She may have performed to a worldwide audience of two billion at this year’s royal wedding, but soprano Elin Manahan Thomas considered giving up singing after suffering performance anxiety.
“I have never suffered from it before, and when it came, it was crippling,” says Manahan Thomas of her first panic attack, which followed a performance.
The attack led her to question her future as a singer. “I had a real crux moment when I thought, ‘I’m going to give up’,” she explains. Instead, with the help of meditation and meticulous planning, she has found a way forward and, in May, her rendition of Handel’s Eternal Source of Light Divine accompanied Meghan Markle during “that golden moment” as she walked down the aisle to join Prince Harry at the altar.
“The big thing for me to work out was why I wanted to sing, and it is to communicate,” says Manahan Thomas. “I have always thought of myself as a vessel for the music. I want people to come away and think, ‘that music was astonishing’. I’m the means of getting Handel to the audience. If there’s something in the way of that communication, then I feel I’m not giving the audience the whole story.”
Her performances may be ethereal but everyday Manahan Thomas is much more grounded. She manages her anxiety through careful planning beforehand, allowing her to be “in the zone” on the day.
“I’m much more careful these days about the day itself,” she says. “For years, I just grabbed a dress and makeup and got in the car. Now I prepare the whole day meticulously. I know where my children are, what they are having for lunch, how I’m getting there, where I can get food and water, and what time I can eat.
“I’m trying to keep mental acuity. The high point of the day should be the singing and I like to clear my head for that moment. Of course, that’s not always possible – some days you are carrying a stomach bug or you’ve had four hours’ sleep or you can’t help thinking about the journey ahead of you.”
Manahan Thomas goes through “stages of shutdown”, switching off social media and meditating to disengage from negative thoughts. “Meditation has completely overhauled my whole well-being,” she says. “I have properly taken it on board and slowed down. That sense of slowing down time is invaluable when it comes to performing: you slow down time and you make the time yours.”
This kind of preparation, and the fact that Manahan Thomas is no stranger to big events, having sung at the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony, meant “there was nothing there to faze me” on the big day. She was able to focus on the couple and not be distracted by the grandeur of the occasion.
“I only had three minutes to sing,” she says. “It had to be for them. I had to clear everything else out of my head and think, ‘this is your moment, this piece means something for you and I’m going to make it mean something today’.”
Her performance in St George’s Chapel has given her the confidence to open up about her performance anxiety, but she admits it is difficult to speak out in an industry built on “the mystique of performing”. “I wish we as an industry were more open to talking about it,” she says.
Manahan Thomas attributes her anxiety in part to the fact that she never meant to be a singer. Although she has “always sung in choirs”, she was carving out a career as an academic, studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Clare College, Cambridge. She sang with the college choir for three years and, after she graduated, went to be an au pair. It was during this year that she was invited to sing with the Monteverdi Choir, so beginning her professional singing career.
“There’s no career path,” she says. “I’m not sure how much as singers we actually think, ‘I’m happy with my singing; I’m on the right trajectory’. Sometimes, you’re doing a job your heart isn’t in or you are loving a job but you’re not being paid. Being a singer is complicated.”
Choosing a career as a singer means not being able to switch off, as others might do when they leave the office. “I’m frequently having to explain to people the amount of preparation that goes into a concert – even if it’s a piece you have already sung. The preparation goes beyond the singing, too; you’ve got to prepare your travel, your dress, your makeup and your childcare.”
Add two children to the mix and a milestone birthday and “it’s a lot to juggle”. “I have an incredibly supportive husband,” she says of baritone Robert Davies, “but ‘I’m becoming aware that what we do is extraordinary”.
Elin Manahan Thomas is an ambassador for Sing Up, which aims to get children singing in schools by providing educational resources.