Interview with The Prince Consort's Jennifer Johnston
30 September 2011
RISING STAR Great artists of tomorrow
When Jennifer Johnston, an established barrister, announced to her colleagues that she was leaving the legal world to become a professional singer, they thought she was making a mistake. ‘So many people try so hard to become barristers, and spend a lot of money in the process and so - in their eyes - to throw it all away seemed crazy.'
But with performances at the Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg festivals already under her belt and a place on this year's Radio 3 New Generation Artists Scheme, Johnston's career move has proved to be a shrewd one.
The mezzo, now 34, began singing in Liverpool with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, where she first began to harbour ambitions to be a singer after hearing Catherine Wyn-Rogers sing Elgar. At 18, she became a choral scholar at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, despite her voice proving too loud for the chapel choir. But as her law career began to take off, singing had to take a back seat. Until, one day, she decided to make a change.
‘You always regret the things you don't do more than the things you do. It wasn't that I didn't like being a barrister but I really had a desire to see what the music world held for me - if anything. I had to take a plunge into the dark.'
Having enrolled as a postgraduate at the Royal College of Music, Johnston was cast as Mrs Herring in Sir Thomas Allen's production of Britten's Albert Herring. Allen gave each of the lead performers one-to-one stagecraft sessions, an experience which Johnston says shaped her as a singer. ‘He transformed me from somebody who was a bit scared of being on stage to someone who was confident and able to cope with anything a director threw at me.'
Since that production, she has sung a huge variety of roles by Handel, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner. So where next? ‘There's no doubt: I'm a Wagnerian through and through,' she replies. ‘I've just started to dip my toe into Wagner, but I know that's the kind of repertoire that suits my voice. I love Mozart and bel canto but I know where I'm headed.'
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