British Youth Opera provides opportunities for rising stars

BYO director Max Webster

BYO director Max Webster - Credit: Archant

British Youth Opera is going strong with its 30th season opening next month at the Peacock Theatre, Holborn

These days there’s no shortage of work for young singers when they leave music college, thanks to small-scale touring opera, summer festivals in country houses, and training schemes with major companies like Covent Garden.

But 30 years ago things were different. Hence British Youth Opera, which was set up in 1987 to bridge the gap between student and professional life, and is still going strong – with its 30th season opening next month at the Peacock Theatre, Holborn.

There are two shows running: Britten’s Owen Wingrave and Malcom Williamson’s English Eccentrics. And if you wonder why this training venture favours off-repertoire pieces rather than potentially more useful Traviatas and Carmens, BYO’s executive director David Balcombe answers that “non-mainstream things means the singers are more likely to be creating their roles from scratch, without following precedents on DVD and YouTube. That’s the usefulness”.

Max Webster, who directs the Wingrave, adds that “less familiar works help us to be judged for what they are, rather than as a poor man’s version of what’s going on down the road at Covent Garden”. Not that BYO could be considered poor, except in what it has to spend on its productions.

Budgets are constrained, “but we make magic out of very little, and we pitch high”, Balcombe says. “We don’t expect our audiences to make allowances for BYO shows. We cast the cream of graduates from UK music colleges, who want to work with us because we’re a platform for them to be seen by agents. That’s our real purpose. And we engage directors like Max to drive them to the kind of level that makes agents interested.”

Webster is an associate director at the Old Vic, with a production of The Winters Tale about to travel, via the Lyceum, to America. But he’s been working on and off with BYO for a long time (it gave him his first paid job in theatre). And he goes back to it because, he says, “I like working with young performers who are skilled, fit, athletic and enthusiastic”.

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He adds: “Working with established actors who have reputations that precede them, you have agendas and egos to be negotiated. Here, there are no reputations: it’s about the piece and nothing else. And I’ve got voices in this cast at least as good as I’d expect in one of the big companies.

“So yes, there is a teaching aspect to all this, but more broadly it’s about making performances that will please and interest anyone who comes to see them. That’s my objective as a director. And it’s the same here as in any other context.”

Owen Wingrave from September 3, 7.30pm; English Eccentrics from September 7, 7.30pm.