Q&A: Mezzo Soprano Clare Wilkinson

Posted on February 12, 2011

Born in Manchester to a family of musicians, mezzo soprano Clare Wilkinson read Classics with a choral scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge before moving on to Trinity College in London to study voice with Hazel Wood.  She now enjoys a busy international concert career.

She joins Manchester Camerata, conducted by Baroque expert Nicholas Kraemer for three concerts in February in Ulverston, Sheffield and Manchester. 


Q. At what age did you start singing and when exactly did you know you wanted to be a professional singer?

 Clare Wilkinson   A. My mother is a singer and I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of music, so singing happened from the beginning. I’m told that as a toddler I would demand, ‘everybody be quiet while I sing!’ As performers we spend the rest of our adult lives trying to regain that total confidence! As for choosing to be a professional singer, it was an organic process, really. I was pursuing singing because I loved it and desperately wanted to be doing it at a satisfying level. It hadn’t really occurred to me that people might give me money to do it. Then Alison Crum heard me singing a solo in one of my father’s concerts (with the William Byrd Singers at the RNCM) and offered me my first professional gig, singing early Italian repertoire with Musica Antiqua of London.  
I was seventeen and had no idea what I was doing, but Jacob Heringman (lute) and the rest of the group gave me coaching and encouragement – I just had a pink dress made and got on with it. 

Q. Who is the most inspirational musician you’ve worked with so far and how have they influenced you?

A. Without a doubt my father, Stephen. As well as giving me the building blocks for my musical life, his passionate attention to musical shape and textual detail is second to none. His humility in the face of great works by Bach or Byrd reminds me that it’s about the music, not the ego. He’s not interested in performing things the way other people do them, or taking a fashionable approach – he’s taught me that you have to be true to how the music and the text speak to you personally.

Q. You are known as a soloist specialising in Renaissance and Baroque music. How often do you perform music from other eras or genres?

A. These days period instrument ensembles often perform and commission new works for old instruments. Fretwork is particularly active in this area, and I frequently sing modern works with them, including pieces by John Joubert, Duncan Druce and Stephen Wilkinson which were written for us. On our recent recording ‘The Silken Tent’ (available to download from Fretwork’s website) we spanned the centuries fairly comprehensively – you’ll find music by Alexander Goehr, Michael Nyman, Warlock, Wolf and Britten as well as Byrd, Gibbons and Purcell. I enjoy the variety, and the challenge of getting to grips with a tricky new piece, but Bach and Byrd will always be ‘home’.

Q. Do you have a favourite venue and do you ever get stage fright?

A. My favourites are not the grand concert halls. Any venue can be special if the atmosphere is right! My first experience of singing the Byrd five-part Mass was in the sloping upper room of an Elizabethan barn in Worcestershire, and that place left a very deep impression on me. I love singing in English country churches, immense Spanish cathedrals, people’s front rooms. The RNCM concert hall is crammed with happy memories from earliest childhood on. As for stage fright – yes, learning how to cope with ‘the fear’, as singers tend call it, is part of the job! It can rear its head when you least expect it, and be totally absent when you’d expect it to be there. Finding ways to use the adrenalin of performance in positive ways is part of the long-term learning curve of a performing career.

Q. Apart from music, what are your other passions?

A. When I’m not working I love just being at home! I moved to a little Cambridgeshire cottage a year ago after ten years in London and am madly in love with my new life. I can very happily spend days taking long walks on the water meadows, gardening (inexpertly), baking cakes, reading, entertaining friends or just pottering about in the house. I’m away from home a lot, which makes those days all the more precious. I love animals; it’s not practical to own a pet while I’m travelling so much so I encourage the birds to come to my garden. They’re such interesting characters, from the little mouse-like sparrows to the pair of woodpigeons so fat they can barely launch themselves off the shed roof to get to the feeding tray.
Read more about Manchester Camerata’s forthcoming concerts involving Clare Wilkinson
Find out more about Nicholas Kraemer