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Soph Wilson

Manchester, UK

Soph Wilson on Breaking the Silence at the Opera

Just graduating from Leeds Conservatoire with a degree in classical singing, Manchester–based Soph Wilson is not your quintessential opera singer, nor does she want to be. We talked with her about her thoughts on shaking up a traditional industry.

The below interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FLORE DIAMANT

Hey Barista

How would you describe your style in relation to a typical opera singer?

 

 

Soph

I’d say I definitely don’t fit the mold of a typical opera singer, and that is a barrier that I’ve come across. For example, during my degree, I wore trousers and a shirt during an exam, and they said that I wasn’t dressed appropriately because I think they want the female singers to wear dresses or skirts, not trousers. That stayed with me, and it creeps into when I’m performing. I do feel insecure that I don’t fit that classic skinny, pretty girl mold, but that is a big issue in the industry itself. There’s an example of a soprano, Deborah Voigt, who had an audition in 1996, and they asked her why she was so fat and told her to lose weight. It’s crazy. I think they just want conventionally attractive people rather than going purely off the voice.

Hey Barista

You’ve said that opera is a very traditional, patriarchal art form that is not really keeping up with the modern world. In what ways do you see this playing out?

Soph

Opera has existed for so many years that it is stuck with a lot of traditional tropes—like the men come across as strong whilst all the women are pretty and play weak characters. The genre is also completely formed around gender and heterosexual relationships because the casting is based on male and female voices, so it’s hard for queer people. I have a female voice type, so as a soprano, you are very much expected to want to sing the role of a damsel in distress. And I just don’t want to be singing that. The whole experience is just a bit naff. In other musical genres like pop and indie, there are much more young and liberal people, and therefore it’s not even a question of acceptance when it comes to queer people. But in opera and classical music, it’s like that horrible feeling of walking into a room and everyone going silent.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FLORE DIAMANT

Hey Barista

Are there other young people interested in changing the opera world for the better?

 

 

Soph

There are young people still interested, but a lot of them do fit that typical, traditional opera singer mold. There aren’t many people coming in and causing chaos. But there are young people who are more like me, who are more progressive, and they could be trans or nonbinary. There’s a nonbinary opera singer called Ella Taylor who recently completed the Young Artists programme at the National Opera Studio in London. And you always see that their pronouns are respected on concert programs, so it does seem like it’s going in the right direction. But I think it’s going to be a pretty big struggle to create real change in the industry. We would need a lot of people and a lot of time. And there’d be a lot of angry people, especially the old, very old-fashioned men who run all the opera houses and the older customers who come to see opera. I don’t think they’d want to see a gender-queer person on stage singing or a gay relationship. I think it would be a generational thing. It’d be very, very gradual.

Hey Barista

So, if you could wave a magic wand, what changes would you like to see in the future of opera and classical music?

Soph

I would want to see more women with authority, because as it stands now, I think less than 10 percent of conductors are women, which is crazy. I think the main issue of the industry is that there’s this barrier for women to even want to go for those male-dominated jobs because they know they’ll just get absolutely destroyed by all these men. I think that would be the first thing I’d change.

 

I also want the industry to become more friendly toward women and people who don’t fit the gender binary. It’s so boring that plots are always about a man and a female in love. It could be two men, two females, anything. It doesn’t even have to be about love. Just let people sing what they want to sing.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FLORE DIAMANT

Hey Barista

Big cheesy question, but what does music mean to you?

Soph

Writing music is a very personal outlet for me. I can say things that I would never want to talk to people about, which is very cliché, but it does really, really help. And I think it’s a good way to switch off from everything. You can just be really in your own head, although I get nervous about putting my thoughts out there to people, especially people I know. I think that I enjoy opera and classical singing so much because I know I’m not what they are usually looking for, and I just find that really satisfying. I can sing it, but I don’t look how they want me to look or think how everyone’s told to think. But I do feel very lucky to have had this education and the opportunity to sing such amazing music.

Hey Barista

You’re trying to change a system that’s deeply rooted in tradition. Are there others within opera who have inspired you?

Soph

There was a composer called Dmitri Shostakovich in Russia, and he was a socialist under Stalin’s reign. Back then the composers were told what they could and couldn’t compose, but Shostakovich rebelled against all that and kept writing the music he wanted to write. It really inspires me that he broke out of that mold and did what he wanted to do and ended up writing some of the best music that’s ever existed.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FLORE DIAMANT

Hey Barista

Is opera something you want to continue pursuing as a career?

Soph

If there were quick and big changes to the industry, it would be something that I would consider, but I do think that coffee is what I want to pursue as my career. Although there are similar issues [in the coffee world] with men having a lot of authority, it is a lot better than opera. So I think being in an industry that is changing and is progressing and [where] you can be who you want to be, your own person—that’s ideally where I’d want to be. And I love coffee, so…

Hey Barista

Is Manchester also where you want to be?

Soph

The coffee scene here is really broad, and there was a place that I really wanted to work—where I am now working, which is great. The world has just worked out! And it’s got a big queer scene. I used to live in Leeds, where I sometimes felt a little bit unsafe in terms of queerness and whatever, but in Manchester, there are so many queer people everywhere, it feels like a proper community. It’s really big, so you can just kind of get lost [in a good way], you know what I mean? In Manchester you will see new people every single day, and I’m really interested in people. I think that’s what I love the most.