When Anna Johnstone sings the Ave Maria, people come to listen but are invited to pray — even in deepest Siberia. DAMIAN ARNOLD reports on a rising Catholic talent
WITH A CAREER as a professional
soprano a curtain call away, one might be forgiven for expecting Anna Johnstone to have set her sights on the glamorous trappings of opera stardom. But it is the singing itself that's so precious to Anna, a "holistic" experience uniting body and soul and indivisible from prayer.
At her recent London debut at St James Church, Piccadilly, she exhorted the audience to pray with her as she sang the sacred music of baroque composers such as Bach, Handel, Gounod and Gluck. She shrugs as she recalls her success.
"I feel a great devotion to Our Lady and the audience responded to the conviction with which I sang the Ave Maria. Really believing the words you sing can give you something extra over someone who doesn't," she said.
Away from the stage there is no make-up or glittering jewellery and the wind has blown her hair hither and thither as she sits serenely over tea at the Barbican, no glint of the prima donna in her fine large eyes. Her vocal gift was spotted when she was 18 and she was accepted to sing with the English Baroque Orchestra. After a theology degree at Cambridge where she performed for the semiprofessional CamOpera in 1)nn Giovanni, she moved to Rome, where she converted To Catholicism and received exclusive tuition from Sylvanna Bussoni, the mother and main teacher _of the famous mezzo Cecilia Bart°li.
Anna is preparing to draw on everything she learnt from her prestigious mentor when in May she travels to Russia to make her opera debut in the technically demanding role of Violetta in La Traviata, the tragic tale of a "forgiven sinner" which she feels is a very poignant role for a Christian.
Violetta will be the fruition of a trip to a region of Siberia called Yakutia two years ago. Having planned a contemplative retreat, she packed some music into her suitcase as an "afterthought" and settled in the town of Aldan where she quietly spent up to five hours a day praying in the Catholic church.
But as the mountain valleys and epic plains of Yakutia bloomed into summer, Anna and her voice were discovered. It started when she sang the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria in the church in Aldan and after two months she had charmed audiences all over Yakutia with her recitals. "It just escalated," she said, "Their records stated that I was the first English woman to visit there in 300 years so I created a tremendous amount of interest. I must have sang my Ave Maria publicly at least 50 times all over Yakutia."
With the help of her guide and interpreter Valentina Kostina, the much respected Head of Education in Yakutia who desperately wanted someone from the West to see the conditions her people were living in Anna became a ubiquitous figure as she was driven around to sing in people's houses, in schools, a building site and even on an airstrip.
As a finale to her visit, a full orchestra was brought to Aldan where people flocked to hear her classical songs interspersed with prayers. "Before the Marriage of Figaro I offered prayers to those with problems in their marriages. When it came to the Pie jesu which I offered to those who had suffered bereavement, I felt the energy being taken from me as I sang, I was so exhausted when / finished."
Exciting times lie ahead for Anna as she prepares to perform at the new opera house in Yakutsk, the capital of Yakutia, but the church in Aldan, which is nurturing a growing Catholic community, remains close to her heart. The diminutive but sweet wooden church, built four years ago on the site of a building used for the torture and execution of Christians, has become a beacon of support throughout the town of 60,000, its outreach bringing new converts in a region that was officially designated atheist in the communist era.
Three Slovakian missionary priests have performed miracles building a community from nothing, said Anna. Fr Yuri welcomes new members of the flock to the little church while Father Peter gathers a large following of young people at the weekend, taking them up to the mountains with his guitair to celebrate mass and the gentle understanding of Father Josef works its magic with the many alcoholics in the town who respond to the harshness of Yakutian life and its bitter winters by blowing their monthly pay packets on vodka binges.
Anna's prayers are constantly with a people who have learnt to accept much suffering, but she's also determined to organise material aid, particularly for an orphanage she visited in the town of Yakakut where she was appalled to see the basic conditions and the emaciated children. She is looking for a voluntary administrative helper to assist with her fund -raising efforts. The inspiration of a young nurse called Alyona, who is fighting abortion in a region where the average rate of abortion is six to every woman, drove Anna to act decisively on her return to London. She started working part-time for the ProLife Alliance and one year on she is preparing to hit the election campaign trail in Cambridge as a candidate for the party. "It's a God given opportunity to convey the truth about all the horrific things that are happening and encourage others to stand up," she said.
As a human rights party embracing Christians from different denominations She feels its a cause that can promote Christian unity which is personally very important to her as a convert to Catholicism who is also the daughter of an Anglican priest.
As she pounds the streets of Cambridge on an at times "harrowing" election campaign and keeps her voice honed-up with the help of her teacher, Norman Welsby, the principal baritone of the English National Opera in Covent Garden, life is nothing if not intense for this dynamic lady.
But her smile betrays the certainty of one who believes in the power of her prayers and is happy to sing them anywhere. "If I did no more than sing the Ave Maria in different places all over the world, I'd be happy."