“I’m probably the best-known opera singer ever to come out of Barnsley”

The most famous opera singer in Piddlehinton

Moments

NB: Today’s piece comes, unusually, with an introduction. For words alone cannot convey what it is to interview John Hudson, operatic tenor. I realise he’s arrived when I hear him singing his way through the garden, then moments later he’s kicked off his Crocs and is sitting opposite me at the dining room table, drinking from a buttercup-painted mug that’s half the size of his hand. As the boom of his Barnsley-flavoured voice fills every corner of the room, his joyous mirth crashes from guffaw to giggle – meaning I’m never quite sure if he’s telling the truth as his mind meanders back over his career. Until, to illustrate a point, he sings me a lullaby… 

And, well, let’s just say everyone should have a moment in their life, when a former soloist from the English National Opera sings you a personal lullaby. It sure beats listening to Newsnight.

John’s Story

“If I’m absolutely honest, I’ve had a fantastic time in lockdown – although I’ve lost a lot of work from it. Fantastic.

I’ve got things done in the house, I’ve seen my wife and children more. Normally, as a singer, there’s always this niggling feeling at the back of your head where you wonder, is somebody else working more than me? Earning more? Lockdown gave the same sheet to everyone and, although you’d like to think your friends are doing well, there’s always that little bit of me that says, I hope they’re not doing better.

I originally wanted to be an artist, but decided to train instead as a graphic designer. Still, I left college with very little chance of a job, so when a plumber mate in Barnsley offered me work, learning the trade of a joiner, I took it. I’d always sung as an amateur, having been inspired by a record by Mario Lanza I used to listen to on a wind-up gramophone during the power cuts of the 1970s. Then, when I was 19 I began swapping singing lessons for gardening jobs. 

When I was 24 (by which time I was running a graphic studio at a local printers) my singing teacher told me it was time to ‘Get some shine on top of your natural ability’ and that he had a mate in London who ran the Guildhall School of Music. So I trots off to London with me dad and – it was a bit like Billy Elliot – a woman says they’re full that year but they’ll take a chance and offer me a place anyway; at which point Dad told me I had to go for it. I had to find out what my voice could do. 

Although my life’s often felt like continental drift, it has also been governed by a series of big choices: and this was my first one. Once I’d become a professional opera singer, my next big decision was whether to leave the financial safety of the chorus to become a soloist. 

Sadly, I think that the opera I knew won’t exist post-Covid. No more spending £5million on a new production where they only do four or five shows. No more having the orchestra on full-time pay. Back then, as part of the chorus I also got an annual salary, plus extra for recording, plus a nice little something on top for lifting fellow singers. Believe it or not, you’d get about £25 a lift. So, you can imagine, in a nice long run that’s a good earner.

But I did take the plunge and in 1992 joined the English National Opera as a principle tenor. And although it could be scary – because now you’re only as good as your last job – those were the golden years BC (sorry, Hettie and Herbie, I think he’s referring to you here). Claire and I just loved it. Claire was working in the City and we had this glamorous life: going to Raffles, playing backgammon. Or I’d get a concert somewhere exotic and we’d bob off to places like Canada or New Zealand. 

I was with the ENO for about twelve years, developing quite a following in the public eye. I used to get a lot of fan mail, some asking me for a signed photo (like they had the opera equivalent of Match Attax albums); others telling me they’d seen me in Mozart’s Requiem and that it had been ‘sublime… touched my heart. I’ll never be the same again.’ Others would wait for me at the stage door, pile their coats on Claire then ask me for a photo. She loved that. And one time I did a music gig right next door to a beer festival. I sang Nessun Dorma and drinkers drifted across and were soon screaming and whistling, they loved it. Loved it. Afterwards girls were asking me to sign their chests. Whipping open their shirts. I’m like, ‘I’ve made it. I’m a rock star!

Did I do it? Did I sign them? (He enthusiastically mimes signing his name.) Of course. ‘Signed… J-o-h-n H-u-d-s-o-n.’ You’ve got to!

Thinking back, I probably stayed on at the ENO for a bit too long. There comes a time when you can no longer authentically play the parts I love to sing in dramatic Italian opera: Rudolpho or Alfredo – who’s meant to be about 18. Some opera singers easily transition to Wagner, but although I think the music’s fantastic, that was never for me. I love it, but I don’t like singing it, because I like showing off. I like the shiny top and the big finish – Italian.

When I left the ENO I started freelancing, singing gigs all over the world, and it occurred to Claire and me that we could be based anywhere. We were living in Wandsworth, the kids were beginning to talk like Eminem and had never seen a growing tree. Plus we knew we’d get more bang for our buck outside of London. So in 2008 we moved to Piddlehinton, where we immediately found the village so welcoming. Which was good for Claire, as for the first three years after moving here half my work was still abroad. You’d get the gig and it’s ten weeks – bosh! Claire hated it. You become strangely independent of one other, then you’re fighting for who’s right when you’re together again. 

I’ve always believed you should be very active in your village. The week we moved here there was a knock on the door… ‘I hear you’re an opera singer. Will you sing at Piddletrenthide Church?’ So of course I did. As we got to know more people, Claire joined the committees and I helped put up the tents – did the moving and shifting. That’s how it works. Twelve years later and I’m not away so much but I’m still singing, although I’m nearly sixty now. The work stopping is not like an axe coming down, it just tails off. I’ve had major successes in my career, so I don’t mind being semi-retired. Philosophically I think that leaving the operatic stage, moving to Piddlehinton, that was my choice. Partly because it means I can still sing the music I love, and I now see more of my family. 

Listen, I’d love to sing more. I’m always thinking that. To be brutally honest with you I’m also always thinking that I need to pay the mortgage; grab the work while it’s there. For even when you’re earning good money you go through fallow seasons when everyone’s only doing Handel. About ten years ago I could charge around £10,000 a performance, and I once did a gig for £16,000 for three days work. Sixteen grand! But it’s still always been tough, a bit ‘living on the edge,’ and Claire’s family still ask me what my real job is. 

But then, there’s the singing. That’s what it’s all about. You’re standing in the wings to go on and sing Nessum Dorma to 20,000 people, no, more, 50,000. And it’s just gone dark, and they’ve all got their phone torches on (it used to be cigarette lighters). And you look out to a sea of stars and that’s all you can see. Then the orchestra starts up… and you breathe in… and it’s fantastic. 

What’s the difference between doing that and the gig I did last Saturday night to 300 people? Absolutely none. It’s all pockets of moments. Little parcels. As a performer, sometimes you get that perfect moment on stage – and it’s quite rare; comes out of nowhere when you’re least expecting it. It’s usually singing an aria – and the whole world stops and you could step out and go and watch it happening, then step back in. Time skews and how long it lasts is indeterminate. And it’s the thing that gets you back onto any stage – always. You’re looking for that moment. And when it happens, wherever it happens, it makes you realise just how precious that ‘now’ is.

I sort of had those moments, extended, in the early days of lockdown. If I could have opened the moment and dragged Piddlehinton-in-Lockdown into it… Perfect. I swear the air was cleaner, the birds came out, we saw hedgehogs. It was idyllic. I’ve been trying to grow a wild meadow for years, and of course the grass grows beautifully but the soil’s too rich for wildflowers. But in April the weather was so hot it burnt the grass off and there were swathes of daisies, poppies, purple vetch, yellow whatevers… 

I also remember Claire going ‘Right!’ an awful lot. “Right! Let’s get the kitchen re-modelled. Right! I’ll have three new seats for the garden. Right! Let’s paint the bathroom.” We didn’t get fed. It was like the Russian Gulag. She got the whip out, did Claire. And yeah, she loved it. Although actually it was okay. We all had a good time, painting, decorating. As a family we didn’t do the chocolate box stuff – the picnics, the walks – but it felt really good, all being together. 

The idea of singing for the village began when the Cobras asked me to do a concert on the cross outside the church. When it was declared that it would be illegal, I decided I could still sing in my courtyard, to my wife and children, and that people would hear it down the valley, for it’s a great conduit of sound. And yeah, that first performance, it felt a bit strange to be in my courtyard, singing to the twenty people who turned up. Not as strange as the time I was asked by a Swedish radio station to get up at six am and sing O Sole Mio to migrating cranes. But it was the middle of the day, I was wearing tails and shorts, and I could see people scratching their bums and chatting. Not that I was offended by it at all. 

In the end I did thirteen performances, and I feel great about that. I think they kept us smiling, as well as bringing us closer together as a village. It meant that at least people saw each other once a week – because it was all getting a little quiet, wasn’t it? And I know that for some older people it was their highlight. I can’t say what that was for me, although I loved singing She to Claire and Bui Doi from Miss Saigon. It’s such a dramatic song, which meant that when I was going for it at the top I could see people gasping. (Big guffaw). It’s a great song. 

Then there was Lucy on her horse, which scoffed cow parsley as I sang. It was all sort of like an old British pre-war comedy. Particularly as we could have all got arrested for assembling in public – including the horses. Yeah, the police came one time, rolling slowly along, but by then there were big enough gaps between people for them not to worry. Someone dobbed the village in. Probably Piddletrenthide. They weren’t happy. (He squeals with laughter, telling me not to put that in, then laughs even louder and tells me I should).

But I don’t miss it. Because I am someone who’s pretty much of the moment. Now the world’s turned, summer’s going, the season’s changed and I’m already in Autumn mode I guess. But in some ways I’m glad it happened – although obviously not in others. Because for me it was life changing: singing with me amp. I’m an opera singer who’s always sung inside, using the acoustics of building. But with me amp I’ve realised I can sing anywhere – and that’s a massive thing for me, because for thirty years I’ve ever used one. 

It’s also given me a chance to sing a different rep – for now I know I can sing lullabies, James Bond themes, pop songs and songs from the shows. And no, I don’t feel like I’m dumbing down. Because you can’t cheat it – and if you try people will know. You’ve got to get sweaty and dirty learning it. Making it happen. Then you’ve got to feel when you sing to an audience. So much so that when I’m singing, the music’s immaterial to some degree. Although I have to love it, it has to be in my soul for it to work out the way I want it to – to help me speak to an audience. 

It’s a bit strange and showbiz shitey but it’s true. So during lockdown I was constantly looking for songs that I could relate to. Now, in my new rep, Turn Around and Hush Little Baby are two lullabies I love. (He sings the first to me, after which I keep telling me he needs to sing me snatches of every song he mentions as I can’t possibly place it otherwise…)

And Claire said we should have a village song, so we went through all kinds of options. As soon as we hit on Amarillo and changed the name to Piddlehinton, plus a couple of the lyrics, we went, ‘Woah! Good this.’

I’ve been so lucky to be a singer. It’s a fantastic job and I’m dead proud that I’m probably the best-known opera singer ever to come out of Barnsley. But of course I’d be lying if I said I just did it for the art – of course I don’t. I do it for my ego. Of course I do. But in the best possible way. Because if I’m happy, you’re happy, trust me. Because you cannot be as picky about what I do as I am. 

Now, looking at the photos from those Thursday afternoons, I’m glad to have been able to make people happy, to be able to do it for my village, from my home. And it’s great that my opera mates saw me on Facebook and were so supportive. Because we’re all in this together aren’t we – even if we’re not making any money.” 

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