British mezzo-soprano, Yvonne Howard, reflects on her career and shares her wisdom in our latest interview: 'Treat your colleagues with respect and kindness. Treat yourself in the same way..'
April 01, 2018
image © Clive Barda
S: What are you up to at the moment?
YH: I am currently Flying High literally and metaphorically as the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe with English National Opera.
S: Which operatic character have you most enjoyed playing and why?
YH: My favourite and most fulfilling character is Leonore/Fidelio in Beethoven's Fidelio. I find her to be a believable character; a strong, passionate woman and an absolute dream to sing.
S: In a business where there is always a plentiful supply of artists ready and willing, do you think changes should be made to make the industry more inclusive for artists with families and/or dependants?
YH: I have often wondered why opera companies, particularly London companies don't vary rehearsal times to begin later to make it cheaper for the majority of singers who are NOT London based, and also why they don't have a nursery or crèche facilities.
S: Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
YH: Women in the industry who have inspired me are those who have managed their careers despite challenging circumstances; managing children, their own illness etc. whilst keeping on top of learning and singing.
S: Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
YH: I don't believe my gender has ever been a particular problem, though being female is not without its challenges. Hormonal effects on body, voice & emotions can be very tricky. When younger, the monthly (or not) pains, swellings etc can cause problems and as one ages, menopause raises its head with the attendant problems it can bring. Singing can become much more difficult during the peri menopausal years, and this isn't always easy to recognise in the early stages. Pregnancy, too, can obviously bring physical challenges as can miscarriage. The latter almost more so because often people don't feel able to talk about it. (I certainly didn't feel able to for many years).
S: What do you love most about your job? What would you change about your job?
YH: What I love most about this job is the people. The industry is with filled with wonderfully supportive, warm and friendly people, many of whom become good friends, and others who it always a joy to see on a cast list though not close. I don't know that I would wish to change anything about my job (other than invent a time machine so I could always get home from every job).
S: What are your main interests and passions outside of work?
YH: Outside of work, I love to spend time my garden, walking in the country and on the beach, baking and reading and spending time with good friends.
S: If you could go back in time would you change anything in your career?
YH: If I could go back in time and change one thing in my career it would be to have more awareness of the importance of finding the right agent early on, rather than just going with the first who offered.
S: How have you maintained a balance between your busy career and personal life?
YH: If I am truly honest, I don't think that I have managed to maintain a balance twixt work and life. I know I have missed out on many family occasions, holidays etc, especially in the early days as I was afraid of missing a last minute job.
S: How have attitudes to women in opera changed during your career?
YH: I am not sure attitudes have changed very much. In some ways we are very fortunate because if a role calls for a female, it will be a female that gets the job. One place I have seen a difference is in women's attitudes. If a director/conductor is over-familiar women now speak but when in my early days, it would have been kept quiet much of the time.
S: Were you ever advised not to have a family if you wanted a career?
YH: Personally, I was never advised not to have children, but I do know of friends and colleagues who felt very much that they were considered to be 'contented breeding cows' once they had children, and that their agents thought that their ambition had disappeared.
S: How have the roles you are cast in changed as your career has gone on?
YH: I can say very definitely that as a mezzo, the roles for which I am now considered by some companies has definitely changed. Although my voice has actually settled higher, because of my age, I am now thought of as the old bat contralto character by them This is actually a vocal challenge. I know, without being egotistical or vain, that vocally I am still in good form, and could now be singing higher, fuller voiced roles but am considered too old.
S: Do you think women’s career progressions differ from men’s?
YH: For the reasons just mentioned, I feel, therefore, that women ARE treated differently from men. I think there are much stronger demands on women to stay fit and not put weight on than there is on men.
S: How has your voice changed with age?
YH: My voice has changed several times during my singing career. It is still 'fir' but has moved and settled in a higher place.
S: What would be your top advice to young singers starting their careers?
YH: To young singers I would say, work hard, find the right agent wherever possible, treat your colleagues with respect and kindness. Treat yourself in the same way and DON"T READ REVIEWS. Learn your roles thoroughly, work on your languages and never take work for granted. There is always someone else waiting in the wings.
The other VERY important thing I'd say to a new singer would be : Make sure not to create a persona...BE a singer..be honest, committed and true to yourself.
Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright
Isabella Bywater, Director/Designer
Jessica Duchen, Librettist/Writer
Jennifer Johnston, Mezzo-soprano
Simon Keenlyside and Zenaida Yanowsky
Rebecca Moffatt, Stage Manager
Gillian Moore MBE, Manager/CEO
Rosalind Plowright, Mezzo-soprano