In Conversation: Brenton Spiteri, Tenor

In Conversation: Brenton Spiteri, Tenor

The lyric tenor on new music, and going from student musician to professional opera singer. 

In Conversation: Brenton Spiteri, Tenor

The lyric tenor on new music, and going from student musician to professional opera singer. 

We were lucky enough to catch the busy Australian lyric tenor, Brenton Spiteri, between engagements recently. One of the most exciting young singers in Australia at the moment, Brenton caught us up on his current projects, and told us about his affinity for a cuppa. 

You’ve got plenty of engagements coming up in Australia. Tell me about some of them?

Currently I’m in Sydney preparing for Sydney Chamber Opera’s next major work, Notes from Underground, after the novel by Dostoevsky. I am performing the lead role - an unnamed man struggling with feelings of anxiety and resentment for the world around him. The role has cleverly been split in two. The older version of the man looks back on his life, and the series of events that led him to withdraw from society, while I, as the younger version, live through these events for the first time. Anyone familiar with the novel will be able to tell you that this is a dark work, and that the man is not a sympathetic protagonist. He is deeply depressed, angry, paranoid and resentful. Luckily the beauty of the work is that it does not stress his self-pity in any way. He experiences some moments of dark humour and some very real, awkward social encounters. He is also a vulnerable and deeply yearning human. As with all people, these qualities co-exist with his uglier side. Despite his many flaws, his humanity is fully drawn and explored by the music and words. I hope to do it justice with my portrayal. The music is some of the most demanding that I have ever learned. Whilst this is scary, it is also good to know that the intensity of the character has been accurately captured in the musical score.

You’re also performing in the 2017 season in Opera Lyon. How did you become a part of the studio there?

I spent some of the money I won in the 2012 Herald Sun Aria final living and studying in Berlin for the first few months of 2015. Whilst there, I heard about the Opera Lyon studio. They were traveling through several European cities holding auditions and I decided to give it a go. I remember feeling very happy with how I sang on the day. However, I think that “always expect the unexpected” is a good rule of thumb when it comes to auditions in general, particularly in Europe or the US where you will generally be one of several hundred candidates. It can be difficult to get noticed, and it is therefore best to keep an open mind. When Opera Lyon hired me, it felt like the culmination of a lot of hard work and a sign of progress in what I was doing.

How did you go from being a student to a professional musician?

I would have to pinpoint my first audition trip to Europe as a significant experience for me. It was an amazing, overwhelming trip, and I came back more determined than ever to make something of myself as a singer. That year, I lived and breathed my art form. I confronted every question I had ever had about singing, and every vocal insecurity that I had ever tried to sweep under the carpet. I tried to really fix my technique and fully engage with the spirit of the music that I was singing without holding back. I also began to realise how necessary it was to value my own opinion. Young singers often have information and advice heaped upon them. This is great. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to develop without the input of many teachers, coaches and mentors, particularly those I was connected with through the Melba Opera Trust, where I was a scholar for 3 years. But ultimately, learning to sing is the process of finding your own voice: not just your literal instrument, but also the voice inside your head that simply says “you know how to do this.” At this time, I was also teaching in a private school and singing a lot in competitions, auditions, several choruses and solo projects. I didn’t realise it then, but getting through that year was a huge achievement.

It wasn’t until 2015 that I really became aware of the transition I had made. When I came offstage after the opening night of Sydney Chamber Opera’s Fly Away Peter, I was immensely relieved. This was such an important performance for me. It had been my largest and most challenging role to date. It was very difficult music and an intensely physical production. I had to play ten different characters and sing some notes I had never sung in public before. Everyone was a little stressed going into it, because it was such a large and difficult work, and absolutely everyone had invested a lot of emotion and artistic energy into it. The amount of talent and passion involved in creating that show was phenomenal. I came offstage and realised that not everyone could do what I had just done.

Obviously though, there will always be qualities that I am aspiring to in my technique and performance, regardless of how happy I am with my singing, or where I’m working. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being a student. I still have a great deal to learn and I suspect and hope that this will always be the case.

Why did you choose to go overseas?

For me, going overseas just always seemed an exciting prospect. I did a lot of performing as a child and this was true even back then. I came from a pretty small suburb in Melbourne’s west and taking my singing overseas and seeing parts of the world that would challenge me was always something I wanted to do.

Do you find it difficult negotiating commitments between Europe and Australia? In what ways? (both professional and personal)

I’ve had a very fortunate run so far in that sense. Most of my work has lined up very conveniently for me to balance my time between both places, and my life is currently full of people who support me in whatever choice I make. But yes, pros and cons lists are starting to feature a little more if I’m trying to decide between two things. Most of the time, there is a pretty clear answer when trying to decide what to do, and if not, there are plenty of people I can speak to in order to solve the problems. I’ve also traveled to different cities in Australia to perform, and of course, there are some generally difficult questions when it comes to spending so much time away from home. Is a place still home if you’re only there for a month every now and then? Don’t you miss all the important people in your life? Don’t you want to settle down and really commit to your indoor soccer team one day? The answer to all of these questions is yes, of course; but on balance, there are so many amazing things about singing as a career and I couldn’t be happier or feel more fortunate in what I’m doing at the moment.

Do you believe its essential for up and coming opera singers to go overseas for further study?

Opera has its roots in European history and culture. I definitely gained a lot of knowledge about opera from going overseas, not just from my private studies and watching performances, but simply from walking the streets, eating the food, studying the art and architecture and generally feeling the sensations of taking part in another way of life. I actually have never studied overseas at an institutional level, but I’ve done a lot of independent studies with mentors and coaches from all over, and I’ve studied German and French in Germany and France quite intensively as well as traveling through Italy. This is going to sound like an odd observation, but I’ve been struck time and again by the fact that these languages aren’t just a weird combination of sounds that we can condense into phonetic symbols and rules – they’re actually living, coherent words that people use every day to communicate. It can be easy to subscribe to the ‘rules’ of diction and forget that every time we speak, we spontaneously choose the words that we use depending on so many factors such as how we’re feeling, who we’re talking to, where we are, what sort of background we’re from. This then informs how we pronounce them and the inflection we use. It should seem no different to the audience when we’re on stage. Observing different languages in action is a great, active reminder of that fact. This isn’t to say that studying pronunciation and diction is a waste of time. I’d actually argue the opposite- that we should spend more time studying, even our very own language, and even if we travel overseas to study. 

What are your favourite roles to perform/favourite music to perform?

I absolutely adored singing Tamino earlier this year with the State Opera of South Australia. I’d had the prospect of singing this role dangled in front of me a number of times previously and it had never worked out for one reason or another. To finally get to sing it, and for such an important Australian company, was the best feeling, especially as it was the exact right time for me, vocally, to be cast in the role. I was as thoroughly prepared as it was possible to be, but I was still nervous and awestruck for the first part of the rehearsal period, being in a new city and having this opportunity at long last.

You also perform new music. Why is this important to you?

The new works that I’ve been associated with have been very challenging and stimulating to be a part of. I certainly love performing music by dead guys, but there is a certain magic in the air when you sing the work of a composer who is in the room. It’s also a great chance to grow the voice without the pressure that comes when thousands of singers before you have sung the same role. New music is important, because without it, old music would not exist. It’s important to create works that speak to our time - what is happening in the world right now, the stories that we want to see on stage, the politics that we want the theatre to unpack and explore. It’s not for me, nor for anyone, to judge what people should and shouldn’t expect when they go to the theatre, but what I would like to do is take part in works that resonate with people and pave the way for discussion, and of course, in which the singing is exceptional, powerful and moving.

What advice would you give to aspiring opera singers?

You never know what’s going to happen six months from now. Get used to that, and start to work with it. You can make so much progress in a short period of time, you can achieve things you didn’t think were possible, and your fortunes can change in the blink of an eye. Don’t work against the clock, work with it, and appreciate what you’ve got instead of focusing on what’s to come. Nothing is fixed. This is both scary and comforting.

Whats coming up for the rest of 2016?

The rest of the year will be busy and exciting. After wrapping up Notes I’ll be briefly back in Melbourne to perform a program of Ravel and Sondheim works at the Melbourne Recital Centre on August 25th with outstanding pianist Eidit Golder and the Melbourne Art Song Collective. Then I’ll sing Rossini’s Stabat Mater for the first time in Napier New Zealand. At the end of the year, I will join the touring casts of Victorian Opera’s The Pied Piper and Cendrillon, before re-joining my colleagues in the Opéra Lyon Young Artist Program next year.

When youre not busy with music, how do you spend your downtime?

My downtime activities are pretty boring, to be honest with you. For someone like me, singing takes a lot of energy, so in my downtime I like to try and restore that energy with a combo of walking, watching TV, cooking or hanging out with my dogs. Also my friends and family. I should probably put them before my dogs I guess.  

QUICK 5:

Haydn or Hindson?

Having just perfomed in Pinchgut Opera’s Armida, I’d have to say Haydn.

Beyoncé or Bernstein?

Both. How could I choose between Halo and West Side Story?

Cocktail or cuppa?

I’m unreasonably passionate about hot beverages, particularly tea, so I’ll say cuppa.

Opera or orchestra?

Opera for me, because I need to keep working or the government will start taking my stuff.

A timely one: Pokemon Yellow or Pokemon GO?

I barely understand what Pokemon GO is and I have no idea what Pokemon Yellow is, so I’m probably not qualified to answer.

Photo courtesy of Melba Opera Trust.