Original article in Opera Now by Coriander Stuttard
Channel 4's five minute Feature: New opera written with students about terrorism threat
How do young people deal with the threat of terrorism, and how should adults and parents respond after an attack. Students from North Huddersfield Trust School have set about trying to answer these questions and more in the form of a professionally-produced opera.
It had its premiere this week, and we went along.
Libretto by Ed Harris
Composed by Omar Shahryar
Directed by Ruth Mariner, Gestalt Arts
Award-winning opera makers working closely with teenagers of North Huddersfield Trust School have developed this comic, modern opera that sensitively engages younger audiences with important issues. Mixing styles from classical to grime, A Shoe Full of Stars is a funny, touching and extraordinary opera not to be missed.
After news of a terrorist attack shakes his world, a very ordinary teenager suddenly finds himself on a bizarre, magical island where conflict is bubbling up everywhere... and nothing is at it seems!
Students and staff of North Huddersfield Trust School; Lizzie Holmes, soprano & Neil Balfour, bass-baritone. With Dark Inventions Music Ensemble
Extract of Lizzie's interview for the Dorset Echo & DORSET LIVING
Lizzie Holmes was just ten years old the first time she sang in public, performing 'Walking in the Air' at her local church in Poole. Little did she know at the time, that it was the catalyst for a glittering opera and West End career.
She became the youngest person in the world to play Madame Giry in The Phantom of the Opera aged 25, and recently starred in a modern adaptation of La Bohème at the Trafalgar Studios.
Now Lizzie, who grew up in Branksome and returns to visit family whenever she has the chance, has set up her own company to introduce opera to a new audience.
It wasn't until that church performance that Lizzie's parents even realised she had a voice, and set her up with regular singing lessons. She went on to study English Literature at Warwick University, where she met a career changing singing teacher, Llyndall Trotman who she still studies with, who encouraged her to explore opera.
"I didn't know much about opera," she explains. "As a family we listened to some classical music, but not really any opera. But the more I looked into it, the more I discovered how it encompassed everything that I loved - it was challenging, you got to travel and collaborate with so many different people, you got to act on stage and sometimes dance and to top it all of you got to tell stories through sublime and both incredibly challenging and rewarding music. I'm addicted!"
Lizzie auditioned for music college, and like many others was not accepted initially, so she spent a year working as a carer and focusing on honing her skills. The following year, she auditioned again and was offered places at all top five music conservatoires in the UK, including the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, where she went on to study for two years.
Her role in Phantom came about following "a bit of whim", when Lizzie's mum saw a Tweet from a friend about auditions for ballet dancers for the London show.
"Coincidentally a friend from Warwick University was a Casting Assistant for Cameron Mackintosh," says Lizzie, now 28. "She said all she could do was put my name 'in the mix', so they would see my CV. I did five auditions - I had never even seen Phantom until just before my final audition! I initially auditioned for Christine, but then they asked me to sing for Madame Giry, which is the severe and much older ballet mistress. I was 25 when I first performed the role, which makes me the youngest person in the world to play her!"
Lizzie was offered the part of "first cover", playing the part whenever the main performer was ill or on holiday. She performed in 80 shows as Madame Giry, and over 600 times as Madame Firmin and in the Ensemble over her two years at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, which she describes as "an incredible introduction to the West End and working on such a large scale and renowned production".
When her contract came to an end, Lizzie decided she wanted to move back to the world of opera, so covered Miss Wordsworth in Britten's Albert Herring for The Grange Festival, an annual summer opera festival in Hampshire, before performing in The King's Head Theatre's modern English adaptation of La Bohème at The Trafalgar Studios, on London's West End.
"It was a pared down production in a small studio with which heightened the drama - you were in touching distance of the audience with just 4 performers and a piano and cello, it was very visceral" she says.
It was this intimate setting which inspired Lizzie to set up Debut in 2015, in a bid to share her love of opera with others who may not have experienced it.
"You can feel the emotion up close," she explains. "For so many of our guests who have never experienced opera before, their strongest reaction is surprise at how much the human voice - especially as it's so close to them - can move them.
"I think opera is one of the most vivacious art forms that there is, but often people say it feels so far away, that they miss out on all the really exciting details"
Debut's mission is to champion the rising stars of classical music, they provide opera singers for private events and concerts, as well as their monthly Debut Treehouse concert series in collaboration with the Shoreditch Treehouse, to showcase some of the UK's brightest musicians to new audiences.
"At the Treehouse we have three sessions of music, with classical music and opera at it's heart, although we always love to include some musical theatre and cabaret pieces too," says Lizzie of the monthly concerts. "But the difference is that in the breaks, I encourage the audience to talk to the musicians. I host the nights, so will ask our musicians lots of questions about how they discovered classical music, and what their most exciting moments have been - to open the door of classical music and show our audiences inside.
"We hold it on the last Sunday of every month and it's sold out, which is amazing for a regular classical concert. It's been a really fulfilling and exciting series to set up and we've seen so many people who are new to classical music come along and fall in love with it - as well as classical music fans who just love our informal and warm setting."
Lizzie's next project, with a company called Into Opera, will see her as the only professional opera singer working with 160 schoolchildren in Norwich to put on a world premier of A King's Ransom by Patrick Hawes, a children's opera with the Britten Sinfonia.
"My career is hugely varied," she smiles. "I think because you just have to audition and apply, especially as a young singer, you have to go for as many things as you can and see where opportunities take you."
Lizzie's ultimate career goal is to have a long, international career as a soloist, but she is keen to retain links to her Bournemouth home.
“I want to buy a house down in Bournemouth or Sandbanks overlooking the water so I can go for my run every day and sing really loudly practicing my next project and not disturb the neighbours!”
By Emma Joseph, article featured in Dorset Living and Dorset Echo
Our production of La Bohéme at the Trafalgar Studios as part of the King's Head Theatre West End season has been nominated for Best New Opera at the Olivier Awards! | 6 December 2017 - 6 January 2018
Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott's reinterpretation of Puccini's classic La bohème is set in present-day East London and delves into the lives and loves of Mimi, Musetta, Ralph and Mark. The production lays bare the damaging effects of co-dependent relationships against a backdrop of spiralling rents and social media. Conducted by Panaretos Kryiatzidis.
Matthew Kimble & Roger Paterson - Ralph
Matthew Palmer & Thomas Isherwood - Mark
Becca Marriott & Lizzie Holmes - Mimi
Lizzie Holmes & Honey Rouhani - Musetta