‘Mr. Fixit’ Quits Accountancy to Hit Top C as Tenor: Interview

Colin Lee as Tonio
South African tenor Colin Lee is shown as Tonio in Laurent Pelly's production of Donizetti's ``Le Fille du regiment'' at the Royal Opera House, London, in this photograph of May 27. Tonio is a young Tyrolean villager in love with the heroine, Marie. Source Royal Opera via Bloomberg

South African accountant Colin Lee applied for the job of financial controller of London’s Royal Opera House about 10 years ago. He didn’t get it. Today he’s working at Covent Garden in a different capacity. He’s singing the lead tenor role in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment.”

The former senior finance manager for Canada Life Assurance Co. in London is one of a handful of tenors who can be relied upon to deliver the nine punishing top C’s which the role of Tonio demands.

“When I sing, I know most truly who I am,” he says.

Lee, 40, sits backstage at Covent Garden. He has a healthy glow that still reflects an open-air childhood and is surprised that his story should ignite such interest.

“Though I’ve always loved singing, and sang as a boy in South Africa, I decided to get a “proper” job. So I did a commerce degree in Cape Town, and qualified as a chartered accountant,” he says. First he worked for Ernst and Young LLP, and then moved to London and Canada Life.

“I enjoyed it. I had a questioning mind which was good at going into broken departments and fixing them. I was known as Mr. Fixit.”

All the while another path was calling to him.

“I was also fascinated by singing, and yet I wanted to run away from it too,” he says. “Could I do it? Could I make a career? When I came to London, I found an excellent singing teacher called Jeffrey Talbot, and started lessons with him.”

When he was 30, he was offered a three-month contract to sing concerts on a fleet of Cunard cruise liners, one of which was the Queen Elizabeth 2. It pushed him to resign his job.

‘Brave Move’

“People said I was brave. I wasn’t. I just got to a point where I had to go.”

After he returned he was soon offered the role of Nanki Poo in “The Mikado” with the D’Oyly Carte opera company, despite having almost no stage experience.

“I did 142 consecutive performances, and learned so much about surviving on stage. I was thrown in at the deep end.”

He was then accepted onto English National Opera’s young singers’ program and roles began to pour in.

Are there similarities between singing and accounting, I wonder?

“The requirement for discipline is just the same,” he says. “As an accountant, I learned how to deal with people, and how to manage them. It helped me when I came into the music business, because I was suddenly dealing with people on a much higher emotional scale. A conductor wants to feel in control. In truth, he can only be in control as much as you are allowing him to be. I learned you have to manage people to make them think they’re managing you.”

Price Per Note

Has he calculated the value of his tremendous top C? “No, I’ve never looked at it like that. However, if I take my fee and divide it by the number of notes I have to sing, then Rossini is the worst paid composer in the business. It’s a fraction of a penny per note.”

Is there anything singers should know about finance?

“They should know how to budget. As a singer, you may get no income for three months, then five fees at once. I’m a trustee of a charity for young musicians called the Concordia Foundation, and I think the best thing we can do is give young singers advice on how to manage their business.”

Does he ever regret his loss of income as an accountant?

“No. Money has an intellectual interest for me, and not an emotional one. I make a living doing something that I never dreamed in my wildest dreams I’d be able to do. What more can I ask for?”

Colin Lee appears as Tonio in “La Fille du Regiment” at Covent Garden tonight and on June 3.

Information: +44-20-7304-4000 or http://www.roh.org.uk/whatson/production.aspx?pid=11283

(Warwick Thompson writes for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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