Robert Ogden makes a homecoming at the 2017 Northern Aldborough Festival

PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 May 2017

Robert Ogden outside the family jewellery business in Harrogate

Robert Ogden outside the family jewellery business in Harrogate

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World class performers will be taking part in the Northern Aldborough Festival near York. Graham Bell reports

Robert Ogden was the little boy who couldn’t stop singing. He sang so well he scaled the heights of professional opera, leading to a busy career where he performed on some of the world’s biggest stages with stellar artists including José Carreras and Sherrill Milnes.

Now Robert’s career has come full circle to where it all started as a five-year-old choirboy. Every year, he uses his extensive knowledge to attract some of the biggest names in stage and classical music to the intimate surroundings of Aldborough Parish Church, near Boroughbridge.

Robert, who these days helps to manage his family’s well-known jewellery business in Harrogate, alongside his brother Ben, never imagined all those years ago that top performers such as multiple Classic BRIT award winner and trumpeter Alison Balsam and Day of the Jackal star Edward Fox would be hot-footing it to Aldborough to entertain sell-out audiences. But the Northern Aldborough Festival, which begins its 2017 programme this month, has always punched above its weight.

From humble beginnings in 1994 as a fund-raiser to restore the church organ, over the years the festival has grown into a top-class 10-day programme to suit all musical tastes, from classical to jazz, spoken word and a last-night pop concert that includes a spectacular firework display. Robert joined as festival director in 2009 when he was scaling down his singing career, and he and his team are immensely proud of Northern Aldborough’s hard-won reputation as one of Britain’s best summer festivals.

‘We set out to bring world-class music to the sumptuous setting of a beautiful Yorkshire parish church,’ he says. ‘We don’t have the biggest budget and we can’t match the fees the top London venues are able to pay, but we can offer other things to our performers.

‘We really go the extra mile for them. We ship in the very best pianos from London and we have a tremendous acoustic in the church. We are lucky enough to be able to make our artists extremely comfortable in some lovely local country houses and word spreads about the concerts that we often hold in the stunning, privately-owned venues such as Bramham Park, Markenfield Hall, Farnley Hall and North Deighton Hall.

‘To a certain extent, the festival now sells itself to performers because of the reputation we have established over the years. We are lucky to have a very committed team and board behind the scenes and we never compromise on artistic excellence. The quality of our artists has to be absolutely top-notch.’

Robert is well aware of what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Having won a place at Westminster Cathedral Choir as a schoolboy, he went through the ‘nerve-wracking’ ordeal of performing the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on live TV as a choral scholar at King’s College before going on to study opera at the Royal College of Northern Music in Manchester, where he met his future wife, Lucy. He finished his training at the Netherlands Opera Studio in Amsterdam.

The counter-tenor enjoyed his first big break at Bern State Concert Theatre in Switzerland in 2001 and went on to perform for Placido Domingo’s Washington National Opera Company, touring Japan with José Carreras and Sherrill Milnes. Robert became an oratorio soloist at concert houses all over Europe and performed for BBC, Australian, Japanese and German radio. He also helped to establish a successful independent classical music record label.

‘It was quite a surreal experience to appear on stage alongside some of the very best names such as José Carreras,’ says Robert. ‘He was nearing the end of his career at that point but his voice was still the most beautiful sound you could ever hear; like honey. I learned so much from him.

‘I absolutely loved the life of a professional singer, and I like to feel I really made the most of it but the job has inherent insecurities. Landing a role usually means three months of relatively well-paid employment, but then you have to look for another part. In addition the role demands a lot of travel. At one point, I spent nine months of the year away from home.

‘In 2007, I had a grown-up chat with my wife, as we were starting a family. It was always at the back of my mind that I would like to take up a career in the family business so I decided to take a different direction. It was a difficult decision, but I had achieved my ambition to sing professionally. Of course I miss the life and the buzz of performing, but these days I take just as much satisfaction from the jewellery business, the success of the festival and watching my young children (Ralph, aged eight, and six-year-old twins Claudia and Rosie) starting to forge their own musical paths.

‘What do you do with a boy who won’t stop singing?’ my parents and their friends used to ask when I was little. My advice would be to go for it and simply don’t stop – whether that’s singing in a choir, at church or in a band, make the most of it.’

Writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth and award-winning Russian pianist Yevgeny Subdin headline the 2017 Northern Aldborough Festival, which runs from June 22nd to July 1st. For tickets, go to aldboroughfestival.co.uk.

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