Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Had it not been for the support of my teachers – Ameral Gunson, then Theresa Goble – and my incredible husband, I very much doubt I would still be performing.
I had been singing in amateur productions up until I was 25 while I juggled full-time work. Ameral pushed me to be better than I thought I could be, encouraging me to be disciplined (and even invest in a better bra to help my terrible posture!).
I was working for the London Underground when I finally got a place at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. I was ecstatic but knew I would have to give up my steady job with a lucrative salary to follow my true passion. If my husband hadn’t generously supported me, I’d imagine I’d still be at Baker Street as a Line Information Assistant – or even as a Line Controller! Both he and Theresa have placed their faith in me and pushed me to not be afraid of trying new things, and for that I shall be eternally grateful.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
As a performer who mainly dabbles in contemporary music, one of my challenges is learning music without perfect pitch and (usually) no accompanying recording. While it’s wonderful to have the feeling that you can make your mark on a piece without being heavily influenced by past performers, it often feels like stepping into a void, particularly if the piece is technically very difficult.
Another challenge is surrounding my personal life. I have two children under the age of 9 and, in my 10-year career, the constant battle to be a mother whilst developing my career has been a tough one. You constantly strive to have enough time to practise, to prepare, to organise childcare whilst simultaneously feeling guilty for doing so. To sit back, take stock of what’s around you and know that it’s OK to work and be a mother is a huge challenge, and one I still often battle with.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
My operatic debut was at the Royal Opera House, in the Linbury Studio. I’m still astounded that I was offered that job! (An administrative error, surely?!) It was extremely daunting, and quite a fraught process as the opera was still being written while we were in rehearsals. The experience was a huge plunge into the deep end, but I learned a lot of valuable lessons.
I’m also very proud of my first production with Luca Silvestrini’s Protein – a contemporary dance company. Up until then, my professional work had centred around performing classical music. However, through a chain of contacts, I was invited to participate in an R+D with the company. Not knowing what on earth an ‘R+D’ was, I turned up not really knowing what to expect, but was very happy I did. That ‘Research and Development’ time led to me being part of May Contain Food, a show about our relationships with food using contemporary dance and a cappella music provided by myself and 3 other singers. I had to use my body and voice in ways I hadn’t done before, and it pushed me to really explore what they could do. Here’s the trailer:
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
As I mentioned before, I have performed a fair amount of contemporary music in the last 10 years and, while I love the thrill of singing more standard repertoire such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Debussy and Verdi, I have always felt the overbearing sense that someone else did it better. Therefore, I think I sing and perform my best in contemporary works because I feel free to find my own voice and explore my own physicality, and how the two work together, without feeling I’m going against particular ‘traditions’. It’s also much easier to ask the composer exactly what they want when they’re standing in a room with you!
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I keep my eyes and ears open and observe the world around me. I then try to give myself time to reflect about those things and what they mean, and how they could be embodied on stage.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I usually open the door and take whatever comes in! I have been able to make more choices in a project I started with pianist Gavin Roberts called Songs and Sounds. During the last year, we have created themed online concerts which feature songs written in the last 10 years, and interviews with the composers who wrote them. The themes were subjects we felt were important in our society, such as Motherhood, Climate Change, and Mental Health. It was exciting to be able to choose repertoire and curate the concerts. You can see more here.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Not one specifically, no. While the bigger venues always have that ‘wow’ factor, I’ve always preferred the more intimate ones where you feel you can really connect with an audience.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences/listeners?
Many music organisations are doing what they can to reach out to people who haven’t yet experienced classical music, with varying rates of success. In Songs and Sounds, the idea was to use an informal structure by using imagery and relaxed presenting, along with the interviews with the composers, as a way for audiences to connect to the music in a different way. The project would, however, require much more time and investment for it to truly make a difference.
There can certainly be ways to break down those metaphorical barriers that put people off, but essentially, exposure to classical music needs to become the ‘norm’. Children need to experience music as part of their standard education, not as an added bonus. Concerts and performances can still have their rituals which make them a special experience, but the mere act of attending shouldn’t feel like something only ‘certain people’ do. It should be for everyone, and that needs to be taught from the very beginning.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
While I enjoy attending classical concerts, my most memorable has to be seeing Muse at Brixton Academy in 2001! They were still playing small-scale venues whilst developing their epic stadium sound. As I jumped around, screaming out the lyrics to every track of Origin of Symmetry, I remember thinking, “They’re gonna be really big one day…”.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Personally, it is to be adaptable and strive for what makes you happy. It should have nothing to do with money or fame, but about having the courage to change course when you feel it’s time to do so.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Similar to above – be adaptable and do what makes you happy. Create your own path and don’t be scared of taking risks. While I had always envisioned a career firmly in traditional opera, I soon realised that taking that journey would require far more time (and money) than I had available to me. But I still wanted to perform and make music, so I found other ways. If you attend every job with a ‘can-do’ attitude and be ready to play and be playful, whilst being kind and respectful to your colleagues, doors will open. Whether they’re the ones you were expecting or not is another matter, but don’t be afraid. Take those opportunities with open arms.
You’re performing at this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival. Tell us about what you’ll be doing.
I’ll be performing in Luke Styles’ chamber opera ‘Awakening Shadow’ with Nova Music Opera on 4th July 2021. The work interweaves Luke’s music with Britten’s beautiful Canticles whilst exploring themes of light and darkness. I’m very much looking forward to it!
More information on this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival can be found here: https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music/
Tickets go on sale to the general public from 14 June.
Donna Lennard grew up in Bedford, and completed a Masters degree at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama with Distinction in 2012. She participated in ENO’s Opera Works 2012/13, and has since established herself as a versatile, passionate and multi-skilled performer, particularly within contemporary music.
Her operatic roles include Frog/Ensemble in How the Whale Became (Philips, ROH), Selene in Tycho’s Dream (Styles, Glyndebourne), Alice in Airborne (McDowall, Nova Music Opera), Despina in Così fan tutte (Cooper Hall Emerging Artists), Yellow in The Anatomy of Melancholy (Tassie/Beames, bodycorps), Catfish in The Catfish Conundrum (Lambert, The Music Troupe for Tête à Tête), Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Frasquita in Carmen, and Pamina in The Magic Flute (Opera Loki).