Reach way back in your memory to pre-Covid days – yes, it’s getting harder – and try to remember an opera production that stands out as particularly good, one that you treasure still. Perhaps you saw it at the Royal Opera House, or Glyndebourne, or maybe Garsington, Opera Holland Park, Welsh National Opera or Scottish Opera. Wherever you enjoyed it, it’s a pretty safe bet that several people involved, either on stage, in the pit or backstage, cut their teeth with British Youth Opera, the company that offers professional opportunities for singers, musicians and technical trainees starting out on their careers.

Nicola Candlish © British Youth Opera
Nicola Candlish
© British Youth Opera

Some 5,000 people have benefited from its training since it was founded in 1987. Around half of these have been singers, and the other half music, creative and production staff: conductors, repetiteurs, directors, set and costume designers, lighting designers, wardrobe assistants and production and stage managers. BYO was the brainchild of the Labour MP Denis Coe, who, as a member of the board of the National Youth Theatre, had seen that the practical experience young people were gaining was greatly enhancing their chances of entering and thriving in the profession.

Today’s stars pay warm tribute to BYO and the part it played in establishing their careers. Tenor David Butt Philip tells me: “Being part of BYO in 2007 was an invaluable learning experience, and something I shall never forget. It gave me an opportunity to sing a principal role on the biggest stage and for the largest audience that I had yet encountered. Not to mention introducing me to colleagues who would go on to become friends for life.”

Soprano Lucy Crowe agrees. “I had such a wonderful time performing Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen for BYO. But little was I to know at the time that it would be such a defining role in my career. All aspects of what I learnt from my time with BYO, from the coaching and mentoring to the direction and movement, led to me being offered the role by Glyndebourne, to performing it with the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The performances in London were recorded for LSO Live, and to be able to hold that CD in my hand is one of the greatest achievements of my career. And it all started with BYO.”

Lucy Crowe in BYO's <i>The Cunning Little Vixen</i> © British Youth Opera
Lucy Crowe in BYO's The Cunning Little Vixen
© British Youth Opera

Naturally, providing that “invaluable learning experience” in the year of Covid has proved to be a particular challenge for BYO. The pandemic meant it had to abandon its planned season at London’s Hackney Empire, which would have paired Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias.

Instead, BYO quickly came up with an online summer festival of masterclasses, featuring workshops, masterclasses, performances, mentoring and other training, led by 47 industry figures, half of whom were BYO alumni. For example, Dame Felicity Lott, BYO president, gave guidance on singing Debussy, Nicky Spence offered useful insights to budding fellow tenors, with Roderick Williams doing the same for baritones, movement director Mandy Demetriou explained which muscles a singer should focus on, and casting director Sarah Playfair laid out all the myriad reasons why you might not get that role you covet. 

Nicola Candlish, who became chief executive of BYO last year, said: “I was really proud of everyone. We pulled it together in just two weeks. We offered online training to every singer and musician who had been offered a role in the cancelled season and over the course of the festival we had 172 participants; that’s nearly double our usual number. We didn’t attempt costume, make up, lighting or design as they would have been pretty much impossible on Zoom, but we did offer a week-long online course for stage managers led by our company stage manager, with guest appearances from staffers from the Royal Opera and other companies.” Highlights can be seen at here.

Candlish is in many ways in her ideal job, as her breadth of experience in the industry covers many of the training opportunities offered by BYO. She studied music at Durham University, where she also produced shows and played in pit orchestras. Later, while researching her PhD in electronic music at the British Library in London, she needed to fund her studies, so worked for a small theatre company where she developed a taste for stage management. She was soon in the West End, working on the musical Stomp! “Over about four years I moved from assistant stage manager to company stage manager, working in ballet and opera. I then worked as administrator and company manager for the opera course at the Royal Academy of Music, under Jane Glover.” Her time there coincided with the demolition and rebuilding of the Academy’s theatre, which gave Candlish a taste for producing, as the course had to go on tour to perform. Her next stop was at BYO as general manager before her appointment as CEO last year.

Adam Maxey in BYO's 2019 production of <i>La Cenerentola</i> © Bill Knight
Adam Maxey in BYO's 2019 production of La Cenerentola
© Bill Knight

She sees BYO’s priority as “making sure we have a Covid-secure plan to train as many people as possible – preparing them for a modern opera career, which will be quite different from, say, ten years ago.” The company needs to raise £500,000 a year if it is to continue to offer its breadth of experience to young professionals. Participants pay no fees; they are selected and funded, a level of generosity only made possible by active fundraising. So is BYO’s funding on track? “I’m not going to lie: we need every penny we can get and it is getting harder and harder to fund-raise,” said Candlish. “We have a core group of loyal supporters who sponsor individuals, and many of them value face-to-face interaction, something that is, of course, not possible to achieve at the moment.” 

Without a season this year, and therefore no income from ticket sales, BYO has launched what it calls its Reconstruction Fund. “We believe we are building careers in opera. We can give young professionals the tools and the building blocks, but we need the mortar – cash – to stick it all together,” says Candlish. More information about the Reconstruction Fund can be found here

Despite the ever-present need to raise cash, BYO is still innovating. In addition to its wide-ranging training programme and season, it is examining ways to increase access to the industry. “We’ve been looking at entry points and routes into opera. We recognise that it is not a diverse art form. It’s a problem and we need to sort it out. There are so many different areas to consider: inclusion, diversity, cultural heritage, where you come from in the country, sexual orientation. I’ve got a strong accent and I’ve sometimes felt out of place in opera.” BYO is working with the National Opera Studio on its Diverse Voices programme and hoping to offer training to 18 to 21-year olds who like to sing but who haven’t yet explored taking a dramatic role. “They might sing in choirs, or do hip-hop or whatever, and have never thought of having a go at opera. Going to a conservatoire must seem daunting for young people from certain backgrounds: this would give them a taste of the art form.”

Holly Marie Bingham and Hugo Herman Wilson in BYO's <i>Scoring a Century</i> © Robert Workman
Holly Marie Bingham and Hugo Herman Wilson in BYO's Scoring a Century
© Robert Workman

BYO also recognises that talent lies outside mainstream education and is planning to train twelve singers over six masterclass weekends, aimed only at singers not in higher education or at a conservatoire. “They may have young children, have to hold down a job, or maybe look after elderly parents,” said Candlish. “It recognises that a portfolio career is what most new singers will need to have to survive in opera.” For the new Serena Fenwick Programme there is no age limit, but singers must have participated in BYO workshops in the past and have a realistic expectation of a career in opera.

Finally, Candlish has encouraging news. “We need something in the UK to bring everyone and everything together. Over recent months, I've been busy working alongside six other individuals from organisations of varying scale across the UK to develop and launch a new organisation with the aim of providing ongoing support to the opera sector. We'll be sharing details about this initiative over the coming weeks, we hope in time for World Opera Day on 25 October.”