Alone and in a strange new town, Stefanie Kemball-Read found solace in singing
Relocating to Devon with her Royal Marine husband John had meant leaving her high-flying career in banking behind.
But as she readjusted to her new life she joined singing groups to make new friends – and quite literally discovered her voice.
When she quit her job in the City she never imagined she’d be swapping the drama of handling multi-million pound budgets for a professional life on the stage.
Yet training to become an opera singer in her late-20s has taken her on a journey that’s brought happiness, fulfilment and some amazing adventures along the way.
‘Singing is my dream,’ she says.
‘I pinch myself every day. From the moment I got the letter saying I’d got a place at music college it’s just been the most incredible thing.’
Now living in Lee-on-the-Solent, Stefanie’s preparing for her next major role following the birth of her son, Jasper, in February 2011.
Following a period of maternity leave she’s raring to go and is passionate about sharing her love for opera with everyone – even those who think it’s not for them.
‘Some people think opera is hard going but it’s not all hard going,’ she explains.
‘It’s like a tapestry of different colours. You’ve got your hard, hit-you-in-the-guts stuff, like Tosca and La Traviata, but there’s so much light opera.
‘A lot of Mozart is funny. Die Fledermaus is a hoot. It’s a complete laugh.’
The soprano adds: ‘It’s a bit like pop music, there are lots of different styles. It’s a shame when people write it off and say “I don’t like it”.
‘If I sat them down long enough, I’m sure I’d find them something to enjoy.’
Her own love of music stretches back to her childhood but she only got her chance to follow her heart later in life.
A business degree saw her join Barclays and during her four years with the bank she worked in a wide variety of roles, specialising in project management and corporate affairs.
But when the couple moved to Devon she had to give it up and find a job in the public sector instead.
Like every military wife, Stefanie faced long periods of separation from John.
Singing gave her a chance to meet people and she found that her voice had developed, firing her desire to take it further.
‘All the time I worked in banking I didn’t sing at all because I didn’t have the time,’ she explains.
‘When we moved to Devon I was living in a new place and I had time to sing again.
‘That was my saviour. John was away and it rained every day that year. I lived for the evenings so I could go out and sing.
‘I got myself a singing teacher and things started to change. My voice started to blossom. I started to feel and hear things in it that I hadn’t heard before.
‘I always wanted to be a professional singer from my school days so I spoke to my husband and said “How about it?”’
She applied for a place at Trinity College in Greenwich, London, and was delighted when she got in. Three years of study followed and she was also able to work while at college.
‘I had the most amazing experience. It was phenomenal. I had some amazing roles and worked in some amazing places.
‘I was very lucky, I got work straight away and stayed in work.’
She adds: ‘I did a massive tour that took me around the UK and Europe. I spent two weeks in the south of France at the Rothschild villa and sang in a stud farm in Normandy.
‘It was crazy, John and I hardly saw each other at all. He was away with the Royal Marines and I was always away with the opera stuff.’
Juggling motherhood with work means the pace has slowed down for now, although Stefanie’s currently preparing for her next role, as Adele in Johann Strauss’ Die Flaudermaus.
She’d like to perform more locally but the last few months have seen her involved with a project close to her heart.
When the success of Gareth Malone’s Military Wives Choir spurred Kim Martin to set up the Portsmouth version, Stefanie was happy to take on the role of musical director.
And the women have just recorded a version of Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong for the official Military Wives’ album.
‘The day after the recording I was singing Chick, Chick Chicken with Jasper,’ laughs Stefanie.
‘I wouldn’t choose one over the other. These are the extremes of my life.
‘They say variety is the spice of life. That became my motto marrying a man in the military.
‘You really do have to reinvent yourself every time he moves. If you don’t try and do that it would be a very lonely life.’
She adds: ‘It’s incredibly hard as a military wife to have any kind of career. Constantly being on the move, your CV can look like a chequered flag. It’s really difficult to find any time for a life of your own.
‘I’ve worked really hard to have that. That’s why the Military Wives Choir is such a wonderful lifeline for people.
‘It’s funny how the two things have come full circle, the military and the music. I never saw that coming.’
Singing opera takes a lot of stamina and Stefanie works at keeping fit and staying health.
At the moment she practices when Jasper takes his afternoon nap and she’s excited about getting back on the stage.
‘It’s an incredible experience,’ she adds. ‘I’ve tried many times to sum up how it feels.
‘When you’re in that moment and you’re singing it’s all encompassing. You feel whole, completely fulfilled.
‘I feel so lucky. A lot of people spend their whole life looking for fulfilment, whether it’s family life or friends.
‘For me, I get that on two levels – music and my family.’
For more information please see Stefanie’s website, stefanieread.com
For more information on the Portsmouth Military Wives Choir, please contact Kim Martin on firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on Stefanie’s next opera Die Fledermausm, see kentishopera.com