The (two) sopranos

Discovered busking in Covent Garden just weeks before the game, the Opera Babes led the crowd in Abide with Me and the National Anthem at last year’s FA Cup Final. After all that palaver, you’d guess they would know classical music can be a game of two halves.

Broughton High School in Edinburgh may not be as grand a setting as Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. But such is the interest in these two young women, even here, ahead of their appearance, a TV presenter is warming up for a local news report and a small press cordon is primed to capture the best of the action.

So we wait as the crowd assembles. Music students file in quietly at the front of the school’s theatre, media studies types are yakking at the back. Then, all noise and Nike branding, from doors at every corner of the room, a class of squirts tumbles into view. As the hubbub reaches a crescendo, the voice of a music teacher yells: "Two-S-Two. What’s going on?"

All of a sudden the television frontman has started rubbing the back of his head nervously. He’s remembering that old broadcasting maxim: "Never work with children or animals".

He needn’t worry - the teacher is still holding the crowd in check. "Bear this in mind," he says, "be a warm audience. This is the first day of their first tour, but they’ve already signed a deal with Sony records and I’m sure they’ve got a great career ahead of them.

"There are so many groups around who just look good, but can’t sing very well. The difference with the Opera Babes is they can sing - it’s purely coincidental they look like they do."

Happy coincidence. There’s polite applause and a wolf-whistle from the general direction of Two-S-Two, as two slim, blonde women in smocks and jeans take the stage. Then, without a microphone to their names, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Knight and Karen England, soprano, launch into song.

For most of the adolescent audience what pours forth is a fantastic, unearthly sound. If the majority can’t understand the words of Ave Maria they can marvel at the sheer intensity of the sound. Snooty critics may sneer, the not-so-snooty can scoff, but these kids are transfixed.

As the last note fades, one 14-year-old is so overcome she forgets to join the renewed applause; instead she breathes: "That was good music."

The first half - the songs - goes well for the Babes. But in the second period they start their question-and-answer session hesitantly. It’s probably the big-occasion nerves, the unfamiliar surroundings, the huge crowd.

At last, the silence breaks. "Have you got boyfriends?" squeaks a voice. The women reply they’ve married their beaux, who are both violinists. "How old are you, then?" "How old do you think?" Rebecca fires back. The voices shout: "18!" "19?" "21?" That’s surely a tinge of self-satisfaction about the lips of Ms Knight, 32, as she takes in the numbers.

And, slowly, they win over the crowd. The Babes’ habit of calling each other "love" isn’t playing well with the locals, but the multitude is definitely warming up.

England asks her new admirers: "What’s your image of opera singers?" Over the din, a consensus forms around "Fat".

"Where do you get that from?" ask the Babes in mock amazement. As a single voice the crowd responds: "Pavarotti."

"And do you think it’s for old people?"

The multitude: "Aye."

"Is it for posh people?"


"You know what?" asks Knight. "It’s actually quite cheap to go to the opera, as cheap as a football match. You can go to ENO - English National Opera - for about ten quid, up in the Gods. It’s cheaper than going to watch Les Mis."

"Who is Les Miz?" a boy in a yellow football shirt is wondering, but his hungry-looking pal is more forward with his follow-up. "Do you make videos?" he yells. "What sort of videos?" sassy Becca quips.

A teacher frowns at the lad, thinking: "Easy Tiger." Afterwards in the silent sanctuary of the staff room, if not a sense of triumph, there’s relief as the singers relax. It was better than the morning gig in Glasgow, they agree; great facilities, a good school and talented kids. They only wish they’d workshopped more.

The truth is, specialist music schools like Broughton are often visited by pop bands, but they rarely see classically trained singers and musicians. As it stands, this show has been a novelty as much for its stars as for its audience.

Knight and England, 28, met four-and-a-half years ago, when both were working on a production of The Magic Flute. After touring the show to North America, they decided to busk in London as a means of gearing up for auditions for bigger roles. Instead they were spotted by a tout for a management agency who apparently reported, "These babes do opera." "Hence the crappy name," growls England.

Since then, life has been a whirl. After their FA Cup triumph, the women found themselves centre stage a couple of weeks later in the pre-match festivities at the UEFA Cup Final. Then, signed to Sony, the notion of producing a first album took over their lives.

It’s all been an incredible shock, Knight agrees. "The music business seems to be all about business and not about music.

"The thing about singing, particularly opera, is that you have to be happy. You have to be open, because you are vulnerable, it’s a vulnerable thing to do. We’re trying to meet minds with the record company, but it’s almost as if they throw things at you. You start covering up a bit, you start becoming round-shouldered and looking down. It can be stressful."

England adds: "We sit at home, waiting to find out where we’re going, what music we’re going to be singing, what we’re going to wear."

Knight cuts in: "And to find out what they’ve done with the music we’ve performed ..." and, says England, " … what photos they’re going to pick for the posters."

"Give them their due," concedes the older partner. "They do ask, ‘What do you prefer?’ but what comes out is anybody’s guess."

But these women remain reassuringly serious in their intent. They are, of course, both classically trained (Knight’s mother is an opera singer) and they’ve worked hard with voice coach Paul Wynne-Griffiths at the Royal Opera House to set themselves a standard in their first album.

But with a drum-beat buskers’ backing, England admits they are bound to turn some noses up. They have still to release a recording, but already the first critics have skulked into print in the serious music press.

She says: "You can have all the training in the world, but it’s like, if you’re not standing there wearing an evening dress, you can’t be taken seriously … But we’re going to take every day and see where it goes." And, Knight says, "We’ve not departed from theatre for ever; that’s in our blood."

For the immediate future, there are landmarks ahead. They are playing Buckingham Palace today , there’s talk of some gigs in New York and, they remind themselves, a tour in support of old schnozzle himself, Barry Manilow.

At that they giggle, but then, even those well-behaved Broughton kids giggled when the Babes announced that.

Opera babes
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