I attended Bury Grammar School in Lancashire from 1995-2002. The following is a transcript of a speech I gave for the School's 2013 Prizegiving Ceremony.
Written in October 2013. (References: the CLA and Arts Council England).
I am well aware that for those of you receiving prizes this evening, I am the limiting factor -standing firmly between you and all being well, a substantial Waterstones book token. I will attempt to keep this short.
Thank you for the kind introduction. Quite frankly I wouldn't trust the words of a man from Cheetham Hill, who after singing at the FA Cup Final was described in the press as 'looking a bit like WILL.IAM' and 'wearing the most ludicrous suit of all time'.
Opera was never on the cards for me. Throughout school I had been involved with singing but it was never meant to escape beyond the confines of being a serious hobby. Unfortunately, I never had the assurance of knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up. Increasingly worried by this, I relished the opportunity to partake in a careers test set up by the School. From my memory this was meant to inform our A-level subject choices. Despite willing the result to come out with something normal and stable, I ended up with antiques dealer as my suggested career.
Undeterred, I ploughed on through A-Levels and after a gap year went up to Newcastle to study architecture. After only two weeks, I switched course to Philosophy and Fine Art. Hours spent juggling (struggling) with mathematics and physics were exchanged for lofty discussions of 'isms' and more importantly there was ample time left to throw myself into the musical life of the University. At the end of my penultimate year a Winston Churchill Fellowship afforded the opportunity to travel to Canada, the US, the Caribbean and South America to research singing and it was around this period that I had the idea to apply to the Royal College of Music. I had been having singing lessons whilst at Newcastle but in retrospect it was perhaps slightly naive of me to rock up to one of the world's leading conservatoires and audition for one of their most competitive postgraduate courses - just because I liked singing.
Nevertheless, I did and a few minutes into starting my first piece I was stopped by one of the formidable professors on the panel and having read on my application that I studied fine art, she requested I start again and imagine I had a paint brush in my mouth. Presumably in an attempt to quell my nerves and get me to concentrate on performing the music. As peculiar as it seemed at the time, her decoy worked and I was offered a place on the spot with a scholarship. So, armed with a 1st Class degree in thinking, I set off to London to have a nice time and do a bit of singing.
I did indeed have a very nice time but nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the training that ensued: vocal technique, classes in French, German, Italian, phonetics, acting, Tai Chi, Yoga and even elocution/speech lessons as they were called, with a lady who put her finger in my mouth to determine whether my racial heritage had any bearing on me having an alveolar ridge. Four years in total, the final two being spent on the Artist Diploma course - 'designed for students with the potential to become professional operatic singers'. I suppose it was at this point that I made a conscious decision to try and turn my hobby into a realistic career choice.
As well as an obligation to my family, who have always supported my choices, my decision to move forwards professionally with singing was prompted by my own realisation that being an artist is an act of devotion. It is my own devotion that has and continues to allow me to plough through in the face of nerves, knock-backs, scary auditions, criticism, being self-employed, going where the work takes me, working in countries where I don't speak the language and struggling through the difficult periods when I am 'in-between jobs'.
Moreover, it is this devotion that continuously drives me to want to find the best possible ways to use my ability as a singer. We all have a responsibility no matter what we do, to be authentic to who we are. What interests me most is not being a passive canary, but instead using words, music and my body to create a credible dramatic context. Opera is simply telling stories through music and like other art-forms, has the potential to provide thought-provoking commentary and innovative perspectives on a vast array of global ideas. Whether that be the emancipation of slavery, the treatment of migrant workers, exploitation, disease or human trafficking. Incidentally, all issues I have been forced to grapple with through the medium of opera.
No art can exist within a bubble and it is the responsibility of the artist to play the part of illuminator in the discourse of social, cultural and global concerns.
I was recently asked this question: 'What was your most memorable cultural experience when you were young and how has it stayed with you?' I usually have stock, safe answers for questions like this, but the first thing that came into my head was a trip organised by the BGS music department to see Mozart's opera Cosi fan tutte at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. Rather than being able to comment on the beauty of the performances or wax lyrical about Mozart's score, I had to own up and admit that the experience was only memorable because it was the first time I had been to the opera and I managed to sleep throughout the entire show. No doubt disturbing seasoned opera-goers with my now infamous snoring.
In any case, this was just one of countless cultural experiences I was privileged enough to be exposed to during my time at BGS.
Cultural education should have a secure and significant place in the curriculum. We are a very creative country. We only have to look at last year's olympic ceremonies to see this. Industries related to the creative arts currently employ over 2 million people in the UK and the arts are an expanding sector in the global market. Arts and culture make up 0.4 per cent of GDP – a significant return on the less than 0.1 per cent of government spending invested in the sector.
Despite this, the future status of the arts in education continues to be uncertain.
Last month, Liz Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare outlined more of the government's rationale for planned changes to the exam system, particularly highlighting competition with other countries and a need to build a high-earning work force as motivations for reform. She made it clear that certain subjects are valued over other subjects by the government, even using the phrase "We are rebalancing the curriculum towards high-value subjects - in maths, sciences, DT, computing, English and languages."
I like many others feel strongly that this is a very narrow view of the purpose of education, as it fails to acknowledge the need for rounded, engaged young people who are interested in and capable of shaping and commenting on society, nor does it acknowledge that the arts, culture and heritage are all essential to helping young people to create, reflect, problem solve and innovate. Cultural learning has clearly evidenced educational outcomes, it develops cognitive skills and improves attainment across the whole curriculum.
I feel proud to be able to say that despite current challenges, the Bury Grammar Schools continue to punch way above their weight when it comes to cultural education. The creation of the new Arts Centre being yet another display of our Schools' continued commitment to the arts. Furthermore, the great number of BGS alumni currently sustaining successful careers in the arts is a testament to the fully rounded and unbiased education they received at our Schools - from leading world class orchestras to starring in Downton Abbey.
I for one am extremely grateful for the starting point I received at BGS and perhaps without that 'memorable' trip to the Palace Theatre I wouldn't be pursuing my passion today.
So tonight I join you in celebrating your outstanding achievements and the positive contribution BGS makes and will continue to do so, not just in the arts but to society as a whole.
Peter Brathwaite, October 2013