FIRST PERSON: Operatic life of stars, songs and suitcases

South Wales Argus: A LIFE IN OPERA: Karl Daymond outside his World’s Smallest Opera House in Tutshill A LIFE IN OPERA: Karl Daymond outside his World’s Smallest Opera House in Tutshill

OPERA singer and actor Karl Daymond has performed for royalty, starred alongside the late legendary Welsh actor Victor Spinetti and owns ‘the smallest opera house in the world’.

He talks to KATH SKELLON about a career spanning more than three decades.

IT was such an honour to have been asked to sing at the memorial service for Cwm-born Victor Spinetti at The Actors’ Church in Covent Garden last week. I had performed alongside him in the Carl Rosa Opera Company’s production of The Merry Widow.

It was a moving tribute to a great chap and one of the funniest afternoons I have spent.

There were readings from Carry On actress Barbara Windsor, Jim Davidson, Barry Cryer, Rob Brydon and Ronnie Corbett, who got stuck in the church loo, delaying the service by ten minutes.

Victor was a wonderful colleague.

It was a joy to play scenes with someone of his experience and talent. He starred in all The Beatles’ films and was a close friend of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The stories he told about his illustrious career were hilarious and heart-warming.

Over the years I’ve been lucky to perform alongside many great actors, such as Hollywood star Dustin Hoffman, and perform all over Europe and the US as a principal baritone. I was a soloist in The Royal Variety Performance in 2004 and have sung in front of 79,000 people at Old Trafford.

I am an entertainer who has enjoyed a successful singing career but nowadays I enjoy nothing more than a good sit down at the piano for a spot of my own brand of musical entertainment, and running The Singing Club in Chepstow and Lydney.

My love affair with singing began at an early age. I grew up in a musical family in Neath watching my cousin Della Jones – a mezzo-soprano – perform, so a singing career seemed inevitable.

I once saw Della sing at the Royal Opera House, London, and remember thinking that that seemed like a nice thing to do.

I loved the combination of music and drama. My school had two full orchestras and all the instruments you could think of. The peripatetic teachers were so inspirational and committed.

Singing is in our hearts in Wales and back then all the towns had an amateur operatic society that would put on shows.

Everyone would be a part of.

I went to see Della perform in Venice, Italy, which made me think that if she could travel and do something she loved to do then I could, too.

I took to the stage playing the clarinet in the orchestra in an opera in Swansea when I was 16 and knew it was where I wanted to be.

At 18 I successfully auditioned for a scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. It was a big leap moving from Wales to a flat in East London, but as students we had free passes and spent many evenings standing at the back of the opera house.

It was a hot-house of music and drama, language and movement at a very high level. As well as singing I studied the piano.

I spent six years learning my craft, attending at The National Opera Studio sponsored by the Glyndebourne Opera Festival.

I have had one or two mishaps on stage, which is every performer’s nightmare. On one occasion I came on stage through a trap door in the middle of someone else’s love scene and had to walk off the stage. It was deeply humiliating but very funny after the event.

During that period I sang in The Merchant of Venice alongside Dustin Hoffman. We performed eight shows a week for three months. It was fascinating to watch someone of that level and commitment.

I spent 15 years in London living out of a suitcase while working as a freelance for all the UK opera companies in Europe and the USA. It was exciting.

People say it looks glamourous from the outside but it is extremely hard work.

I worked in Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and Holland. I once performed Don Giovanni in Italian at a festival in Italy which was nerve-wracking and I also sang at the Italian premiere of Bernstein’s Candide.

After a while hotel rooms and theatre can be anywhere in the world. I was desperate to settle down somewhere.

I spent a lot of time in airports travelling from one performance to another. There was a time when I was performing in Berlin by night and recording an opera in Paris in the mornings.

For two weeks I would take two flights a day and was exhausted.

When I got back to London I was tired of travelling and decided to make Chepstow my home.

It’s central between my family in Swansea and London and is a great town.

It felt like coming home.

Although I didn’t know a soul when I arrived I made it my home and have been here ever since.

In 2004, I performed in front of Prince Charles at the Royal Variety Show when I sang The Pirate King from Pirates of Penzance. I remember standing in the wings with Liza Minelli, Sir Cliff Richard and Sir Elton John, watching rehearsals, in awe. It was so surreal.

We had a dress rehearsal the day before with costumes and cameras, so I wasn’t too nervous.

One my rituals before performing is that I always have to watch whoever is on before me so that I can hear the response of the audience.

In another live television performance I was standing in the middle of the pitch at Old Trafford on my own preparing to sing Jerusalem to 79,000 rugby league fans.

It was hard to take on board how many people there were and quite daunting. It was live on television so I knew I couldn’t go wrong.

Performing is quite similar to sports in that you have to get in the zone, but it was magical to hear the crowd were singing along with me.

I’ve made many recordings, radio and television appearances, including two films for the BBC, one of which won the Gramaphone and Vienna TV awards.

I’ve also appeared with many opera companies and orchestras, from The Royal Opera House to The Royal Philharmonic, and with Lesley Garrett and Sir Thomas Allen.

One of my biggest roles was starring in the film Trouble in Tahiti – a Bernstein opera for the BBC which gained a Grammy nomination. I had to sing live to music pre-recorded by an orchestra, on set.

Of all the performances I have done I enjoy the intimate audiences best. I find huge theatres impersonal and can’t see ‘the whites of their eyes’ or if they are enjoying it.

I once had the privilege of performing with Montserrat Caballe at the Banqueting Hall, in London’s Whitehall, at a gala concert for Diana, Princess of Wales, whom I was honoured to meet.

She was the President of The British Youth Opera, of which I was a member.

Diana did her job extremely well and she would always have something funny to say.

I had no idea then that I would be walking behind the gun carriage at her funeral several years later in 1997, when I was asked to represent the British Youth Opera at her funeral.

The public display of grief, as I walked from St James’ Palace to Westminster, was extraordinary.

My career continued to blossom and saw me set up the Operaplayhouse company with friend and mezzo Pippa Longsworth.

We bought a tiny trailer and turned it into an opera house.

It’s the smallest in the world and can seat 12 people. It also functions as a stage for much bigger outdoor audiences and we would perform all over the country together. We performed the Guinness World Record for the shortest opera, at three minutes and 34 seconds.

I still perform self-penned silly songs, most recently on The Bookshow for SkyArts, with Mariella Frostrup.

We write topical songs performed in an operatic-style.

Last year I had the honour to be asked to make a special recording in London as a requested artist for Anna Scher when she was a guest on BBC R4’s Desert Island Discs.

Until recently I was the music director with the Chepstow Male Voice Choir.

My passion for singing led me to form The Singing Club a few years ago. It’s a group for adults who want to sing but don’t necessarily want to audition.

In the club you don’t need to have read music, you won’t be asked to sing on your own and you don’t need any singing experience at all. We sing everything from folk to gospel, classical to rock and pop and everything in between. We’ve covered Leonard Cohen, Queen, and performed Chariots of Fir,e accompanied by a piano on wheels, when the Olympic Flame came to Monmouth.

Singing is a way of bringing people together and is a part of every culture. Singing is also a good release in times of grief and tension.

It’s about building confidence in our clubs in Chepstow, Usk and Lydney. We are thrilled to be singing our Christmas Carols at the Wales Millennium Centre in December.

I am saddened when people think they can’t sing. I always say that if you can speak you can sing.

Myself and Pippa will be performing Christmas in the Parlour at the Chepstow Castle Inn, Chepstow, on December 10 and 11 at 7.30pm.

Tickets from 01291 630956.

Visit singingclubber.- co.uk or operaplayhouse.com

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