Buckinghamshire opera stars Jennifer France and Bradley Travis
PUBLISHED: 16:19 17 July 2017 | UPDATED: 16:19 17 July 2017
Young opera stars make the most of a weekend at home in Buckinghamshire and tell their story to Sandra Smith
Jennifer France and Bradley Travis are overflowing with energy and as welcoming as if I’d just popped in for an impromptu cuppa. Parked outside their Brill home where I arrived just moments before them, they apologise for keeping me waiting (train delays from London) before ushering me across the threshold where Figaro, their Birman cat, is soon lapping up attention from all three of us.
Considering the hour (7.30pm on a Friday, the end of another week’s commuting) and with an early morning voice coaching session the next day, this married couple are delightfully engaging and keen to answer my numerous questions about their profession. For beyond their union they share a calling, each a rising star in the world of opera and about to perform at Garsington, the venue where they first met.
“This year’s festival is on such a big scale,” Jennifer enthuses as we sink into comfy sofas in a cosy back room. “I’ll be playing Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Garsington was my first real break, in 2014, and that launched a lot of other stuff. I have bookings up to 2020, at the moment including the Royal Opera House.”
As well as four classic operas the two month extravaganza will culminate in Silver Birch, a new community opera based on Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and the testimony of a modern day British soldier. The role of one of England’s greatest poets will be played by Bradley, an award winning bass baritone whose many credits include Last Night of the Proms.
“Opera is an outpouring of emotion, a combination of all art forms with acting more and more important. Gone are the days of large singers not moving on stage. I enjoy the performance side. My mum did amateur dramatics and could have been a really good singer. She has no fear! My dad was a cruise director in charge of performers; he’s now obsessed with whatever opera I’m in. Contemporary operas such as this will be masterpieces in 200 years and I will be the first person to play this role. Silver Birch is in English, which I love!”
Jennifer readily agrees: “Opera has to be relevant and accessible and a language barrier can be scary.”
Her pretty looks and slight build attract young, coquettish roles, yet she originally planned to go into musical theatre. Despite no relevant family background, and growing up listening to the likes of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, music always “made sense”. She has no recollection of learning to read music but can play the flute, recorder, saxophone, clarinet and piano. Her first experience of opera was when her father took her to see Madame Butterfly. Then, at 19, she joined the Royal Northern College of Music.
Bradley’s parents recognised a performer in their son even at primary school. He mastered the piano and cornet and perfomed with a youth brass band. A love of acting initially drove his career before the advice of a music teacher who rightly predicted the potential of his pupil’s voice. While revealing a passion for comic roles, this calmly self assured 28-year-old recalls his big break.
“My first job after college was covering Figaro and I went on in show three; the most amazing performance night for me. Everyone was concerned but I wasn’t nervous. I knew I had to do it. Nerves only come if you haven’t put in the preparation.”
They each have agents, work for a variety of companies and regularly take coaching lessons, which Bradley likens to having an MoT.
Travel, whilst welcome, inevitably brings challenges, as Jennifer explains: “Being away from home for long stretches, maybe a few months at a time, is the hardest thing, but also one of the greatest advantages. When you live somewhere for a few months you immerse yourself in that culture and the cast becomes your family.”
How, I wonder, do singers protect their voices? “That’s really tricky,” she continues. “The cold season is the worst time of year. We wear Flightbubbles (masks with filters) on aeroplanes. And you just try to keep yourself healthy. If you don’t go on stage, you don’t get paid.”
Bradley laughs: “You have to know when you can have a good time! Talking in a loud place such as a noisy bar is the worst thing for your voice. Opera singing is almost unnatural, a wonder of balance and technique. You need the anatomy to allow that sound to work. Anyone can be taught to sing better, but not everyone can be an opera singer.”
Their pre-performance preparation differs, Bradley arriving at a theatre by 5pm for a walk around the stage prior to dinner, returning to the theatre an hour ahead of his performance. For Jennifer a two hour window allows for make up (“It’s very relaxing sitting there and having someone do that for you”), wigs and costumes. Period costumes, she confesses, are always a challenge, though corsets “give you something to push against.”
When relaxing at home they both defer to their music roots. For Bradley this includes Queen, Led Zeppelin and his “absolute favourite” Billy Joel. Jennifer’s tastes are an eclectic range from folk to pop and jazz.
As they look forward to Garsington Opera and some early evening starts allow for picnics or restaurant meals during intervals, the opportunity to perform at a prestigious yet local event does more than increase their impressive lists of engagements. For while the public makes the most of this opportunity to watch world class opera in a beautiful countryside setting, Garsington might also rekindle romantic memories for a talented, supportive and charming couple.
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