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?
There was always music around the family home with my mother playing all genres of music on the harp including classical, film-scores and Welsh folk songs, and when I was a little girl my grandmother insisted that I have singing lessons and take part in big cultural singing competitions in Wales called Eisteddfodau. I loved this time in my life and would look forward to learning the new songs set by the music committee every year. I guess it was this, alongside being given a Hayley Westenra CD and falling in love with her style of singing and the songs she sang, that led to wanting to pursue a career in singing. Even whilst studying for a degree in languages and spending some time living in northern Spain, I continued to develop my voice and explore new music genres, and following this went to train in opera and classical singing at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama with a wonderful singing teacher, Suzanne Murphy.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and the concert cancellations and postponements started to roll in, as they did for many artists, one of the biggest challenges was finding the perseverance to keep going. Even faced with questionable government campaigns that suggested people in the arts change careers, I was determined to find a new way to make music. I’ve always loved music in the Classical Crossover genre, especially artists like Andrea Bocelli, Katherine Jenkins, Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman, and this felt like the right time to take the plunge and start recording and releasing my own music in this genre! It hasn’t been without its challenges, at times not being able to go into the recording studio due to restrictions and needing to learn how to record professionally from home. Despite all this, however, it’s been a successful year with my debut single going to number 1 in the Classical Charts, and I’m now working with a really brilliant musical team and excited for the release of my new EP “Cinema” this October!
Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?
Performing operatic arias with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in St David’s Hall was a pretty special performance, as well as making three Gilbert & Sullivan role debuts in the same week in Buxton Opera House. I sang as principal soprano with the National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company and it was a real delight to sing the role of Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance to such a knowing audience of G&S fans from all over the world, all there for the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival. One evening Valerie Masterson was in the audience and she was very gracious in complimenting me on my performance! Most recently I’m proud of the music videos we’ve created for some of the new tracks on the Cinema EP, some of which are almost like mini movies themselves. With the arts and particularly classical and crossover music all becoming more visual, I really enjoyed creating the storyboard and timelines for these videos and feel that we’ve produced visuals which compliment the music and all that these songs represent.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
When it comes to works in opera or oratorio, a piece that stands out for me is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. From the moment the famous ‘O Fortuna’ gives me goosebumps, through all the beautiful solos such as ‘In Trutina’, to the unaccompanied soprano solo ‘Dulcissime’ with its sustained top D, it’s such a magical piece that I always enjoy performing. The pure, simple soprano melodies I’m told suit my type of voice very well, and this could be in the form of classical works, Celtic melodies, or in the world of film music. I’m happy that the collection of songs chosen for the Cinema EP all really suit my voice. .
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Before a performance I love to get outdoors and clear my mind, and enjoy walking with my two flat-coated retrievers. I’m lucky to live in a part of the world where we have some beautiful coastal walks on our doorstep, some of which I’ve enjoyed showcasing in recent music videos. All going to plan, the preparation and hard work leading up to a performance will have been done long in advance, and so I find having a clear mind allows me to perform better in the moment.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I’m always looking for new pieces to include in my set lists that are perhaps less known, and often these will include a Welsh or Celtic folk song or two that just have the most beautiful melodies and heart-breaking stories. I often get asked to perform certain pieces and arias, ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is a very popular one. It’s important to find a balance between choosing pieces your audience knows and would expect you to sing, as well as being able to share your love for one or two songs they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise know. We all have our favourites for Valentine’s Day, St David’s Day, Easter, Remembrance Day and of course Christmas, where part of the fun is that the audience will know the words and sing along with you – although perhaps from behind masks this year…
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
My favourite concert venue would probably be St. David’s Hall in my home city of Cardiff. I remember the first time I walked onto that stage when I was 8 years old and heard the applause of the audience for the first time. It was exhilarating and I couldn’t help but smile from cheek to cheek. It’s a memory I’ll never forget. I’ve since performed there many times, most recently as the soprano soloist in the Fauré Requiem, and the acoustic is such that even the quietest note will carry to the very back of the hall. It’s really a lovely place to sing.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
I think it all starts with the music you’re introduced to as a child, and I’m really looking forward to some projects I have in the pipeline to introduce primary school children to the world of classical music and opera and all its characters! I guess day to day, there’s room for classical music to become more mainstream in the sense of hearing more classical pieces in popular TV shows. That could be reality shows, Netflix programmes, even more in Hollywood films, so that the general public becomes accustomed to hearing these beautiful pieces. I think it’s great how TV shows like Bridgerton took pop songs and made them sound ‘classical’ by arranging them for string quartet. Really that’s what the Classical Crossover genre is all about, taking songs from different genres and arranging them in a classical style. This is exactly what we’ve done with the new classical rendition of ‘No Time To Die’ on my new EP, for which I had far too much fun pretending to be a Bond girl for the day!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Certainly one of my most memorable performances was singing the soprano solo in the Welsh premiere of Karl Jenkins’ The Bards of Wales, conducted by Karl himself and with full symphony orchestra and chorus. It was one of the first times I’d sung with an orchestra. I just love the incredible soundscape he creates in all his works. Other moments that come to mind are walking onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall for the first time and also performing to HRH The Prince of Wales in Buckingham Palace, where Dame Shirley Bassey complimented me on my evening gown – that’s something I’ll always remember!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
My definition of success is to hear that people are connecting with my music and to learn that at times my songs have offered comfort to those who may have needed it. It’s hugely rewarding to know that your music is appreciated and is bringing an element of happiness to peoples’ lives.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
That everyone has their own path in life and every musician’s career will look different. It’s important not to measure success by comparison and to just focus on your own journey. Although many successful musicians have natural talent and ability, there is also a huge amount of hard work and practice that goes on behind the scenes that we otherwise tend not to see. I think it’s very true of everything that you only get out what you put in. I would say always keep going and try not to get too caught up in comparisons.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My idea of perfect happiness is to continue to make music for the rest of my life! That said, it’s also important to find hobbies and pastimes away from singing, and to take time to experience life and everything the world has to offer, time to go travelling and see the world, to learn new languages and connect with people, and not just whilst on tour!
Whilst I was a student I studied languages and spent some time living in northern Spain. During that time I fell in love with watching old romantic European films. Sometimes there’s nothing better on a rainy afternoon than to put the kettle on, wrap up warm, and give in to the escapism of a classic film. This is exactly how the concept for ‘Cinema’ came about! I’d put my old DVD of Cinema Paradiso on to play, and was once again mesmerised by Ennio Morricone’s beautifully romantic score and the love theme I’d heard sung so many times by artists such as Josh Groban and Katherine Jenkins. I decided there and then to record my own version in time for Valentine’s Day. ‘May It Be’ from The Lord Of The Rings followed next, along with ‘Danny Boy’ from Memphis Belle, and amongst the new arrangements on the disc is a classical rendition of Phil Collins’ ‘You’ll Be In My Heart’. Written as a lullaby for his daughter Lily, it really is one of those timeless songs that there’s just no denying how beautiful it is both in its melody and lyrics. It was perfect for the film Tarzan and never fails to bring a lump to my throat. This is the opening track in the collection, as for me that openness to experiencing emotion and being completely immersed in the everyday of another world is what movie magic is all about!
Ellen Williams‘ brand-new EP of film theme favourites ‘Cinema’ is out now
Welsh classical artist Ellen Williams has been praised for her “poise and promise, her voice agile with silvery charm” (The Guardian), and has been described as singing “with heart-piercing sweetness” in The Times. Ellen has performed in many of the UK’s most prestigious concert halls including the Royal Albert Hall, Cadogan Hall, Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, Bridgewater Hall, the Brangwyn Hall, the Wales Millennium Centre, and for HRH The Prince of Wales in Buckingham Palace.
(Artist photo: The Storyteller)