I grew up in Bedford, a small town in England. As children in the 50s, my parents Keith and Lena Harding had immigrated to England from the West Indies, my father from Barbados and my mother from Jamaica. My grandparents were part of the influx of Caribbeans who came to England for the better life promised by the British government. Although many were highly educated, they found themselves working in blue collar jobs, filling the places left in the wake of WWII. My grandfather, Donald Harding managed to buy property in Bedford, where he housed many new arrivées who were confronted with signs such as ‘no dogs, no children, no blacks’. One noteworthy thing about my own arrival was that my maternal grandfather, Augustus Buchanan, was killed in a car accident the day I was born whilst escorting members of the West Indian Cricket team to the M1 (a motorway in the UK). I have been told by my family that he used to visit me from ‘the other side’ when I was a baby but that’s another story!

I don’t remember hearing much classical music as a child, but, in a record collection full of soul and reggae, my father had several Johann Strauss albums, a few opera chorus albums, and – the seed for my singing – Christa Ludwig singing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody conducted by Otto Klemperer. My father likes to claim that that he “discovered” me when he heard me singing to myself at the age of 3 with a little keyboard, telling my grandmother that I had a great voice… I used to be skeptical about my father hearing my talent at such an early age but I now have a young niece, Analise, who since the age of ten months has attempted to imitate me when I sing to her; she is always in key, and I hear the makings of a mini diva!

From the age of 10 I had a passion for music. I attended Westfield Middle School, which was known at that time as one of the most racially harmonious schools in the county of Bedfordshire. It was a huge ethnic and cultural melting pot. The interest in classical music at the school was minimal but for unknown reasons I was very curious about instruments. This interest was indulged by Mr. Lloyd Barnet, the music teacher. He dutifully gave me, one after the other, a flute, trumpet, clarinet, and various other instruments, each of which I picked up, tried to play and then quickly discarded. When I finally got to the violin, I was informed by my mother that if I gave that instrument up I would not be allowed to play another one. Consequently, I became most proficient on the violin but did eventually switch to the viola and even played albeit briefly for the County Youth Orchestra.

Turning 11 was a pivotal year for me, one which informed the rest of my life. One fateful day, bored in a music class, I (who was often up to something naughty) decided to disrupt the class by pretending I was an opera singer…. I made everyone laugh. Mr. Barnet took me aside and instead of giving me detention told me I had a really big voice for my age and offered me voice lessons. I think I tried to negotiate taking voice instead of math, which of course was not greeted with enthusiasm, none-the-less I began vocal training with a local singer whose name was Ann Rose, she taught me my first song: ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’ by Michael Head.

The other important event that year resulted from a discussion with the pastor of my church about the existence of dinosaurs and their lack of mention in the book of Genesis. Unsatisfied with the information given, I informed him that due to his lack of knowledge I would no longer attend his church, and took myself to All Saints Church (where, incidentally, I had been christened). I saw the vicar wandering about, and when I accosted him with my dinosaur theories he gave me explanations that made logical sense in my inquisitive mind, so I informed him that I would now attend his church and would also sing in the choir. (Did I mention that I was a willful child!) So began a wonderful and long association with All Saints Church. The adults in the choir took me under their wings, they would take me to hear the choir at Kings College Chappell and really nurtured my love of music.

After passing an exam to attend a private school, Bedford High School for Girls, I came to the notice of the music teacher, Mr. Phillip Bond, who instantly recognized my talent and gave me a scholarship to study singing at the Watford School of Music with David Joyner. My father would brave rush hour traffic on the motorway every Tuesday night (the journey often took 1-1.5 hrs each way) so that I could have a 30 minute lesson. It was David who told me about a production of Porgy and Bess that was being mounted by Glyndebourne Festival Opera. So at the age of 15 I made the long journey to London with my mother for my first audition. I remember that on that day there were three separate incidents of birds excreting on my personage! The last bird hit me as I walked into the building where I was to audition, my mother assured me it was a sign of good luck; perhaps it was, since I became the youngest person to be employed in the chorus of Glyndebourne! The head mistress of Bedford High School was delighted, and I found myself on the front page of the Guardian Newspaper with the heading ‘High School girl hits the high notes!’ (The school was countering some recent bad tabloid press in which one girl had been found naked at the boys’ school and another girl had run away with a violin teacher!)

Glyndebourne was such a wonderful experience; it was my first time away from home. I was surrounded by other black singers (I had come to suspect, in my limited experience in Bedford, that I might be the only black singer in the UK, which was far from the case). Being so young, I was enfolded into the arms of about 50 surrogate parents who were eager to show me the ropes. Interestingly, I was chosen to play a young, pregnant, married woman in that Porgy production, both there and when it was repeated at Covent Garden. Trevor Nunn and Simon Rattle inspired me, the singers amazed me, and I had a ball. (At this time, I also changed my surname to Buchanan, after I joined the union Equity and discovered that someone else was performing with my actual name.) I decided during that first production in ‘86 that I was going to make singing my life, and after talking to some American singers, I also resolved to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when I was ready, which would be several years down the road.

After that production and still only 16, I found myself in the Junior Department of the Guildhall School of Music; A few years later I auditioned for the senior school and was offered a reserved place in the senior department of the Guildhall school. This meant that I was not quite good enough to be offered a place in my own right, but if someone dropped out then I would be admitted. Someone did drop out, so believing myself the worst in my year, I dedicated myself to my studies, keeping to myself, spending many hours in a practice room, and taking lessons with Johanna Peters. By the 2nd year it became evident that I was not the worst, I began to win some competitions and was selected by Graham Johnson to represent the Guildhall at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara and at La Mortella, the home of Sir. William Walton on Ischia, Sir William’s wife, Lady Susanna Walton (wonderfully eccentric), ran a music festival there. I had a fairly successful time at the Guildhall although Johanna later told me that my reserved place had been a mistake, but I think it did me good and helped me to develop a good work ethic. I loved working with Johanna, one my fondest memories of her occurred when we were in Italy doing Lady Susanna’s festival. I remember Johanna grabbing me by the hand and marching me off when some Italian man in Capri offered her half of his land and a goat to have his way with me. Quite right…..he should have at least offered two goats!!!

While at Guildhall I met my dear friend and accompanist Eugene Asti who was also selected to go to Ischia. At the festival we were partnered together and got on famously and clicked musically. One day at the festival while washing our laundry together in the bath tub, we decided that we would be a duo and some of my most rewarding recital experiences have been with him at the helm.

After Guildhall I flew to Philadelphia and auditioned for the Curtis Institute where Mikael Eliasen, the head of vocal studies, accepted me and so began my American life.  I studied with Marlena Malas and would travel to New York every Monday for my lessons.  I can say that my Curtis years were the most enjoyable of all my school years.  Curtis became my extended but close family; Mikael was a big brother as well as a mentor. I continued to win competitions: the Kathleen Ferrier Competition at the Wigmore Hall, the Washington International competition, the Pavarotti Competition, and others. I will never forget getting into a little argument with Luciano Pavarotti during his competition. I insisted that I did not sing the role of Aida and he insisted that I should and must. He made me find a score of Aida, and Marlena told me to come to Juilliard where she was teaching (Pavarotti was hearing singers for that heat of the competition at the Beacon Theatre close by.) Marlena had a score purchased for me and told me to look at it while she finished up with her last student. A few moments later Marlena rushed into the room I was waiting in and told me that Pavarotti had called her, she could hear someone auditioning for him in the background as he demanded to know where I was and insisted I hurry back. Marlena and I went over the aria, ‘O Patria Mia,’ and I headed back to the theatre… I started at the beginning of the aria but he told me he only wanted to hear the high C at the end. After admonishing me for not breathing correctly in the phrase, Pavarotti proceeded to demonstrate by singing the phrase to me himself. What a wonderful instrument and the only time I have had the pleasure to hear him sing live!!! I sang it again and he said, “See, there it is! I knew you had it!” and dismissed me. Needless to say, I won….. “You are all winners!” he declared to me and about 35 others!! I am confident however, that I am the only one with that Aida tale to tell!

After my first year at Curtis I was chosen to participate in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program which led to a two year Adler Fellowship. My first assignment as an Adler fellow was singing Mimi in La Boheme with Tito Beltran as my Rodolfo. My Adler years where incredible, such great assignments, great colleagues, I worked with and met so many distinguished musicians such as Andre Previn, Dame Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Debbie Voigt, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Marilyn Horne… The list is endless! We were sent to cruise around the Mediterranean singing on a Cunard ship on another assignment we flew to Hawaii for concerts, when we arrived we were told that the concerts were cancelled so we were forced to have a vacation there for one week before going on to Guam and Pohnpei (one of the Federated States of Micronesia) to continue with our obligations.

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had and for those that are still to come. I still find it remarkable that this girl from Bedford has done so much. There are many other tales to tell, like my encounter with Prince Charles, my meeting and friendship with my beloved Clive Lythgoe which led to my working with Sir Colin Davis… but I don’t want to write too much and tire you out!!! However if you made it this far then I congratulate you and welcome any questions or comments.

With Love


Back to top | Read short bio | Printable bio

©2012 Alison Buchanan | All rights reserved | send request | webmaster