Francesca Chiejina: the radiant soprano who wants opera for all | Classical music

Francesca Chiejina started his year as a ghost, ended it like a enchanting, and took a goddess, a princess, a poor man and a acclaimed appearance of the Proms along the way. Covid may have meant a forced break for many musicians, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have derailed this radiant and versatile soprano. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I’ve had a crazy year. “

The 30-year-old Nigerian / American singer has been based in London since 2014, studying at Guildhall then earn a seat in the prestigious Royal Opera House Jette Parker Young Artists Program. We are speaking on Zoom as she is in Nigeria for her first visit in over three years. “It’s nice to be here,” she said. “To be on the same soil where I was born. I thought a lot, remembering and rediscovering who I was, who I am and who I want to be.

Who she is and who she wanted to be has never been a singer, let alone a soprano. As a girl in Lagos there were piano and violin lessons and her talent was evident. Her family moved to Michigan in the United States when she was 10 years old (“I remember carrying my violin as hand luggage!”) And in public schools she took free music lessons and is part of orchestras and choirs. “I had solos here and there, and my teachers told me my voice was good,” she says. Yet she began to study to become a doctor, and a very different career seemed planned.

“I never thought I would sing for a living, but that little seed in me kept growing until I was about 20, it just exploded. “

His parents were brought in to convince. There were tears, she said. “They thought I was ruining my life, that I should at least finish my medical education, but I think it was when I got into the Jette Parker program that they finally accepted that I wasn’t making a huge mistake. “

And the soprano song? As a teenager, she sang the viola, the deepest female voice, in choirs, and began her musical training as a mezzo. “I had never really stretched my voice,” she said. “And the sopranos had this reputation for being very difficult to please, difficult girls who like to be the center of attention, and I thought, that’s not me. I am a mezzo, from a personality point of view! But her teacher had a hunch and encouraged her to explore her range, and Chiejina’s voice blossomed.

Chiejina as the witch Melissa in Handel’s Amadigi during ETO’s fall season Photography: Richard Hubert Smith

“For a long time, and even a little still today, I was a reluctant soprano,” she laughs. “But I’m slowly learning to be better – in terms of defending myself. It’s a lot of pressure to be a tenor or a soprano, you have to learn a lot to say no.

Not that “no” was his watchword last year. “Obviously, I don’t want to tire myself out, but I figured that if I said yes to a lot of opportunities, I could find out what I love, and what is empowering in a good – and bad – way, and where my real strengths are. I see it as taking data. It’s really fun to stretch my voice out while I’m young and have the freedom to experiment.

Her voice suggests that she will particularly excel in Verdi and Puccini – and she is currently learning Mimi from La bohème for an English touring opera production in Spring 2022, but in Handel’s Amadigi as enchantress Melissa (also for ETO) , it was hailed as “exceptional”; as a soloist in Berg’s Seven Early Songs at the Proms with John Wilson’s Vertigo orchestra his voice “shone with beauty“, and as Britten’s Miss Jessel in Turn of the Screw – a film production of OperaGlass Works – she was extremely impressive:”Her luscious voice heavy with experience and illicit knowledge. “

Beyond the bohemian, future plans include Strauss’s last four songs at Cadogan Hall, and she reveals that she’d like to do more of Puccini’s famous heroines – Aida or Madama Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-san. “I really want to sing the hell out of these parts. It’s the thrill of these roles. The music is so exciting!

She points out that her music training in the US at public schools was provided free of charge by the state and – had she grown up in the UK where similar opportunities are hopelessly limited – it is unlikely that she could have become the musician she is. today. “Music must be accessible to everyone from an early age. Everyone needs the opportunity to find out. You can’t just force people as adults to go to things they don’t know or care about.

Has she ever felt she didn’t fit the predominantly white world of classical music?

“No one ever made me feel that way, at least not to my face,” she said, “but in my classes I got used to the fact that there were only one or two people of color. I got a little numb from being the token black face and chose not to focus too much on it as it can be an incredibly lonely existence. Instead, I focused on doing it. wanting to excel and just being really, really good at what I do.

On these last points, there is no doubt.

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