Inside the glittering career of chart-topping Suffolk singer Christina
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Music (and cocktails) kept many of us going throughout the unsettling lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. Virtual gigs and concerts streamed across the globe not only brought beautiful sounds into our homes, but connected us with others...reminded us something wonderful lurked tantalisingly close on the other side of Covid.
Classical and opera singer Christina Johnston was grounded, quite literally, by the virus. With touring impossible, she dedicated newfound time at home in Felixstowe to creating a weekly series of concerts, putting her own spin on hits from the charts and musicals.
She also saw her star rise, when her version of Mozart’s Voi Che Sapete was featured, almost in its entirety, in a key scene of Hollywood film Wonder Woman 1984.
Now it’s back to business as usual for the songstress, who’s still on a high, having made it to number one in the classical charts earlier this year with classical crossover piece, A Million Tears, beating Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli to the top spot. “I was knocked off a week later by Charlotte Church,” Christina laughs.
A Million Tears was commissioned by the War Horse Memorial organisation, and will be re-released this August to coincide with the Purple Poppy Appeal, with fingers crossed for a second bash at the charts.
In the meantime, Christina’s eagerly awaiting the release of her newest single, Queen of our Hearts, co-written with Andrew Rayner – her lockdown collaborator.
The song, due to be released in April, is the duo’s love letter to Queen Elizabeth as she celebrates her momentous platinum jubilee. “It’s all about her sacrifice and dedication to the people of the UK and the Commonwealth,” explains Christina, “but also about how she’s regal and radiant. It's a thankyou to our Queen.”
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She recites some of the lyrics:
Queen of our treasured land, faithful throughout the years, under the grace of God and worth of the crown.
“I would love to sing it for her,” she adds.
Looking further into 2022, Christina is set to perform at Thorington Theatre’s Proms in the Woods, will reunite to sing with Russell Watson and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra this summer, and has been invited to sing with the Royal British legion at Cadogan.
It’s a busy calendar. A far cry from the relative silence of the past two years, which saw Christina move back to the UK from Prague with her husband and now-manager Slava after more than a decade in the city, just before Covid hit.
“2020 was meant to be my biggest year,” she reflects, adding that rather than wallow, the couple decided to be pro-active in lockdown. Slava learnt everything he could about sound engineering, mixing and software, while Christina expanded her already enormous repertoire, practising songs in the pair’s garden studio.
“We made one concert a week in 2020 – 52 concerts over 52 weeks, which was amazing. People were donating through Go Fund Me and Paypal and that really helped keep us going. We had people tuning in from everywhere – from Japan to Africa. I’ve gained so many followers because of it.
“I sang everything from Mozart to Queen to Abba. And 19 different musicals. I had lots of lovely people writing to me saying I’d lifted their spirits, which is why I did it. It gave me something to look forward to each week, and something new to learn every week too.”
Her favourite song during the time?
“I enjoyed singing Freddie Mercury. He had a stunning operatic sound. I put them into my octave range which was actually quite easy. He was a high tenor, and I’m a high soprano.”
I ask about the classical music scene today. In the 90s and early 00s there seemed to be a new golden era for the genre. A boom of interest heightened by the likes of Charlotte Church, The Three Tenors, Il Divo, and violinist extraordinaire Vanessa-Mae.
Christina, who cites Andrea Bocelli and Maria Callas as her idols, says: “There are more classical singers trying to sing pop songs in a classical way these days, which I think is great. I’ve done that for the past year and haven’t changed the way I sing. I would just, for instance, sing a Celine Dion song more classically.
“When I do concerts, I like to have a range. I’ll sing Mozart’s Queen of the Night, then maybe an Andrew Lloyd Webber song.
“I think when you have the likes of Ed Sheeran emerging on the classical charts and doing duets, it’s just going to get more and more popular. Mozart was the Ed Sheeran of his time. He was all about not conforming to the ideals of the day. But I don’t think pure classical and opera will ever go away though.”
A Fram lass through and through (many members of her family still live there), Christina grew up alongside Ed and brother Matt, who she used to sing with, and who composed a version of In the Bleak Midwinter for her in 2017. “The whole family is so very talented,” she says.
Christina recalls an “idyllic” childhood, but one also marked by personal tragedy.
Her aunt lived in the town’s famous castle as head custodian, and she remembers the family piling in at Christmas, shutting the doors and having the whole place to themselves. “Every time I hear Castle on the Hill I’m like ‘ahh’.”
Where did her love of classical music come from?
“My grandmother. My father’s mother. She loved classical music. She was a huge fan of Mozart and the Three Tenors. And my dad listened to everything. I remember listening to Whitney Houston in the car and asking him if could be like her one day. He said no!”
When she was three, Christina’s mum had a major accident and music, says the soprano, became an outlet for her and her dad.
“He led worship at church and played piano and guitar. For me, and I think for him, music was an escape. It was performing that I loved. Every time I stood up to sing, I didn’t feel like myself. I could be someone else. From a very young age I had that desire to perform.”
Aged nine, staff at Amberfield School told Christina’s parents she would be an opera singer. “Dad said ‘no, she’s going to be a vet’.”
When her dad sadly passed away a couple of years later, Christina moved to Framlingham College where she was entered into the BBC Choir Girl of the Year competition, making it to the finals, which opened up a multitude of new opportunities. And while she’s in the classical arena today, it was musical theatre, back then, which was her first love.
At 17 Christina was accepted into the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where she could continue fostering her ambitions.
Living in London and chasing her dreams, her life changed again at 20 when she ran into old school mate Slava in the city while catching up with friends. Two months later they were engaged. They married the same year. And after their honeymoon she graduated. But there was a more seismic shift in her future to come. A move...to Prague.
Slava’s family had moved to the Czech capital when he was 18, and he was already working there in the family business when the couple met and fell in love.
“I had an agent lined up. I was ready to start my career,” Christina says, “but his [Slava’s] dad said ‘if you want to marry him, you’ve got to come to Prague’. I thought, well, I could start my career anywhere, so why not there? I auditioned at the opera house, didn’t think I’d get in, but I did.”
Christina debuted as Queen of the Night in the Magic flute, just as she turned 21. In her words, “an intense year”.
“I’d never really been abroad before because, with mum being disabled and having operations throughout my childhood, we couldn’t. We’d go to Hunstanton or Southwold. Then suddenly I was married to this guy who was taking me to Germany, Paris and Prague. I got the travel bug.
“And the people in Prague are so amazing. They took me under their wing.”
Christina calls her years in the Czech Republic incredible, with her burgeoning career taking her on tours around Europe and beyond.
By the age of 22 she’d caught the eye of the Czech president, becoming his favoured performer. “I think it was because I was British and because I had a very high voice, which is rare. I got known without even trying.
“The president invited me to sing, and my career blew up from there. Suddenly I was on daytime TV. It was a bit crazy, with me being so young as well.”
A fond memory is performing Amadeus with the Prague Shakespeare Company in the state theatre where Mozart conducted – Christina being the only singer amongst the full cast.
There were three years touring with Don Giavanni.
And a tour around Slovakia funded by the country’s government, visiting every major town and city over three weeks, singing classical and musical theatre pieces to an audience of 0 to 99.
“It was so lovely to see all the different generations together,” Christina recalls. “Whole towns would come out. You’d go to a cathedral and it would be completely packed, with people standing outside!”
Her favourite tour was in South America, where she fell in love with Ecuador, despite struggling with altitude.
And a career highlight involved Christina being whisked away to China. Having seen her sing at Prague Castle during a meeting of Chinese delegates, the deputy president of China invited Christina to perform the next time he was in the city. An invitation to sing at China’s end of WWII celebrations in 2016 was to follow, and off she went, with a full orchestra and boys’ choir, taking up an entire plane. “We flew in, sang, and flew back, it was quite surreal.
“When I came back to the UK I was in my local Chinese in Wickham Market and the kitchen chefs recognised me from Chinese TV. They all wanted my autograph!”
In 2017 Christina released her debut album, Blessing, featuring the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It climbed to number four in the classical charts.
A Christmas album (with Matt Sheeran) followed. Then a nomination for a Classical Brit Award in 2018 – a glittering evening featuring music from Andrea Bocelli and Alfie Boe. “I didn’t win, but it was amazing to be there and to be nominated as well. That’s when I really started trying to find a manager here. Someone who could help me get my UK career off the ground.”
Christina and Slava spent a long time trying to find the perfect place to settle down in Suffolk, eventually discovering a property in Felixstowe they adored.
“I wanted somewhere with an annexe for my mum,” Christina explains. “When I was 17 she sold her house in Framlingham to buy me a flat in London, and she was renting here. I wanted a house where she could be with us. We went to look in Norwich, Colchester, Sudbury, everywhere.”
The ‘dream’ was Framlingham, but Christina, Slava and their three cheeky cats, who she says keep her on her toes, are loving their move to the coast, being five minutes from the sea, with miles of field trailing behind them.
Serendipitously, the singer has managed to reconnect, via the move, with an old friend. “I used to play with a little girl on the farm behind. My dad was a farmer and I’d play here with her during the time mum was in hospital. I’ve got lots of pictures of us on bales of hay in the field. I wondered if she still livered there, looked on Facebook, found her and reached out. We connected and through the pandemic became really good friends.
“Living in Felixstowe has been so nice. It’s a lovely place and there’s so much music here. It’s been wonderful.”
When she’s not singing, Christina loves to ride horses – a hobby she was able to indulge in four times a week in Prague, living close to stables. And her creative talents extend to drawing, painting, and even dress design, with a Union Jack ballgown in the works.
Does she have any burning ambitions?
“Apart from singing for the Queen, which would be absolutely amazing, I want to sing at Sydney Opera House. But also, I’ve always believed I’m an actress who sings. I love acting and would really like to one day be in a musical. That’s a big ambition, but it would be incredible!”
Look out for the release of Queen of our Hearts in April. And follow Christina at christinajohnstonofficial.com
I’m listening to: It changes every day. I do try to listen to the top ranked songs in the UK to keep up to date with what’s going on. But I’m also listening to a lot of proms music.
I’m watching: Inventing Anna at the moment. It’s so good. And Ozark – which has the same actress in. We also watch lots of films. We’ll go to see all the latest ones that have come out.
I’m reading: Girl A by Abigail Dean. It’s quite dark!