Making a difference with music

By Simon Hart

For Kathryn Rudge, the day-to-day has been markedly different since the onset of COVID-19. With a career built around performing, the mezzo soprano from south Liverpool now finds a big blank space where her itinerary used to be.

‘For performing arts and the arts in general it’s brought everything to a standstill,’ she affirms. ‘A lot of the work I had booked in has had to be either cancelled or postponed. For me it’s a massive change as I’m normally on the road quite a lot. I don’t think I’ve been at home this long for a long time so in many ways I’ve really appreciated the time to have a base and be settled for a good few months as normally I’m preparing for something else.’

If the comforts of home have been a blessing for this parishioner of St Ambrose’s, Speke, the biggest downside of this period is the loss of that connection with audiences which is the essence of any performer’s existence. “With music the point is sharing it for me,’ says the 33-year-old. ‘It’s the connection with the audiences and the people you’re working with and nothing recreates that. We try over the internet to do little bits and pieces but that connection is the closest thing I find to prayer – I consider it a real privilege to be able to communicate something that brings through emotions and connection with people, and I really miss that.’

The impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the arts sector has even left a question mark against the future of the Royal Albert Hall, a venue where Kathryn has sung several times – most recently when performing Mozart’s Requiem with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and BBC Singers during the 2019 Proms season. ‘When I was younger, I saw it on the television and thought, “It must be amazing to perform there” and it seemed very quickly to happen and actually when I got in there, it’s such an intimate atmosphere. It looks huge on the telly but it’s a really special place.’

That was just one milestone for a singer named by The Times as a ‘rising star of classical music’ during her final year at the Royal Northern College of Music and who was one of Radio 3’s chosen New Generation artists from 2015-17. For all the fine venues she has graced, though, there really is no place like home. ‘I honestly feel the concerts I do at home are my favourite,’ she explains. ‘Probably rather than the venue, I relate most closely to the people who are there. If I perform at the Philharmonic Hall and I look out, I can almost see friends in the audience and it means so much. So I’d say on a personal level it is in Liverpool because that’s coming home for me and I really love that.’

The same goes for singing at St Ambrose’s parish church. ‘The people there have all been like a family – they’ve seen me grow up and it’s a pleasure to come back and share what you’re doing with them and to be able to be a part of the community,’ she says. As a child who ‘enjoyed getting up in front of people’ – initially to make her family laugh with her impressions – the church choir played an important part in her formation. ‘Father Ed Cain is a really musical priest and encourages all the young people to take up an instrument or get up and read. I was doing bidding prayers first which got my confidence up to stand up in front of people. From there I’d be singing and the space is so big that it’s such a good preparation. I felt more confident about getting up at school as there was never anywhere as big as St Ambrose’s until you got to the cathedral.’
 
The next significant step came at Liverpool College. ‘I found when I was about 15 that I couldn’t sing pop songs – my voice was becoming heavier – and so I was really lucky I met a teacher, Polly Beck, who put me on the road to classical singing.’ From there she moved on to the Royal Northern College of Music for an eight-year period, starting in 2003. She laughs as she recalls her first opera there as a third-year student. It was a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – and began with something of a false start. ‘We had an evening with all of the governors in and I must have felt so enthusiastic about running out there that on my first entrance I tripped on my dress and I just hit the deck. I heard the whole theatre gasp. I just bounced up and carried on and I think after that nothing was ever as difficult!’

Her singing has since taken her far and wide though one of the most resonant nights came at Liverpool Cathedral when she was soloist for Michael Nyman’s Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial, performing alongside the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The role involved singing the names of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster. ‘That was probably a point at which I felt I really understood the privilege of having a voice,’ says the lifelong Liverpool supporter. ‘My dad and my mum were massive Liverpool fans and I grew up having that knowledge of the tragedy and the fight and the inspiration of the families, and so to get that opportunity to sing those names and for it to be set to music in that way, it’s almost like a prayer.’

In a broader sense, her voice provides a platform too – and this is not something she takes lightly. Kathryn is a patron of the Clatterbridge Cancer Charity and has performed more than once at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, owing to a connection forged when her late parents, George and Susan, each underwent cancer treatment there. ‘I’ve been singing at their Christmas dos and my mum and dad wouldn’t have wanted me to stop doing that,’ says Kathryn who has also performed for the Music in Hospitals and Care UK charity.

Another cause close to her heart is the community singing project she established in 2012 in Hale Village, where she lives. This comprises two separate groups – the Mersey Wave Young Singers and the mixed-voice Mersey Wave Choir – and they perform three times a year in St Ambrose’s parish church. ‘It really bridges the community and opens up the church to people who don’t necessarily often come into it – it’s such a beautiful church, it seats 700 and our ambition is to fill it one day.’

Not surprisingly, it is something that has been much missed during the lockdown. ‘It’s really hard because the music is such a focus for the community and the friendship that has come out of that and I can sense everybody is missing that,’ she says. ‘We’ve tried Zoom and it’s kept us going but there’s nothing quite like having that mutual appreciation both for the music and coming together to do something good in the community.’ The power of music once more.

To learn more about Mersey Wave Music, visit: https://merseywavemusic.com/