Mills town

Nicola Mills dispels the notion that opera is for posh people – and nowhere more so than in Todmorden, where she’s performing street concerts, as well as Xmas songs and carols

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“I’ve put my sparkly dress on today because it’s Christmas but I’m usually in my jeans,” says Nicola Mills before she launches into Away in a Manger. The residents of Waterside Lodge, a care home in the centre of Todmorden, sway and clap in the lounge, while outside the open double doors Mills sings to them in a crystal-clear soprano voice against a backing track of music playing through a large speaker. She has indeed got a sparkly dress on, though she keeps her thick pink coat on over the top of it, to keep warm as the temperature plummets on this December afternoon.

This is something like the eightieth outdoor gig that Mills has undertaken in and around the Calder Valley this year, singing, among other things, operatic arias and songs from musicals. Today it’s mainly Christmas songs and carols, although there’s a request for some opera. Mills happily, and beautifully, delivers Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro. But none of this was what she’d originally planned for 2020.

“I’d written a tribute to Julie Andrews called A Spoonful of Julie and I’d managed to get the show into venues around the UK,” says the 44-year-old professionally trained opera singer. There was also some work for Disney, a return visit to New York, where she’s lived and worked in the past, and a trip to LA in the diary.

“I’ve only ever got to a certain point in my profession and have always been scrabbling around for work. I really felt this year was my moment. And then everything just got cancelled.”

Still, if there was an upside to this hiatus to her plans, it was that Mills ended up singing in the cul-de-sacs, town squares and marketplaces of Calderdale, where she chose to settle this year.

If there is such a thing as a typical opera singer, then Mills isn’t it. Born in Oldham, she retains her broad accent. “I’ve got five brothers,” she says. “My mum was pregnant when she was 15 and my dad was 17. They struggled. My childhood was quite traumatic. My dad was an alcoholic and my mum was just busy trying to look after us all.”

There was no classical music at home but her introduction to music, and then to opera, came via school. She had free trombone lessons, and then started singing in the choir before taking up free singing lessons at a local music centre. After that she went to college and into music school, washing up in restaurant kitchens to pay her way.

“Music became my medicine. It was my ticket out. There was so much drama in the house, my brothers kicking the shit out of each other, and me, all day.”

There was little in the way of support from her family. They couldn’t afford to pay for her to go to singing lessons, let alone go to music school, but there was no understanding or appreciation of her talent either.

“My dad came to see me once and just laughed. He said: ‘Who do you think you are?’”

Did she feel out of place as a working-class girl in her profession? Not really.

Nicola Mills sings outside the Waterside Lodge care home in Todmorden. Photos: Rebecca Lupton

“One thing about working in the music world is you meet really nice people. I know people like me and people who had been to twenty-five grand a year schools who have rich parents. I know people from Blackburn who sing at Glyndebourne.”

But she does get annoyed by the pretensions and poshness that surrounds her profession.

“I meet people all the time who say I’d love to go to the opera but I’m scared,” she says. “Put your jeans on and rock up. No one gives a shit. You don’t have to be posh. You’re allowed to think what you think – every opinion is valid.

“Sometimes I go and see stuff and I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, but I just listen to the music and ask: ‘Does it touch me? Does it go to my heart?’”

It was during her time singing as part of a chorus in the Antwerp Opera house that Mills developed the idea for Opera for the People, the banner under which she now works.

Her decision to take her voice and her love of the music onto the streets was born of fear, she says. “I was tired of shitting my pants about singing in front of people. I had got so anxious about it. The profession does that to you. You just end up thinking ‘I’m shit, me’ and it’s like you’re never good enough.

“It didn’t just happen overnight – it took months and months to pluck up the courage to do it. The first time I put that box out to stand and sing on I’d never been so scared, but things just started to change for me after that.”

Mills gave up the opera house job and took her street performance around Europe, then to London and then over to New York, where she had a regular spot in Central Park and near a subway on 72nd Street. Offers of work started flowing in after that, but Mills has always resisted returning to a full-time job singing in an opera house setting.

“Singing for the chorus was a cushy number, and you don’t get many full-time jobs like that. But it was like no brain required, just being told what to do all the time. You’re just a cog in the machine. You get told to do things in a certain way – get your ball gown on and sing a certain repertoire in the right way. And fair enough, there’s a place for that.

“I’ve worked with really posh people in really posh places with great orchestras and I loved it, but I also know how to connect with people just like me – people who live in terraced houses and who watch Coronation Street.”

What really excites Mills is “connecting with people, chatting to them and being honest about it and telling stories”. And she’s had ample chance to do that this year.

“Seventy per cent of the job is working out how to connect with people,” she says, and it’s that connection that has been so well received this year. “We need community. Doing this – you can really change someone’s day and it’s win-win because it helps me too.”

Still, she hopes 2021 won’t be a repeat performance. There’s the tour of her Julie Andrews show to restart, and she plans to eventually return to America. Right now though, that feels like a distant hope.

“I feel further away from my dreams than I have ever felt. But my life has changed this year and there’s no going back. I’m coming from my heart now –
for the people – for everyone. People have helped me and now I can help other people and I’m not going to stop.”

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