You originally trained as a doctor – how did you get into opera?
I come from a very musical family and played cello and sang in choirs when I was growing up. At 18 I was torn between studying cello or medicine, but eventually decided on medicine. At university I found it difficult to keep my cello up to a standard I was happy with alongside the long hours of medicine, so decided to make singing my main thing – I naively thought singers don’t have to do much practice! I auditioned for a scholarship with the CBSO chorus and they paid for me to have lessons at the Birmingham Conservatoire. During my first lesson, my teacher told me that I should give up medicine and become a singer, which I thought was terrible advice, but it planted the seed of the idea.
I started to get much more interested in opera and did more singing and concerts. The real turning point for me was when I did a concert of opera highlights, playing Don José in Act 1 of Carmen - it confirmed everything for me. I got really into the repertoire and realised so many composers wrote their best stuff for opera – it was a whole new world opening up to me.
How did that lead you to studying at the Academy?
I had decided that I wanted to be a singer but would finish my medicine degree first. It worked well because I had quite a lot of time for extracurricular activities while I was studying, and I managed to fit in shows with British Youth Opera, the Barber Opera and some professional oratorio work as well. I was managing to develop both areas well until I actually started work as a doctor. I did my first two years in North East London and found there was no time for anything beyond work – I was working 10 to 12 hours a day and three out of four weekends. I realised that if I wanted to keep my dream alive, I needed to give some proper time to singing, so that’s when I applied to opera school and auditioned at the Academy. I had studied cello at Junior Academy and both my brothers trained there, so it felt like a homecoming.
What were your highlights at the Academy?
At first, I found managing the transition from singing being my favourite hobby to being what defined me quite psychologically tough. But by the time I left, I felt that I had a good idea of how I wanted to sing and the kind of artist I wanted to be. My teacher, Nuccia Focile, was a huge part of that. She is a fantastic example of the kind of artist I’d like to be – a really lovely person, unaffected and, as a singer, she delivers things in a beautiful and honest way. I also got to do some brilliant roles: in my first term I played Oronte in Handel’s Alcina at the Hackney Round Chapel, then I played Mercure in Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers, and the following year I was in Jonathan Dove’s Flight, which opened the Academy’s new Susie Sainsbury Theatre.
Tell us about what has happened since you graduated last year.
In my final term I had a great season with Garsington Opera understudying Vašek in The Bartered Bride and in a small role in Offenbach’s Fantasio. From there I went to Opéra de Baugé in the Loire Valley, and then straight into my first role at the Royal Opera House, where I was understudying D’Esperaudieu in Gerald Barry’s The Intelligence Park. That completely pushed me in every sense but was an amazing experience and it was incredible to be in Covent Garden. It was a dream start for me and I was just starting to make my way when Covid hit.
Obviously, all my opera work was cancelled, as it was for everyone. It was gutting as I had some really nice things lined up for the summer, including covering a big Verdi role for Garsington. There was a call-out for doctors who had recently retired or left the NHS to go back, so I started doing A&E shifts again. We knew that there was a massive, potentially war-zone-type situation coming our way and there was a real need for doctors and all hands-on deck, so it made sense for me to help. Obviously, all healthcare professionals were apprehensive but there was an amazing sense of pulling together and professionalism. The outpouring of love and support from the whole nation meant we really felt like everyone was behind us. It was quite a special time to be working.
As I was new on shift, someone asked me what I normally do and when I said I’m an opera singer they insisted I give them a song. Someone filmed it and it went viral on twitter and got 160,000 views in 24 hours. Off the back of that I’ve been interviewed on news channels in the UK, USA and Australia, and I’m even getting fan mail from South America – it’s been really fun.
You’ve been using your media appearances to promote the arts. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
I want to use the new position I’ve found myself in to be useful and to be a real ambassador for the arts. During the time when there were questions around government funding, we found ourselves in the position of having to campaign for our importance and the validity of the arts as worthy of receiving funding. It made me realise that this is what we should always be doing – as musicians, we should be making the arts an indispensable part of everyone’s lives.
It’s been really interesting to be put on a platform in front of audiences who aren’t necessarily classical music or opera audiences and get an overwhelmingly positive response. I’d like to make my career about enforcing the message that the arts are for everyone: they are important and life enriching, incredibly powerful for societal change, minority empowerment, social mobility, sparking creativity and helping children to learn. I want to help change the landscape in the UK, to share the arts with everyone – that’s my lofty ambition anyway!
What’s next for you? Do you have plans to return to the stage any time soon?
Yes! I have a rehearsal for my first show since lockdown this afternoon. It’s with Hampstead Garden Opera for a socially distanced production of Holst’s Sāvitri in the courtyard of Lauderdale House in Highgate. I’m so excited to make music with people again – it’s going to be fantastic. I am still doing the odd shift at the hospital, but my primary dream is to be an opera singer, so when any opportunities open up, I’m there like a shot!
Alex singing on the wards of Royal London Hospital and Newham Hospital