Belfast-born soprano Giselle Allen: ‘We have to get away from the mindset that opera is elitist’

International soprano Giselle Allen never considered becoming an opera singer when she was a pupil at Belfast’s Victoria College. She wanted to be a nurse. But as her talent started to become obvious, it was her late dad, Jim, who convinced her to give a career in music a go.

I don’t come from a particularly musical family,” says Giselle. “Mum and Dad sang in the church choir, and my mum Doreen loved ballet (hence the name), but we were never what would be considered a big musical family.

“I had never even been to an opera before I went to university.

“I went to Cliftonville Primary School where my P6 teacher also taught at the School of Music. We all had to play recorders and she thought I was quite good and told me to audition for the Junior School.

“I got in and went every Saturday morning and played recorder and sang in the choir, which was compulsory, before progressing to the main music school and starting to play the bassoon, before switching to the oboe.

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Giselle Allen on stage with Bruno Caproni in Northern Ireland Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman Giselle Allen on stage with Bruno Caproni in Northern Ireland Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman

Giselle Allen on stage with Bruno Caproni in Northern Ireland Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman

Giselle Allen on stage with Bruno Caproni in Northern Ireland Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman

“During my last few years there, I played in the youth orchestra and sang in the Belfast Chorale.

“I was out doing music three or four times a week, but I didn’t have a burning desire to follow a career in music.

“I actually wanted to do nursing, but dad kept telling me I had a talent and that I needed to use it, so I went on to study for a music degree at Cardiff University.

“I always thought I would be an orchestral player, and when I went for my interview, I sang and I played and they asked if I wanted to do my first year singing or to play in the orchestra?

“I decided to give the singing a go and everything went from there.

“A director from the Welsh National Opera came and directed a little production that we did called Dido and Aeneas, and I had a very small part in it.

“Then the main soprano fell off the stage and broke her ankle two days before we were due to open, so they asked me to stand in.

“I really loved it and realised that what I really wanted to do was combine singing with acting.”

Next week, on November 17 and 18, along with the Belfast Ensemble and the Ulster Orchestra, Giselle will be performing in the world premiere of Ivor Novello-nominated composer Conor Mitchell’s latest work, Mass, in the old Belfast Telegraph Building, as part of the 2021 Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

Mass takes the time-honoured ceremonies of Christian faith and creates a new place of connection and celebration where all are welcome. Part classical oration, part rave, audiences will be able to walk freely around the space to view the central Ulster Orchestra and performers, and commissioned films from international filmmakers projected in cinematic scale onto the walls of the old newspaper building.

The staging of the event in the iconic Royal Avenue venue will be particularly poignant for Giselle because her dad Jim worked for many years in the Belfast Telegraph.

“Dad started as an apprentice compositor at 17 and became the youngest deputy overseer in his department,” she says.

“My great uncle was a mechanical engineer there and his father before him had also worked in the Telegraph.

“My older sister worked there as well and so did my mum, so there’s a big family connection.

“Dad used to bring me into the building all the time. The Telegraph was always a fixture in our life when we were young. It was such a bustling lively place. Even the building itself is so beautiful.

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Giselle Allen outside the former Belfast Telegraph building Giselle Allen outside the former Belfast Telegraph building

Giselle Allen outside the former Belfast Telegraph building

Stephen Hamilton

Giselle Allen outside the former Belfast Telegraph building

“When we went there on a recce for the performance recently, it was hard to believe just how big the space is without all the printing presses that were there before. It’s so huge.

“And it’s great that life is coming back into the building with concerts and events.

“Dad passed away in 2019 after a four-year battle with cancer and when this concert came up with Conor and he told me that it was being staged in the Belfast Telegraph building, I said. ‘Oh Daddy, you’ve arranged this haven’t you?’”

After gaining her music degree in Cardiff, Giselle then got a scholarship to study for a postgraduate degree at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London and then auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music Opera School, where she studied for a further two years.

“It was seven years of training and then I started to work as a classical singer, singing big roles for small companies and understudying in London and elsewhere.

“It was tough and competitive, but I feel it’s harder for young classical singers today as I think that there are far less opportunities.

“I was lucky that in my final year at opera school, I won a lot of competitions and prize money, which was brilliant because it meant I had money to live off.

“Back then, there were a lot more competitions, a lot more funding and a lot more scholarships.

“I know of a few kids from Northern Ireland who have been offered places at conservatoires in London and haven’t been able to go because they couldn’t get funding which is really sad.”

Giselle’s big break came when she was heard by James Holmes, head of music at Opera North, and he asked her to cover Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and so began a relationship with the Leeds-based company that continues today.

Her recent career highlights include the title role in Irish National Opera’s Elektra, earlier this year, the role of Miss Jessel in the The Turn of the Screw in La Monnaie, Brussels, and the role of Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden directed by Phyllida Lloyd of Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady fame.

In 2006, she returned to Northern Ireland and set up home in Carrickfergus.

“I came back mainly because I wanted my daughter, Sophia, who is now 16 to go to school here,” she says.

“In 2005, when I was having my daughter, I felt a bit of a pull to come home because my parents were getting older and because the education system is so good in Northern Ireland.

“Also, my then-husband is American, and I wanted Sophia to know a bit of my culture.

“He was quite happy to move here as both our careers were pretty international and as long as you were near a good airport, it wasn’t a problem.

“When my grandmother passed away, we came over for her funeral and just thought, ‘Why don’t we do it. Why don’t we move?’ So, we went for it.

“However, three years after moving back, I got divorced and my husband moved to Cambridge, so family became even more important.

“Thankfully, my mum helped me with Sophia when I was working. When she was only six months old, I went to work in Toronto with a Canadian opera company and Mum came with me for the six weeks of the production and dad got some time off work and came over as well for a few weeks.

“Until she went to primary school, Sophia came with me wherever I was working. I did think about getting a nanny, but I just didn’t want anyone else looking after her, so Mum retired early and was able to help.

“It meant that I could go to work and be totally relaxed and focused knowing that my daughter was safe with my mum.”

Now that she’s a teenager, is Sophia showing any signs of following in Giselle’s footsteps?

“She’s very musical and has a beautiful voice and she plays the clarinet. But she wants to do medicine,” says Giselle.

“Sophia was 14 when Daddy died, and they were very close because he and Mum had looked after her so much when she was young.

“She saw his whole cancer journey and it was tough. She saw the whole process.

“I remember we were going to visit him in hospital one day and Sophia said: “Mum, I’m going to find a cure for cancer.” And I told her that if that’s what she wants to do, go for it.

Giselle Allen

“If she goes into medicine and gets the same fulfilment that I’ve had over my career, then I’ll be really happy.”

What’s been the favourite gig of her career up till now?

“I’ve performed a lot of Benjamin Britten’s work, but the one that stands out for me is Opera North’s production of Peter Grimes, which was staged on Aldeburgh beach in 2013, to commemorate the centenary of the composer’s birth.

“I played Ellen Orford, the love interest of Peter Grimes, a fisherman who may or may not be responsible for the death of an apprentice.

“We did outside performances, and it was absolutely incredible.

“We would rehearse from mid-afternoon till midnight on the beach, but everyone was so happy.

“It was June, and it was freezing, but it was amazing and it was a huge success. They made a DVD of it — it was a very special production.”

Opera and the world of classical music is still perceived to be the preserve of the upper classes. Has Giselle ever experienced any snobbery?

“Yes, of course,” she says. “I’ve spent my whole career working a lot in Britain and there is definitely an old boy network that still goes on.

“Female conductors especially have it very hard. A friend who Conor and I are going to be working with later this year has been telling us how difficult it as a female conductor and how much she has come up against ‘You’re just a woman’ attitudes.

“There is snobbery. But most of my friends and most of the people I know who are working in the classical industry are all very normal and come from working class backgrounds.

“That’s why Conor Mitchell’s work is so important — he’s trying to bring opera to a younger and wider audience so that we can get away from the elitist mindset.

“If you look at Europe, everyone goes to see the opera — all classes of people, people of all ages. It’s the norm.

“We need to keep reinventing the art form because otherwise who’s going to come apart from the traditional opera audience who are usually older.

“It’s trying to get the younger people in and realise that it’s not all stuffy — Conor’s work is definitely not stuffy.

“Mass combines really modern elements of film, video and dance from all over the world. I think a lot of people are going to go ‘Wow!’”

The world premiere of Mass will take place at The Telegraph Building, Royal Avenue, Belfast at 7pm and 9pm on November 18 and 19, as part of Outburst Queer Arts Festival. For tickets and festival information visit: www.outburstarts.com

Belfast Telegraph