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27 June 2018, 11:38 | Updated: 28 June 2018, 09:16
Soprano Nadine Benjamin left school at 16 to become a city banker, and is now one of the UK’s most exciting new opera stars. Here’s proof that it’s never too late to start a career in music.
Nadine is an English National Opera Harewood artist, and will soon make her double debut with the ENO as Clara in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Musetta in La Bohème. But she wasn’t even aware of opera until her late teenage years.
Her music teacher, Nadine says, played her the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria from The Magic Flute at the end of secondary school and said, ‘I want you to know you could possibly sing like this one day’.
A seed was planted – but Nadine didn't have the opportunity to go to college or university. So, she went straight into a school-leavers scheme at a city bank in London, where she stayed for the next 10 years.
After 10 years, Nadine was about to get a big promotion (and a lot more money, she grins) when her boss asked her: ‘Are you sure this is what you want? Because once you walk into this world, you’re not going to step back’.
“I told him I’d always wanted to sing,” Nadine says. “I had always sung jazz, drum n’ bass, even a bit of rock. And he told me to go and find out if I could do it. He gave me a number to call, and I never went back.”
Benjamin makes her dramatic career change sound remarkably easy – but it wasn’t all plain-sailing.
The first vocal coach she approached told her she had no hope of becoming an opera singer, advising her to go and sing jazz instead.
Two years later, Nadine received a Voice of Black Opera Award for the most promising voice, and set up a mentoring agency, Everybody Can!, shortly after.
We asked Nadine a few questions about her experience of breaking into the world of opera…
Absolutely. In banking, everything is about the buzz and the passion, the amazing feeling you get when you finish a deal you’ve been working on for six months. And I feel exactly the same way when I’m working on a role.
But in both careers, the work is never done. I still know nothing, and every day it’s a challenge to understand this world, from the text and the language to the composers, orchestration and conductor.
Believing in myself. At the start, I felt that everybody knew more than I did. But we’re all just teaching the best of what we know, and the minute we put people on a pedestal, we lose ourselves. And I lost myself.
I was expecting everybody to direct me into what I should be. But when I decided who I was and catered to that, I was off.
In opera, you go through exactly the same feelings you experience in everyday life – they’re not detached. When I’m singing the Countess, my husband (the Count) is off somewhere else, cheating on me. And when does that not happen in real life?!
Heartbreak happens everywhere, and isolation can be particularly prominent in city jobs when you’re at the top with no one else to talk to. When we can start marrying opera with real life, that’s when it becomes accessible.
Diversity is also really important. On stage and in the audience, we need people representing all walks of life. And the only way we’re going to get those people in the audience is if they can see themselves onstage.
Nadine's debut single – Schubert's 'Ave Maria' – will be released from her upcoming album Love & Prayer on Friday 27 July. Find out more on her website.