Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?
My parents are both musical and we always had a lot of music around the house. In addition to this I seem to have been singing for ever, including six years as a choirboy at St. Paul’s Cathedral where, on top of singing at the daily services, we did numerous concerts, recordings and far flung tours. Experiences from those six year years, between the ages of 7 and 13, probably planted seeds of interest in a future career in music though I didn’t know what that would be.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
A number of people stick out.
First, the late John Scott, Director of Music at St. Paul’s Cathedral when I was a boy there. He was an exceptional musician who demanded the highest standards of all of his choristers and I spent my whole time there trying hard to reach those, and continue to do so.
My fantastic coach during my time studying at the Royal Academy of Music, Audrey Hyland, did a huge amount to turn that drive for perfection into a freedom to express and really tell a story as a singer, something acting coach and Director John Ramster also helped me a huge amount with. It takes real skill to craft young artists and both John and Audrey have those skills in abundance.
I owe a lot to Bettina Giese, now Director of Artistic Planning at La Monnaie in Brussels, but who was the boss of the Opera Studio at Oper Stuttgart until 2018. After a challenging period of my fledgling career (more on that later), Bettina took a chance on me back in 2014 and gave me a place on the Stuttgart young artist programme. The year there, and Bettina’s advice and support, has had a massive affect on my career.
Finally, a special mention for a very recent influence must go to Barbara Hannigan, who chose me as one of her mentees when she founded Equilibrium Artists and who is a great source of advice and inspiration.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Immediately after finishing the Opera course at the Royal Academy, in April 2013, I lost my singing voice. This lasted for about 5 months and though in hindsight I know the voice loss was directly related to being mugged the previous January, at the time I had no idea how or if I would ever get it back. I had to cancel auditions and any work that I had lined up and a change of career was almost a coin toss away. After a lot of hard work I started singing again in late September, and slowly tried to get things back on track. Most applications I made fell of deaf ears, but I ended up being one of about 25 tenors who auditioned for the Oper Stuttgart Opera studio. A few weeks later (it felt like years) Bettina Giese called me to offer me a place as a young artist in Stuttgart and on the same day I was meant to have a phone interview for a job in London. A sliding doors moment, I said yes to Bettina.
Since finishing in Stuttgart the financial challenges of what Barbara Hannigan calls the ‘first significant phase of a career’ have been testing. The costs add up: travelling across Europe for auditions, buying scores, paying for singing lessons and repertoire coachings and so much more. It’s expensive stuff and some fees don’t necessarily reflect those costs. When a contract about 18 months ago fell through very last minute I found myself in a very testing position. For these reasons I am extremely grateful to a few individuals who have supported me, they know who they are – without these people, and many like them, there would be many fewer singers able to persevere.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
A few come to mind. I jumped in on the day for a production of Cosi Fan Tutte at Oper Stuttgart in June 2015. It was my first major role at a major opera house. It was 37 degrees outside and the production had the four lovers staying on stage for 99% of the evening, a challenging production even for the most seasoned of Ferrando’s. I loved the performance, and felt a real connection with the Stuttgart audience, who by this time had seen me in five or six different productions. I was one of their youngsters and they were sharing my first big chance with me, their positive energy spurring me on. That will stick with me for a long time. Another jump in came in October 2016 at English National Opera. More Mozart, this time I jumped in on 6 hours notice as Don Ottavio in an intricate production of Don Giovanni. I had a few friends in the cast, and some family and friends in the audience, and as in the Stuttgart Cosi I thrived in the situation. Finally, my most recent opera performance, as Sam Kaplan in Street Scene at Oper Koln. Street Scene is a wonderful piece and the role of Sam seemed to just fit me really well. We had a great cast and team, which in the case of Street Scene is massive, and the stars seemed to align to allow me to give performances I am really proud of.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I sing Mozart really well. Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte has been very good to me, it seems to suit where my voice is at the moment really well, and I’m looking forward to sharing my interpretation of this role with a British audience in spring 2020 on the ETO tour.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
My voice and my ‘team’ (singing teacher, coaches and agent) inform my choices. There is a clear sense of where my voice is now and where it might lead to and so the roles I am considered for are informed by that. I’m an unashamed Tenor nerd, and I find it fascinating to see how repertoire choices develop as voices mature. Sadly my great Tenor hero, Fritz Wunderlich, died in his mid 30’s. I’m not going to start comparing myself to him apart from the fact that I think, like him, Mozart will be a core part of my repertoire for a while.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Stuttgart Opera house feels like home, I’ve performed 80+ times on that stage and its where I feel my career really started.
In addition to Stuttgart, a few summers ago I made my BBC Proms solo debut at the Royal Albert Hall (I did sing at the Proms as a child, but that was a different me…). To walk out into that iconic space was a real thrill, and privilege. However, I do love intimate venues where you can really feel as if you are talking to each member of the audience in a one to one conversation. As such, I think Kings Place near Kings Cross, where I sang my first professional Britten Serenade, is a great chamber concert venue. As an audience member I find that the best recitalists make the stage at Wigmore Hall an incredibly intimate setting, so I look forward to having that opportunity at some point.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Mozart Requiem with the Munich Philharmonic, Barbara Hannigan conducting, at the Gasteig in Munich. Aside from being with a world class orchestra and Barbara, who needs no introduction, the four of us soloists all came to the engagement as Equilibrium Artists (Barbara’s mentoring scheme) and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much part of a team when I’ve been a soloist. I really loved doing that concert, and it was another reminder of how lucky I am to have a voice that can give me these experiences.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
The unromantic definition is that success is making enough money to maintain the addiction one has to making music and drama. The romantic in me says that success is having even just one audience member be moved by my performance.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Obviously (I hope) be prepared to work hard, learn your music, words, translations etc.
I think it is important not to imitate. Why be a Chinese whisper of someone else when you can have you own voice.
As a freelance musician you are a business, and to an extent you need to treat it like a start-up. Don’t be surprised if you have no work when you haven’t actually told anyone who you are, the phone doesn’t just ring because you sing nicely in singing lessons.
Be a great colleague. This isn’t really a problem, most people in the arts are lovely people.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’d like to be singing regularly at major opera houses and concert halls around the world, performing roles and music that challenge and inspire me. I’d also like to be teaching in some capacity, I love sharing what I have learned along the way with others and helping people make the most of their voices.
Thomas Elwin stars in ‘The Elixir of Love’ at the inaugural season of the Norfolk Into Opera Festival which runs from 8th to 11th August. More information
Born in London, Tenor Thomas Elwin studied at the Royal Academy of Music. A former boy-chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Thomas performed extensively as a treble soloist both in the UK and abroad, at venues including Tokyo Opera City, Barbican, Royal Festival Hall, on Classic FM, BBC2 and Radio 3. An alumnus of the Solti Accademia Bel Canto, Verbier Academy and Oper Stuttgart opera studio, Thomas is currently a member of Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Artists and an associate artist with the Classical Opera Company. With his warm, lyric Tenor voice, Thomas is gaining reputation both in the UK and abroad.
The 2018/19 season sees Thomas make his Oper Koeln debut (Sam Kaplan/ Street Scene), a return to the Vorarlberg Landestheater (Jaquino/Fidelio) and a debut performance with the Munich Philharmonic/Barbara Hannigan (Mozart Requiem). Further performances include Handel’s Athalia in Darmstadt, Elijah in Winchester Cathedral and Jonathan Dove’s For an Unknown Soldier, in Wells Cathedral.
(Artist photo: Groves Artists)