How to make an opera company


Trinity Laban alumnus and member of successful vocal quartet FourTune, Lucy Drever, talks to two successful student-led opera companies about how it’s done.

How to be an artist is changing. No longer are we allowed to wallow away somewhere (most likely dark) and practise our practice. We’re expected to audition for BGT, upload to SoundCloud and frequently update numerous social media sites with cute and non-desperate statuses. In this day and age, it’s simply not enough to create art, let alone be an artist - we have to be able to produce and sell it too.

How appropriate then that Trinity Laban – as ever, focused on training its students not only in practice, but also in how to find the gold at the end of the rainbow (i.e. make an actual living) - is churning out entrepreneurs aplenty.

Take John Savournin, Artistic Director of Charles Court Opera Company (CCO). Wanting to develop his directing skills, John decided in his second year of vocal studies at Trinity Laban (then Trinity College of Music) to get a bunch of his classmates together and stage a one-act opera. It was attended by accompanist David Eaton (who had worked with several Trinity Laban students and who is now CCO’s Residential Musical Director), and in Savournin’s words, he “hasn’t looked back.” CCO is now celebrating its 10 year anniversary with a ‘Hammer Horror’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore at The King’s Head Theatre.

As with any good business, Savournin quickly found a unique selling point in “light opera and a brand of ‘boutique panto’”. He learned scary things like how to budget (I know…the musician mind boggles) and quickly developed a fierce set of organisational skills that helped him deal with the inevitable obstacles that any arts company faces.

“From an artistic point of view, working on both sides of the table has been - and still is - an interesting and enlightening experience… I am very happy to put one hat aside completely and take up the other though, which is an important thing to be able to do.”

CCO became a creative outlet for Savournin, because as we all know, waiting for the phone to ring whilst watching reruns of Millionaire Matchmaker and stuffing our faces with whatever biscuit is on offer at Sainsbury’s is not a good idea. CCO productions gave him and other young singers and creatives an opportunity to be seen, and subsequently, a step up the elusive opera ladder. 

During her undergraduate degree at Trinity Laban, Taylor Ott also decided to start Puzzle Piece: her own opera company that would specialise in performing well-known operas in fifty minutes. Similar to Savournin, Ott wanted to provide opportunities for young singers.

 “You learn way more while you’re in performance than you do in a classroom or by yourself in a practice room. As much as those things are important, having frequent performance opportunities keeps you feeling like you can do it.”

Ott was also very keen to create a safe place for performers in training to take risks and not be judged. Six years later, Puzzle Piece is still going strong at Trinity Laban; and their latest production, Die Fledermaus in Fifty Minutes, is being performed in March.

Tom Holland, a Trinity Laban vocal undergraduate and current Director of Puzzle Piece, finds that directing his classmates helps him “spot all the details that turn a good performance into a great one, then you try and bring that into your own performance.” Puzzle Piece, like Charles Court Opera, is such an important way for young singers to develop not only their craft, but also an in-depth understanding of the world they dream about getting into.

Being an artist is indeed changing. And as Ott so aptly puts it: “It’s good to learn to do things by yourself; as a musician you have to be so crafty.”

Charles Court Opera performs Ruddigore at The Kings Head Theatre in Islington until 14 March – check out the latest reviews from David Nice at The Arts Desk and Robert Hugill –

Puzzle Piece performs Die Fledermaus in Fifty Minutes at Regent’s Hall on 20 March and Charlton House on 27 March.

Picture credit – Bill Knight – (l-r) Susanna Buckle (Trinity Laban graduate), Philip Lee and Andrea Tweedale

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