Publicity Headshot - Neil Balfour - Colour.jpg

Course Studied: BA (Hons) Music

Year of Graduation: 2010

Top Career Achievements:

  • Performed the role of the ‘Cold Genius’ from King Arthur at Glastonbury Music Festival
  • Performed the role of Claggart in Billy Budd for The Royal Opera House’s Learning & Participation Department at Covent Garden
  • Performed with Opera North, Longborough Festival Opera, Opera Holland Park, Buxton Festival Opera and Leeds Lieder Festival

Bass-baritone Neil Balfour’s shrewd nature led to one of the first performances by an opera singer at Glastonbury Festival. As testament to his blossoming career, he has recently become a Concordia Foundation Featured Artist. With a repertoire list that spans a diverse range of music, Neil’s engagements have seen him work for the likes of Royal Opera House’s Learning and Participation Department, Longborough Festival Opera, Buxton Festival Opera and Opera North.

Here, Neil discusses his experiences of singing and acting for operatic roles and his love for his chosen home city of Leeds.

You began your musical career as a guitarist and pianist. What convinced you to switch to vocal studies and how did you recognise your potential in this area?

I met the fabulous woman called Jane Anthony, who taught at Leeds Conservatoire and was also the founder of LeedsLieder. She gave me my first opportunity. As one of the only males in my year willing to sing, she plonked me in an opera, as a principal with no experience, during my undergraduate study. The rest, as they say, is history!

What lessons did you learn from studying Classical at Leeds Conservatoire?

I had my Damascus Moment quite late on in my A-Levels that I wanted to be a musician so my time at Leeds Conservatoire was intensely varied. I did… everything! Modules in Indian Music, Music Production, Electroacoustic Composition, Classical Performance, Jazz Performance, Opera... the list goes on! I LOVED my time in Leeds for that very reason. I wasn't ready to hone in on one musical path at 19 years old so I explored it all. I am still known as an opera singer with very varied skills and this is due in part to my time at Leeds Conservatoire.

What approach do you take to performing in a different language, such as Italian or German?

I have had language lessons for many years now in Italian, French and German and continue to self-study. It's absolutely vital to know what you're singing, how to sing it and most importantly, to feel like you have authority over the language you are singing. I was brought up in Tenerife, Spain until I was ten years old, so I spoke Spanish and English from birth. This really did help learning the Romance languages such as Italian and French.

As a musician by background, how did you find the transition into both singing and acting for operatic roles?

Haha! What a big question! Being a classical pianist and a conductor helped enormously with learning music fast and having the attention to detail needed for complicated works. What it doesn't necessarily prepare you for is the sheer pressure of standing on stage with NO INSTRUMENT and having to sing a three-hour opera in another language from memory, whilst hiding all your technique and convincing the audience you're actually someone else! Aargh!

Luckily, the first time I ever tried to act I felt very natural and comfortable and I have always been able to rid myself of inhibition in the rehearsal room and onstage which helps enormously. Now, I love acting and being in character is one of the most enjoyable parts for me. The art of singing well and comfortably publicly was a much longer process and one I am still going through. Opera has so many angles to it, it really is a study for life and if I am honest, it is the bane of my life but also one of the main reasons I get up every day. There is an immense joy for me in chipping away slowly at this enormous art form.

You performed as Cold Genius in a production of semi-opera King Arthur at Glastonbury Festival. How important do you think it is to take Classical music to non-traditional spaces?

It's massively important and why not!? All opera companies now have to really think fresh when putting something on as we have to compete in the same sphere as all other music and entertainment, which normally trumps opera in its modernity and forward-thinking. I am glad to say that is changing BIG TIME now!

Glastonbury is quite a funny story! I wanted to go to the festival with friends, so I booked a ticket. I then got offered a contract at Longborough Festival Opera around the same time and I lied to them saying I had a 'performance' at Glastonbury, as I knew they wouldn't grant the time off otherwise. I then had a crazy thought... I emailed Glastonbury, told them who I was, what I'd done (and lied about!) and said that it was about time they hired an opera singer actually! They agreed and this summer I was the first opera singer to be hired as an artist at Glastonbury. I hope we'll see a lot more of this sort of thing now.

You’re currently a Concordia Foundation Featured Artist. What opportunities will this provide?

Concordia are a wonderful company led by an amazing soprano, Natasha Day. They aim to provide singers, having left study but not quite fully employed, with work. Most notably, they got me multiple performances at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for the Learning and Participation Department. I sang the role of Claggart in Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. It was a reduced version of the show and it was sung in unique areas all around the building. It was terrifying and exciting and nerve-wracking and exhilarating and... the Royal Opera House!

What outlet does your YouTube channel provide you with? How much potential does digital content have to augment the classical performance world?

When I was at Leeds Conservatoire the famous pianist, Joanna McGregor, came to do a masterclass and I had a half-hour session with her where she gave me a musical life-lesson I have never forgotten. She explained her concept of 'core repertoire.' In the music industry you spend a huge amount of time performing works you may not necessarily like or want to do, but have to do. If you always know what your 'core repertoire' is (i.e. the repertoire that you love regardless of status, other people's views, whether it's currently cool etc.) you can always reset and you'll never lose that initial love for music that got you into it in the first place. It seems crazy that you could ever lose it, but you can. My core repertoire for me now is like my mantra. When I listen or play my music it's like having a musical bath!

ArtSongStory, my YouTube channel, was created for that very reason. I wanted a reason to learn new music that I loved and wasn't for a gala concert, new opera, old opera, recital or a Christmas concert. This channel is just for me. I learn, perform and record music I discover and adore and end up with a video I am proud of and I feel like I'm creating again, much like I did when I was 15 years old in my room with my guitar and Logic Pro. Another positive is that in this day and age, it is REALLY important to have lots of digital media. Everyone is Googling you before they hire you these days. I've even been in live auditions where panels have been scanning my website more than watching me in the room!

You’ve sang in the Chorus for Opera North’s production of Aida. How was that particular experience?

It was amazing. Opera North is the BEST chorus I have ever sung with. We are so lucky to have them in Leeds. The chorus are great soloists in their own right and the company is incredibly progressive. Aida is known to be one of the grandest of all grand opera's and this show sure felt like it!

What convinced you to settle in Leeds, post-study?

I love Leeds. The quality of life here is excellent. Obviously, I live in London and other European countries for significant parts of the year doing contracts but I've never had the draw to live there. I am very lucky in that I travel a lot for work meaning that home could technically be anywhere. I chose Leeds. And for all the normal reasons really; I have a flat here, my friends are here, the city is full of music, food and wine, trains to London are cheap and fast and we're also home to the only full-time opera company in the North!

Leeds Conservatoire has recently announced a partnership with Opera North. How do you think this will benefit the local operatic scene in the North of England?

This is the best thing to happen. Why hasn't it happened sooner!? It will mean so much to the students at Leeds Conservatoire. The biggest positive is that they will actually get to see what the standard is like in the real world and have a real, tangible company to contract against. It's very easy to become a hermit when studying and to just keep practicing with blinkers on. You always need a real-life goal and Opera North... well, what a goal to have to aim for!

Follow Neil via his website

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