Musicians’ Company Yeoman Bethan Langford on why every voice deserves to be heard

Musicians Company Yeoman Bethan Langford on why every voice deserves to be heard.

My first contact with The Musicians’ Company was almost five years ago; I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and was awarded a prize to perform a recital at Wigmore Hall. I look back on that day when my good friend and pianist Ben-San Lau and I  performed, and laugh at how naive we were. We went for tea and cake a couple of hours before the concert as part of our warm-up routine. I remember during the recital I looked down and saw my dad watching from the audience and almost began to cry! I had a little out of body experience suddenly realising where I was and what it meant; it was all very surreal.

This career has almost crept up on me. I never had dreams of becoming an opera singer; as a child neither my family nor I knew anything about opera. I grew up in a very rural and lovely village in Shropshire; both parents were teachers, both the first in their families to attend college. My parents and sister had beautiful natural singing voices and we spent every day of my childhood singing in the car and around the house. I had a very active imagination as a child but was very shy. I spent a lot of time in my own head making up stories, and at school, initially struggled to bring my imaginary world into reality to perform anything so much as a solo in the choir.

The realisation that I enjoyed performing came in my year six pantomime production of Cinderella. I was playing the Evil Stepmother, a classic role, and something clicked in me whilst on stage – I could just use my imagination and enjoy myself, just like I did in my garden at home. I didn’t have to change my personality or become someone different, and people actually enjoyed my performance. Shock horror, so did I! Although at the time I wasn’t sure if this was because I was on stage or because I got to wear an amazing dress!

I studied for many years at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, in a class of extremely talented colleagues. It is fair to say I was at the bottom of the pile when I started at eighteen – shell shocked from moving from my safe home in the country to the big city, and only used to singing the occasional solo in my church choir. My first memories of Guildhall were of singing my first ever mezzo aria or German lied to my classmates, staring at one spot on the wall hoping no one was watching. There were a good number of times during those first couple of years that I thought I may not be cut out for this job, but something kept me going. Some internal passion that I hoped, eventually, after many many years of drama classes and singing lessons, would give me the confidence and self-belief to engage an audience. This brings to mind working with a wonderful coach, Fiona McSherry, as an Emerging Artist with Scottish Opera this past year. In our first session she said to me that so long as you have something to say you’re worth listening to. I’m really glad the panel at Guildhall saw that little voice in me all those years ago!

This voice has kept me going through some of the inevitably difficult times that occur in this industry. Any musician will agree that the constant auditions, rejections, travelling away from loved ones and the financial worry of this job can be very difficult to cope with. There have been times where I’ve struggled to pick myself up again after yet another rejection email or tearful goodbye. But what is the reason we do this job? Not for the hotel rooms or early morning flights, surely. There is something burning in all of us musicians and artists that keep us going through any financial difficulty or disappointment. We are burning to say something.

As the years have gone by, my favourite performances have been the ones that have challenged me the most. I love performing recitals; for me it is the ultimate test of focus and artistry. Holding an audience for an hour and half with just you and the accompanists’ collaborative interpretation is exhausting yet so thrilling! In my second year of undergraduate study, I also discovered my love for a good character. I performed the Witch in an abridged version of Into the Woods by Sondheim, and I got to play an old crone who sang a rap about vegetables! Since then I’ve always been up for the challenge of playing characters who are out of the ordinary for a young woman. This could be as an adolescent boy, an old woman with a terrible back problem or most recently, a pig/deer creature who evolves to become a whale, as in my new personal project, Indus, based on my experiences as a visually impaired performer. I suppose that all harks back to my days in the garden as a child – I just play pretend as a job now!

Something I’m quite passionate about is making opera and classical music inclusive and accessible. I believe everyone should be allowed the opportunity to be involved in music if they enjoy it. Scottish Opera do so much great work for the community and with young people. The outreach work the Musicians’ Company are involved in on a daily basis helps to normalise classical music and hopefully inspire the next generations of professionals. I still remember the workshop I did with Glyndebourne outreach as a teenager – I was taken by my school music teacher at the age of fifteen and I saw my first ever opera in Stoke-on-Trent. That day they told me I could study classical singing as a degree if I wanted to, and it ignited something in me. These projects make such a difference, especially if we want to encourage diversity in this industry.

Next season, I will be performing my first professional solo recital at Wigmore Hall. I probably won’t cry when I see my parents but I do plan to have a huge slice of cake beforehand.

You can find out more about Bethan at www.bethanlangford.com

Interview by @suzywillmott