By Colin Babb in London
Vincent Osborne has had a rich mix of experiences and achievements since arriving in Britain from St Kitts in 1960.
He worked in telecommunications for the Royal Air Force in various parts of the world, including Cyprus, the Maldives and Singapore.
He then trained to be an actor and a teacher of speech and drama in Birmingham.
In the 1980s, he created and owned the award-winning Brixtonian Caribbean food restaurant and bar in Brixton, South London.
Vincent’s lifetime passion for opera and classical music inspired him to set up the Black British Classical Foundation (BBCF).
The BBCF aims to promote and support black talent on the operatic and classical stage across the UK and throughout the Commonwealth.
Caribbean Intelligence© asked Vincent the question we’ve been asking all our diaspora guests: how much they feel a part of the society they live in and just how Caribbean do they feel.
“Very West Indian”
“Often people think that I’m terribly English, but once they get to know me, they’ll find that I’m very West Indian. That’s how I feel about myself,” Vincent told Caribbean Intelligence©.
However, he also acknowledges that in St Kitts in the 1950s, British cultural and social influences in the Caribbean influenced his early upbringing.
“Although I’m very West Indian, some people think that being West Indian means that you don’t have anything about you in the Caribbean that makes you feel English.
“In a way, I think my upbringing was pretty English, although it happened in the Caribbean.”
St Kitts memories
“I’m a born and bred Kittitian and arrived in England when I was about 10 years old. I have an enormous amount of memories about St Kitts.
“I started school in St Kitts when I was about three and went to a wonderful little school. I then went on to a bigger school when I was about five or six.”
Vincent was moved to the countryside to stay with his grandparents while his parents travelled over to England.
They sent for him in the UK 18 months later.
“My father was a metallurgist who came to England thinking that he would have more opportunities to further his career and widen it, rather than just work in St Kitts, which is pretty small,” he explains.
A love for music
Vincent’s love for opera and classical music began not long after he settled with his family in Birmingham.
It has continued to grow throughout his life.
His number one favourite performer is the African-American singer, Leontyne Price, whom he describes as “the diva amongst divas”.
His favourite composer is Giacomo Puccini.
Vincent has fond memories of his early passion for music as a boy growing up in Birmingham.
“I discovered a love of opera and classical music from a very early age. I think I was about 11 when my father bought me my first record, which was the Nutcracker Suite.”
“We went to a fantastic school in Birmingham where, in the morning, as you walked into assembly, there was a composer of the week.
“The headmaster would talk about a piece of music by a particular composer. It was wonderful to start the day with some really good music.”
This appreciation of music, influenced by Vincent’s father and school days in Birmingham, was also shared by his two brothers and three sisters in Vincent’s Kittitian household.
“My younger brother Collin, who is a rugby coach for English rugby union team Harlequins, is a real opera buff. Being a rugby coach is his job but, on the side, opera is his big thing”.
Vincent says that his brother’s musical tastes are wide-ranging, including jazz and classical music while his three sisters go to the opera and the ballet a lot.
All about passion
As the Artistic Director of the BBCF, Vincent heads an organisation which aims to develop young artists in the disciplines of classical music, opera and ballet; both as participants and audience.
“It all about passion, because it’s certainly not about money!” says Vincent when he talks about what motivates him.
Vincent’s mission is to encourage people – including the Caribbean diaspora in Britain – who feel they have no connection with the classical music world, “to open their hearts and minds to a new experience”.
“It’s just about giving people a wonderful experience or a trigger that’s going to make them want to listen to this music again or go out and see this music live.”
Lack of opportunities
“I don’t think there are any barriers in terms of young people gaining experience or education, but barriers are there when you try to get a job,” Vincent suggests.
“If you look around the orchestras and opera houses, there isn’t any diversity within these organisations, both backstage and front of stage.
“They will take on a black person as a lead, but to get to that position where you’re a principal artiste, you need to get the experience.
“That is where our organisation and Pegasus, an opera company who specialise in productions where the majority of their casts are people of colour, come in to give people opportunities, exposure and experience.”
Voice of Black Opera
When Caribbean Intelligence © caught up with Vincent, he was busy organising an operatic gala recital evening in London to celebrate UK Black History Month.
The event was also set up to raise funds and publicise the 2013 Voice of Black Opera competition.
The Voice of Black Opera is an international competition for singers of black and
Asian heritage from across the Commonwealth and was set up by Vincent.
In 2009, the first Voice of Black Opera competition, which was held in Birmingham, was won by Elizabeth Llewellyn, another British-born singer of Jamaican parentage.
She received the Sir Willard White Award, named after the Jamaican operatic soloist.
Vincent describes Elizabeth as “having a voice which is absolutely delightful”.
Vincent bursts with enthusiasm when he talks about what the future may hold for British-based Caribbean talent, including Elizabeth Llewellyn, Ronnie Samm and Nadine Mortimer-Smith.
“Elizabeth Llewellyn is very still during her performances, but her voice does the work of moving you. She is currently in rehearsals to play the jilted girl [Micaëla] in Carmen.
“It’s the perfect role for her and I’m sure she’ll bring the house down!
“Ronnie Samm is about to play Othello at the Opera North and is fast becoming the number one Othello in Great Britain.
“He has the height, the weight and the voice to match.
“Nadine Mortimer-Smith has recently been singing Madame Butterfly and she is very, very special,” says Vincent.
Working in the Caribbean
Vincent has also been working to support and encourage talent and a love for opera and classical music in the Caribbean.
He helped to plan a “rum run” around Barbados, St Lucia, St Kitts and Antigua to stage recitals and work in schools.
He says that the trip helped to “broaden the kids’ experience of live operatic arias and songs”.
He describes the reception his team received in the Caribbean as “tremendous”, with St Lucia being the country “which is very geared up for getting children involved in music.”
One of the highlights of the trip was being back in St Kitts, where they found that the venue, St Georges Church, “had a fabulous organ but no piano.
“So we had to manhandle a piano on a back of a truck and drive it for miles to get it to the church.
“The church was packed with a good 800 people there and a lot of the programme was in Italian, but they all laughed in the right places!”
Vincent’s next trip to Caribbean will be next year, when he plans to see his parents, who have returned to live in St Kitts.
“After organising these events and opening a new bar in Birmingham, I just want to be able to unwind and relax with my family in St Kitts.”
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