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Teenage Blind Opera Singer Has No Barriers

May 30, 2022

A blind singer who started performing opera on Zoom has said he wants to show there are no barriers to success as he prepares for his first performance.

Toben Durrant, 16, from Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan, has always loved music and played instruments as a child.

He said his love of opera comes from the emotional effect it has on people, and he was inspired by singers like Andrea Bocelli, who is also blind.

His advice to anybody who has a disability is: ‘You can do anything.”

Toben has a rare genetic condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis.

He joined the Welsh National Youth Opera (WNYO) during the pandemic in September 2020.

He rehearsed on Zoom until his first performance – in front of the Queen at the opening of the Senedd in October.

Reading music through braille and learning orally, he is currently in rehearsals for The Black Spider, which opens at the end of May at the Wales Millennium Centre.

Toben has always been a musician, playing the violin and viola growing up before turning his hand to singing as part of his musical exams.

“I had my accompanist helping me and he went ‘ah you can sing’ and said I should start singing lessons.

“So I did and that’s how I started.”

He developed a love for opera after performing pieces for his exams and being moved by the influence he said it can have on people.

“I loved the sort of the theatrics and the way it’s not really realistic.

“You’re never going to have an opera that’s like a down to earth kind of like what you would like in perhaps normal theatre.

“That’s what I love about it, it’s so weird and also just expressing yourself and it’s lovely to do that.”

At the WNYO he said he received lots of support to help “expand horizons”.

“They have been absolutely amazing with whatever they do,” he said.

“They include me in everything, my blindness hasn’t been an issue.”

To support Toben, textured markings were placed on the floor, buddies provided prompts and specialised set design were introduced.

As well as that, he is given music in braille but said he mainly learns by listening to others sing.

He said: “I thought there would be quite a few barriers because it’s a pain and I’m still slow at reading music braille but I’m getting quicker.”

He hopes when others see him perform it will make a difference to how blind people are perceived.

“I would say where there’s a will there’s a way. That’s true for anything – and you don’t have to go through it alone.”

Toben, who is currently studying for his GCSEs said his “ultimate goal” is to keep music in his life, if not as a performer then as a music therapist.

He said it has encouraged him to write again, as he was put off due to his spelling, but opera has exposed him to languages he would have never known.

“Music can move anyone. It can move mountains, basically.”

‘It is us putting barriers in his way’

Rhian Hutchings is the director of The Black Spider opera and said the WNYO has done all it can do support Toben and push him as a performer.

She said: “The approach I have taken is to work with him.

“It is us putting barriers in his way so it is discussing with him what I want to achieve and trying to find out the best way to do it.”

She said they take precautions to keep him safe but “at the same time he is incredibly game and he just wants to do it”.

“We are a company, we are making this piece together,” she added.

His mum Julia, said this attitude makes all the difference but is not something they always experienced.

She said: “He has always enjoyed singing and being in school choirs and It is amazing to see how he has been helped.”

“As a mum of a blind kid you always worry when you put them into new environments or clubs but this was the first time we were called up beforehand [by WNYO].

“They asked what the requirements were, what we needed, we were invited in before because Toben joined before lockdown so he hadn’t met anyone in the opera.”

She believes it made a difference they were “so thoughtful to make him feel secure”.

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