Nadine Benjamin

Porgy and Bess
English National Opera
Interview by: Abiola Lawal

Often called the first great American opera, Porgy and Bess explores the relationships between members of a close-knit community in 1920s South Carolina and was first performed in Boston on September 30, 1935, before it moved to Broadway featuring a cast of classically trained African-American singers, which was a daring artistic choice at the time. Now more than 80 years after its premiere, Porgy and Bess has landed in the UK and receives its first English National Opera staging.

British soprano Nadine Benjamin makes her company debut as Clara, and Afridiziak Theatre News had a chance to speak to her and find out more about her rising journey as an opera star and the show. She has also just released the first ever black British soprano album, Love and Prayers.

How have preparations for Porgy and Bess been going?

It has been the most phenomenal experience working with black people from Britain, from South Africa, from America. From our conductor John Wilson and director James Robinson, to all the cast, everybody in that room is completely committed to making this the best piece of opera that they can and ensuring it stays as authentic as possible. It has been an amazing experience to work with people that constantly give 100 per cent. It’s been electric!

Come and see Porgy and Bess, it is like nothing else out there right now. It will blow your mind!

Tell us a bit more about Clara?

Clara is the signature of the quintessential American dream and embodies the song, Summertime, she’s like a lullaby that calms the spirit. Every time there’s some kind of turmoil, she calms things and that eventually gets passed on to Bess in her time of turmoil as well. In the midst of it all Clara’s whole life is Jake, he is everything to her, if he’s not in her life she falls apart, even with the love of her child, without Jake she’s not complete. At the beginning she’s wholesome and stable but by the end she’s losing it and quite unstable, because the man that she loves is no longer there. He’s her rock and its true love.

How do you preserve your voice and vocals?

Lots of sleep, lots of vocal rest, lots of apple and ginger concoctions and steaming. In the mornings I drink lemon and water. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol. After rehearsals I go straight home and maybe watch a film to unwind. It sounds boring but its all necessary to preserve my voice. Also, it is so important as a singer to keep on top of oral hygiene; I scrape my tongue every day and gargle to make sure my mouth is clean, and I floss. All of this ensures there are no germs in my mouth that can lead to vocal problems. I also check in with my vocal coach to ensure that I’m sounding how I think I’m sounding as we can’t hear ourselves as singers I need someone to honestly tell me I can still sing.

Congratulations on your debut album, Love and Prayers!

For me the album was so emotional, it’s the first ever black British soprano album. I had a lot of support from ENO and so many musicians. In three days, we managed to record the album and now it’s out there.

Your journey is an interesting one – from city banker to opera star? What made you have faith and make a career change even though it could be risky?

I had a music teacher in secondary school who played the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria from The Magic Flute to me one day and she said to me with such conviction, ‘I want you to know you could possibly sing like this one day’. From there the seed was planted.

I never pursued it at the time because my mum was very adamant that I had to go out and work, earn money and not chase dreams, which as an adult now I completely appreciate and respect. I really understand where my mum was coming from now. I didn’t go to college or university I went straight into a school-leavers scheme at a city bank in London and worked hard building a stable career for 10 years.

Things are changing and I just hope that diversity and inclusivity isn’t just a trend, here today but forgotten tomorrow, we want this to continue and grow, everyone should be included.

I was about to get a big promotion at work and my boss just asked me ‘Are you sure this is what you want? Because you can’t go back if you go ahead with this’. And I said no I had always wanted to sing, then an opportunity came where I could pursue singing and I decided to take the leap of faith and have never looked back since. I’m a woman of faith and spirit so I jumped and that was it. If you have faith you will be caught and that’s how I felt.

Faith has been a huge part of my life helping me to be best person that I can be. I pray every day, and also keep a journal where I write out any negativity that comes up, and I meditate. Whatever that I can’t handle I hand over to God. It’s important for me to practice these spiritual daily habits as regularly as I brush my teeth. All of these practices help me to focus on how I want my day to go and look at what I can improve on. They also empower me and help me to not be afraid to ask for help. All of it helps navigate this world.

Opera is not normally so accessible or diverse how do you see things continuing to change?

The Arts Council made a stand that it wouldn’t give any more money unless more diverse people were included so that’s been great to see such an influential organisation taking a stand. The Birmingham Opera has always been behind diverse singers and the ENO are making huge moves in this direction with Diverse Voices in the National Opera Studio and the Baylis programme, where one of the chorus singers, Rachel Alowala (sic) in Porgy and Bess started. Things are changing and I just hope that diversity and inclusivity isn’t just a trend, here today but forgotten tomorrow, we want this to continue and grow, everyone should be included.

How much has becoming an English National Opera Harewood Artist helped you?

It’s given me that extra kick of confidence and I know that I am always supported with the ENO. When you believe in yourself and others believe in you too there is no better feeling of encouragement and support. I do have my challenging days but reaching this level is a dream come true and working with these guys is constantly improving my voice and my belief in myself. It’s a real jewel. This opportunity means a lot and I believe in ENO and their vision for opera.

Any final words to our readers?

Come and see Porgy and Bess, it is like nothing else out there right now. It will blow your mind!

NEED TO KNOW: Porgy and Bess is at the London Coliseum until 17 Nov 2018 | See listing