Samuel Stopford, tenor – a profile

Samuel will be singing in Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet and Puccini’s Messa di Gloria at this year’s Festival, backed by local choral societies. Paul Spicer will conduct the singers alongside the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra on 25th March at 7.30pm at Petersfield Festival Hall.

What are you looking most forward to when performing at the Petersfield Musical Festival this year?

Having had the great pleasure of being the tenor soloist in Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise in 2022, I am delighted to be returning to the Petersfield Music Festival this year to perform one of my favourite sacred works. Puccini’s Messa di Gloria has long been an ambition of mine, along with Verdi’s Messa da Requiem (which is probably still a few years down the line for me), and to finally have the opportunity to sing this canonic work is a definite milestone in my vocal development. There are two marvellous tenor arias and a gorgeous duet with a baritone, so to be able to perform this for the first time to an audience as warm and welcoming as those who attend the PMF is truly a privilege.

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career or interest in music?

Music has been part of my life since the day I was born. As the son of former World No.1 Latin American dancers, some believe it an oddity I haven’t followed in my parents’ footsteps and become a dancer myself. While I love to dance, it is in the making of music that I have always felt a deep-rooted connection.

Nevertheless, I seem to have inherited many of my parents’ performance attributes: during their competitive career, they were renowned for their audaciousness and theatrics, and as such they have always encouraged me to “put on a show” when performing and be as expressive as possible. I am happy to admit that I have never been one to shy away from the spotlight and feel most at home when I am on stage, and this is most certainly thanks to the way my parents have nurtured and guided me.

From a singing perspective, I have always been fascinated by the great tenors of the past, especially those renowned for their interpretation of Italian opera. Pavarotti, Corelli, Gigli, Del Monaco, Di Stefano, Bergonzi, and the almighty Enrico Caruso; these men are a constant feature of my daily life thanks to the wonders of modern technology, and I spend countless hours each week listening to them. For me, singing is more than a passion; it is an obsession, and I make use of every spare moment I have by analysing and examining their vocal production and artistic interpretation.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

Five years ago, I had few intentions of making music my profession, for I had a greater affinity to physics and maths. At that time, my sole focus was gaining acceptance into Princeton University in the United States – a feat I ultimately achieved – and I saw a future for myself in investment banking.

But it was at Princeton that I discovered my true passion for singing, which led me to return to the UK in pursuit of my dream of a career on the operatic stage. However, as my musical education had revolved almost exclusively around singing, I arrived at the Royal Academy of Music with only a rudimentary understanding of music theory – which is, perhaps, not ideal when embarking upon an undergraduate degree in music. I had to work exceptionally hard to meet the academic demands of the course, and whilst this was laborious at the time, upon reflection my new-found knowledge of musical harmony has allowed me to better understand my own repertoire, enabling a more authentic interpretation during performance. Furthermore, I also now function with a greater sense of musical autonomy, as well as having a more stable understanding of my learning processes.

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

The wonderful thing about singing is that you are very rarely alone. In a recital setting, you have a teammate in your accompanist or duo partner with whom you feel you can overcome anything. It is their job to hide your mistakes, and your job to hide theirs (although in my experience the former occurs far more regularly than the latter). Everything is – or at least I feel it should be – a collaboration, and so the final product is the result of interpretive coherence between two artists. The challenge, however, often comes during the rehearsal process. Both parties have their own musical and literary interpretations, but must ensure to put these thoughts forward in a respectful and exploratory manner, and any disagreements should be handled with care in order to preserve artistic integrity.

On the other hand, when working with an orchestra, I feel that there is perhaps less opportunity for interpretive freedom, but you often have a full cast of people around you with whom you can interact. The conductor is aware of the needs of the orchestra, and therefore the singer must at times concede in certain aspects in order for there to be musical coherence, but this rarely comes at the expense of one’s sense of musical autonomy. In both instances, it is about striking a balance between all parties concerned, but never losing sight of one’s own artistic objectives.

Are there any composers for whom you feel a particular affinity?

Rather unsurprisingly, given my voice type, I have always found myself drawn to the works of the great Italian composers of the late Bel Canto and Romantic periods, such as Gaetano Donizetti, Giuseppe Verdi, and Giacomo Puccini. Their treatment of the tenor voice, featuring it as a prominent character and often one of the protagonists, feeds my obsession with all things tenor. Their operas, such as La Bohème, Tosca, La Traviata, and L’elisir d’amore, feature some of the most famous arias from all of opera. But I consider these works in their entirety to be masterpieces, and I think that this is why they have become some of the most beloved of the genre.

Which works do you think you perform best? Why?

As my voice has characteristic Italianate colouring, it is in Italian repertoire where I feel most at home, both vocally and artistically. The foundations of my vocal technique are centred around the Italian style and therefore it is the language which feels most natural for me to sing.

At present, the works of Donizetti form the foundations of my concert and audition repertoire, operas like L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Roberto Devereux. From a vocal perspective, I have learnt a great deal from singing his compositions as they have provided me with a selection of vocal templates which I am able to utilise as I transition into more lyric repertoire. His vocal writing has encouraged me – or rather given me no other option than to – become comfortable singing in my passaggio and to always aspire to produce a beautiful sound. Ultimately, I believe that it is through singing Donizetti that I have become the singer I am today.

Which performances are you most proud of?

In May 2022, I performed my final recital in fulfilment of my undergraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music. The 30-minute programme symbolised the culmination of four extraordinary years of study; extraordinary for several reasons, not least for the fact that almost half were spent in the confines of my own home living through an unprecedented global pandemic.

It was the first real occasion that we were allowed an audience after Covid, and so it meant a great deal to have my family and friends in attendance. An overarching through-narrative outlining the vicissitudes of love bound the entire recital together, and the repertoire encompassed a wide range of German lieder, French and Italian song, and operatic arias. I was incredibly proud of both the programme I had cultivated and of my performance in the recital itself, and it is an event that I look back upon with great fondness.

What are your most memorable concert experiences, either as a performer, composer or listener?

As a performer, I will never forget my involvement in Puccini’s Tosca with the English National Opera as a boy treble, aged 13. Stepping out onto the stage of the Coliseum was more than a dream realised, it actually seeded the possibility of a career in opera.

Other notable mentions include some of my performances in China: the three concerts I performed in with the Manhattan Symphony Orchestra in the Shanghai Symphony Hall (my first ever occasion singing with orchestra, and an 80-piece one at that!), and also my performance in the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Stadium which was attended by over 12,000 people, including members of the Chinese government, and also live-streamed to an online audience of over 1.2 million. I was incredibly grateful both for the opportunity to give such a high-profile performance, and also for the fact that I was only informed of the colossal viewing figures after I had sung.

As an audience member, my visit to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City is one of particular note. As I set foot on that hallowed ground and took my first look around the gargantuan 4,000-seater auditorium, I can distinctly remember the panic beginning to take over my entire body. I thought to myself, “how can two little vocal folds ever produce enough sound to fill this place?!” I actually had to phone my mother who was back home in England, where it had gone midnight, so that she could calm me down. However, as the performance proceeded, with Puccini’s Tosca the main feature once again, I could feel myself relaxing and coming to the realisation that this could really be possible one day. I just have to remain fixated on my own path, maintain integrity and devotion to my craft, and then also get incredibly lucky along the way. Special mention to Sonya Yoncheva, whose Vissi d’arte transfixed all in attendance and made time literally stand still. In any case, who knows; maybe one day!

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

A life dedicated to music is most certainly not easy, but it can be exceptionally rewarding. There are some terrific highs and times of pure exhilarating ecstasy, but there are also some incredibly low moments and occasions where it all seems pointless, especially following rejection.

I made the decision to leave one of the world’s great academic institutions to pursue my dream of a career in music, so I know just how daunting the prospect of embarking upon a life in the performing arts can be. It is incredibly difficult to take that first step and set things in motion, especially if, as I did some years ago, you have very little knowledge of what exactly it is you are getting involved into, given the vastness of the industry. I think one must have a clear understanding of their ambitions and be cognisant of the reasons for wanting a career in music.

I am a great believer that music is for all, and that it caters for everyone who has a desire to take part, so if you simply wish it to be a pastime for which you can earn a little here and there, then there is most certainly a place for you. Equally, if music is your passion, if you know that without it your life would feel incomplete, then there is also a place for you. I learned that I placed as much value on singing as I did the air that I breathe after I was left unable to sing for a short period due to health complications. Only when it was taken away from me did I understand music’s true importance to my life. It has been this unwavering devotion to my craft which has seen me through the difficult moments. Introspection is an important tool for artists, for only through an understanding of who it is that you want to be can you decipher how to get there.

How would you define success as a musician?

The great Giuseppe Di Stefano said, “to present yourself to an audience and move them, this is the art of singing” and this quote has resonated with me ever since I first came across it. I truly believe that there is no greater honour in music than to make someone feel something, be that sadness, happiness, fear, or amusement. So, for me, success is simply having people come up to me after a performance to tell me that I have moved them.

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time?

My ultimate goal is to perform on the world’s greatest operatic stages. Within five years, I hope to have made significant strides towards achieving this; this may come in the form of completing a Young Artist Programme at a reputable house and/or attaining recognition from an established international competition.

I am fortunate to have been accepted into Royal Academy Opera, where I will begin in September. Joining RAO will allow me to explore in great depth the roles and repertoire which I hope to spend the rest of my life performing, whilst simultaneously continuing to build upon my current stage experience, all within a controlled educational environment.

I am aware of just how much work there is still to do before I am in any position to achieve these aspirations, but I am fully prepared to take the necessary steps to give myself the best chance of doing so.

About Samuel

Samuel is currently an ABRSM Postgraduate Scholar at the Royal Academy of Music, where he studies with Prof. Kate Paterson, Janet Haney, and Jonathan Papp; he joins Royal Academy Opera this September. Samuel is the winner of the Second Prize in the 2022 Richard Lewis/Jean Shanks Award; he was Very Highly Commended in the 2021 Blythe-Buesst Operatic Prize and a Finalist in the 2019 Kathleen Ferrier Society Bursary for Young Singers; he is an Opera Prelude Young Artist, the recipient of HRH Princess Alice’s Prize for Exemplary Studentship, and is a member of the prestigious ‘Academy Song Circle’. Samuel is generously supported by the ABRSM, the Josephine Baker Trust, and the Countess of Munster Musical Trust.  

@SamuelStopford on Twitter and Instagram.