From his days appearing on Hazel Ward Redman’s Twelve and Under to performing before members of the British Royal Family, T&T born-UK-based opera singer Neil Latchman is now awaiting a most prestigious honour to be bestowed upon him in his career—a Guinness World Record award, for his unprecedented 2018, performance at Leh, Ladakh, in the Himalayan mountains, where he belted out high notes alongside harpist Siobhan Brady, at a height of 3,495 metres.
Guardian Media caught up with this Trinidadian St Mary’s College alumnus who spoke of the achievement and shared some unforgettable memories of his life in the land of his birth.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background and what it was like growing up in Trinidad?
A: The Trinidad I grew up in was absolutely wonderful. So my childhood memories constantly draw me back to it like a magnet. To this day, I feel butterflies in my stomach as the plane touches down in either Trinidad or Tobago. I do have a soft spot for Tobago and have many wonderful friends there. My father was a businessman with stores on Frederick Street and my mother a lecturer in French at UWI and John Donaldson Institute, so quite different people, a mixture that makes me pragmatic as well as aesthetic. Not a bad combination in my profession.
Primary school was wonderful. We lived in Cascade, Port-of-Spain, and I went to St. Bernadette’s Primary School in St. Ann’s. To this day, I have extremely fond memories of walking home for lunch and sometimes stopping off at Hi-Lo (Massy Stores), on my way home to chat with the staff. My mother would be really annoyed with me wondering where I was and eventually calling the Manager, as she knew that was my favourite port of call. I was always a people person and nothing’s changed! The singing and music definitely were rooted at St. Bernadette’s. Sister Chanel who was in charge of music there was very encouraging of my talent and so was Linda Hadeed who taught at the school. The Music Festival and “Twelve and under” days began there.
Q: When exactly did you migrate and for what reason?
A: I sadly left Trinidad after my O Levels. My parents felt it was the right thing, but, I was very homesick. I eventually studied English Literature and Music at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. The person who inspired me there was Pat Rideout who performed regularly with Glen Gould at The Juilliard School. My vocal studies with Pat were definitely the catalyst that would sow the seed for the career that followed. Unbeknown to my parents, I would go to Toronto and to The Juilliard regularly to work with Pat. On leaving Canada, I came to the UK and read Law at Leicester University and later a member of Lincoln’s Inn. I met my future wife, who was a medical student at the University and to this day, she is enormous support and a confidante in negotiating my career journey.
Q: Describe when you first fell in love with classical music and the genre of opera?
A: It is difficult to be chronological about this. I was surrounded by beautiful music, both classical and popular in our home. My mother had a beautiful singing voice, but, the love and gift definitely came from my Aunt, Norma Sinanan who was an outstanding concert pianist and trained at The Juilliard. We were extremely close and she taught me the piano and accompanied me often. If she was abroad, she would instruct my mother in detail how to accompany me for a performance and what repertoire I should choose. I have much to thank both of these women for. I think Trinidad is a very ‘operatic’ country to grow up in. There’s always some drama-taking place, not forgetting the Carnival and my natural forceful nature as a person. So the operatic approach suits me.
Q: You have attained many awards and accolades as an opera singer. Did you ever imagine that you would?
A: For me, I was just a boy with a voice and fingers who drew people’s attention when I sang or played the piano. That little boy still goes on stage with me to this day in massive world arenas and Halls and before huge audiences. I do occasionally take a “second glance” and a reality check when I absorb the prestigious venues and international figures who are often in my audience. However, that’s a momentary jolt and I’m brought back to the present and the privilege of what I am fortunate to do and enjoy.
Q: Do you have a musical mentor?
A: Yes. The Romanian Opera Diva, Nelly Miricioiu is a Master I work with regularly and trust her judgment implicitly.
Q: What’s the story behind your Leh, Ladakh performance. How did it all come together?
A: That performance almost did not happen. I had performed at the famous Thiksey Monastery in the Himalayas in 2015 for the 100th anniversary of the death of the composer, Alexander Scriabin. One of the people involved in that performance was Desmond Gentle (London piano tuner). In 2017, Desmond approached me about doing this performance in Ladakh. However, due to the altitude of Ladakh, you have to make sure you’re physically and mentally prepared for the trip let alone sustain the voice at that high altitude, 3,495 meters above sea level. Due to the climate conditions of the region, Desmond said we’d have to wait to see when the best time would be to make the trip in 2018. He was aware that my diary was filling up and that was something he’d have to cope with if I couldn’t make the time frame. I build in my trips to Trinidad around my performance diary and decided that I would come home in August and leave Trinidad on the 1st of September arriving in London on the 2nd. After all my plans were made, I suddenly heard from Desmond that they wanted to do the trip at the end of July. I immediately said to him that I couldn’t. His response was, “I can’t do this without you.” Wow! I told him my dates for Trinidad. His response was, he’ll organise my flight out to India on the evening of the 2nd September, and I would be met and everything done physically for me to make things extremely easy.
Desmond fulfilled every promise and so did I. I even pulled together a piece that was specially written for me called Baadal Badal by the award-winning songwriting team, Michael Ward and Philip Henderson for the occasion. The title, “Baadal Badal”, refers to the cloud, due to the high altitude I was literally singing in the clouds,
Q: While this performance gained you Guinness World Record recognition, it was also a bittersweet experience. Why?
A: It was on the foothills of the Himalayas that I would last see Desmond. Desmond Gentle died two weeks later on returning to London. The altitude of the journey and the rigours involved were too much for his health. He suffered pulmonary thrombosis. Had I not made a journey he was so insistent on to perform at this altitude, I would have had many regrets.
Q: COVID has brought to a halt many performing spaces worldwide, affecting the arts. How have you been coping?
A: COVID has hit the arts in particular, deeply. However, it has made us be more inventive and resourceful. Last year July, my first live-streamed performance was a huge success and others followed. What I suddenly draw on is the experience of years of performing as we have to perform observing social distancing, most of the time without rehearsing, are the words of my first vocal mentor, “let the audience into your world, don’t work so hard that you constantly need to reach into theirs.”
Q: Do you have any plans to use your success and experience to gift your birth land with an institution for the classical arts?
A: An institution in the Classical Arts in Trinidad would take some planning, but contributing to it would not be something that I would rule out at all. I performed for the Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley on his maiden voyage to London as PM. His beautiful words of thanks to me resonate in my ears to this day and I would be extremely honoured to continue the narrative with him, on the future of the classical arts in the twin islands.
Watch Neil Latchman’s Leh, Ladakh performance here: https://youtu.be/fSeLs4gFDT0