Joanna Marie Skillett graduated from Guildhall School in 2017 with an Advanced Certificate in Opera Studies, and has since performed at some of the most prestigious opera venues in the UK. An active supporter of music and the arts within the community, Joanna travelled to Iraq in 2019 on behalf of the Ankawa Foundation, to help the teachers of Kurdistan rebuild their lives following the devastating impact of war.
We caught up with Joanna to find out how her experiences at Guildhall have been a driving force in both her career and voluntary ventures.
What have you been up to since graduating?
It’s been an exciting whirlwind that’s for sure! I’ve been fortunate enough to make major role debuts with leading opera companies across the UK, including Opera Holland Park, English Touring Opera, and tour to some of the most beautiful theatres our country has – London’s iconic Hackney Empire and Buxton stunning’s Opera House being particular favourites of mine!
I also have a huge passion for supporting Music within Education and Communities and work closely with ETO Education, the Concordia Foundation, as well as through my own business JMS Music UK to provide Music lessons, Educational Projects and SEND (Special Education Needs and Disability) shows quite literally across the world.
I’ve just returned from Iraq after working with the Ankawa Foundation supporting teachers and young children to rebuild their lives following the devastation of war. An incredibly life-affirming trip in every way, I devised and led a community music project featuring over 70 students and teachers culminating in a Concert for the City of Erbil to celebrate the people’s strength, love and hope.
I also gained my PGCE in Primary School teaching and my British Sign Language qualifications too. Because…well, why not?!
What has been the most interesting/exciting experience in your work?
I always feel so privileged to be making music for a living. Each day is so different, and I feel very fortunate to love what I do. The best part is working with artists who are just as passionate as I am about the arts; be them professional musicians in the cast or the shy child in an educational workshop who suddenly breaks out and gives it their absolute all to surprise everyone! These are the exciting times and inspire me to push myself further as an artist. There really is no end to the positive impact music can bring to all.
Have you been back to Guildhall School since graduating? If so, what for?
I’ve visited a few times to watch performances of the Guildhall Opera School, meet with teachers and coaches, and attend a few auditions - as let’s be honest, they never stop! I love coming back as every time I do, there is such a creative buzz and so much going on that it’s hard not to smile and think how lucky I am to be a part of the Guildhall community.
Why did you choose Guildhall School?
I always looked up to the Guildhall Opera School. For me, training as a young Soprano, it was the ‘Bucket List’ of platforms to be accepted onto. The exceptional international reputation of the School is thoroughly deserved: the whole programme is tailored specifically for the growth and nurture of the artists and the teachers were second to none, led by Dominic Wheeler and Martin Lloyd-Evans – two professionals I have long admired and was eager to work with.
I was so keen to be a member of the Guildhall Opera School that I actually auditioned five times…yes, honestly! I’m not ashamed to admit it as I feel I really earned my place there. The first few years of auditioning, I was simply too young and not ready; but after a lot of focused hard work and dedication and the relentless support of my great teacher and friend John Evans, when Dominic called and gave me the great news that I’d been awarded a place for the 2015-17 class I was ecstatic… I guess five times is the real charm!
What are your best memories from your student days at Guildhall?
With hindsight, I’m pleased that I was accepted into the school a little older. As a lyric soprano, it meant that my voice was mature enough to be trusted with some absolute rubies of operatic roles. I was so proud to be stepping out on the Silk Street stage in November 2016 and perform the title role of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta: what a show! It was the biggest role I had sung in Opera up to that point and to have the support of my family, friends, the School and fellow colleagues was a very special time.
We had such a great year group and we all got along famously – laughing a lot of the time! Yet what made it really special was that when the course and industry got intense, we were also able to feel the lows together, as well as the highs, and be there for each other. Of course, some of my best memories are the wonderful shows; but there were also hilarious times that I’ll cherish in our classes together, grabbing a quiet cuppa and a chat by the lakeside and being part of a very supportive Guildhall Opera School company.
Are you still in touch with anyone from the School?
I still see many of my Guildhall colleagues both professionally and socially – Anna Sideris and I were bridesmaids for our fellow Guildhall alumni Elizabeth Skinner and John Findon this Summer after they met on the Opera Course! I was known as the Social Secretary for our class and we still get together often to catch up – so I’m glad I’m still doing the job right! It’s always great to see how everyone’s doing and continue the support of each other’s careers post-Guildhall.
I still study with John Evans privately and also got to work with Martin Lloyd-Evans at Opera Holland Park last year as Ermygarde in Mascagni’s Isabeau which was great to be reunited again on the professional stage.
What did you expect to do after graduating? Are you still doing that now?
Well, I hoped I would still be singing and lucky enough to work in the music industry - and I’m proud to say that I am! I’m excited to be making my role debut in January 2020 as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte for English Touring Opera. I’ll also be covering Cleopatra in their production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare and creating several character roles in their newly commissioned SEND opera The Extraordinary Adventures of You and Me… so a busy and exciting 2020 ahead!
I’m also continuing JMS Music’s work within my own community and the wider world through Charitable Foundations and within Educational Organisations. In 2020, projects shall be taking place around the UK, Europe, India and the Middle East in a bid to keep building bridges through Music and joining communities together.
Who/what has been most inspirational to you in your life?
I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of great people who I am proud to call my friends and family and I’ve always looked up to my parents for their strong work ethic and endless compassion for others; inspiring me to become the best version of myself I can be.
You can’t fail to be inspired if you have a core of support like these wonderful people around you, along with an epic soundtrack of anything from Doris Day to Dvořák of course!
What advice would you give to students and alumni for success in life after Guildhall?
Guildhall is an exceptional place to train as a Musician and I do generally believe it allowed me to prepare well for my life post-Opera School. For current students, I would say take advantage of every moment you can and soak up every bit of teaching, coaching and learn to nourish your own personal training. You will never be in a stronger, more supportive place to try things out and take the risks to discover what makes you a unique artist than whilst at the Guildhall.
When speaking to my fellow alumni, I feel I am amongst friends when I say we have to remember the same – nurture what makes us unique and interesting as an individual artist. With the pressures of today being as heavy as they ever were to ‘make it’, it’s incredibly important to look after yourself and your mental health - holding the healthy balance in life as to what matters and what doesn’t.
What is meant for you will happen if you put your all into it and stay true to yourself; and when it does get tough, remember, if it was easy, everyone would do it!
Tell us something no one would guess about you.
Over the past few years, I’ve been dabbling in composing my own music. I’ve written shows for primary schools in Essex and I’ve also enjoyed putting songs together to help children gain confidence within their education as well as social and personal growth.
In 2021, I shall be composing the SEND Educational show for English Touring Opera. Featuring a cast of professional singers and musicians, How to Find Your Name will debut in London before embarking on a UK-wide tour for the ETO company’s 2021 Spring Season.
It might be a surprise to some people, but I couldn’t be more chuffed and excited about this opportunity and I guess it’s just nice to pause and realise that this ‘Jo Ski’ is happy and doing alright.