An English summer’s evening, at Hampton Court. One of those rare evenings when the sky is a perfect Wedgwood blue, and there is still a breath of warmth in the air. There’s a breath of happy anticipation, too, as countless wicker hampers are unpacked on to countless tartan rugs.
But it is not Delia’s cheese-and-asparagus tart, nor even that bottle of pink fizz from Majestic, that has aroused such anticipation. No, these people are waiting, in their thousands, to hear the singing of a young ex-schoolteacher from Wales.
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Immediately after watching the VE-day celebrations on television last year, my parents phoned me. “That lovely young lady,” they exclaimed, “the one who sang We’ll Meet Again with Dame Vera. Such a delightful thing. And she just did it all so beautifully. Have you come across her?” I hadn’t. It was the first I had heard of Katherine Jenkins. But that was over a year ago, and a year is a long time in the life of the blonde 26-year-old mezzo-soprano from Neath who is sweeping all before her. Even by today’s standards of instant celebrity, the rise of Katherine Jenkins has been spectacular – not because she has already sold so many albums (though she has) or won so many awards (ditto), but because of the strength and depth of the devotion she appears to inspire from a fan-base of all ages. Everyone who has met her seems to say the same thing: she’s such a lovely person. So when the idea of interviewing Jenkins is mooted, I leap at the chance. If I don’t, I know that my parents will never forgive me.
From the bare facts alone, it’s not obvious why Jenkins should have the power to cast such a spell. Three years ago, she was an unknown music graduate, teaching singing at three London comprehensives in the hope of funding a postgraduate degree. And then, almost overnight, everything changed.
First came the six-album record deal from Universal Classics, reputed to be worth a million pounds. Then there was a brace of Brit awards for Classical Album of the Year in quick succession, for her recordings of famous arias, folk songs and hymns. There were appearances at the Live 8 concerts in London and Berlin, where 250,000 people stood rapt as she sang Amazing Grace, sans accompaniment. Her third album, Living a Dream, became the fastest-selling classical album to date, and then there were performances at the G8 summit, the Tsunami Concert and the VE Day commemorations. As she busies herself with recording her fourth album, it begins to seem as if Katherine Jenkins is now the de facto singer of choice for every national or international event worth commemorating.
From the moment she wafts purposefully on to the stage at Hampton Court and begins to sing, it’s easy to see why. The young woman on stage strikes one as unusually natural, with a delicious purity and sweetness about her voice in its higher registers, which makes one understand how she could have won Choirgirl of the Year in Wales at the age of 10. There is a certain breathiness, too, which conjures up a faint echo of Cecilia Bartoli at this pitch, and which adds to the sense of a real human presence behind the voice.
Choir singing: the health benefits
After her rendition of Nessun Dorma – one of the many male-voice songs that Jenkins has adapted and appropriated as part of her eclectic repertoire that runs from popular arias to gooey ballads refreshed by being translated into Italian – an excited murmur ripples through the audience. Not because it has been especially well sung, but because it has a rapturous simplicity about it, and there is a certain Cinderella effect in seeing such a naturally pretty girl so dolled up for a Saturday night out, and then bursting into song. This Cinderella effect is only heightened when Jenkins indicates the ancient palace walls and announces in her girl-next-door lilt, with palpable wonder: “I’ve been here before as a tourist. But never as a singer.”
Next day, she arrives for our interview at the Dorchester 15 minutes late and full of apologies, quickly removing her oversize sunglasses. “Very pleased to meet you,” she says, with a smile, offering me her hand to shake. She is wearing an olive-green T-shirt, pale floral skirt and gold flip-flops. Her blonde hair was curled for the concert; now it hangs straight and newly-washed, the ends feathered almost to jaggedness.
Throughout the next hour, the smiling eye-contact Jenkins maintains is constant.
“I started singing at four years old,” she laughs, when I ask her where it all began. “There was a talent show at my primary school, so I came running home and said ‘Mum, you’ve got to teach me a song’. I didn’t know if I could sing. All I knew was that I wanted to be in this show. And my mum taught me a song called Going Down the Garden to Eat Worms, which is a bit of a silly song. But it made everyone laugh and clap, and that’s where it all started.”
And then, almost 20 years later, came the call that would transform her life. After sending a demo tape to Universal Classics and being summoned for an audition, she was suddenly offered a six-album record deal. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says, shaking her head. “It all seemed as if it came too easily.”
In an era when stars are created by talent shows and reality television almost overnight, this is a telling observation. It all seemed as if it came too easily. Note that we are talking here about a determined young woman who had sung in her church choir for 10 years, and as its head chorister for seven of them, had been voted Choirgirl of the Year on more than one occasion, sung solos in concerts with almost every male-voice choir in the land, won a modelling competition to find the Face of Wales, scored nine A-grades in her GCSEs two weeks after the death of her beloved father Selwyn, passed four A-levels at the age of 17, won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music and trained there as a singer for four years. Yet for her it had all come too easily.
No one could ever accuse Jenkins of taking it easy, now that her star is in the ascendant. Every singer looks after the health of their voice in their own way, but her personal approach is so self-disciplined as to seem almost monastic in its dedication. It’s not just the regular salt-water gargles, or the steam-treatments with her head over a basin of hot water. Before the concert at Hampton Court, she says that she didn’t utter a single word for 20 hours. You’d think she must be joking or exaggerating, but she is deadly serious. “I’m very stubborn about it,” she says. “Actually I prefer not to speak for 36 hours before a show, but because I had a concert the night before, it was all I could do.
Most people would find it difficult not to speak for two hours, let alone for 20. How on earth does she manage it? “I’ve never found it hard, because I know it’s going to make me better,” she says, with a shrug.
“I don’t like the idea of letting people down because I didn’t do everything that I could.”
This is said simply and quietly: Jenkins does not strike one as likely to adopt caring attitudes for the sake of it. It just appears to come naturally to her to consider other people, and to do what she can for them. Her fast-developing role as the new-found Forces’ Sweetheart grew out of her discovery that no one was visiting the Chelsea Hospital to sing to the Chelsea Pensioners, so she went to entertain them.
Britain at war
“I sang them the old war-songs for an hour. And then I bought them all a pint, to keep them happy,” she laughs. “They’re all such interesting and lovely men, so I decided it was something I wanted to do.”
Out of this came opportunities to sing to British troops in the field. “I flew out to Basra on December 23, and it was one of the best days of my life,” she says, her eyes shining. “It truly was. I did two shows – one of them in an empty aircraft hangar, with two lorries back-to-back to make a stage – and it was fantastic. To see a whole sea of men and women, and they’re just so grateful that you’ve made the effort to go out there, and it’s just before Christmas, and they’re all away from their families, and they’re not in the nicest of places. For me, really, it was the least I could do.”
To my surprise I see her eyes beginning to brim with tears. We stare at each other for a few moments, before she smiles and says, matter-of-factly: “So hopefully this year I’m going either to Afghanistan or Kosovo.” And from her tone, you’d think she was hoping to go to the Bahamas. “I can’t wait,” she laughs.
Laughter, especially at herself, is one of the defining qualities of Katherine Jenkins. It punctuates her sentences, and splashes over her conversation like waves. “My dad was a very funny man,” she says. “And I really love to laugh, so I think I get that from him. I like to have a bit of comedy in my life.”
Losing her father to lung cancer when she was 15 was, she says, a turning point in her life. “We knew that he was ill,” she says, “but we were told that he was going to have a few months. In fact, he became very ill very quickly, and he was only alive for a few weeks after we found out. So it was a big shock.” She considers this for a few seconds. “At that point, you just think: right, do I fall to pieces, or do I just throw myself into my work? So that’s what I did. I wanted to do well for him, really. And that’s been a motivation all the time: I’ve always wanted to do well, because I know he wanted me to do well. That’s why I believe he’s with me.
I always have a little quiet word, if it’s a really big concert. You know, Sydney Opera House. I’ll say ‘Come on, Dad...let me do well here’, hahaha.” She whispers these last few words, laughing at herself.
“She’s a class act,” murmurs a man behind me at Hampton Court, as Jenkins sinks into a low curtsey at the end of her show.
“Wonderful, isn’t she?” says a lady just in front, to her husband. He nods, spellbound, unwilling to take his eyes off the singer for a second.
The more one sees and hears of Katherine Jenkins, the more one becomes aware of what an unusually special young woman she is. Her father, wherever he may be, must feel very proud indeed.