A Bajan name in UK opera
ALISON BUCHANAN may not be a household name but she is a familiar figure in opera circles, where she has sung to audiences around the world and still has honours bestowed on her.
Most recently, Alison gave a recital commemorating the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King in St Louis, Missouri, in the United States.
The city of St Louis conferred the Award of Merit on Alison and officially declared April 4, 2013, Alison Buchanan Day in St Louis. Alison’s story is inspirational.
When her grandparents Donald and Nora Harding of Kendal Hill, Christ Church, Barbados, came to live in England, they had no idea that their granddaughter would become immersed in the world of classical music. Although Donald Harding was a learned man, there was no culture of classical music and no appreciation for opera in the family.
Alison’s parents Keith and Lena Harding listened to soul music and reggae, but her father had a handful of opera albums and Johann Strauss waltzes. She would play them and developed an interest in learning an instrument. She learnt to play various instruments and excelled at the violin and viola, which she played in the Bedfordshire County Youth Orchestra, but once her voice was discovered, this became her passion and soon she was on her way to an extraordinary career and life.
After being given her first scholarship, Alison studied at the Watford School of Music and her father would drive her every Tuesday, a journey that might take over two-and-a-half hours there and back just for a 30-minute lesson.
When still only 15 years old, she auditioned and got into the very prestigious Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Sussex and was the youngest singer ever to be engaged to sing in the full-time chorus.
It was also at Glyndebourne that she met Maureen Braithwaite, a soprano from Barbados who became Alison’s role model and mentor. She met Wayne Marshall, another Bajan, who was an organist and has gone on to a great career as a conductor.
Alison attended both the junior and senior departments of the Guildhall School of Music in London where she won quite a few competitions and awards and performed in many festivals – a memorable one was at the home of Sir William and Lady Walton, in Ischia, Italy, where she had the honour of singing for and being introduced to Prince Charles.
With her degree in hand, Alison left for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She began her Master’s degree in opera performance and began winning more competitions, such as the Washington International Competition and the Kathleen Ferrier Competition.
The most memorable was the Pavarotti Competition, where she was the only one to receive a one-on-one masterclass with Pavarotti – who, after hearing her audition demanded that she sing Aida (which she had never sung before as she considered it to be unsuitable for her voice), But Pavarotti insisted she was capable of singing it and wanted her to go and get the music score and come back and sing it. When she returned, he scolded her for not breathing correctly in the phrase. He then demonstrated by singing the phrase to her – which Alison said made the whole episode worth it as his voice was even more magnificent live. She repeated the phrase and he said, “See, there it is. I knew you had it.”
While at the Curtis Institute, she was chosen to participate in the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Programme and received a two-year Alder Fellowship.
She has consequently performed many operas and concerts all over the world and met many distinguished musicians and artistes such as Andre Previn, Dame Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Marilyn Horne, Sir Colin Davis, Sir Simon Rattle, and too many more to mention.
Alison has sung for BBC Radio 3’s Friday Night Is Music Night, performing live with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at various opera houses such as the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, New York City Opera, San Carlo Opera House in Naples, Italy, the San Francisco Opera, and at Carnegie Hall, to name but a few.
Alison is a great ambassador and inspiration for black youths, with her involvement in the London-based multicultural Pegasus Opera Company, and the Ritz Chamber Players based in Jacksonville, Florida, which is the only all-black chamber music society in the United States.
The way has not always been smooth; over the years Alison has encountered racism, working in a predominantly white world, also sizeism. Alison has also had to overcome some personal challenges, including the breakdown of her marriage and coping with diabetes. If anyone asked her what she would tell youngsters who would like to get into her career, she would say, “It might not always be easy, but you must never give in and always be determined and follow your dreams.”