Jennifer Johnston (Caius 1995) can trace the start of her award-winning career back to a chance performance.
In my first year at Caius, an ad went up for the University Opera Society’s semi-staged performance of Figaro, so I thought I’d have a go. When I turned up for the audition, I was given the role of Marcellina, which was ironic considering I was only 18 and she’s Figaro’s mother. It began a career of playing much older women. Figaro was my first taste of opera; I was plunged into a musical universe I’d never encountered before – and I absolutely loved it. I’m still friends with others who were involved in it – like the brilliant baritone Leigh Melrose (St John’s 1991) and conductor Ed Gardner (King’s 1993), who is soon to take up the reins at the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s music that’s strongly tied to memories of my first footstep into opera, even though I’ve rarely sung it again and it’s not part of my repertoire – I’m a little too young, even now!
I was only a member of Caius choir for one year. At the end of it, we agreed that my voice was too big for the choir. Given that I now sing Wagner, that’s not surprising! During my first year this incredible invitation arrived: a ticket to watch Jessye Norman – one of my musical heroes – in recital at Jesus College Chapel. I was so lucky to be able to sit in this relatively small space and listen to this musical giant sing live, and her recording of Strauss’s Four Last Songs is one of my favourites. She sounds like no one else on recordings – there are few voices as distinctive. She had a most extraordinary sound – I always think of her voice as golden. And every time I hear it, I think back to that day: it’s a really clear and important memory of my time at Cambridge.
After Figaro, I became Cambridge University Opera Society’s student leader, working alongside Sir Stephen Cleobury (St John’s 1967). It was the start of a friendship that lasted until his death. I was lucky enough to sing at his last concert at King’s – Verdi’s Requiem – and his last Easter at King’s on BBC2. I had my first taste of professional-level choral singing under his baton, with a performance of JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in my first year, for which I was in the chorus, and singing in such a wonderful building made a huge impression on me. Stephen also gave me my first professional engagement as a singer – an opera gala in King’s Chapel – which marked the start of a long, fruitful relationship. When I left Cambridge, I became a barrister. After a few years in the law, I realised I wanted to change careers and sing professionally, and Stephen and Emma, his wife, were very supportive and helped me forge a career as a singer. He was very important in my professional trajectory, and it all started with that Christmas Oratorio.
Charles Villiers Stanford
When I left Caius, I was given the music prize, which was ironic given that I left the choir after only a year. During that year, I had the opportunity to sing my favourite solo of choral music for a soprano – Magnificat in G. Certain pieces of music stay with you even if you haven’t sung them for a long time; even today I can sing it from memory. It’s a piece that I associate with being part of the choir at Caius. Leaving the choir allowed me time to do other things, including lots of mooting and debating, which was useful in becoming a barrister. Even though I was only at Caius for three years, my memories of that first year in the choir are still very present. As alumni, the friendships, contacts and connections endure. That’s the lovely thing about Cambridge – you remain part of a community long after you graduate.
Operatic mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston (Caius 1995) is one of the UK’s most celebrated international opera singers.
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