The Portuguese performer Lara Martins played the opera diva Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera on the West End nearly 1700 times - a record-breaking run in that role - before exiting the London production in 2018. The classically trained singer rejoined the show for its Greek premiere last year when the pandemic hit, and is now expanding her range with a debut album that extends her skill-set yet further, as Martins herself explains below.
Is the industry missing out, by pigeonholing artists? Why this constant need to label performers and restrict their range? Doubtless, it makes life easier for casting agents and reassures risk-averse producers and directors, but shouldn't we be looking at the practice more critically?
Whatever drives it, I contend that the industry loses out by exploiting only a small proportion of an artist's potential. I'm now a singer who can transition from opera to musical theatre to World Music- but my story didn't start out that way. After years of training as a classical singer and making a career in opera, the "glamour" of living out of a suitcase, travelling from production to production, palled. So when I got offered a job in a West End show, the thought of sleeping in my own bed every night was thrilling.
You may think that casting an opera singer to play an opera singer (as I did in The Phantom of the Opera) is not particularly daring, but, actually, casting a performer with zero musical theatre experience was a risk. Encountering one or two opera divas in real life certainly helped me portray one, but my first weeks in Phantom were alarming, challenging and occasionally comical, as I adapted to new ways of working and an eight-show-a week schedule. Musical theatre was a new world for me, but the casting team who gave me this opportunity changed the course of my career. Working on this iconic show transformed how I saw myself as a singer. Hesitant at first, my voice stepped outside of opera. I learned to use different vocal placements, and to make a jarring sound if the drama required it.
With the help of a singing teacher to make sure I didn't damage my voice, I started my journey and to unbox the opera singer in me. Suddenly, I felt free and jumped at new and scary opportunities: cabaret in an intimate venue or belting show tunes in musical theatre concerts. Freeing myself as a singer also allowed me to embrace the many strands of my international musical heritage, and ultimately led me to re-discover myself as an artist.
Canção, my debut album, feels like the culmination of a journey from pigeonhole to free flight. I'm Portuguese, with a French husband, living in the UK. My family has strong links to Africa; Portuguese people have historically been seafarers connected to many different cultures: I love fado, the poignant ballads of my homeland, but have never sung them publically before. The album covers the passionate tunes of the tango maestro, Astor Piazzolla and the beautiful songs of the Brazilian composer Camargo Guarnieri. It doesn't matter if you don't understand Spanish, Portuguese or French, or if you have come from classical music, world music or musical theatre - these songs [22 in all] communicate emotion in a way that everyone can understand.
I'm delighted with the positive response to Canção, but while I'm proud of what I achieved, I've had to break down many barriers to get here. The performing arts world still loves categories and labels . And with the labels come stereotypes: opera singers can't act; musical theatre is a minor art form; theatreland is synonymous with uninteresting music. It can be frustrating trying to work across boundaries, but my work, and the work of other artists, can be all the better for it. Thinking outside the box is motivating and exciting, I believe that challenging the tendency to pigeonhole could make the industry more diverse and culturally richer. So here's my plea: if you have the power to give opportunities to artists, take the risk and consider looking beyond the category in which you have placed them. That attitude enriches us all.
Canção is available now on all digital platforms: for more information see www.artway.pt
Images photo c. Tiago Martins