image © R T Dunphy
May 26, 2018
Interview with mezzo-soprano, jennifer johnston
A former BBC New Generation Artist, celebrated British mezzo-soprano, Jennifer Johnston is a graduate of Cambridge University and the Royal College of Music, and is the recipient of numerous awards. She is particularly associated with the Bayerische Staatsoper, and has also appeared in opera at the Teatro alla Scala, Salzburg Festival, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Opera de Lille, Beijing Festival, Baltic Sea Festival, Scottish Opera and Opera North.
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m just about to go to Holland with the BBCSSO, and Japan with the Cleveland Orchestra
What do you love most about your job?
The repertoire. I’m so lucky to sing as much Mahler as I do in particular.
How long have you been juggling parenthood and your career?
My daughter, Ruby, is now 10, so 10 years and 9 months!
How long after having Ruby did you return to singing?
I had a difficult three years after she was born in 2008 with illness prompted by pregnancy, and although I did work in that time, I only went back to work properly in 2011.
What physical changes did you feel?
Your whole body changes, not just your voice. My voice definitely became weightier and richer post-partum, although it’s impossible to know whether that would have happened anyway as a result of ageing.
How did parenthood change your career?
You can’t be selfish any more, and have to strike a balance between work and family life. I don’t do as much staged opera as I would have had I not had my daughter, it takes me away from home for too long.
Do you think that being a mother has ultimately enriched your performing?
Parenthood has certainly given me perspective on singing, which although is a job I love will never be as important as my daughter. I think I also have become a lot more emotionally connected - the feelings I have for my daughter are profound, and stronger than any other.
How does your child respond day to day to your job?
My daughter loves the music and seeing the costumes and stagings, plus is now playing the oboe so likes to listen to orchestras, but she really doesn’t like being away from me for long periods.
Has Ruby ever appeared on stage with you?
How do you manage to continue your career alongside your family commitments?
On a wing and a prayer, as a single parent, with excellent childcare, an understanding school and support from my amazing friends and family.
What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry, to make life easier for artists with families/dependants?
Advance scheduling is imperative, allowing us to plan our lives and book childcare.
Can you think of an example of a job where you have felt really supported by the company as a parent?
I feel supported by the Bayerische Staatsoper generally, which is a wonderful company to work for, and which has allowed me to continue to sing enough opera and good roles as a guest without accepting a fest contract.
What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry who is about to become a parent?
Go for it. It won’t necessarily be easy, you need to give yourself enough time and space to be a parent as well as a singer, and childcare is everything, but don’t walk away just because you’re a parent.
Have you come up against or heard of any discrimination or bias as a working parent?
Not in my direct experience, but I know plenty of stories.
Were you ever advised not to have children for the sake of your career?
No, not directly.
Aside from the challenges of working-parenthood, have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
Yes. It’s simply because I’m female that my weight and looks are especially relevant to casting directors and directors. Earlier in my career, when singing lyric repertoire, I was told more times than I can remember that I was too fat for certain roles or productions. That has stopped, mercifully, as I have developed into much heavier repertoire.
Which operatic character have you most enjoyed playing and why?
I most love the Britten characters I’ve played, especially the mildly comic batty ones (Mrs Herring, Mrs Sedley, Mrs Grose).
Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
Nina Stemme. She’s brought up 3 amazing children whilst having a huge career, and is the epitomy of grace and class, as well as being a brilliant colleague. I am a huge fan.
Do you have time for other passions and interests outside of your work and family commitments?
Yes, to a degree. I enjoy writing, and am currently adapting a book into libretto, challenging but fun!