'Loft Party Meets Musical Soiree' - Q&A with Debut's Lizzie Holmes
Debut has been on our radars for over a year, and is definitely a company worth keeping an eye on. A platform for the UK’s finest fresh-faced opera talent, they aim to bridge the worlds of opera and events – as well as hosting monthly nights in Shoreditch designed to redefine notions of the artform. Felicity caught up with its founder, former Phantom of the Opera performer Lizzie Holmes, to find out more.
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Can you tell us a bit about your background?
It’s been a pretty eclectic journey to where I am now - and liberating to realise that it’s impossible to copy anybody else’s path to success. We all just muddle through with what we create and discover, influenced by the people we meet and the experiences we encounter (and sometimes endure!). I studied Economics, Theatre and English at school and went on to read English Literature at Warwick University. This is where I fell in love with devised theatre through working with Curious Directive, and discovered opera – through my brilliant singing teacher, Llyndall Trotman – who I still work with now. Whilst training to get into music colleges, I worked as a full time carer for a friend with cerebral palsy and then secured my Masters at the Royal College of Music. I applied for two years in a row – the first getting rejections across the board and the following year was accepted into all 5 top music conservatoires in the country. As a soprano (where competition is BONKERS), it’s still one of those things that I feel really proud about!
When it was time to look beyond music college, I applied for a range of things – Thursford Christmas Spectacular, the English National Opera’s training programme and The Phantom of the Opera. When the offers all came back in, I took the leap and spent the next two years embracing the life of a West End performer. To date, I’m the youngest person in the world to professionally play Madame Giry (at the age of 25 – she’s modeled on Mrs Danvers from Rebecca and is meant to be about 60!) and over 80,000 people have seen me play her.
After two years with the Phantom family, I realised that vocally I really missed the challenges of opera and the shorter contracts. Most West End musicals are year-long contracts (with 8 shows a week), whereas opera contracts are more like 8-20 performances in total spread over a period of a few months. So for the past year, I’ve been running Debut Opera and working as a freelance opera singer. I had my first summer festival this year in the inaugural Grange Festival’s season covering Miss Wordsworth in John Copley’s Albert Herring and next up I’ll being doing La Bohème (King’s Head Theatre), Così Fan Tutte (Devon Opera), L’elisir d’amore (Woodhouse Opera) and Hansel and Gretel (Fulham Opera). I studied Economics for A Level so guess I’ve always had an interest in business, but my passion for entrepreneurship has really developed over the last three years – when it dawned on me that I’m only going to have a career if I make it happen!
So what’s Debut, and how did it come about?
In my last term at the Royal College of Music, I organised and sang at Connor’s 60th birthday party in Kensington. Joined by three other musicians we spent the night chatting to the guests and performing opera favourites throughout the night. Pretty standard stuff, but what struck me was that as we were leaving all four of us singers left saying ‘I haven’t had so much fun performing in ages’. It’s a huge privilege to train at the world’s top music conservatoires (and damn hard to get into!) but in our/their pursuit of excellence, I think young performers can often lose track of why they’re doing it. If you keep looking for tomorrow without enjoying the achievements of today, it can be hugely dangerous. I’ve seen so many singer friends drop out because they’re just lost that love.
The crazy – or perhaps not so crazy – thing is that the performers our guests adore more than any other are the ones who show humanity, sincerity.
I did a corporate gig for a singing waiters company and was astounded by the poor quality of the ‘opera’ singers. I left thinking ‘if this is what people think opera sounds like, no wonder they’re not interested in hearing more of it!’. So that’s the wedding and corporate side – the belief that I could do better – with younger singers and rising stars who could perform the socks off the arias and really do with the extra cash.
The other side of it is the Debut Treehouse nights. My main aim was to bring together audiences and performers for a joyous night of music with a bit of a social thrown into it too! I wanted to create more enjoyable experiences for performers – and give them an opportunity to run important repertoire that they’d use for big auditions or competitions to a live audience who would be bowled over.
What’s a night like at the Shoreditch Treehouse with Debut?
I coined the phrase ‘Loft Party meets Musical Soiree’ to describe our nights in the treehouse – and it really is that. It’s more an experience than a concert, in that we invite our guests to ‘make themselves at home’. There’s cushions to sit on, neighbours to chat to with, ice cream tasting and a craft beer and bubbles bar. The music is divided into delightfully digestible sections (we have 90 minutes in total) – so although our audience sits in rapt silence during the performances (asides from the rowdy cheers at the end!), there’s lots of time to mix and mingle too.
I attended a concert recently hosted at a beautiful house in central London. The performers were exceptional – Young Artists of the Royal Opera House who had boundless energy and charisma (and that’s not to mention their stonking voices) but I was heartbroken to look around the audience and see them nodding off, or sat in a dull stupor. I left feeling so deflated! And convinced that it’s not the music killing opera, it’s (sometimes) the audiences! Good singing – whether it’s opera or musical theatre – is visceral and insanely exciting when done well. We want our audiences to leave BUZZING, and so far, I’m delighted to see that through a combination of the performers and the venue it’s working.
How do you choose who you collaborate with?
When we started out, it was mainly colleagues and friends of friends. The world of opera is pretty small! But as the nights go on and get bigger, my aim is to hold regular meet and greets with musicians who’d like to perform. It’s a brilliant platform to grow your audience.
How do you curate the Debut Treehouse programmes?
For our monthly nights in 2017, we have different themes: Shakespearean Summers, A Night on Broadway, Shoreditch Proms, The Elixir of Love. These nights mean that we really show how broadly classical music reaches from film scores to opera, musicals to cabaret.
I’m also interested in developing nights that help introduce audiences to some of the UK’s big competitions and opera companies. For example, we did a night with the chorus of the Grane Festival (with a Carmen flashmob!) and are hosting the Wigmore Warm Ups next week for 3 duos competing in the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition.
What does the future look like for Debut Treehouse?
Busy! Haha. Every night we host at the Treehouse I’m approached by different guests with ideas and propositions. It’s really exciting to see how our simple story – offering a platform to emerging musicians and our new and super chilled approach to classical music – has really got people buzzing! For 2018, we look forward to expanding our Shakespearean Summers programme and taking it to the Clapham Omnibus, corporate gigs providing good money for great musicians and of course Debut Treehouse - I'm thinking about launching a Masterclass Series too.
Have you any advice for anyone starting their own business in the creative industries?
Do it! I set up Debut in 2015 when I was performing six days a week in Phantom and it’s only now beginning to find its real identity. So take your time and let the ideas develop I remember taking solace when I started out by looking at how companies that I really respect now started out – everyone is just muddling their way through in the beginning! For budding creative entrepreneurs, I’d really recommend the ‘How I Built This’ podcast – weekly episodes of ‘the stories behind the movement’. I listen to them when jogging and can often be seen pulling the craziest faces in disbelief of the stories they’re telling! I’m always looking for inspiration and this up there with one of my favourites!
Find something that you really care about. When we started out, I was traipsing round Wedding Fairs in Kensington and at the Excel Centre and found it totally uninspiring. It wasn’t the right way to get the word out about Debut, so identifying and connecting with your right audience is really important.
As a performer (as well as Debut, I’m juggling learning 5 new operatic roles this Autumn-Spring!), setting up and running Debut has helped me expand my professional network. It also fulfils aspects that I value in a career that can be super hard to find as a performer – like control!
And finally…what’s your favourite thing about your work on Debut?
I have a good eye for performers. It’s thrilling to see the singers that we’ve been working with continuously going onto bigger and better things.
Sharing the Debut Treehouse nights with people – inviting performers along and having them say at the end of the night how much they loved it and how they want to return.