Soraya Mafi: The sacrifice behind operatic glitz and glamour

Susan Chilcott, one of the outstanding singers of her generation, died from cancer in 2003 aged 40. The Chilcott Award is offered biennially in her memory to an opera singer between the ages of 23 and 33 who, like Susan Chilcott herself, has the potential to make an international impact within the world of opera. The Award is specifically designed to enable advanced training or career development.

The recipient this year is soprano Soraya Mafi, who is currently a Harewood Young Artist at English National Opera. Here, Soraya writes about the practical challenges she faces in developing a career on the international stage…

I am an ordinary Northern lass who happened upon opera through encouragement by enthusiastic school teachers and singalongs at home with my Mum and Dad’s worn out cassettes of Pavarotti, Callas and Classic FM hits. I was 15 when I saw my first opera, ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’, through a school outreach project with Opera North. I was completely captivated. I thought opera was just about tortured, pathetic women struggling with ill-fated relationships. I had no idea that there were such sassy characters like Vixen Sharp-Ears in opera. I decided that night that I would one day be wiggling my own Vixen tail on the operatic stage.

I am an extremely fortunate person – I now get to do what I love for a living. 2x2 large heading Soraya take 2Making music professionally is an utter privilege that I never take for granted. Music transcends time, age, race and gender and can provide transformative moments of bliss. Opera, by combining singing with orchestral music, visual art, costume and written word allows the performer and audience to explore the many facets of human emotion in its most extreme and heightened state. Not only do I get to perform this stunning music with outstanding musicians, explore characters, poetry and constantly challenge my creativity, but I get to wear fabulous costumes and perform in beautiful venues. However, behind all the glitz and glamour is a tonne of hard work, determination and sacrifice.

As you progress through different stages of your career as a young artist, you soon realise that this is an immensely competitive profession, one where you must constantly grow and improve to earn your time in the spotlight. Opera singers are required to sing in a variety of styles and languages, and as more opportunities present themselves, expectations rise. Young singers have to adapt to these changes very quickly to take full advantage of such exposure

To many people, the word ‘opera’ is associated with luxury and privilege, but hidden behind the costumes, and the glorious music, every singer has had to address the practical cost of their art. For those of limited financial means, money (or lack of it) throws up additional obstacles. Trust me, the midnight Megabus back to Manchester after a show at The London Coliseum is a sure fire way to remind yourself of the extremes of this career!

Like many students, whilst studying, I worked to support myself. At the end of my undergraduate studies I had to consider my priorities – I was spending far more time working on a shop floor than in a practice room. I knew that I had to make a compromise. I decided to take a couple of years off from studying to work, earn and develop my singing privately so that I could hopefully save enough money to undertake a masters course. Then, my primary focus would be to seize opportunities and develop as a performer, rather than sacrifice my artistic advancement by constantly compromising my studies due to my work hours. This was not an easy transition – I had to be extremely resourceful and live a no frills, frugal existence. But, it was worth it.

These sacrifices and pressures are ongoing. Upon graduating from The Royal College of Music International Opera School, I was offered the incredible opportunity to perform the title role in Mozart’s Il Re Pastore for Théâtre du Châtelet – a contract in Paris…I had to pinch myself! However, the reality of affording rent in two cities straight out of college was not quite as thrilling. I didn’t get paid until the end of the rehearsal period, and being broke in Paris is not so fun – especially when you have the added stress of making your European début… in a lead role… at a new, more demanding professional level.

The costs of being a singer seem never ending: language coaching, music coaching, singing lessons, accompanist fees, rent in more than one city and a big one: travel. If there’s an offer of an audition for an opera house, conductor or director, you foot the bill. Hard work and determination is worth nothing if no one hears you!

The Chilcott Award will allow me to travel to companies all over the continent to sing for roles. It will also enable me to afford lessons with my teacher Janis Kelly, and sessions with the best coaches in the business to prepare me for the amazing opportunities I have, and hope to have for the next few, crucial years of my career.

Many singers have to make some stark choices as they develop, which is why awards, such as the Chilcott Award, are so vital in helping young singers to reach their full potential. For me, the award is a lifeline; a passport to artistic development and greater understanding of what I love most. When I am wiggling my cunning vixen tail on some future stage, I’ll always remember who backed me for the chase.

Soraya Mafi was awarded the £10,000 Chilcott Award in July 2016.