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Young musicians often struggle to win a place at a major London conservatoire, but for Estonian countertenor Martin Karu the doors were flung wide open. At his first audition, the Royal Academy of Music offered him a place on the spot, and both the Royal College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama were equally welcoming. They all wanted him, seeing in his voice an instrument that had huge potential.

Martin Karu © Jake Farra
Martin Karu
© Jake Farra

Then came the tricky bit: which one to choose. “It was the most difficult decision,” says the 23-year-old. “And time was limited. I had only two weeks to decide, so I talked to professional singers who had studied at those schools, with teachers and staff, and even made an Excel spreadsheet of pros and cons.” Against the clock, he chose the Guildhall, which offered him a place starting in the third year of its Bachelor of Music course – a four-year programme – with some financial support.

In years to come, he dreams of establishing a scholarship scheme for singers who share his background: those from a small country without years of savings behind them. “It is very difficult to start an educational journey in a city where everything is very expensive and the tuition fees are extremely high,” he told me. “Money should not be an obstacle for a student getting the best education.”

It is a problem recognised at the highest levels in Estonia, where a special scholarship has been established, awarded annually to about 20 of the country’s brightest students to help them study abroad. Last year, Karu was one of those to receive the prize from the country’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid.

This national recognition has made studying in London a possibility, a vital step for anyone pursuing a career as a countertenor, as the teaching here is considered the best in the world. Now, despite all the current Covid-19 restrictions, Karu is proud to find himself in the city where his idol Handel spent the major part of his life writing and performing prodigious quantities of astonishing music, so much of it for his voice range.

It is quite an achievement for a young man who was the first in his family to take any interest in music. At nine years old he began classical guitar lessons at a small school near his home village in Estonia. He made good progress, but after his voice had broken, an aural teacher discovered he had another talent: he could sing high up in the register. Singing replaced the guitar as his first love and by 2015 he was on his way to Estonia’s capital Tallinn for lessons at the Georg Ots Music College.

And there a chocolate box of repertoire was opened to him by the conductor and countertenor Risto Joost and soprano Eha Pärg. “I hardly knew anything of Handel, Bach, Purcell or Pergolesi. They introduced me to so much,” he says, but more than that, he feels his musical discoveries helped him find himself. “I owe everything to Joost. He opened my eyes to everything, musical and emotional: how to communicate, even how to be a good person! I was such a shy boy before. Music gave me confidence.”

In his hunger to learn, Karu devoured the repertoire, ranging through Renaissance songs, the works of Henry Purcell, the operas and oratorios of Handel and the output of Estonian composers Cyrillus Kreek and Arvo Pärt.

Karu made his debut in 2018 at the Viljandi Early Music Festival, with viola da gamba consort väikerinG. By the end of the year he was singing the alto solos in Handel’s Messiah in Tallinn and Tartu. The next year he was appearing in cantatas by Bach and Telemann at the Tallinn Early Music Festival and last year he was back with väikerinG at the Mustonenfest and taking part in the Tallinn Chamber Music Festival, where he was named PLMF Young Singer of 2020, a prestigious annual award established in 2003 by Estonian opera singer Pille Lill – yet another further national affirmation of his talent.

While Karu admires and respects many of today’s leading countertenors – he includes Andreas Scholl and Tim Mead among his influences – he wants to carve out his own sound. Already there is the promise of a rich, golden tone developing, and he admits he is aiming more for the timbre of a mezzo-soprano: “I’m trying to be special, but I know I have lots still to work on.”

That work includes his Guildhall classes in vocal technique with his tutor, Andrew Watts. When Karu arrived in London, these could take place at a safe social distance, but now he is in front of a screen, singing over Zoom which, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, is an imperfect experience. “It’s difficult for singer and tutor to discuss nuance when the WiFi is tricky and the microphones are not the best, but we try, and I am making progress with Handel’s Rinaldo and Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Martin Karu © Private Collection
Martin Karu
© Private Collection

Lockdown also means that, like his fellow Guildhall students, he is missing term-time fun and culture-rich London life, with its tempting concert and opera seasons, but he is philosophical about his situation, saying that at least it gives him plenty of time to study his scores. He is excited at the prospect of covering the title role in the Guildhall Opera Course spring season production of Jonathan Dove's fairytale opera The Little Green Swallow, as well as taking a speaking role and singing duets with some of his Bachelor colleagues in the party scene in Die Fledermaus. “These are amazing opportunities for me, a chance to see how opera works from the inside. Even if the productions can’t be performed in front of an audience we hope they will be streamed later this year.”

Plans to sing Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia’s Day this spring are currently on hold, but he is hopeful that a Messiah will go ahead at the end of the year. When the situation eases he aims to give several recitals in Estonia and join the chamber choir Voces Tallinn in an oratorio project. He counts his experience of singing Handel’s Jephtha with them last summer as very beneficial, increasing his admiration for the master’s vocal writing, particularly in the knowledge that Handel was losing his sight when he set Thomas Morrell’s words in his last oratorio. “I was moved by the fatalism of the chorus ‘How dark, oh Lord, are thy decrees’ and its closing acceptance: ‘Whatever is, is right’.”

When he is not singing, Karu might be spotted out pounding the pavements as a dedicated runner, and when gyms are open he likes to work out, recognising that physical fitness is key to good lung capacity for singers. The natural world also fascinates him, and to walk among nature in his native Estonia is a particular pleasure. But his early promise as a singer has meant one sacrifice: he has had to give up playing tennis. “I love it, but it just takes up too much of my time – it has to go for now.”

So it’s game, set and match to music, but to be a Grand Slam singer Karu knows it’s not sufficient just to get the ball over the net; he has to train to his utmost. Judging by his talent and determination, it surely won’t be long before we see him aiming for his first major title.

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic. 

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