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Interview: Jonathan Veira, opera singer

01 February 2013

'The Church is beginning to allow people to enjoy themselves'

Singing wasn't part of my long-term plan, I have to say. Far from it. While studying music at uni, I was continuing my piano lessons and taking conducting lessons, but was desperate to drop my viola lessons for something else. Someone suggested I might be able to take singing lessons - and I found that I could sing.

I continually make jokes about viola players: a viola player gets sick of his viola, throws it out the window, and goes off to buy a flute. The man in the shop says: "You're a viola player, aren't you?" The violist says: "How did you know?" The man in the shop says: "Well, for a start, this is a fish-and-chip shop."

You're a viola player? Let's have a minute's silence.

My name is Portuguese, and the Portuguese were in Macau; so I have a bit of Chinese ancestry. And my mother found out this year that her great-grandmother was a South American Indian. But I was born and bred in north-west London. My father was an estate agent, my mother a school secretary. I was one of three.

I live in Guildford now; so I've moved a little: only 35 miles. But I've travelled the world.

I wish I was Italian. I've had to sing in eight languages, and most of my favourite roles, the opera buffa roles, are in Italian. Falstaff, Don Pasquale, Leporello, Don Magnif-ico.

Learning a new role takes between three to six months, depending on the complexity and language. Czech is always a longer job.

I've worked all around the world as a freelance soloist, but probably most for Glyndebourne Opera. It's paid the bills for the past 26 years, in conjunction with my other musical work as a singer and entertainer.

Nerves of steel? Maybe not. I was known in places as "cast-iron Jonny" because I was known to be reliable. Of course I get nervous before every performance - necessary to perform well. I'm always very aware that everything rests on two tiny vocal chords; so I try to treat them with respect: they are irreplaceable, and I try to keep healthy.

Over 17 years, I've developed a one-man show where I sing all types of music, and introduce humour as well: totally different from singing in an opera, but I work just as hard at it. Last year, I gave 61 performances of my Audience with JV show around the country, and 30 are booked for this year. Before training my voice to sing operatically, I was singing gospel music, rock 'n' roll, blues - anything, as long as it was good music.

I've got three sons, aged 25, 21, and 19; so I made sure one could play guitar, one play the bass, and the other the drums. They make a fantastic backing band for me, and they all sing, too.

I know that when people see my family - three young guys and a bald old geezer - performing together, they're often greatly moved.

I do a bit of stand-up, tell viola jokes, talk about faith in my everyday life in an opera house somewhere. . . A lot of people think faith is just something in our heads, but the kindness that we show to people - it impacts on every aspect of life. We give out two CDs of St Mark's Gospel that I recorded, and they can buy books, and keep in contact with me on the website.

This show is all about vulnerability. I don't speak from a position of power [but] supreme weakness. But it's not a conference: it's a concert.

We're also working with the charity Compassion UK. We went to Ethiopia last year with them; so we also show a film we made when we were there, and ask what we can contribute to the world to make it a different place.

I'm doing Peter Grimes in September, and I also do an evening introducing people to opera through my repertoire, telling stories, getting the audience to enact it with me.

The Church is beginning to allow people to enjoy themselves.

Mozart: you listen to that, and you can hear the hand of the Creator in this stuff. In creative and visual arts there's extraordinary, wonderful beauty for us to enjoy, and we also have something to say in this world.

Sometimes, I think singing is a technical job of work, but as I see people touched, moved, and maybe blessed by a song, I see the creative-God process happening before my eyes. This becomes an offering to God.

The concert at All Souls', Langham Place will be fantastic - everything from gospel to big ballads to jazz, and, of course, a couple of operatic arias. My sons will be my backing band, and Noel Tredinnick, with some of the All Souls' Orchestra will accompany me. I'm also filming it and making a live CD. No pressure.

When I went to university, I saw there was a bigger kingdom. It was as if I'd grown up in one room, and then found out it extended hugely into highways and byways. I saw many people with faith which affected their lives, opinions, relationships - not just their religious life. I saw you could be proactive, move into the world, achieve a lot in extending that Kingdom, faith and God being alive and well in our community.

When I am listening to God, it is good. When I am not, it isn't good. God is faithful, although I am often not. I am not being humble - I speak from a position of vulnerability, not strength.

I pray best when I'm in the car, or out walking in the woods, when I am on my own. Praying then becomes a natural communication. I love silence and nature, and often hear God better in those situations. I pray to know what is the perfect and acceptable will of God. Nothing big.

Apart from choosing to follow Jesus, I would say marrying my wife was my most important choice in life. She has been God's means of grace to me. The kindest and most consistent person I have ever met - and she isn't even paying me to say this.

The family is God's big idea for society and its cohesion. The undermining of this is a big problem, and we're now reaping the rewards. But I am fully, painfully aware that things go wrong in families, and breakdowns can happen. Family life is never easy.

"Je ne regrette rien" - like "My Way" - is a song I will never sing. There are things that I wish I could change, and one of them is the amount of time I spent away from my wife and children when the boys were younger. Working abroad for long periods isn't fun or glamorous, and I missed birthdays, anniversaries, and just being there with them.

As a child, I wanted to play cricket for England and be a jazz pianist. I was no good at either.

I'd like to be remembered for making people laugh out loud; and being a good husband, father, and friend.

Ian Lawrence, my music teacher at school, told me I could do it.

Michael Baughen preached on suffering, and held my attention (and my sons') for 40 minutes - talking on a difficult and challenging subject. Also, I'd say, many sermons by David Bracewell and Colin Matthews over the year. Also a sermon on dichotomy by Simon Holland.

I love story-telling, and the narrative of Jesus is constantly amazing to me. I least like . . . oh no, I won't fall into that trap. Hate mail will follow.

The Lake District, or anywhere next to the sea, will do for me.

What annoys me? How long have you got? I constantly lose it. From politics, to the media, to: "Why is this bowl left here again? It should be in the dishwasher." I make my point.

I'm happiest outside, in the countryside or swimming in the sea - particularly any time with my family around me.

The thought of being locked in a church for any length of time with anyone makes my blood run cold.

Jonathan Veira was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

An Audience with JV is at All Souls', Langham Place, London W1, at 7.30 p.m., Friday 15 February and Saturday 16 February. Tickets from www.jonathanveira.com/tickets


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