The long months of lockdown in 2020 have made us all think carefully about what we take for granted in life. With so many freedoms curtailed for much of the year, we all began to realise what really matters to us. For Mark Tousey, it was the cultural vacuum created by Covid-19 that he felt most keenly, having spent years attending operas on an almost-weekly basis.
“It all began very early on. I wanted to be a professional opera singer, but I sold my soul to Wall Street. To make up for it, I took my signing bonus in New York, back in the days when you were being chased by multiple investment banks, and bought two season tickets at the Met,” he explains. “When I moved to London, it was only natural that I would continue going to the opera.”
That opera being the ENO at the Coliseum on Trafalgar Square. Having spent more than ten years on the American Friends board, he has been front row for many of the company’s finest productions. “I absolutely love it. I attend every ENO production first night, sometimes when I’m on an extended trip in the spring for three months, I will fly back from Hong Kong for opening night. That’s when we do the contemporary operas which I help fund. I’m a big opera groupie!”
But how did he first become a member at ROSL as well? “I’m walking by the club regularly when I’m around Green Park and I thought this is excellent, so I joined as a member. That was the impetus. It’s wonderful because the garden is just spectacular. Of course, the natural connection is music. I’ve been following the ROSL music programme for years and years. I’ve been attending during lockdown many of the events, particularly the book talks.”
That connection between the Annual Music Competition and the ENO is currently bearing fruit, with Benson Wilson and William Thomas, respective winners of the Overseas Prize and Singers Prize in last year’s AMC, both currently appearing in the ENO’s Drive & Live La bohème.
ROSL’s ability to identify young talent through the AMC, which can then be picked up and nurtured through organisations like the ENO is becoming increasingly important as arts funding is cut as a result of the pandemic.
“The combination of the competition at ROSL and then the young artist programme at ENO, has got to be a gold-plated start to any opera singer’s career,” agrees Mark. “It’s a very competitive world out there. You need a leg up to be able to differentiate yourself. The competition does two things; first of all, it gives the exposure to the audience and the public, and second of all, it gives the singer that experience because there’s nothing like preparing for a competition. Then, these young artist programmes, one of which is at ENO, are absolutely crucial, because not everyone is ready to make that jump from a conservatoire to the main stage. The pastoral element, as well as the practical, is pivotal in helping young singers launch their career.”
All of which means a partnership between ROSL and the ENO makes sense, both for young musicians and for members. After all, they have already been working in concert for years to support these young singers, as well as sharing a Patron in HRH Princess Alexandra, and only being a short walk between them. So, what’s in it for ROSL members?
The combination of the competition at ROSL and the young artist programme at ENO has got to be a gold-plated start for any singer’s career
ENO will bring recitals to the Princess Alexandra Hall for members to enjoy at the clubhouse. Being so close, ROSL is also perfectly situated for pre-show dinner before heading to the Coliseum for an evening of fabulous opera. Some behind-the-scenes opportunities are also in the works for members, something Mark particularly enjoys.
“One of the things I do in my role at the American Friends of ENO is to organise evenings for friends, for organisations, for people I’m connected with. We arrive at the Coliseum an hour and a half before the performance, then we have a tour of the house and of the stage, so we will actually be walking on the set an hour before the curtain goes up. Sometimes we’ll have a stage director taking us around and talking to us about the production concept. Sometimes we go into the wardrobe department, sometimes we go into the technical department, or up in the wings, it’s very exciting. After that we go down into the American Bar, funded by the American Friends of the ENO, and we have a supper. We have three courses, the first two served before the performance begins, then I will invite one of the management team to come and say hello. Then we go up for the first half of the opera, at the interval we come back down and dessert and coffee is waiting for us. Then we go back for the last half of the opera. It’s a wonderful evening and its one of the great joys of my position to organise these. It’s a great way to integrate ROSL with the ENO.”
But don’t worry if you’re not based in London, the American Friends of ENO also hope to resume their New York recital series next year, so NY-based ROSL members can join in the fun as well. “We put on performances and organise events regularly in the States, in New York typically, so ROSL will have an opportunity to come along. We typically host events at the Residence of the British Consul-General, who’s a big ENO supporter,” explains Mark.
It’s an exciting time for this partnership, which is all the more important given the cultural vacuum created by Covid-19. “These times have highlighted how important art and culture are in our lives. Being able to enjoy it on Zoom, or in the case of La bohème, at Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace) in our cars, this is so important. I’m speaking selfishly as a recipient. It’s equally important for those performers because art is not a job to an artist, it’s their life. It’s everything.”