Questions and answers: We chat to Helen Aiken
The Coleraine-born farmer's daughter is a rising musical star and will be showing off her skills as a soprano this weekend at the NI Opera Festival of Voice in Glenarm.
How did you discover your singing ability?
Well, it became apparent I had vocal potential at a young age, and I started singing lessons at 13. I used to sit at the piano, playing for hours before and after school, until I was capable of accompanying myself. I continued my studies in music at Queen’s University, and in Munich and London, and since then I’ve won most of the major prizes at music festivals throughout Ireland.
Are you looking forward to performing at the Festival of Voice this weekend?
I’m really thrilled to reach the finals! At this stage of my development, I put in all the experience, knowledge and vocal technique I’ve gained throughout my years of study. As my tutor, Dr Alison Feeney, always says: ‘There is no such a thing as an overnight success as an opera singer’.
How does one prepare for such a prestigious singing competition? It must be nerve-wracking!
The art of singing is very demanding, both on the vocal cords and the muscles needed for the strength to eventually sing with an orchestra. So, just like an athlete, I have to train every day.
I start in the morning with vocal warm-ups and breathing exercises, and because my pieces cover four languages — Russian, German, Italian and English — I’m always working on improving my language skills. Since returning from London, I’ve continued working with Dr Feeney on a twice-weekly basis. She’s been a wonderful support, not only preparing me vocally, but physically and mentally too.
You’re also taking part in NI Opera’s Young Artists Programme next month. Are these sorts of schemes a big help to a young performer’s career?
It’s certainly a marvellous opportunity for young singers. It’s designed to showcase up-and-coming singers and give us performance experience and exposure here at home, which is vital. We’re chosen from across Ireland, so winning one of the four places in the programme is a great achievement. I’m so looking forward to whatever awaits me!
Are family and friends a big support in your career?
My parents William and Heather have been a great support — especially financially — and the visual presence of my family and friends, who are always there cheering me on at a recital or competition, is such a wonderful feeling.
It gives me a chance to show what all the work, dedication and investment is about — especially when I win!
Where would you like to see yourself five years from now?
I hope to have performed often with a good orchestra, increased my repertoire of songs, have at least six new, complete opera roles under my belt and have become an even better singer and performer.
I am now right on the brink of a professional career and am proud that I am beginning it here in my own country with NI Opera.
- Helen Aiken is one of a number of young stars who will be taking part in NI Opera’s Festival of Voice in Glenarm, Co Antrim, from today until Sunday. For details and programme line-up, visit www.niopera.com