The renowned British opera singer Dame Sarah Connolly has warned that Britain will lose its placing among the world’s leading musical nations if younger performers and instrumentalists are not easily able to work abroad again.
“Where is that next generation going to come from if they can’t get known?” Connolly asked on Desert Island Discs on Sunday. In an outspoken call to build bridges with Europe following Brexit, the mezzo-soprano spoke of her fear that musicians can no longer learn their craft properly and develop contacts at the great opera houses. Key post-Brexit problems encountered by musicians include new visa and work permit requirements, aside from “carnets” for transporting instruments.
The 58-year-old from Middlesbrough, who has sung at many prestigious venues, including Bayreuth, Vienna and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as well as at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, said she believes that European opera will recover after the pandemic, but that she is “not so sure about the future of British opera singers”.
“Without some kind of situation where British musicians can spend a significant amount of time in Europe, establishing their careers, I am very concerned that [we will lose] what we have at the moment, which is roughly 20 per cent of the global excellence. Some of the greatest singers in the world are British,” Connolly said.
The big international singing competitions such as Cardiff Singer of the Year, “where people are thrust into the limelight”, are not enough to compensate, she argued. “What about the hard work of networking? Of going to work, like I did … for months and months on end. Establishing yourself, with audiences getting to hear you, working through the repertoire in all languages?”
“How can we compete with our German, French, Portuguese, Austrian friends if we are not known?”
Connolly expressed her concerns after revealing how hard it had been to be away from her daughter while working abroad. Describing it as “one of the very sad things that an opera singer has to be away from their child”, she said it is only possible with the support of a partner.
She also talked about her 2019 breast cancer diagnosis and her life since as a “chemotherapy survivor”. Singing became too painful during treatment, Connolly revealed. “I did feel mortal fear. It was terrifying. I thought: ‘I am not going to do this any more until all of this is finished’,” she explained.