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Phoebe Haines - Mezzo-soprano

Interview

1. Is your family musical?

My family aren’t particularly musical, though my mother is an Alexander Technique teacher, so that’s something which has a big crossover with the music world. My aunt is a ballet dancer and my cousin is a jazz guitarist, so it would be true to say that I come from an artistic family, though not necessarily a musical one.

2. Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?

The musician I admire the most is, without a doubt, 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. Another musician that I have always admired is celebrated jazz trumpeter and producer, Quincy Jones. He transformed the musical landscape in such an innovative during the 1960s-80s and was such a huge driving force in the evolution of popular music in the twentieth century. I have had the great pleasure of getting to spend some time with Mr. Jones over the last few years and I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity. The musician to whom I aspire the most is Sarah Connolly, as I think she is a fantastic actress as well as a wonderful singer.

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

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 beast 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 sax.

4. 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 opera.

5. What are your fondest musical memories, privately or performing?

Odd as it may sound, I think my favourite moments to date have comprised of a series of eureka moments in recent lessons with my teacher, John Evans. While it’s a slow and sometimes arduous process, I feel like I’m learning new ways of using my voice, which is very gratifying.

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 terrified of her. She is 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?

While I definitely enjoyed the academic components of my course at university, 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 Katya Herman, a consummate musician and one of my best friends. We continue our musical partnership to this day, and that is a very rewarding relationship for me.

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

I did a series of concerts in my native Brighton between 2004 and 2006, with harpist Andrew Ballantyne. I got a lot from those concerts because we could choose our own repertoire and try out new things in front of a receptive audience. My first opportunity to work with a full orchestra was understudying the title role in Handel’s Theodora for Opéra de Baugé when I was 19.

9. In the summer of 2012 you performed the role of the heroine in Andriessen’s operatic monodrama, Anaïs Nin. This must have been a tricky role for you as the subject matter deals with sex and incest from a journal that will still shock many quarters. How hard was it for you to get into this role?

The opera is a huge challenge from start to finish, both in terms of the music and dramatic interpretation. The piece is un-conducted, which means that it is essential to have a fluid interplay between soloist and orchestra at all times. We adjusted the staging so that I could be as integrated within the ensemble as possible, though many difficulties can still arise during the more speech-like passages so we tried to tackle these as we were going along. In terms of the subject matter, I felt that this was in many ways less complicated than the question of musical interpretation. Nin’s name is synonymous with scandal and infamy, but she is also renowned for her wisdom and clarity of expression. While some of the subject matter is indeed taboo, her words and Andriessen’s mode of musical expression combine to paint very clear dramatic colours. Louis’ famous and idiosyncratic use of rhythm seems to work seamlessly with Nin’s text, and this in turn makes the soloist’s job much more rewarding. I also think that performing the role of a real historical figure (and more than that, a writer) is an absolute gift; when else do we get to read the intimate real-life confessions of an operatic character?

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

The answer would definitely have to be Kurt Elling (that’s if I could manage to muster up the requisite composure to actually sing in front of him; perhaps I could choose a duet where I just sing backing vocals). 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.

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

Much to the dismay of my long-suffering flatmates, I do sing every day. 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 (initially at least), so I don’t go for more than an hour in one sitting.

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

I have more experience teaching in groups, though I would like to teach individuals at some point. I enjoy working with younger kids because you can see such a fast improvement, and they take on ideas very quickly and easily. I also like group settings because it encourages collaboration, and I think this is an important element in music-making.

13. 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. However I do make a point of trying to see my friends and family regularly, because otherwise it’s easy to get caught up in the music bubble. It’s tricky when your family are all in different countries, but there are ways of making it work. And luckily I’m blessed with a very understanding group of friends, many of whom are also musicians. At the end of the day, compromise (in all areas of life) is key.

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