You Should Be in Opera: Trinidad’s Jill Gomez

Caribbean-born singer Jill Gomez has reached the top of her profession, and is in demand on opera and concert stages around the world

After a successful concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, 1989Jill GomezJill GomezJill GomezJill Gomez in La Calisto, Glyndenbourne 1970Jill Gomez in La Traviata with Kent Opera, 1979. Photograph by Nobby ClarkJill Gomez in The Fairy Queen, Florence 1987Jill Gomez in The Magic Flute, Paris 1971. Photograph by Serge LidoJill Gomez in The Turn of the Screw at London Coliseum, 1984. Photograph by Alex Von KoettlitzOn stage in Zurich 1981. Photograph by Susan Schimert- RammePlaying Cleopatra in Frankfurt, 1982The Turn of the Screw at the London Coliseum, 1984

It takes a certain kind of guts to go topless on stage at the Royal Opera House In London’s Covent Garden especially when you are the first opera star to do it. Caribbean-born Jill Gomez, to whom this distinction fell a few years ago, remembers the opening night of Sir Michael Tippett’s opera The Knot Garden with wry amusement. The occasion was a scene of attempted rape in which her bikini top is ripped off, and she had to count to ten before fleeing into the wings. “But while I was lying there I heard the unmistakable sound of coins going into the slots for the opera glasses. I later learned to time my exit for the precise moment when those glasses were being levelled at the stage.”

From a happy, barefoot childhood in Port of Spain, Jill Gomez rose with astonishing speed to captivate the British opera scene as a bewitchingly dramatic soprano. Opera is a hard and exclusive art, which in Britain has only recently come to enjoy wide popularity: Jill’s swift ascent sprang from a magic combination of luck, ability and steely determination.

On stage, as countless critics have noted, she radiates a sensuous, lyrical intensity. When you meet her at the lovely old country cottage near Cambridge where she and her opera-historian husband Patrick spend their leisure time, you find yourself dealing with a gale-force personality. Vivid Spanish looks and Caribbean exuberance make her a natural entertainer; her talk is fast and funny, and she is a devastating mimic. Pompous conductors and self-important divas are mercilessly put down; friends and teachers are recalled with passionate devotion.

Jill’s mother was a gifted actress and musician who left her native Cheshire during the second World War to join the Imperial Censorship – a body concerned with mail from troops stationed in the Caribbean. Inevitably, she also put in a fair amount of time entertaining the troops at their parties. And it was in Trinidad that she met and married Albert Gomez, a Spanish version of Clark Gable, whose forebears had arrived in the New World in the 16th century.

One of them, Captain Don Simón Gómez de Calderón, had sailed from Cádiz in 1569, only to find his ship stopped by pirates. He was the only man to escape walking the plank; he gave the Masonic sign, and the pirate captain, also a Mason, reprieved him. “At least,” Jill laughs, “that’s what we were always told” Her great-grandfather, Don Francisco Jose Gómez Jimenez, was felled by a stray bullet during a coup d’état in Caracas by a dictator who had assumed the name Gomez. Part of the family left Venezuela for good after this tragedy, and settled in Trinidad.

“When people see my passport,” says Jill, “they give me very odd looks because it says Guyana – New Amsterdam – British. I was virtually born in the bush, on a sugar estate in what was then called British Guiana, where my father was working. After three weeks my parents and I flew to Trinidad in a tiny rackety plane. Apparently I screamed in agony the whole way because of the noise and the air pressure, but when we landed and everyone was enjoying the silence, I suddenly broke into a huge belly-laugh. That may have something to do with the way my lungs developed later!

Albert Gomez was a sugar technologist who rose to the top of Siegert‘s (as the company which made Angostura bitters was known), creating several types of rum and the estimable Angos Gin, thus saving West Indians from having to spend a fortune on the imported variety.

“Trinidad was a paradise to grow up in,” Jill says now. “We had a wild life playing in the forest, swimming and climbing trees. We felt like Tarzan and Jane.” She and her sister were soon on stage. While their mother played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jill played Peaseblossom alongside her, and her sister Wendy was Cobweb. “It was in the Botanical Gardens, with huge bamboo trees and little tents where we made up. And before every performance our nanny would make egg sandwiches – to this day, an egg sandwich means A Midsummer Night’s Dream to me. It was a magical event.” As we shall see, that Shakespeare play has marked the stages of Jill’s career in a quite extraordinary way.

The sisters were sent to St Joseph’s Convent in Port of Spain, where Jill met the most important influence of her life – Mother Helen de Verteuil, only five feet tall but invincible. “She terrorised me into studying the piano and joining the school choir, she forced me to enter every possible class in the 1954 Music Festival competition, and positively willed me to win everything. And I did.

“I knew I was a stage animal, but I wasn’t sure about singing. When Mother Helen said, ‘you should be in opera’, I was very dubious. The only opera I’d heard was what came over the radio from England, and everyone sounded ill, the sopranos sounded as if they were in labour, a terrible forced sound. I didn’t want to be involved in it. ”

When she was 13, Jill was sent to a very different sort of Convent in England. The nuns even forbade whistling, “because it makes Our Lady blush”. “The move was grim beyond belief – losing the freedom and the sun, the divineness of Trinidad – it was like being flung into a mediaeval prison. My sister, who was 16 months younger, suffered very badly from the shock.”

Spurred on by Mother Helen, Jill went on to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where a senior student’s illness in Hansel and Gretel gave her her first big break. “I thought I had a pip-squeak of a voice, but they said it was special, and they concluded that they must have taught me well. Though in truth, all I learned about voice production had been at school in Trinidad.”
Deciding she could learn more elsewhere, she left the Royal Academy for another London college, the Guildhall. There she found a remarkable teacher, German-born Walther Gruner, who transformed her style of singing and took her to perform in the famous Bayreuth Youth Festival. She parted company with the college when they wanted her to sing a role which she knew was not right for her. They tried to insist, and she refused: out!

Whereupon the Dream came to her aid again. Spotted in the audience at Covent Garden for Benjamin Britten’s opera on the Shakespeare play she was invited to audition for the celebrated Glyndehourne opera company. She was asked to sing the exceptionally difficult part of Concepción in Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, which she rashly claimed to know but actually had to read at sight. “When I had finished, the head of music, Jani Strasser, gave me a straight look and said, ‘I give you one out of ten for ability, and nine out of ten for cheek!’ From that moment we became friends – and I was in!”

And her career had begun. Lead roles with the best directors and top conductors, sending critics into ecstasies. She was soon singing at Covent Garden in the very same production of the Dream where she had been spotted in the audience – even, following in her mother’s footsteps, in the role of Titania. “I had a charmed life–  it seemed that I could do no wrong. And eventually you pay a price for that.”

Many singers have a hiccup in their careers, when their nerve or their voice suddenly goes, but few have the courage to discuss it publicly. Jill, however, talks about what she calls her Waterloo with painful frankness. “I was singing Ann Trulove at Glyndeboume, in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, when I was struck down by bronchitis. But the management wouldn’t let my understudy go on: they forced me to continue. I can’t really remember what happened, but it was awful. And the worst thing was, I was never given the chance to recover. As a result I got more and more anxious about a particular high note which I had previously managed with ease. I almost had a physical breakdown. I began to think I’d never sing again.”

She did get over it, with the help of a new voice coach, but she did not find it easy to regain her confidence. She began to do more and more work outside England, starring in Jean-Pierre Ponelle and Nicolaus Harnoncourt’s famous Zurich productions of operas by Monteverdi and Mozart. She travelled to Paris and Turin to work with the legendary Pierre Boulez, and to Chicago and Tel Aviv to sing in Mahler with the conductor Georg Solti.

And her career as a recording artist blossomed, winning prizes and critical acclaim. Her disc of Canteloube’s ever-popular Songs of the Auvergne has become a best-seller. One of her own recent favourites is South of the Border (Down Mexico Way), arrangements of catchy numbers specially made for her and brilliantly recorded on the Hyperion label. She has worked a lot on radio and television, and her song recitals, always planned for total theatrical effect with special lighting, are in demand far and wide.

She also gives master-classes. “I’ve learned so much over the past few years that it seems right to pass it on. I’ve begun to use a system of exercises more often used by athletes and dancers, and I feel more in control now than I’ve ever done in my life.”

Working all over Europe, Jill has done some pretty extraordinary things in the last few years, the strangest of which was playing Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Frankfurt with two large boa constrictors. “The director told me they would be hanging from a trellis happily asleep, as they would just have been fed. But when we got to that point in the show they weren’t asleep at all – they were reaching out menacingly towards me. Now, coming from the Caribbean I knew what to do with snakes. Don’t get excited or upset, stay completely calm. So I went right up to them and sang. The audience thought it was a wonderful stunt, but the director was so worried she was hanging out of her box like a boa-constrictor herself! ”

Last year, after an absence of twelve years, she returned to Port of Spain to give a fund-raising recital for the Queen’s Hall there, organised by its patrons and sponsored by BWIA, the British High Commission and the Hilton Hotel. “I was thrilled: I didn’t think anyone in Trinidad would have remembered me.” The audience response was ecstatic; the Sunday Guardian said, “Her absolute command of a bare stage, her superb acting that projected the sense of a song — be it tragic, comic or lyrical – was a delight to watch. One is tempted to rate her Trinidad’s La Stupenda.”

There were vivid impressions on going back after so many years. “The brightness of the colour. You think you’ve remembered what poinsettias look like in their natural setting, or poui trees or humming-birds, and what cornbirds and kiskadees sound like. But the wonderful reality bowls you over. What shocked me was the severity of the dry season, with not a blade of grass anywhere. But best of all was the spontaneous and affectionate hospitality of everyone I met – Trinidadians are unbeatable”

Jill is now passionately keen to boost local talent. “There are so many wonderful musicians and performers in Trinidad, not least my accompanist for that concert, Lindy-Ann Bodden-Ritch, who was a student with me at the Royal Academy. But opportunity is limited. People either have to leave to work abroad, or stay at home and teach. But they’re brilliant at that – Trinidadians are great communicators.”

Perhaps that means that the Caribbean will be seeing more of one of its most brilliant musicians. If so – Jill Gomez, welcome back!