Rising Star: Lynda Barrett
A career change, illness, gale-force winds – nothing can stop this soprano
'The most beautiful natural soprano voice you will ever hear.' The words of Neil Collier, whose Priory Records has just released the debut CD of Northern Irish soprano Lynda Barrett.
Praise indeed from the CEO of a company specialising in choral music: Collier is steeped in the world of singers and singing, and knows what he is talking about.
There was, however, nothing particularly exceptional in Lynda Barrett's musical education, little to indicate that something special might one day happen. Singing lessons started relatively late, aged 10, when Mum spotted Lynda picking out melodies by ear on the family keyboard.
They continued through her teenage years at Banbridge Academy, then at Queen's University, where she majored in music, sang in student choirs, and got vocal tuition from Irene Sandford. And then, the crunch moment – was a career in singing possible?
Barrett thought it over, and opted for safety. 'I was trying to be sensible,' she recalls wistfully. 'I wanted to be a singer, and I suppose when you're young that seems an option. But I thought, well, teaching could be another option if this singing doesn't work out. That was always in the back of my mind.'
So why, I wonder, did the career in singing not happen? 'When I finished at Queen's I applied for the various postgraduate courses round the music colleges, but didn't get anywhere.
'I guess that's where another more driven person would have just kept on applying. But I felt this pressure – I need to get a job, I need to get a job... So that's why I went down the teaching route.'
That route led directly to Methodist College, Belfast, whose strong musical tradition suited Barrett perfectly. 'There's all the choir stuff that goes on,' she comments. 'It's a big department, so that's my little niche, the singing end of things. I feel like that fits me well.'
So well, in fact, that in 2005 the junior choir which Barrett coaches won the nationwide BBC Radio 3 Children's Choir of the Year award, a testament to Barrett's musicianship and abilities as a top-flight choral trainer.
'They were very mature, very musical,' recalls Barrett modestly. 'Something just gelled with them. I'm teaching kids who are very ambitious, very competitive. They want to be the best.'
Despite the obvious satisfaction Barrett derives from her teaching activities, it rankled that her own career as a singer inevitably took second place to the demands of full-time employment. 'It took a back seat in terms of my ambition for it. It took me a long time to come to terms with that. It really upset me that nothing had ever come of it.'
Time pressures notwithstanding, Barrett did manage to stay involved in quality music-making. 'Chorally I sang, and still sing, in an eight-part group called Melisma,' she says. 'I was soprano one, it was one to a part, so in a way that was the best of both worlds.
'If you're first soprano, you're at the top of the texture, you are heard. And we've had a lot of success, we've been to New York on a tour. So that has been very fulfilling, I have to say.'
It was, however, when singing with another choir, Philip Stopford's Ecclesium, that Barrett had her seminal Neil Collier moment. 'We were recording some of Philip's pieces for Priory,' she remembers. 'I had a solo section in one of the anthems. Neil came up to me afterwards and said "You have the most beautiful voice. Have you ever recorded anything?'''
Barrett hadn't, nor was she in any way prepared for Collier's reaction. 'I knew he was coming to record and I was hoping he'd like my voice when he heard it, because I knew I had this solo section. But I was surprised that he was so keen, so enthusiastic about it.'
Collier's enthusiasm led eventually to The Sublime Voice of Lynda Barrett. Recorded in Belfast's St Anne's Cathedral, the 21-track CD includes selections by Franck, Sullivan, Mozart, Purcell, Vivaldi, Handel, and others.
Barrett remembers the sessions as running not altogether smoothly and without incident. 'It wasn't a nerve-wracking process,' she explains. 'But it did prove to be stressful in the end, because it was the Easter holidays.
'Every teacher knows, don't plan things for the start of the holidays, because you're going to be sick! I was really not very well. Two days before, I thought this is going to be a disaster, but somehow we got through it.'
Miserable weather also wreaked havoc with the recording process. 'There were gale force winds. The electricity kept going off, the organ cut out, there were crashes and bangs all around the cathedral.' None of which is evident on the finished product, expertly engineered by Collier and catching to perfection the pristine purity of Barrett's unique soprano.
'I am very self-critical,' comments Barrett. 'But I think it does represent my voice very well. I don't have a big, operatic voice – a 'wibbly-wobbly' voice – and that's what Neil loved about it. You either like that type of voice or you like a more operatic voice. For the market that likes a purity of tone, I think it's good.'
Barrett's voice is undoubtedly highly distinctive, possessing the crystal clarity of an outstanding boy treble, eliding into a fuller lower register, with the more subtle interpretive artistry of a mature female artist.
Vibrato is used sparingly, creating an artless innocence at the point of performance which makes for unusually direct, affecting emotional engagement with the listener.
'Very grateful!' is how Barrett laughingly describes her feelings on the completion of the Sublime Voice project. 'Because I knew that no matter what happened with this CD – and let's face it, I'm not going to turn into the next Katherine Jenkins or something! – I would always have it. And I am the only solo soprano in Neil's whole catalogue!'
So what of the future? Has the CD slaked Barrett's thirst for meaningful involvement in the music industry, or sharpened it still further?
'I think I'm pragmatic enough to realise if nothing comes of it, then nothing comes of it. But if, somehow, someone heard it and liked it, and something came of it, then...'
Barrett tails off, unable to precisely imagine what opportunities might possibly arise if Sublime Voice were to spark serious interest in her singing, and how that might dovetail with her ongoing commitments as a full-time teacher.
What's certain, though, is that she has made a wholly delightful record, one that will continue to give pleasure whether or not it turns out to be life or career-changing for Barrett personally.