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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - OPERA -

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

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