OW Spotlight George Humphreys

Hardinge '00

Opera Singer

What is your earliest memory of performing/music/singing?

My earliest performance memory is singing Herod in my primary school nativity play. I had a song about taxes (it was the ‘80s, everyone was pretty money-obsessed).

When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?

There was no real Eureka moment. I was always a singer and then when I went to Cambridge, a lot of my friends in the years above me would go to one of the music colleges in London after they finished to do a postgraduate opera course. That seemed much more fun than getting a proper job so it just sort of snowballed from there.

What was your highlight of performing at Wellington?

There were a lot, but top of the list was probably singing with the Jazz Orchestra. They had come to my prep school when I was about 11 and I thought they were amazing, so to finally get to stand at the front was a dream come true. One thing that I realise now about my time as a musician at Wellington is the extraordinary amount of support and opportunities I had. Aside from the huge number of orchestras and groups that already existed, I don’t remember any of the music staff ever saying no to an idea or a project even if it meant extra work for them. I think it must have been quite tough for them at the time, as the general ethos of the school was completely centred around rugby so they really had to fight to get music taken seriously by the upper echelons. And on a personal level, without the “above and beyond” support I received from John Holloway, Simon Williamson and a couple of other teachers, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.

What has been the biggest surprise about working in the industry?

On the negative side, it’s ridiculously competitive, perennially underfunded and it’s a tough day when you realise you never actually “make it” – you’re only as good as your last gig. However, on the positive side, I’ve been surprised by how many cool, interesting people I’ve met, and the extraordinary places I’ve been paid to travel just to sing songs. It opens up a world that’s completely inaccessible to most people. I’m also still a little surprised by just how loud you have to sing.

What has been the highlight so far?

I’ve got some CV highlights (singing at Covent Garden or The Proms) but the most enjoyable thing is always when you get to perform with friends, or when you get to play a particularly fun character, especially the baddies. Those are the moments you really remember.

What are you up to now?

At the moment, I live in Salzburg where I’m on a permanent contract at the State Theatre (in the UK, everyone is freelance and works from contract to contract but in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, you can actually get a full-time job as a singer). We have two productions that have been ready to go since Christmas and we’re just waiting for the green light for performances to start again. Other than that, I’m preparing things for next season and spending some time yomping around the mountains and enjoying the scenery.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out / what do you wish you had known?

Remember to enjoy it. Any form of acting/ singing job can be stressful for a number of reasons but if you can actively try to enjoy it, not only will the dark days not be so bad but you’ll also be more appealing to an audience. I would also say develop a thick skin. You will be constantly criticised and it takes a while to learn when to listen and when to laugh it off. By the same token, don’t get too comfortable when people tell you you’re great. Everyone’s mum thinks they’re the best singer in the world.

If you were in charge of Arts education for a day, what would you do? What do you think is important for schools?

I think every child should learn an instrument, in a group setting, without judgement or competition and with the focus being on enjoyment, similar to the way in which Sport is factored into the curriculum and not seen as an optional extra. I also think it would be amazing for every child to be in an opera at some point in their schooling. To see from the inside the technical process, the dramatic choices, how the music enhances the plot and the characters, how to create something so stylised and ridiculous but make it believable and relevant to the audience is a wonderful experience. The tough sell with Opera is that if your audience is uninformed it can be hard for them to enjoy it (foreign languages, angry fat people singing very loudly, etc). However, if you learn even the slightest bit about it, whether that’s knowing the plot beforehand, or something about the compositional technique, or some gossip about the singers, the possibilities for enjoyment are almost endless and it has more depth and nuance than any other art form. I’d also abolish the recorder.

 – Yearbook 2018/19


How has the last year with the pandemic affected you within the Arts industry?

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to be “on contract” here in Salzburg, so even though I’ve had some freelance work cancelled, I haven’t faced the financial ruin that I would have, had I still lived in the UK. Even with that security though, I was quite surprised by how badly not working affected my mental health. It’s really important going forward that the Arts industry gets proper financial backing to get back on its feet. It’s a vital part of our national life (for just one example, rewatch Prince Philip’s funeral and consider whether it would have been so moving and profound without the exquisite musicians) and needs to be nurtured and supported.