Last year, Paul Wingfield (GSA Repetiteur Course 2011) was made Head of Vocal and Operatic Studies at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. We caught up with him to see how his first year went and to talk about what the future has in store.
GSA: What was the first thing you did when you started at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire?
Paul: I appointed [baritone] Roderick Williams as a Visiting Consultant in Vocal Performance and began bringing in some great singers to do masterclasses: Sue Bullock, Anne Mason, Amanda Roocroft (who has since joined our staff), and Matthew Rose to name a few. The teaching of good, solid technique is central to nurturing young voices and for that you need an expert staff. I’ve also adjusted the schedule, giving first-year students two 45 minute lessons each week to regularise the contact time with their teachers.
GSA: We heard the RBC opened its new building at the same time as you took up your position, can you tell us a bit about them?
Paul: The building is fabulous. It’s bright and open, giving the students a social hub and productive space. There’s a new concert hall where they hosted the BBC Young Musician of the Year, as well as a wealth of rehearsal, teaching, and state-of-the-art recording space.
GSA: What would you say is unique about the RBC?
Paul: There’s much that makes us unique. The small class sizes creates a very special and supportive atmosphere where students feel cared for and nurtured. We are also able to give stage experience to students from their second year onwards because of our learn-by-doing approach. This means that students in their undergraduate years have a much earlier chance to do principal roles, if they are ready. We just have to be careful to choose repertoire that is right for their voice types and development. The total student group of undergrads and postgrads sits around 60-80 people and that’s something I want to protect. It means I can get to know everyone musically as well as personally. There’s a special atmosphere here. We are very proud to have been ranked #1 amongst UK Conservatoires in the National Student Survey for student satisfaction this year!
GSA: What performances do the students have coming up this year?
Paul: We have Opera Scenes coming up, directed by Jamie Hayes and conducted by Harry Sever, and we’re putting on ‘The Magic Flute’ which Christopher Bucknall will conduct. In the summer term I’ll conduct Dove’s ‘Mansfield Park’. I’ve also started a concert series called VoxBox: the inaugural concert was a musical exploration of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ with a complete reading of the poem.
GSA: And what about your own freelance career? I see you’re conducting within the RBC, but are you keeping up your conducting outside the building?
Paul: Absolutely! Maintaining that was an important part of my contract. This summer I conducted ‘Goldilocks and the Three Pigs’ with Opera Story (a premiere which received great critical acclaim) and assisted Garry Walker on ‘The Skating Rink’ at Garsington Opera. Next year I’ll be conducting The Turn of the Screw for Bury Court and assisting on ‘Kat’a Kabánova’ for Opera North. Conducting outside the Conservatoire keeps my knowledge of the industry current. The profession has changed enormously in the last 10 years — it’s more about smaller companies and performing in unusual contexts than ever before. The students need someone who knows that and can give them advice that is applicable in today’s opera world. It also puts me in contact with great artists who I can invite to the Conservatoire.
GSA: It sounds like you’ve been doing great work so far. Looking further forward, do you have any plans you can tell us about for the RBC?
Paul: Well, we have the great new facilities but it doesn’t include a theatre for opera, so we’re busy fundraising for that! Other than that, I’m just focused on doing what I can to attract the best, most diverse talent and the most inspirational teaching and make the course as good as it possibly can be.
GSA: And finally, what do you think you gained, as an artist, from attending the GSA?
Paul: The GSA provided me with valuable and lasting tools as a coach and conductor. During formal training the majority of my learning was done through osmosis so it was a real luxury to have my own coaching observed and improved. Watching Richard Bonynge coach a Bellini extract made me realise that it’s not about saying clever things – it’s about identifying the simple and obvious things. It takes a great musician to do that.