‘Brrrr,’ ‘Aah’ to Resound at London Vocal Jamboree: Interview

Mary King
Mary King, director of the Voicelab initiative at the Southbank Centre. King and her colleagues have devised the fourth annual "Chorus!" weekend, celebrating the voice in all its forms. Source: Southbank Centre via Bloomberg

It’s not every day that interviewer and interviewee wail “nnnnnggggg” at each other like sirens.

Mary King and I did just that. King, a voice expert and television presenter, is curating the fourth annual “Chorus!” event, starting today, at the Southbank Centre in London. The weekend event features vocal performances, workshops and encourages audience participation.

When I meet King in a glass-walled sunny rooftop space overlooking the Thames, she finishes our chat by giving me a vocal workout. We blow raspberries up and down the scale, prod our diaphragms, and do the siren thing. I haven’t had so much fun in an interview in ages.

“It’s the equivalent of a stretch before football or limbering up before going to the gym,” she says, before blowing another raspberry. “You should oil the voice so it functions properly.”

King, a tireless talker with a low and warm speaking voice, was a presenter on the Channel 4 shows “Operatunity” and “Musicality.” She also has included actor Ewan McGregor among the stars she has coached for West End singing roles.

Now she’s curating a weekend of all things to do with the voice. There’s a performance by Steeleye Span folk singer Martin Carthy, a “Massive Messiah” involving 750 people and excellent soloists, and a free set from the London Gay Men’s Chorus, among a host of other singalongs and debates.

Music in Offices, a dynamic organization that encourages workers to form choirs and ensembles in their companies, also is providing groups for a free event on Saturday afternoon. There will be choirs from department-store operator Debenhams Plc, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Times newspaper.

Office Singers

“Music in Offices has been fantastically successful,” King says. “People who might never normally meet in a building get a chance to form bonds and make friendships.”

The theme of Chorus! this year is voice and health. “We’re focusing on the idea that singing promotes well-being, both emotionally as well as physically,” says King, 58. “I’ve always felt that singing is what happens when you can no longer contain your emotions in speech. It’s a vehicle for getting out lots of deep stuff, without killing anybody. Consider opera, most operas are about the things you’re not supposed to mention in polite society.”

Along with talks by laryngologists, osteopaths and speech therapists, King herself is leading two free warm-ups. The first, on Saturday, mixes vocal and body exercises with Pilates, and the next, a day later, incorporates yoga.

Anniversary Party

The weekend is part of the four-month 60th anniversary celebrations of the 1951 Festival of Britain, taking place all over the Southbank.

The celebrations are sponsored by MasterCard Worldwide, as part of a longer three-year agreement.

In an unfortunately ironic turn of events, Shaun Springer, U.K. head of brand, sponsorship and digital marketing at MasterCard, had lost his voice and couldn’t give a spoken interview. He answered questions via e-mail.

Why choose the Southbank, and why the new Festival of Britain, I ask him? “Our research shows that the arts and culture are close to consumers’ hearts,” he says. “So we’re creating packages to reward our cardholders, to give the message that we’re giving the best access to the festival.”

He declined to say how much the accord was worth, stressing that some of the collaboration is in kind. “The Southbank is conducting a trial of our contactless technology called MasterCard PayPass this summer, for example. We’ve also had access to their expertise in marketing, membership, finance and education.”

He pays tribute to the efforts of artistic director Jude Kelly. “She has brought the festival to life for our executives, hosting dinners and private tours,” says Springer. “She has been a real champion of our support.”

Chorus! runs from today through May 15 at the Southbank Centre, London. Information: http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/find/festivals-series/chorus or +44-844-875-0073. For more on Music in Offices, see http://www.musicinoffices.com.

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

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