Hitting the High Notes

Briefly back on our island, soprano Nicola Said embodies the hard work, persistence and that little bit of luck that goes in to making a successful opera singer. Rachel Agius catches up with her to talk about training, living overseas and her next concert in Malta


Photo by Martin Pillow

The stars aligned for Nicola Said at a very young age. “I have always loved to sing and to be on stage, so from a young age I was always involved in the arts in some form or other,” she says. Her grandmothers, mother, aunts and cousins are all involved in music – some sing, many play an instrument, one teaches piano – so it is safe to say that both nature and nurture came together at the very beginning of her career.

She quickly dismisses the idea that opera is just about having a good voice, reeling off an extensive litany of skills that must be mastered before even considering climbing on stage. “Our education not only involves learning the notes, vocal technique, stamina, pronunciation of many languages, musical style, artistry encompassing musical phrasing and dynamics, portrayal of character and emotion,” Nicola explains. Students must also attend recitals and operas with high-calibre musicians and singers, so they can see the best in action.

“There are also auditions, competitions and recital work, to learn to put what we have been learning in the practice room into effect even when under pressure,” she adds. As with many other professions, learning to be a good colleague and establishing a network is also a crucial component of a budding operatic career.

Having to worry about striking up professional relationships is a current concern for Nicola but it is one gladly earned over several years of study. She is currently in her eighth year of training and it all began with an audition for a scholarship to the Ian Tomlin School of Music, part of Napier University in Scotland. “I was studying with Gillian Zammit and she encouraged me to audition for the scholarship – I specifically remember telling her that I don’t feel ready, but she believed in me and assured me that I stood a good chance,” she recounts. “If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have taken that first step!”

What followed were a series of chance encounters that would go on to shape Nicola’s academic and professional path. At Napier, she had the opportunity to study under voice trainer Joan Busby and soprano Alice Horne, who introduced her to the Bel Canto style and helped Nicola realize that she had found her calling in opera.


Photo by Josef Cassar



At an open programme in Italy in 2008, Nicola was spotted by renowned voice teacher Shigemi Matsumoto and her husband Marty Stark. “They invited me to transfer to the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music, California State University Long Beach, and that’s where I spent the next three and a half years of my life,” she explains. “My fees were supported by my parents and Janatha Stubbs.”

Living away from home for so long has been a challenge. Her father was initially hesitant about letting his daughter travel to America all alone. Nicola herself admits that at the time, she didn’t realize just how big a step she was taking. “I think I was too young. For me it just seemed exciting, and something I had to do to follow my dreams,” she says. Fortunately, she found support from roommates, friends and teachers. “I was very lucky and by now I am pretty sure I have a guardian angel watching over me.”

Leaving Malta proved to be as much a learning experience as her classes. “It is a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to anyone to grab the opportunity to live abroad, even for just a few months,” she says, echoing the sentiments of many students who travel overseas. “One grows as a person when one lives in different countries, mingles with all kinds of people who come from all walks of life. One learns how to adapt to different situations and surroundings.”

Nicola is currently being supported for her Masters studies as a recipient of the Malta Arts Scholarship, financed by the Government of Malta, at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. Nicola laments that fact that, although the public’s perception of opera is slowly changing, opportunities for a career locally are limited. “Although Malta will always be my home, unfortunately there is no chance of a career for an opera singer,” she says. She frequently returns to give recitals, some of which are part of her studies.

Nicola Said Zerbinetta 2011

Although it seems that our island cannot contain her voice, Nicola has nothing but praise for local audiences, who seem to be abandoning the stereotype that opera is solely for the well-educated, upper classes. “Opera is slowly becoming more popular with younger audiences, since aside from the fact that the students attend performances, so their peers, their ‘fans’ also go and support them,” she explains. “I feel that the Maltese audience is very warm and openhearted,” says Nicola, “This is a very special thing to have in an audience and the performer always feels it.”

Getting this far has been a tough but fulfilling journey for Nicola. Does she have any advice for youths interested in a career in the arts? “‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down”’ she laughs. “I learned that , in Sixth Form and now looking back, I think I’ve lived by that.” On a more serious note, she urges beginners to work hard, be honest with others, to use her words, remember that there will be people who do not wish them success but there will be more who do. “And just enjoy the journey! So much of the time we spend worrying about the future and whether this is going to happen, we forget to enjoy the moment,” she says.

Her ultimate moment, her Holy Grail, is nothing short of ambitious. “My dream is to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House,” she says. “I’ve already stood on the stage when I watched Joseph Calleja performing there. I remember the feeling of standing on that stage – it’s hard to put into words!” With several performances and a number of academic achievements already under her belt, it does not seem implausible that Nicola will one day sing in one of the greatest opera houses in the world.

For now though, Nicola’s year is already filling up nicely. The Valletta International Baroque Festival in January, a recital of music by Maltese Composers at St. John’s Waterloo in February, a concert in Bath and a series of auditions over the summer are all on the cards. She is currently preparing for a recital at St James Cavalier on the 7th January, Les Chemins de l’Amour. It will include a selection of songs in various languages by composers such as Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Poulenc, Copland and Barber. “The audience may be familiar with some of the songs but most might be quite new,” she says. “I believe that there is something in there for everyone.”

While the life of an opera singer is not exactly paparazzi and trashed hotel rooms, Nicola has caught the public’s attention and been rewarded with a consistently enthusiastic audience. With a generous schedule of recitals in Malta and ongoing training, Nicola Said is determined to prove that she has what it takes to make sure her voice is heard for a long time yet.

Les Chemins de l’Amour will be taking place on 7th January at 7pm at St. James Cavalier. Tickets are €10 and can be purchased from the St.James Cavalier Booking Office in Valletta. Tel: 21 223200 and email: boxoffice@sjcav.org