Singing for Life
Jane Irwin (Music, 1990, Fylde) talks about her career as an International opera soprano and teacher.
Giving her all to an opera audience of thousands at the Royal Festival Hall, Bayreuth or San Francisco, international soprano Jane Irwin is unrecognisable from the shy and quiet teenager who spent most of her first year at Lancaster in her room.
The fact that the transformation was made in time for her to make her debut at the Royal Opera House at the age of 25 is, she says, down to the strong friendships she built during collaborative music projects at Lancaster, which boosted her confidence, and to the high standard of vocal teaching she found there.
“Lancaster was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Irwin. “It gave me a good academic grounding and left me to my own devices to learn to use my brain creatively, without the pressure to be an international star.”
The youngster from Blackpool had set her heart on a singing career, despite her desperate shyness, but had ‘justifiably’ been turned down for a place by the Royal Northern College of Music (where she now teaches) after an audition for which she prepared unsuitable repertoire. She wanted to study with the renowned teacher Barbara Robotham who taught there, but undaunted by her rejection she found out that Robotham also taught at Lancaster, so applied there and got in as a mezzo soprano.
Up to then her musical input had been all through the Lancashire Music Service - individual singing lessons and the experience of singing with Blackpool Girls’ Choir. Her ambition to sing had been ignited by being selected at primary school at eight years old to sing the solo in Once in Royal David’s City - the first time she had ever been set apart from anyone else. Now she found out how much more there was to a career in music.
“It was a shock to the system!” laughs Irwin. Suddenly she was receiving weekly singing lessons from Barbara Robotham - one of the UK’s top teachers - who was demanding of her young charge in the 9am slots. She found the academic work an eye-opener - particularly a course on Diaghilev’s Paris given by Denis McCaldin and medieval music.
Her social life was centred round music, but in her first year she rarely joined in, until one of her friends ‘bullied’ her into taking part in activities on campus and she was launched. She remembers participating in a Mozart Requiem conducted by Jane Glover, singing a solo in a Schubert Mass in the presence of Princess Alexandra, performing Bach Cantatas conducted by organist Ian Hare (then one of the staff). She also took part in the university proms every year in the Great Hall.
Outside the lecture theatre she was introduced to beer, which began what she calls ‘a life-long love affair’ with the amber liquor. She was also a member of the Labour party and even went on an anti-Thatcher demonstration. Over the three years she had become a confident performer, supported by friends who backed her and convinced that a career on the opera stage was her future.
Now equipped with three years of vocal teaching and inspiration from Barbara Robotham at Lancaster, she was now welcomed by the RNCM for four years of postgraduate study with the same teacher. There she was showcased in several operas including Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans.
When Irwin emerged at 25, there was no sign of the once-reclusive adolescent. Almost immediately she made her debut in the Royal Opera House in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung as Second Norn under the baton of Bernard Haitink.
Since then she has not looked back. She has featured as soloist with the world’s top conductors and orchestras and in the most prestigious opera houses, with highlights being Suzuki in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly at the Royal Opera House and performing the mighty Tristan and Isolde by Wagner for San Francisco Opera.
She even took a massive risk with her career by changing her voice to soprano in 2009 - a risk she says feels liberating and right. The change has seen the blossoming of her opera career, bringing major Wagner roles and less of an emphasis on her concert performances. She loves it, although it often keeps her away from home, and her young son, for months at a time.
“I could not have done what I am doing today without Lancaster,” stresses Irwin. “It was the friendships and the collaborative music-making that transformed me from timid teenager to the person I am who can stand and sing for an audience of thousands.”