Meet Shantal Martin, a 23-year-old opera singer with a dynamic voice.
Her career in music began back in primary school, while she was a student of Hilltop Preparatory School.
Her music teacher, who was a member of the Royal Barbados Police Force Band, taught her and her classmates to play the recorder, and he saw her potential back then.
“Based on our performance, he chose children who had more musical ability than the other students. Those of us chosen were taught theoretical music and graded by an English Board,” she recalled in an interview with Barbados TODAY. “I was probably about eight years old when I started taking the graded exams and it was around the same age that I started singing, but singing was done outside of school.”
Shantal said she always sang classically, and although opera was a natural progression, she resisted it at first.
“It was that kind of rebellious thing where you know you’re good at something and everyone is telling you that you have to do that, and you just naturally want to fight it,” she explained.
It was not until she was in sixth form at Combermere School that she decided to stop fighting music and let it be her guide. Shantal had an epiphany when she went to Rome on a pilgrimage with her Catholic church. As she entered one of the basilicas in the Italian capital, she saw a prayer box and she wrote a short prayer and dropped it in the well.
Shantal had wanted to be sure that her decision to pursue opera as a career was the right choice, as she had given up a career in dance. A couple days later, it seemed her prayer was answered when she had the opportunity to sing at a church packed with strangers. The response was amazing, she said, as the audience broke down in tears.
“I am used to getting the same response when I am singing in Barbados, as I am doing something different – ‘Oh, opera is so cool!’ But you never know how you touch people until you leave the space in which you feel the most comfortable….Everyone was crying….Strangers were touched by my voice and, in this moment, I decided that I wanted to pursue opera on a professional level,” Shantal said.
When asked how her family supports her as she continues on her journey to become an internationally-renowned opera singer, she said it was actually through her grandmother that she was introduced to classical music.
“I was staying by her. I was young, so I don’t remember the age….Her neighbour, whom I was good friends with at the time, was playing a Charlette Church CD and it was classical music that she [Charlotte Church] was singing at the time. I got so into it that I ran to the neighbour’s house sitting and listening. She [subsequently] gave me the CD and that is kind of how I started learning what classical music was in the first place,” Shantal recalled.
Because opera is not a genre of music widely practised in Barbados, the young singer stands out here. And the graduate of The Manhattan School of Music is making her mark on the international scene as well.
“During my school career, I performed with New York Philharmonic, which is a big orchestra led under the baton of Sir Alan Gilbert who is an amazing individual. We performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. In my second year, I was the lead in L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea),” Shantal said.
She described how it felt to secure her first opera lead, in a piece written by noted composer Giuseppe Verdi.
“[This] was the first time getting a lead in an opera ever, because, as I stated previously, I was a dancer; thus, all of my leads were in dance. That same year was a challenging one for me, as I was the lead dancer for the musical theatre showcase that we usually put on…
“I was juggling this crazy schedule and I was so stressed out, as I had the musical first for four hours and then I would have Poppea directly after in the room across the hall for another four hours. I was dancing for four hours and singing choruses and then transitioning to Poppea where it was only me, so I had to be on the ball and be super focused and not let the tiredness get the best of me,” Shantal recalled.
She has just successfully completed her final year at The Manhattan School of Music, earning a Bachelor’s in Music.
In that fourth year, she played The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera written by Leoš Janáček.
“The music was terrifyingly hard. I thought third year was hard until I got into my fourth year, and because it was a full role I had to be on stage for two hours singing. We made it very physical as my teachers took full advantage of my dance background and used it to the fullest. I was jumping, turning, rolling on floors, jumping on people, being lifted whilst maintaining full operatic singing. We do not use microphones, so we must sing over a huge orchestra and maintain our voice whilst we are acting and dancing,” she passionately reflected.
The demanding work schedule eventually paid off, as she and the other students got a wonderful review by Opera News Daily, one of the highest rated opera critics.
“They gave me an amazing rating which left me in tears. They really recognized me, so the teachers were happy, as the school received good press,” said a smiling Shantal.
On the local scene, she has performed at the Prime Minister’s Ball which was held last November during the 50th anniversary of independence celebrations. She also recently performed at the opening of Lancaster House where she captivated the audience with her rendition of The Prayer.