19 Nov 2019

The stark reality of being an opera performer

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 19 November 2019

Opera might seem like a glamorous vocation, however performers train for years before even stepping onto the stage. Operatic export Martin Snell is back in New Zealand to perform but knows all too well how difficult the opera world can be.

Martin Snell

Martin Snell Photo: Supplied

Operatic bass Martin Snell sits in the RNZ Concert studio ready to go on air. Down the line presenter David Morriss can hear Snell warming up his voice – like every good vocalist should. Unfortunately, Snell says he’s managed to get the lurgy while flying; but his deep, luscious voice still resonates.

That voice has also resonated throughout Europe and will resonate in Auckland and Christchurch in the coming weeks.

“I’m singing better now than I’ve ever done,” he says. “I like to think I’m still coming into my prime. I want to sing for as long as I can, until someone tells me to cease and desist!

“[My voice] is like a good bottle of wine, you have to look after it… and cellar it well.”

The Dunedin born and educated Snell spends most of his time these days in Switzerland. He became a citizen in 2010. He’s had the opportunity to perform with some of the biggest opera groups, orchestras and conductors in Europe. Notably Sir Simon Rattle, Herbert Blomstedt, Christian Thielemann and Kyrill Petrenko.

Kiwi opera performer Martin Snell

Kiwi opera performer Martin Snell Photo: Supplied

But opera wasn’t his first choice. He was a practising lawyer in the late 80s when he “took a punt” on opera, and the rest, as they say, is history.

He went on to study at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and then to win numerous awards, scholarships and competitions, including the 1993 Mobil Song Quest. Since then he has performed through Europe, Asia, Australia and at home. He recently joined the Solo Ensemble of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

“I’ve had the most extraordinary support – particularly here at home – for what is still a dream,” he says. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself to realise I’m still doing it.”

But it’s been a hard slog to turn his talent into a career. Financially, times were difficult at the beginning and funding his studies was a challenge. He’s been a professional vocalist for 25 years, and even now times are tough. “Earning a living from it – it’s a job – is increasingly difficult,” he says. “I do encourage people to pursue music, because it makes better humans. But be aware of the pitfalls. The competition is enormous.”

Kiwi opera performer Martin Snell (right) on stage in Europe

Kiwi opera performer Martin Snell (right) on stage in Europe Photo: Supplied

Opera can also be a lonely place and Snell wants to make that known to the next generation of performers. “You have to be frank with people,” he says. “It’s such an individual, lonely experience.”

But that does come with “so many wonderful things” that young performers can benefit from. “Camaraderie, great conductors, orchestras in fabulous concert halls and beautiful cities,” he says. “To start with they don’t pay the bills, but it’s part of the rich tapestry of life.”

He also asks young performers to think about whether studying in the UK is the best for them. “Talent is sadly lost because people have gone to study overseas and stumbled because they didn’t have the money to continue,” he says. “[But] it’s an individual decision.”

In fact, he’s seeing opera friends in the UK struggle with what the future will look like, particularly with Brexit looming, which will affect their ability to work in the EU.

Instead Martin suggests heading for Germany or Austria, or to just be “chucked in the deep end” by the likes of New Zealand Opera which has programmes in place to support young performers. “New Zealand Opera has been valuable for the young singers,” he says. “The more home grown [talent] we can create, the better.”

Martin is enjoying things that are coming his way and is looking forward to performing in several concerts while in New Zealand. He’s singing Wagner for Bach Musica in Auckland and Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in Christchurch in the coming weeks before returning to Europe.