SEP 2020: In conversation with Ann Murray

This month, celebrated mezzo-soprano Ann Murray shares her early musical influences and the advice she would give to singers working today.

What are your earliest musical memories and who are your singing inspirations?

Having noticed I had a voice as a toddler my mother took me for singing lessons when I was four. Like the Eisteddfords in Wales, the Feis Ceoil was a central part of Irish culture and I was taking part in competitions from five years of age, like most children at the time. Aged seven, I was one of the founding members of the Young Dublin Singers Cantairí Óga Átha Cliath and went on to St Louis boarding school, Monaghan, where I joined the choir and took part in various school productions.

As I tended to imitate what I would hear, I rarely listened to records…which were expensive to get hold of in any case! In earlier years I therefore had less access to opera and was more exposed to live performances of Lied and Oratorio. While at University College Dublin, however, I was cast as the Shepherd Boy in Rome Opera’s 1968 concert performance of Tosca, which was touring Ireland with the wonderful Magda Olivero in the title role and which she went on to sing as her MET Opera debut aged 65 in 1975.

At that time, I was competing in the Feis Ceoil and the adjudicator suggested I might consider pursuing a career in singing. One thing led to another and I auditioned for the Royal Northern College of Music and was invited to study with Frederic Cox, recognised as one of the finest singing teachers of the twentieth century. He had a great knowledge of the repertoire and encouraged an easy technique with no unnecessary pushing. Some of his other pupils included Elizabeth Harwood, Rosalind Plowright, Ryland Davies, Paul Nylon and Dennis O’Neill. At the time the RNCM were presenting an exciting range of repertoire including Lohengrin, Peter Grimes, Norma, Verdi Requiem and Werther, but no one was damaged vocally, and all were encouraged to sing healthily.

I have always learned something from the people I work with and believe that singing with great colleagues raises your own game. Two singers I particularly admire are Edita Gruberová and Margaret Price and have been lucky enough to sing with them both.

What are the realities of maintaining a successful career and what advice would you give to singers working today?

The cruel reality is that you will have already spent a large portion of your fee before even leaving the house (tax/NI, agent’s fee, travel, concert dress/dry cleaning, scores, music/language coaching etc). As a freelance artist you must take all this into account and ensure that suitable financial provision is made for yourself.

Work abroad often involves long periods of repertoire preparation for the next contract, and this must be factored into your free time, as well as time for children and family commitments. Do not underestimate the preparation time required to learn a new role. You may find additional pressure not to be ill, absent or under prepared if understudies have not been contracted.

Dull discipline is the foundation of any successful career. You cannot fly on stage if you’ve not done this work in advance.

Don’t feel you need to sing all the time in your own practice – read the libretto, look at how important you are in other character’s lives. What are they saying about you? Be inquisitive. Become a detective and think of imaginative backstories you can draw on…regardless what a director may ask you to do on stage. Don’t see this as an onerous commitment. It should be an ongoing process, letting your imagination run free and enabling your performances to become as unique and creative as you are.

AUG 2020: A lockdown launch

Despite ongoing uncertainty surrounding rehearsals and public performance, I feel incredibly privileged to present these ten singers as their careers go from strength to strength. Steve Phillips Management offers hands-on career management and bespoke representation to a hand-picked roster of artists working internationally and we look forward to sharing their careers over the years ahead.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, uncertainty continues to dominate our industry. However our varied and adaptable roster are ready to take whatever challenges lie ahead.

JUL 2020: Representation in isolation

As #SaveTheArts fills our social platforms, this week the Government announced a substantial support package for the arts, with £1.57 billion made available across the sector. Live performance is a vital part of our national life, and the people whose skill make it so special need to be sustained and supported. How this funding filters to those most in need remains to be seen, but is a significant step in the right direction, ensuring artists, venues and institutions remain solvent until spring next year, despite current distancing restrictions.

Starting up an agency in isolation has been an interesting experience, but conversations with companies across the UK have shown that, despite the unknown, exhaustive scenario planning is taking place so that projects can be sprung into action once public health guidelines surrounding rehearsals and performances have been published. Scientific evidence is also ongoing in the UK and, from August this year, will inform distancing guidelines for singers, wind and brass players in particular. Our arts institutions are therefore refocusing what they may and may not be able to present physically, beyond the range of back catalogue web streaming and lockdown digital projects. As inventive as these projects may have been, there remains a real hunger for live performance among audiences, in whatever guise that may be.

So artists need to be fleet of foot to respond to this smaller-scale work once scientific evidence/Government guidance gives the green light for live performance to resume. Our theatres may lie dark for a little longer, but our creative work can flourish in communities across the country as artists #SaveTheArts through the kinds of grassroots live performance our audiences have sorely missed.

JUN 2020: …that is the question

As the summer months reveal a very different reality from what we were expecting, theatres, concert halls, promoters, agents and artists are dealing with unprecedented uncertainty. Where force majeure seems to be the norm rather than the exception some questions need to be asked:

Should contracts now be changed in this post-pandemic world, with upfront part-payments instead of performance fees?

Should the agent-artist relationship change from commission model to monthly retainer – representing the Artist Manager’s work between contracts and before rehearsals start?

To what extent should free streaming and online activity continue, when social distancing reduces the economic viability of performing as we know it?

Is paid-for streaming, as a complement to reduced audience capacity, a useful model as we move from downloads and ownership, to streaming and access? If so, how much of this would get to the performing artist?

I look forward to exploring these questions and the inevitable curveballs that our changing landscape will uncover. Through all this, and continuing conversations with colleagues across IAMA and Opera Europa, there seems to be a willingness to understand pressures on all sides to navigate a way through the next few years and retain the very special nature of our industry and the joy it brings to so many people across the world.

MAY 2020: To be or not to be…

At the time of writing the COVID-19 pandemic continues to raise more questions with each daily news briefing. The future of theatres, concert halls and touring venues hang in the balance as we wait to see how long lockdown lasts and the longer-lasting effects on our industry. The question is, do we exist if we don’t perform?

Recent discussions among IAMA and Opera Europa members indicate that organisations in Europe are starting to plan for a socially-distanced return to rehearsal and performance. Such plans are some way off in the UK however.

Even when restrictions are sufficiently relaxed, and if seating plans were re-designed with 2m social distancing in mind, what would be the economic viability should theatres reduce audience capacity to that extent? And of course the practicality of social-distancing at performance start, end and interval break? That’s not to mention reduced audience confidence returning to theatres and concert halls.

Furthermore, artists now have limited travel options, with associated quarantine rules making international travel less feasible. Many existing contracts have been cancelled under Force Majeure or postponed until future seasons…which themselves are being rearrangd and repackaged.

Should artists not be available for alternative dates offered, it seems that the next few years will continue to remain uncertain, until testing and tracking become more sophisticated and, more crucially, some form of vaccine is developed. Only then might audiences return to live performance and artists, orchestras, chorus, creatives and technicians safely rehearse and perform. No doubt our audiences will need us then more that ever before!

APR 2020: I…AM…A…member

This week the International Artist Managers’ Association accepted our membership application to join the only worldwide association for classical music artist managers and concert agents. Through that membership we agree to abide by their Code of Practice and benefit from connections with colleagues across the industry, in all territories.

This comes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where so many of us feel uncertain about the effect on our industry and live performance more generally. However as Governments, publicly-funded organisations and performing companies navigate a way forward, there is obvious benefit in working together and sharing information. We are therefore delighted to be a member of the International Artist Managers’ Association and contributing to the wider performing arts ecology world-wide.

MAR 2020: A new beginning

Each new journey has a beginning and Steve Phillips Management is an exciting first step; built on twelve years working in opera and five across radio & television. The singer’s journey is fascinating because the need to sing comes from our very fabric. The compelling need to perform…to communicate.

I know the demands of conservatoire training and endless auditioning in pursuit of professional contracts. I know too the pressure of portfolio careers, self-employed administration and learning new repertoire at short notice. With this understanding and over ten years experience managing singers, I’m delighted to launch this roster exciting artists, each with that very compelling need to perform.

I look forward to sharing their journey with you over the years ahead. Please follow us on social to be part of their unique story as it unfolds.