Laughing all the way from the bank
Nadine Benjamin quit a City career to pursue her true love – opera. Now she’s singing at the ENO, says Paul Kendall
It is a grey, blustery afternoon in north London and the soprano Nadine Benjamin is sitting in a bar, sipping hot water, and enthusing about her next production, English National Opera’s Porgy & Bess. “Gershwin wanted it to touch everybody,” she says. “There is just so much in it we can all relate to – love, death, injustice, broken hearts…”
“Yes,” I reply, nodding.
“I think every community goes through the same things this community goes through, especially communities that feel they don’t have a voice. I’m not going to get into Brexit…”
“No,” I say, with undue haste. “I’m not even going to go there, OK? But there are a number of people in society today – and it’s not just black; it’s white, different communities – that feel they’re not being heard. So it’s an important time for Porgy & Bess to be seen.”
She takes a breath. “Sorry,” she says, smiling. “I’m just really enthusiastic about it!”
Benjamin, it turns out, is enthusiastic about a great many things: singing, first and foremost, but also creativity in general and the power of positive thinking. She is a firm believer, too, in the benefits of hard work, meditation, prayer, ayurvedic medicine, neuro-linguistic programming, a wheat-free diet and tongue scraping.
“An ayurvedic man I went to see said to me, ‘If there’s one thing you do, of all the things I’ve told you to do, please scrape your tongue’,” she says. “So now I have a tongue scraper and I make sure everybody I know has a tongue scraper and they say, ‘Nadine, I never realised – it’s disgusting!’ And I say, ‘Yes it is, isn’t it?!’
She squeals with laughter. “You do it as soon as you get up and then before you go to bed.”
Benjamin is unlike any other opera singer working in Britain today. Brought up by a single mother on a council estate in Brixton, south London, along with her sister and brother, she did not even come across opera until her final few weeks of secondary school, when her music teacher played her the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute and told her she thought Benjamin had the ability to learn to sing like that.
Inspired, but impelled by the family’s finances to start earning money, Benjamin then joined a Youth Training Scheme at a brokerage in the City of London and plunged into the world of mergers and acquisitions, staying at the firm for seven years. She loved it, thriving on the adrenalin, the sense of purpose and the tangible goals.
“I was at my desk at six in the morning, I left at eight at night, something like that, but I was really made to feel part of the team. It was great,” she says.
She was so good at her job, in fact, that, at the age of 24, she was offered a big promotion. “It was going to be a good job, with good money and my boss said, ‘Are you sure? Is there anything else you’ve ever wanted to do?’ And I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to sing.’”
And so, turning her back on what promised to be a lucrative career (she says she has no doubt she would have been a billionaire by now if she’d stayed in the City), Benjamin set about building a new life for herself as a singer. And the speed with which this new life took shape was astonishing.
First, in 2007, she won a place in the chorus in a production of Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Hall. Shortly after, she travelled to Paris and, despite having no training, auditioned for an Opéra de Lyon production of Porgy &
Bess, landing another chorus role, but this time with seven solo lines.
That achievement, she says, convinced her that she had a future as a soloist. “And so I came back and met a guy from City Opera called Peter Crockford and I asked, ‘What do I have to do to get to where I want to go?’ And he told me the first step was to get sponsorship.” Benjamin wrote a business plan, setting out exactly how much money she needed to study opera, and sent it to 150 potential sponsors. “It went to Vodafone, it went to Orange, it went to David Suchet, Cameron Mackintosh,” she says. “And one woman came back.”
After hearing Benjamin sing, this anonymous benefactor sponsored her for three years enabling her to embark on a journey that has already led to leading roles in both Tosca and The Marriage of Figaro for English Touring Opera. She has been hailed by Opera Now magazine as one of the “top 10 sopranos destined to have impressive careers” and is now about to make her debut at ENO as Clara in the company’s first ever production of Porg y & Bess, a role which involves singing the opera’s most famous number,
Summertime. It is an extraordinary achievement and one that
Raised on a council estate, she didn’t come across opera until her final weeks of school
NO DIVASoprano Nadine Benjamin is making her ENO debut in Porgy & Bess; inset, in The Marriage of Figaro with ETO