Interview with Tabitha Webb
At the time of the interview Tabitha was performing as Alternate Christine in The Phantom of The Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.
Her professional career began at the age of 16 after she won the prestigious BBC Choirgirl of The Year competition, which led to numerous television and radio performances, recordings and concerts around the UK and Europe, including her own one-hour radio special for BBC Radio 2.
Other major performances for Tabitha have included appearing in Tim Rice’s production of Chess, together with understudying and playing Cosette in Les Miserables. In 2000 she played and created the role of Adele in Jane Eyre by Michael Berkeley which was a world premiere, commencing at The Royal Opera House before touring. Her television credits include; Aloysia Weber, Mozart’s lover, in The Genius of Mozart and, more recently, Songs of Praise, singing ‘Wishing You Were Here Again’.
Tabitha also teaches at the King’s School in Canterbury where she really enjoys teaching and developing choral and music scholars for them to perform in Canterbury Cathedral.
Earlier this week, Tabitha took some time out from her busy schedule to answer some questions about herself and her career.
Did anyone in particular inspire you to be on the stage and to sing and when did you first start singing?
My father is a music teacher and my mother trained as a drama teacher and there was always music in the house. I grew up singing songs from all of the musicals and watched them over and over again. From the age of about 3-4 my father realised that I had a really good voice, singing in tune and in harmonies as well with a natural musical ear. Singing in musicals at school followed and you couldn’t stop me singing as I love it!
I also sang well classically and gained a music scholarship to St Lawrence College in Ramsgate, where I became head chorister and was busy in the orchestra. I thought of heading for a career in opera.
Your professional career started at the age of 16 after winning the BBC Choirgirl of the year competition. What was it like taking part in that competition?
At such a young age it was a hugely influential time for me, because I had always loved to sing. I was aware of how difficult it was to make a living in the music business, but it really was an opportunity for me to think I could make this work as a career. I didn’t want to be famous, I just wanted to sing and I love all types of genres as well. Choirgirl of the Year gave me the opportunity to sing not just classical but music theatre style jazz as well.
I sang at Maida Vale Studios and I can remember walking into the No. 1 Studio where Frank Sinatra had sung for the BBC. I had my own arrangements put together with a jazz band and a small orchestra and it was an amazing opportunity for me as a young singer.
Can you describe some favourite memories from your time at college?
They offered me an unconditional place (Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – BA Hons), which for a yet undiagnosed dyslexic was great. I got some good theatrical parts in the opera productions and had some excellent teaching there and it really set me up for going to London for my Post Graduate classical music course at the Royal Academy of Music (graduating with destinction). It was such an amazing opportunity to study at such an internationally distinguished conservatoir and it really pushed me to the best of my ability.
On television, what was it like playing Aloysia Weber, Mozart’s lover, in The Genius of Mozart?
That was a funny experience really. It was during my Post Graduate studies at the Royal Academy and they were looking for a young soprano who looked about 17 years old and I was in my early 20’s. I had to start filming at 7 o’clock in the morning and be able to sing at that time too – it wasn’t easy! They gave me this ‘hideous’ wig to wear which was probably ‘back-combed’ to make it look like we had been in bed for about five hours.
I met the actor that played Mozart, about ‘2 minutes’ before the filming, trying to get a little rapport going before a scene in a very small bedroom. There was a scene where we had to giggle behind a door for hours – not realising that they’d stopped filming some time before!
I did love dressing up in period costume which is always fun.
You performed on Songs of Praise, singing ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ – could you describe that?
There was a lovely interview and they did a very different take on Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, which they wanted to make different to the show. I can remember it was freezing cold and snowing outside, and in February (I think). They had the back of this old theatre open and I was in this little silk dress and I was absolutely frozen.
When you are on stage you do your own performance, but when you are miming to a track you did 30 seconds ago and they want you to do this quick turn to the camera here and then they cut it.You have no idea what it is going to look like in the end. You can’t get your own sense of acting out, a strange experience!
You created the role of Adele in the world premiere of Jane Eyre – how did that feel creating a new role?
That was such a wonderful experience. I was 21 when I made my debut at Covent Garden. It was written for the Millennium and started out at The Royal Opera House, before going on tour to a lot of the opera festivals. I also had a tour backstage when they had only just finished the refurbishment of the opera house including a sneak visit to the Queen’s top secret private toilet!
It was such a wonderful time for me as a young singer. Creating a role in a very modern atonal opera which was musically very challenging and as a musician I like that. It couldn’t be more opposite to Christine in The Phantom of The Opera in its musical genre. But there are similarities in that Adele goes from the young frivolous teenager to someone who is having an older look at what is going on with Jane Eyre and her father.
The Phantom of The Opera is the second longest running musical in the West End (Les Miserables being the first), what is it about the musical that has made it so successful?
I think because it’s such a strong traditional piece of gothic literature that this has enabled the storyline to stand the test of time. It has intrigue, mystery, love and emotional turmoil that Christine has to go through when The Phantom is pretending to be her dead father, luring her in. As an audience member you are drawn in and you want to say “Stop, Stop, he’s evil… or is he?”
The whole juxtaposition of The Phantom being controlling and manipulative to someone who is so vulnerable, hurt, mixed up and mistreated. The story really has got it all.
How would you describe ‘your’ Christine Daae?
She changes a lot from the beginning to the end of the musical. I try to get the feel of her growing up. She starts with holding such pain inside, being very naive in her own youthful emotions and holding on to the mantra that her father gave her about this angel of music. She really needs to let him go which she does in the song Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, and says goodbye.
She grows into a woman before your eyes and hopefully my Christine shows her compassion for The Phantom in the end. I really love to bring out one of her last lines: God give me courage to show you, you are not alone…
After all he has done she wants to show him compassion and I think that takes a grown-up girl to do that, from the fearful one in the first act.
The love from The Phantom and Raoul must tear at the heart of Christine, how would you describe this?
I think she grows to see there are different kinds of love. There is a romantic pull in Music of The Night, which is a very sensual scene and very charged, but actually is also a little bit twisted, because is he this father figure to her. Is he taking advantage of the fact that she is young and moved by him and has such power over her? Then she has this romantic affection with Raoul. But this is also twisted and a little pulled apart by the fact that she sees him (Raoul) as her protector and saviour from The Phantom, rather than a romantic lover and he doesn’t fulfil what she wants of him. He makes all of these promises in All I ask of You and then dashes them all by dangling her as the carrot in front of The Phantom.
So I think for her the two loves are both bitter-sweet.
What is your favourite song in The Phantom of The Opera and why?
As an actress, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again has so much to give, so many emotions to go through and let out. By the end you are exhausted with the weight of what she has to go through and decisions she has to make. It is not easy but it is brilliant to perform.Vocally, Think of Me is lovely to sing, with big octave leaps and nice high notes which I can’t get enough of!
How do you warm-up before a performance?
Well my dresser Vixie is probably fed up that I have on my iPhone quite a few backing tracks.There are old Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals including Carousel and Oklahomah, lots of Sondheim, jazz, classical tracks- loads of them that are light and free the voice up.
As a teacher and technician, I know my own voice well enough to know that scales and arpeggios alone don’t really get the freedom that your voice needs as putting lyrics to sound and really working those consonants and vowels through the voice. I have set my own backing tracks to start slowly and then to build up to where I need to be for the show. It’s strangely comforting singing through those songs before a show – and helps me keep the lyrics fresh in my mind!
Having performed as Cosette in Les Miserables, how would you say that performing in two of the most incredible musicals in London has influenced your own life?
Being in the two longest running musicals in the world obviously there is a sense of pride. They are excellent musicals, with some similarities but executed in very different ways. Les Mis has so much to offer, I absolutely adored my time in Les Mis. Revolving stages are great fun! The show is amazing and to have been in these two iconic musicals that people have heard of in countries all over the world is obviously something to be proud of. It has also challenged me as an actress, particularly this part of Christine which has really developed me. Les Mis, as a singer, has developed me as well, having to sing the harshness of Lovely Ladies and the light high notes of Cosette, which sit in a completely different vocal range which was a challenge.
Who would you most like to perform on stage with?
Barbra Streisand as I think she is simply amazing. Also, I worked with Josh Groban at The Royal Albert Hall a few years back when I did Chess in concert and was one of their featured soloists. I would love to work with him again and sing a duet with him. I think his voice is beautiful, his writing is lovely and I think our voices would blend quite well together. He’s lovely to work with.
What would you say is the highlight of your career?
Just that feeling of singing on stage at The Royal Albert Hall with a huge orchestra behind me and singing out into that iconic and immense space, that has got so much history. That is one of the highlights for me. Hearing your voice ‘ringing’ back at you is just brilliant.
You have sung in some amazing venues including St James Park Newcastle , before an England international football match. Can you describe how this felt?
It was amazing. I was singing both national anthems in front of 50,000 people, having only 3 days to learn the Ukrainian National anthem off by heart! David Beckham was standing two metres away from me and they were all lined up. And Beckham gave me a little wink afterwards which was nice! When I started to sing our national anthem, it was a summer night and there was a huge thunderstorm that crept over head. The lighting was flashing right over the stadium and we were drowning out the thunder with our singing and that was absolutely awesome. With 50,000 people joining you and the orchestral backing track and hearing your voice echo around the stadium over and above the thunder was immense. It was one of the most exhilarating singing experiences I have ever had.
Away from your professional career, how important is being a Christian to your life?
It is hugely important to me. That actually comes over and above my career and me as a person. It is so intertwined in my life that it isn’t really separate from my career, as it is just who I am and what I am about.
During last year as Interserve Ambassador you visited Mumbai in India and in particular visited the slums where women and children are trafficked, could you tell us about this experience?
It was a life-changing experience. I went out to film and document what they do over there in order to communicate to people over here that support the charity and to get more support for the charity! I really felt it was a big responsibility to find out what it was like and to spend time with women who had been trafficked as children, and to meet them and hear their stories first-hand; to see where they worked, where they lived and to see the change in them as they were moved out of the Red Light District and into half-way houses and safe houses where they learnt to be loved and to love. They had been broken down in the most destructive and despicable way.
Any trace of humanity and respect had been stripped away from them at such a young age. These poor women have to learn from the beginning, emotions like how to love and be loved, which is such an integral part of being human. It was such an emotional time. Then going to the slums, which was a separate part of the trip, to see what help was being given to those in poverty. This was very different as they were a strong community and they looked after each other and loved each other. In their extreme poverty they had that love for each other. There were Muslims, Hindus and Christians working together in harmony and living side by side. The slums were so different to the Red Light District.
I can remember meeting one lady who had been drugged by her aunt at a family party when she was eleven and taken on a train to Mumbai where she was sold for a year’s wages which was about £20. She tried to run away and had her arms broken, she would be punched and locked in a room, used over and over again.
It was very interesting playing ‘The Lovely Ladies’ in Les Mis and knowing that poverty had led them to do that, it was not their choice. The poverty and entrapment that I had seen first-hand had really opened my eyes to how people in the sex industry, trafficked children and women, are forced there.
As a Christian, an actress and a singer, what would you like to achieve in your life?
As a Christian and as someone who has found a deep and intimate relationship with God to be able to share that in my life wherever I’m at, be it backstage, be it with my friends. Just in a natural everyday way if I can show people what I have, how it’s changed and enriched my life so powerfully, that’s an amazing thing to share.
For me it is about having a real relationship with God that’s seeps through your life, not a set of religious rules or punishment. When I was in Les Mis and here, I have started up a little prayer group that I call a ‘holy huddle’. In Les Mis we actually met in a broom cupboard! This is where my Christian life and my work go together hand-in-hand, because I believe that God wants people in theatre to have that solidity of a relationship with Him wherever we are. Its a struggle for some to be part of a church family with 8 shows a week to do. It is such a moving and transitional workplace where you can lose your job very quickly. If you put your identity and your worth in your work and you don’t get that audition or you don’t get that job then people can be crushed. It is important to have something that carries me through with my identity being as a ‘daughter of God’ and not as a West End singer. I don’t ever want to go bible bashing but if I can help people achieve that identity crisis by working alongside them as a Christian and helping them see God’s love through my life then I couldn’t ask for more.
You have a very busy life, what do you like to do to relax?
I have a ridiculously soppy cat called Bashment who loves nothing more than lying upside down on his back having his tummy stroked, while he strokes my face back. That’s rather relaxing. He likes to sit on me and my husband. If there are cuddles then he has to join in. I also like to knit. It’s very ‘grannyish’ but I enjoy it. I have got into a habit of making gloves for myself, as I have quite small hands so I can make them to fit me!
Anything else you would like to add or any message to your fans?
I love the creativity of singing and the passion behind communication through song as a genre and hopefully in whatever I sing I can move people!
We interviewed Tabitha in her dressing room (shared with Sofia Escobar – and previously used by Sarah Brightman) at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Tabitha gets changed about twelve times during the show, including skirt changes on stage. She has one costume of everything and her costumes cost in the region of £28,000! The dress that is worn during the song Think of Me is very heavy!
Tabitha says “Most of my costumes are made for me by the wardrobe department who work tirelessly here. They do such a fantastic job. The costumes of silk and sequins are so different from the ‘rags’ in Les Mis where I would also put stage dirt on my face every day!”
You can follow Tabitha Webb on Twitter at @halfpintsinger and at her website www.tabithawebb.com
Interviewed by Neil who you can follow on Twitter at @LondonTheatre1
Her Majesty’s Theatre
Updated 11th October 2014