanding. Ah, but can I find what’s demanded? But yes I can! Wouldn’t that be good…?” Constantly feeling you’re progressing and creating.

About Bibi

Visit https://bibiheal.com.

Co-founder of SONG SURGERY: an Arts Council England funded recital project, prescribing classical songs -Bibi Heal, soprano and Stephen Barlow, piano

Currently creating SONGS THAT MOVE: artistically-led physio for Parkinson’s, with Mark Mardell, William Tuckett and Zenaida Yanowsky

Programme for stroke / aphasia with City University London / Central Michigan University 
Visualisation programmes for spinal cord injury with Horatio’s Garden

“An enchanting personal recital from A-list musicians, our Song Surgery was a unique and unforgettable experience”

John and Sandy Critchley
Concert Hall One, Kings Place London

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