In an alternative life I might have pursued a singing career or at least a career on stage (I live vicariously through my actor son now!) so I love it when I get to meet women who are doing just that. Rebecca Caine is one such talented woman. She was born in Toronto and studied at the Guildhall School of music and unusually has a career singing in both opera and cabaret.
Jane: Rebecca, I’m so pleased to be talking to you properly at last! (We tweet usually, only 140 characters). As a young girl were you always a performer? Do you remember your first ‘public’ performance?
Rebecca: I decided to be a singer at age 6 after seeing Carmen. A brief flirtation with becoming an astronaut after the moon landings came to nothing as I didn’t have the maths.
When did you move from Canada to the UK? Was that a difficult move for you?
Actually although I was born in Toronto and am a Canadian, I grew in the states. First Baltimore and then Princeton. My father was an academic.
After a family schism I ended up in London at 16 with my mother and sister. They returned to the USA after a year but it was decided that I should drop out of High School and enter the Guildhall school of Music. My mother was born here so I had right of abode.
No, it wasn’t very easy. London in the 70s was grim and I was a pretty awkward kid.The culture shock was huge. I’d been brought up as an English child in the US, my mother was odd about letting us assimilate so I felt very out of place initially.
What was your very first professional performance on the stage? Do you remember how much you were paid?
Back in the day one had to get an Equity card and after I’d dropped out of the Guildhall at 19 I joined a small opera company that had one to give away. I’m not sure what I was paid but I think it was probably about £50 a performance. My first role was Despina in Cosi fan Tutte.
I am assuming that you have had periods in your career of ‘resting’. Do you have a back up career for those times? What other jobs have you done?
I was very lucky. Because I was both an opera singer and a musical theatre actor I got a lot of work.
Also, there was only a very small pool of actors in musicals then so it was pretty easy. I’ve only once done a “real” job.
After I got West Side Story my agent turned it down as I couldn’t do a years contract: I’d been contracted to go to Glyndebourne Opera for my chorus year.
I fired my agent but still had to go to Glyndebourne where Trevor Nunn saw me and asked me to do Les Mis so I guess it happened for a reason!
I didn’t know it at the time of course so that Christmas instead of playing Maria I grumpily sold knickers in Selfridges. That was the only real job I’ve done. I teach a bit now.
How did you get your first break?
My singing teacher’s agent rang me and asked if I’d like to go up for the role of Laurey in Oklahoma! in the West End.
I got it. It was my second job.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
I’m really not sure. Whatever it was I was bound to have ignored it!
I was very head strong and made an enormous amount of mistakes, brushed a lot of people up the wrong way, I reeked Diva, mistakenly I think.
Insecurity comes over as arrogance, I see it in my students. So I was a very shy and nervous person but came over as the opposite.
Also, I was very much on my own for some years here at a young age in a time where we only picked up a phone in an emergency. I didn’t have a support system or anyone to really advise me as my family were not in the country and I was so young. I wish I’d had more guidance and advice.
My grandfather’s advice to my dad when he left home was “Don’t play cards with strangers” I’ll go with that.
What’s the most challenging thing about your chosen career?
- Learning a physical skill such as singing is an ongoing thing that ever stops.
- Dealing with rejection.
- Dealing with success.
- Life balance.
- Reinvention as one gets older.
- Figuring out why you do what you do.
Because I left Guildhall so young I learned everything on the job. That certainly was a challenge when I moved into opera. I am not brilliant at languages and had to work very hard at that. I even did roles in Czech. It was hard graft but enjoyable.
I’m happiest now as a singer than I’ve ever been and I’m comfortable in my skin. I now sing for myself, for the joy of it. After 33 years I am more and more astounded by what a gift it is and what a joyous thing. It doesn’t have to be for an audience. It can be just a few hours in my studio thrashing through an aria and figuring out how sing it technically.
And what’s the best thing about your job?
I did a job at The Union recently. They do very good work and it’s highly visible. I was not well, it was freezing, I’m struggling with ongoing old war wounds, knee and shoulders, at the moment. It’s a unisex dressing and was far from some of the diva, limousine life I’ve lived.
The cast were so wonderful, there was a real blitz spirit, warm, generous, kind and hilariously funny. I was as ever, the token posho and not in the group numbers and I’d stand and watch them every night giving everything they had. It was very moving. I’m going to say the people. The people in theatre and not just on-stage. It’s an honour to be A Turn.
Who has most inspired you? And encouraged and supported you?
Various singers, Callas, Sutherland, Corelli, Bjoerling, Stratas. Dancers- Seymour, Sibley and Dowell.
Composers- Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Puccini, Berg.
All hard core classical…
My husband has supported me for 28 years and my friends including Frances Ruffelle, my Les Mis co star. We’ve been mates through thick and thin. My last singing teacher Gerald Martin Moore always loved my voice. Brian Dickie who ran Glyndebourne and Canadian Opera took the biggest chance on me professionally when I was singing Phantom by casting me as Lulu.
Who have you most enjoyed performing with? And who is your role model in the world of the Arts?
I’ve sung with so many extraordinary people it would be wrong to pick out anyone in particular. I love being in a company. I was very proud to be part of the original company of Les Miserables. They were an extraordinary group of talented people.
I also loved being at Opera North. It was like a repertory system and I worked with the same singers in many shows.
I don’t have a particular role model. When I read an obituary of a performer the ones I admire are people like Robert Helpman who did everything, danced, acted on stage and screen and ran companies.
Also my friend Karen Kain who was Canada’s premiere ballet dancer and now runs the National Ballet. She is an example of intelligence, talent, grace and class who has had ups and downs and is still reinventing herself.
Is it hard being to be a woman on tour?
It’s hard being a girl on tour. It’s much easier being a woman!
Have you ever felt the effects of sexism or is it pretty egalitarian?
Yes, absolutely. I certainly encountered actors and directors who felt they had droit de seigneur when I was very young. Disparity in pay, billing, it was and still is a man’s world.
I’ve always been pretty candid, I’ve not played the ingénue even when I was one and I think that’s a shock to people. I think one is expected to be the person on-stage off-stage.
Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian producer of Phantom and recently released from custody used to say “You’re too smart, keep your mouth shut. ”
I can’t imagine him saying that to a man.
Is how you look important in singing, or commented on?
It’s incredibly important. It’s even more important now. I was never a classically pretty leading lady. A bit too much of a goth Elsa Lanchester type! I don’t think I’d be cast in those roles if I were young now.
Now I think it’s really important for the younger women to see one feeling comfortable with oneself. The fact that actresses vanish at a certain age is very unsettling for all of us so when we do show up its important to show that older actors can be confident and happy and attractive and powerful. Only by doing this can we change things for the next generation.
Age is wisdom. Age is beautiful.
What advice would you give any budding performers?
The only thing you can control in the industry is your technique.
And finally, is there a book, a quote, or motto that has inspired you that you’d care to share with our readers?
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts”
“What matters is not what you do on-stage but what you do when you are off-stage”
Bill Bojangles Robinson
Rebecca, thank you so much and do let us know when we next see you in action. Long may you reign!
This is Rebecca’s web site where you can also hear her beautiful voice.
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Posted on April 30th, 2013 by Jane