Interview with South West opera singer on the power of music to bring us together

Blog by Hannah Davenport @hannah11dav

Charlotte Newstead, 48, a professional soprano and singing teacher in Bristol has kept people connected with her music appreciation classes during lockdown.

As a well-established soloist, Charlotte was used to performing to audiences across the country, as well as teaching classical singing face-to-face.

Losing all but one of her concerts in 2020, she had to rapidly adapt and focus on her, now online, teaching. Her music appreciation classes had been running for 10 years, where a group would discuss and listen to a piece of classical music in detail. It was suggested during lockdown she offers more sessions and what started as a mini-project took off, as she now provides three Saturday classes twice a month and has run 120 online sessions since April.

Charlotte commented: “The number of people who have said it’s been a life-saver for them is pretty incredible.
“It’s become an extraordinary community. We’d have weeks when we were all crying over the same music and weeks when everyone was smiling, laughing and dancing.”

New groups vary from 20-25 people with a mix of classical music experience. I attended a session as a classical music novice and had the joy of experiencing Charlotte’s passion and knowledge for the music.

The class provided a portal out of a rainy lockdown Saturday and into a grand Italian Basilica in the 1600s. For 45 minutes we were enveloped in the comforting sound of Charlotte’s words and sections from Monteverdi: Vespers of the Blessed Virgin.

The music has not only provided a way for people to stay connected socially but also highlighted how powerful listening to music can be, particularly in a group.

“There’s this need for people whom music isn’t already central, they’ve sort of clung to music and been drawn to it.”

Charlotte reflected on the hit taken by choirs who had to abruptly stop, with Covid restrictions pushing groups online and in doing so, losing a core part of their identity. Time delay in current technology makes singing together virtually impossible, having to remain muted and listening to only your own voice.

“You don’t get that shared experience and emotion, in fact you end up feeling more vulnerable than ever.”

As a trained soloist, Charlotte was better prepared than most for the shift to home working, already well adapted to practising on her own and disciplined to the routine.
She was also offered a new freedom, since her concerts were cancelled she was able to explore her repertoire and work on aspects of her own technique or compositions she wouldn’t usually have time for.

“I’ve no longer got someone telling me what to sing!”

I asked if any particular pieces had resonated more with her over the past year. She mentioned ‘the Four Last Songs’ by Richard Strauss, a work she’s sung many times.

“It takes you on this remarkable journey of introspection, soul-searching, life-weariness and grief, through to life’s closing. To the core of what it means to be human.”

For her, this piece is never far away. But with uncertain times like these it’s always ‘lurking around the corner’.

Charlotte referred to the responsibility and gift of musicians to create organic connections, as she continues to reach out and bring people together through music.

New members are always welcome to join the group, no prior expertise required, just a desire to delve deeper into the world of classical music. 


Charlotte’s top lockdown listens:
Richard Strauss – Four Last Songs.
Rossini – La cenerentola.
Vaughan Williams – Fifth Symphony.
Ravel – Lever du jour from Daphnis et Chloe.

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