At the age of eight, Bronwen Stephens-Harding declared her wish to be an opera singer.
After a varied career, combining corporate marketing with busking, choral singing, opera performance and singing studies, she is now pursuing her dream full-time. In 2018, Bronwen founded Rogue Opera with a vision of bringing opera to new audiences and unconventional spaces. As well as singing the title role in Rogue Opera’s inaugural season of Bizet’s Carmen, Bronwen directed the production and saw it performed in a variety of venues.
Working with a dedicated troupe of musicians and seeing her concepts come to life on the stage have been a high point in her musical career, which continued with the company’s second season, presenting a vibrant, contemporary reimagining of Don Giovanni in 2019.
The challenges presented by Covid-19 in 2020 have taken Bronwen into new ventures, working to create online performances and provide creative work for Rogue Opera artists at a time when other opportunities have been shut down.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’m an opera singer, a stage director and a small business owner. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I spent many years in the corporate world, in events and marketing, before returning to my first love: opera and performing. I set up Rogue Opera three years ago to share my passion for this incredible artform with new audiences and to nurture my entrepreneurial streak – as well as developing many other skills as a small business owner! Since launching in 2017, we’ve staged two full productions, Carmen and Don Giovanni, and created a variety of bespoke events and workshops. Covid-19 and Lockdown hit Rogue Opera hard and our pipeline of corporate, private and theatre work disappeared in a few weeks, unlikely to return until 2021 or even 2022. So, driven by a need to find a way to stay visible and provide some work for my performers, I threw myself into pivoting our previously exclusively in-person offerings to online livestream and on-demand performances. So I’m now also wearing producer and AV technician hats.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Although I declared at age 5 that I wanted to be an opera singer and had a very musical childhood, studying singing and a number of different instruments, my life veered away from a planned route when I left home to begin working and travelling instead of going to university. Since then, I’ve always thrived in rising to challenges, taking up new opportunities and never ceasing to learn new skills and approaches. I’ve run busy restaurants, taught English as a second language in Japan, obtained the CIM Diploma in Marketing while working for a City accounting firm. Retraining and returning to singing and performing over the last eight years was another challenge, starting from scratch again, but now, combining my business and creative skills and building my own company, I feel like I am right where I am meant to be.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
2020 and Covid-19 have definitely been the biggest challenge personally and for my business. The pressure of striving to adapt to an online medium has felt like starting over once again. The performance skills that I and my artists have spent years developing and honing rely so much on working in-person with your colleagues and the synergy and energy you get from performing in front of a live audience are an integral part of our work. Finding ways to adapt for an online audience, while still keeping the excitement of a live performance has involved a lot mental and emotional resilience, as well as new technology and ways of working.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Every step of my journey with Rogue Opera over the last three years feels like an achievement. However, a stand-out event last year was a two day conference for Fuller’s where we delivered a 20 minute bespoke stage show to launch the event, with singers, flamenco dancers, acrobats and an aerialist (with some cameos from their CEO and leadership team!) and then went on to take 700 delegates through sound and movement team-building workshops, culminating in everyone coming together at the conference close to sing our arrangement of a Puccini opera chorus that they had learned. It was electrifying and so exciting to see so many opera ‘newbies’ embrace the experience whole-heartedly.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
Mentoring is so important. I’m part of a number of networking groups and the support and guidance / advice from other business owners has been invaluable. I have also taken on college students for PR, given opportunities to student make-up artists and dressers to gain experience on our shows. I set up meetings and opportunities to observe rehearsals with several female Directors that I respect hugely and I’m in early discussions with one of the music collages about being part of their mentor program for young singers.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
Our use of language is still not gender neutral. Gender shouldn’t be the first thing you know about a person but it’s endemic in both our everyday and business language – titles like ‘Chairman’ and ‘Madam Chairman’ at board level are disheartening – as well as gender-biased expressions such as ‘throw like a girl’.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
Follow your instinct and passion. I didn’t sing for many years, as I listened to people who told me it wasn’t a career for me or not even something that I should do for fun. Rediscovering my passion for music and performance, even as I was working full time in another career, set me back on the path of being true to my instincts – something that is an integral part of me and so important for an entrepreneur, I think!
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
Coming out of this pandemic with a business not only intact but thriving! The opportunity to pivot Rogue Opera to encompass online offerings is a silver lining. Our ethos has always been to bring opera to new spaces and audiences and the potential to reach people all over the world now and provide them with a gateway into an artform that might otherwise be inaccessible is an exciting next step for the business. Opera is an exciting world of beautiful music, compelling stories and intriguing characters but it is often a seen as a big unknown, and many people have a sense it is elitist, expensive and irrelevant. I’d love to see membership of the Rogue Opera VIP pass platform continue to grow in the UK and reach a more global audience, as well as being back in-person on stage with my colleagues creating new productions.
What would you say to anyone who has thought, “Opera is just not for me”?
Art, music, spoken word, poetry and theatre are the lens though which we can process the big questions. It helps us laugh, grieve, connect, experiment and learn. Music in particular can cross cultural and language barriers and opera, with its combination of storytelling and incredibly detailed soundscapes is, in my opinion, one of the best artforms for this. Add to the mix the power of the human voice to express emotion and a single aria can transport you to another world. What I hope to offer with the Rogue Opera VIP pass is a way for people to dip their toes into this delightful world and perhaps realise that they can relate to it and before they know it, become as passionate about Opera as me.
About the VIP PASS:
The Rogue Opera VIP Pass is a great unique gift voucher (1, 3 or 12 months), particularly as we come into the festive season. As well as offering professional weekly shows, the VIP Pass gives access to insights into the characters, stories and the music being presented, plus additional information about opera and performance through original clips and interviews. The ever-expanding archive gives a range of on demand performances.
WeAreTheCity has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Cherie Blair, Paula Radcliffe MBE, Caprice Bourret, Anna Williamson and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here.