Omo Bello soprano

Omo Bello, soprano

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?

I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and my love for singing was pretty evident from a very young age. My mother used to regularly bring home VHS cassettes of all sorts of musicals from the library. I would spend a considerable amount of time watching them with my siblings over and over again, painstakingly memorising the lyrics of the songs. Afterwards, I would be found in the garden, a stick-cum-microphone in hand, reliving the entire musical, singing all the songs by heart either alone, with my older sister and/or younger brother. Anyone who missed a beat, tune or word was scolded thoroughly and corrected immediately.

It was in that very garden of our family house, in a quiet neighbourhood close to the University of Lagos where my father worked, that one little girl dreamt of becoming a singer, singing on a stage, in front of the camera, with stage lights bearing down, and a beautiful dress on. I remember watching excerpts of live concerts by Luciano Pavarotti on TV or the British Airways adverts with the Flower duet from Délibe’s Lakme ; these piqued my interest in the operatic voice and made impressions.

I took up music in Junior secondary school, which meant playing the recorder, and lots of music theory on a black board. I found that music largely boring, except for when we had a music teacher who, recognising the talent, taught me beautiful music, accompanying me on an old rusty piano in the music room; It was there I learnt my first art song, Now the Dancing Sunbeams Play by Anne Hunter.

However, I received the shock of my life when I attended a music concert in church. For the first time in my life, I saw a philharmonic orchestra in live performance. It was as if I was transported out of this world into celestial realms. What a sight to behold one hundred musicians playing together in harmony. It seemed to me that many hours of complex work was required to put it all together, and it was at that concert that I decided I wanted to pursue classical music. The notion of putting in a lot of work to produce such perfection appealed to me and I immediately told my mother that I wanted to learn the violin. I went on to study violin playing for a few years before finding my way back to singing.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

When you are born in Lagos, in an average middle class family, your career choices are essentially pre-defined. You are expected to pick a choice from a career as a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, an architect… I got a Bachelor’s degree in Cell Biology and Genetics, en route to a career in Medicine. At that time, it was inconceivable to envisage a career as an opera singer! Never mind the fact that the infrastructure to pursue a professional career as a classical musician was non-existent; no conservatoire, no opera house and no acoustically-efficient performing art halls.

An opportune encounter with a French cultural attaché set me off on a tangent into the music world, thanks to a French government scholarship to study at the Conservatoire de Paris!

To this day, I do not take for granted the journey that brought me to this point where I happily introduce myself as a Nigerian opera singer. “Nigerian opera singer” is almost an oxymoron! I could pinch myself to make sure its not all a dream. Other hurdles also tend to pale in comparison.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I feel every single performance, especially live, is uniquely special, and for very different reasons. There are no words to fully express that distinct moment, baring one’s soul, and the accompanying vulnerability, fragility even…Beauty with all the imperfection of the vessel conveying it.

Recorded music, unfortunately, doesn’t have that. At best, you get something that I can liken to a laminated sheet of paper; however beautiful the contents of the page may be, its missing the creases that are part of the human experience. Having said that, I feel like my first recorded album, Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler is very special.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

My voice teachers and vocal coaches made me understand early on in my classical singing journey that the bel canto repertoire suits the colour and timbre of my voice quite well. Mozart too. Thanks to the Paris Conservatoire, I have come to love the French romantic era music repertoire, such as Massenet and Gounod…

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Being a mum, and motherhood in general has a way of stripping you of all the airs of stage life, and bringing you back to the basics, thoroughly grounding you. A child looks at the world differently, and teaches you to see the little things that are so important. Seeing my 3 year old in full tantrum mode, I pick up a trick or two in stage acting.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I make my repertoire choices based on what suits the voice, but also on what propositions I receive.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I had the opportunity to take part in the ECHO Rising Stars recital tour several years ago, and sang the bel canto repertoire in all of the great concert halls in Europe. Yet, I feel every single live performance is extra special in itself, and in that moment, my favourite.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Catch them young, very young.

It’s sad to meet too many frustrated adults, who were discouraged from pursuing music in their childhood because there was no place given to the amateur musician in their schools. Any child who wants to learn an instrument in France where I live is expected to undertake many hours of solfeggio classes before even picking up the instrument. As noble as the intention behind that is, I feel it means that a lot of children give up, and turn their backs on classical music. Thus, this diminishing classical music community loses its amateurs and potential audiences.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was invited to sing in Abuja, Nigeria, in a congress hall some 10 years ago. It was to be the first time I would sing back home after having left to pursue classical music. I was to sing Juliette’s waltz from “Roméo et Juliette” by Charles Gounod, accompanied by a piano that was not in the best of shape. The acoustics of the hall were nothing to write home about, and the performance was amplified by microphones that would have been better suited to a congress meeting than an operatic performance. The professional singer in me was aghast, but I braced myself to kick into autopilot mode and sing to an audience of roughly 2500 people.

It was by far, the furthest I would ever have to sing from the performance conditions I was used to. Yet, as I sang the aria, beginning with a trill and jump to the high B flat, it was as if the entire hall gasped as one. Surreal. The look on the faces of the audience was just priceless. When I rounded off the aria with the traditional high C, they spontaneously jumped to their feet, roaring like soccer fans, rock music fans even, oblivious to the classical music performance protocol that demands restraint; After a solo piece comes to an end, the tradition requires an audience to also listen to the musical postlude played by the accompanist, which effectively concludes the whole musical piece before the applause. Needless to say the subtlety of a European classical music audience was completely missing, but it was the most beautiful, heart warming scene to behold and experience.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is to achieve one’s unique potential, and that is not an easy task!

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Diversify skills; take classes in music management, entrepreneurship, communication, filing income taxes, speaking in public, the list goes on. The music profession has rapidly evolved into this very challenging space where you’re expected to be an all rounder.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

It’s evident that the music industry is an extremely profitable enterprise. So why are its protagonists, the musicians, who put in an enormous amount of hard work, finding it harder and harder to make a decent living from it?

What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

I would like to be more deeply invested in working with little children, getting them more involved with music, either through the foundation I set up, The Omo Bello Music Foundation, or any other available means.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Family time; I’m a thorough homebody.

What is your most treasured possession?

My music library.

What is your present state of mind?

All over the place!

Omo Bello performs in The African Concert Series at London’s Wigmore Hall on Saturday 13th May. More info/tickets

After five years of studying Cell Biology and Genetics at the university in her native country, The French Nigerian soprano Omo Bello entirely devoted herself to music, studying at the Conservatoire de Paris – CNSMDP. She holds a diploma in singing performance from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London (ABRSM) and has gained enormously from the musical and technical counsels of Jorge Chaminé, Teresa Berganza, Thomas Quasthoff and Grace Bumbry. In 2014, Omo Bello was nominated for the “Victoires de la musique classique” awards in the “Lyrical Revelation of the Year” category (the “French Grammy’s”), and she triumphed at the Paris International Opera Competition, winning the 1st prize, the French opera prize and the Public prize. In 2013, she was awarded with Italy’s prestigious international Arca d’Oro prize. In Italy, she also won the 1st Prize in the Luciano Pavarotti Giovani 2010 competition (thus lauded by the Italian press critic Gianni Gori as «a talent of Gold! »), and also won the 1st prize in the 2011 Anselmo Colzani international singing competition.

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