Martha Jones is a young, funny, enigmatic woman, and a rising opera star. Contrary to popular belief, opera is for everybody, as Martha confidently asserts: “It is not as inaccessible as people think!”
Jones is currently working with English Touring Opera, which boasts an impressive resume as one of the leading touring opera companies in the UK. ETO states that its aim is “to offer opera to everyone, with a varied repertoire of high-quality professional productions featuring some of the finest talent in opera”. With such scope, it is no wonder that Jones enthuses about being part of the company. Currently studying with Janis Kelly at RCM International Opera School, Jones has won prestigious awards in both the RCM Schumann competition and the Chelsea Schubert Festival. Interestingly, though, she did not set out to become an opera singer.
“I knew I wanted to be a musician as soon as I was learning the violin. I wanted a career in music but I hadn’t considered a career in opera until I was having singing lessons… It wasn’t something that was in the family. I had never even been to see an opera, so I didn’t really know anything about it!” However, at age 14 she started taking lessons seriously, singing in the school choir and eventually in the junior department of the Royal Northern College of Music. So far, her career has seen her sing the roles of Rosina, Florence Pike and Dorabella. “I’ve been really lucky, I’ve already sung one of my dream roles, which is Hansel from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel with a small company. I’d love to sing that again. I think the music is so beautiful and, because I’m interested in the physical side of opera and creating a character, the idea of playing a young boy is interesting to me, to see how I can bring that across on stage because obviously I’m not a young boy!”
Jones may not have grown up in a musical household, but she still discovered her fair share of inspirational role models. “I was listening to the radio and song repertoires of the greats like Janet Baker. As a mezzo-soprano I always truly admired her, and I’m a big fan of Ann Murray.” But it’s the future, rather than the past, that plays on her mind. She describes a desire to work “with bigger companies singing the same kind of roles I’m singing now, so Mozart roles like Dorabella that I’ve already sung. I’d love to sing that again but with a bigger company!”
Clearly, she is one young artist who has found her niche. “It is the chance to use your acting as well as the singing that I really enjoy. I love creating a whole character and sustaining it through three hours, and to have that journey through the rehearsal period of developing who you think your character is and what your thought process is through each scene – that really appeals to me. Of course the music is beautiful and it’s fun to sing but it’s creating a character for me that I find really interesting.” Opera also offers the chance to perform a diverse range of genres, from comedy to romance, but Jones’s preference is “the physcial side of opera”, highlighting the physical comedy of Hansel as a personal favourite. “One of the beauties of my job is that I get to explore both [comedy and romance] so that’s one of the things that I enjoy about opera… you don’t have to confine yourself to doing one or the other.”
If Jones is anything to go by, opera is certainly brimming with exciting young talent. However, on the other side of the footlights, the preconception is strong that young people are simply not interested in going to see opera. Jones reflects, “I think people are frightened of things they don’t know about in a way. If you’ve never been to the opera and none of your friends go to the opera, it seems like this far removed entity, which it’s really not. Coming from the musical theatre route, I know a lot of my friends would happily go to a musical but have never been to an opera. I think that’s strange because it is not as inaccessible as people think. Especially with companies like ETO and ENO (English National Opera), where they do a lot of operas in English and so there isn’t that language barrier which definitely puts a lot of people off going.” ETO visibly strives to get young people involved with opera, as demonstrated by its ambitious outreach programme, offering opportunities for young people “to create music theatre, in many different ways, bringing diverse abilities and experiences to that creative work and play”. It conducts around 170 workshops a year, involving more than 5,000 people of all ages, and has developed a special expertise in collaborating with children with special needs.
Jones enthuses about the support ETO give young singers: “I covered for them whilst I was still at college, and that gave me a route in, to do the covers and sing in the chorus. I honed my skills in the chorus, and then I’ve been given a principal role. I think that’s really great about ETO, that they can give you that gradual route into the profession.” Not just the profession, but the touring lifestyle too, which has been one of the largest benefits for Jones. “When you’re on tour you get to know everybody really well, so it feels like a family. So coming back this year is like seeing old friends and that gives you the confidence to try out things in rehearsal and you don’t feel hindered in any way. You can really go for it.” As a young performer involved with ETO, Jones is part of a company that reaches as many as 55 venues a year, presenting up to 110 performances. Opera, then, is certainly geographically much more accessible then it might have been in the past. And when it comes to making your first foray to the opera, Jones recommends finding the right production and not being afraid to test the waters. “For younger people I think Mozart operas – something like Così fan tutte – are exciting, as people can really get to grips with it. It’s an interesting story about love and things like that. The music is absolutely beautiful, you can go away and have the melodies in your head, and if you have never been to the opera before, it is exciting to recognise some of the music.”
ETO puts on touring productions each year in spring and autumn. It is currently touring The Barber of Seville and Eugene Onegin.
Martha Jones is a Britten-Pears Young Artist, having sung in its 2009 Schumann masterclass season with Malcolm Martineau, and is set to play Nancy in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring with ETO from September.
For more information, visit ETO’s website here.
Image credit: English Touring Opera