I’m just a girl from Framlingham says rising classical musical star Christina Johnston
PUBLISHED: 16:24 09 October 2017 | UPDATED: 16:43 09 October 2017
Christina Johnston’s the newest star of the classical world, but she still sees herself as just a girl from Framlingham. The singer spoke about how tragedy early in her life shaped her present.
Christina, who studied at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music, met future husband Slava when they were teenagers at Framlingham College.
They have a house in Woodbridge but live in Prague. With Brexit ongoing, she’s worried about their plans to settle in Suffolk.
“I’m definitely looking at country houses. We love the countryside and I love horse riding. All my family are into farming so I definitely want to live near loads of animals. There’s nothing better.
“My husband’s Russian and we’re in the process of trying to move back to the UK. It takes over six months to just apply and there’s more than a 90-page booklet we have to fill in just for him to come here and try to work because, obviously, he’s not allowed to work in this country until he gets residency.
“It’s quite stressful and a bit scary sometimes for us. He feels British, he’s been here since he was 13, he’s got a British accent and says to me Framlingham is his home.”
Christina got her love of singing from her father. He didn’t live to see her become a rising star on the classical scene, dying when she was just 11. Every day, she strives to be the best she can for him.
“He used to play the guitar and taught me piano as well. He used to sing a lot and lead the worship at church. He encouraged me to sing all the time, so I was always singing probably because of him. When he died it pushed me even further into music,” says the coloratura soprano, Italian for “to colour the notes”.
She’s making quite the name for herself, touring Europe, Asia and South America; with presidents and state officials among her army of fans. Her debut classical album Blessing, which she’s dreamt of making since she was a 14-year-old at Framlingham College, has just been released.
“Sometimes I feel I’m just this little girl from Framlingham. Who would’ve imagined I would be in China, singing to the president... in my heart of hearts I would hope my dad would have been so proud of my achievements and how hard I have worked to get where I am so far.
“I will continue, in my best efforts, to be the best I possibly can be for him. As he always used to say, ‘don’t do anything unless you give 100% of your ability’. This is what I try to achieve every day with my singing,” says Christina.
It wasn’t the first trauma music had helped her through. She was in a head-on crash on the drive to Amberfield School near Ipswich when she was three years old.
“Music was an escape. It was almost the way I expressed myself, because I found it easier to sing than speak. I was in hospital three weeks. I hated every minute because I couldn’t move; I can’t sit still. I’d broken my left leg and I’ve got lots of scars on my head. I remember at school they called me scarface for a while,” she laughs.
Doctors didn’t think her mother - who Christina says is amazing and a huge support - would survive, and she spent a year in hospital.
Christina’s keen to put a positive spin on things.
“If it hadn’t happened I probably wouldn’t have been a singer and I wouldn’t probably have the compassion for people I have now. Music really was my release and is a big healer; I’m a huge believer in that.”
The 29-year-old jokes she was an annoying youngster, asking every visitor to her home if she could perform for them. She loved growing up in Framlingham, surrounded by her whole family.
“My auntie and uncle lived at Framlingham Castle. They’ve only just moved out because they’ve retired. She was head custodian. It was wonderful. I used to spend Christmas there.
“The castle was closed and you got the whole grounds to yourself. Me and my cousins used to run around the turrets; it was like you were in a magical place,” says the Prague State Opera stalwart, who won the role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute when she was just 22.
“There’s quite a few little hidey-holes, so my uncle used to tell us there was a troll living in the castle walls. I used to go round knocking and trying to get this troll to talk to me and he’d make all the noises the other side of the walls.”
Living and performing in Europe, Christina has noticed children start listening to classical musical at a really young age.
“I’ve done operas in Europe for kids which have been reduced to about an hour instead of two-and-a-half hours and they love it. I’d love to bring that to the UK but I think all genres have got something to give as long as it touches you and it makes you feel something.”
When she was little, Christina would sing anything, from Whitney Houston to Dolly Parton. She still does. It was her music teacher at Framlingham College who suggested she go down the classic route rather than the musical theatre one Christina was considering.
“I’m very perfectionist. When I hear myself I still think ‘that’s not good enough, I need to do more work’,” laughs the singer, who’s technically an acuto sfogato soprano, one of those rare performers who can sing above high F with great ease, which means she can perform many arias others can’t.
“I wanted to do something that was really difficult, although sometimes I think ‘why did I choose to do that?’ but I remember hearing Maria Callas and I was like ‘I want to sing like her’.”
When Slava, her Russian husband-to-be, moved to Prague to work for the family business Christina followed. With an agent in London and musical theatre fame in her sights, she’d been ready to take on the world.
“At the start I was quite unhappy because I thought I’ve got to start again. coz I had an agency in London I was ready to take on the world, I was ready to go into musical theatre. Having moved to Prague I thought ‘well, I’ve just finished studying so I suppose it doesn’t matter where I start my career’. In a way it’s been a blessing because if I hadn’t have moved there I wouldn’t have got the opportunities I’ve been given...”
She auditioned for the Prague State Opera, thinking she probably wouldn’t get in but did. Suddenly, doors started to fling open. One of those was the chance to record her debut album.
“I’ve always wanted to do a classical album but never really had the opportunity, I suppose you’ve got to have the right people to hear you, the right contacts,” says Christina, who was approached by James Fitzpatrick of The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, who’s originally from Cambridge.
He’d heard her sing at the film music festival at Prague’s Rudolfinum Concert Hall, telling her afterwards that in his eyes there hadn’t been a real young classical opera singer since Lesley Garrett.
“He’s done albums with Sarah Brightman, Lesley Garrett, Placido Domingo... he thought there might be a gap in the market. It was very exciting; it was almost a sense of relief because I’d been wanting this for so long. I’d been very lucky, singing to people around the world which is wonderful. But to have something people can buy and listen to in their car, that’s always what I wanted; to reach more people so it was amazing.”
Christina’s never really been a big fan of warbling voices or heavy opera; she doesn’t like Wagner and the like.
“My favourite composer’s Mozart, I think he’s very easy to listen to and luckily my voice is very light, almost choral and I think that played well in my part of trying to think of things that would reach a wider audience. I’ve chosen lots of very easy listening pieces and very light pieces that I think people will enjoy.”
Two years in the making, it’s been worth the hard work.
“Apart from Blessing and Fallen Soldier, which are new; all the tracks I’ve sung before in either operas or in front of big audiences in concert halls. The things I put to James, really touched my heart.”
To celebrate the release of Blessing, recorded with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Christina has been touring East Anglia with her The Miracle of The Voice tour. You can catch it at St Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich, October 12; St Nicholas’ Chapel, King’s Lynn, October 13; and St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, October 14.
“I can’t wait to sing in all these lovely churches because the acoustics are fantastic. The first tour I wanted to do was in the Home Counties because that’s where I’m from. I want to make them proud and see I’m proud to be part of East Anglia.”