You will be performing the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for West Australian Opera later in the month - a role you have already performed to acclaim in Wiesbaden. Lucia goes through so much in the space of just three hours and the opera is famous for the character’s incredible “mad scene” which is complex both musically and dramatically. Can you tell me about how you prepared for the role both in terms of character development and musical note learning?
The first time I performed a very modern interpretation of the opera, which was great in a way to strip back conventional performance practices and discover as much as I could about “Lucy Ashton”. I think it’s helpful to look up information on the life of the composer and the first woman to sing the role. For me, the question has always been how realistic her mental problems are: if I could show someone shifting from manic behaviour to deep depression, or if we should stick to the gothic, 18th century fear of the unknown, really seeing ghosts and dying from lunacy. I started watching “A Handmaid’s Tale” recently and there was the first example of a character who was traumatised so often she descended into madness as a survival mechanism. “Janine” has been my inspiration this time. I also found Sir Walter Scott’s novel, "The Bride of Lammermoor", incredibly enlightening.
This opera is a masterpiece in that every note Donizetti has written is chosen to tweak emotional responses from the audiences, pushing the drama in a similar way to later composers, Verdi and Wagner. Often his harmonies and runs take a long time to learn with their unpredictable twists! In the months leading up to stage rehearsals in 2012, I started working with a bel canto specialist at ROH Covent Garden and more recently, have worked with the Italian repetiteur at Opernhaus Zuerich, as well as American tenor William Johns, Opera Australia’s Italian opera specialist, Nicole Dorigo, and my singing coach, David Harper.
How did you work on and choose your cadenzas for the renowned “mad scene”? Can you explain the tradition of sopranos “adding” to this aria and who inspired you in your own personal decisions?
The cadenza was first added for our Nellie Melba, I believe. Her singing teacher Mathilde Marchesi wanted to showcase her incredible vocal ability with an extended cadenza in the 1880s. The great Ricordi publication of the score doesn’t come with a cadenza, you have to research and create something that suits your voice and the instrument performing with you (either glass harmonica or flute.) I love the eerie sound that the glass harmonica makes, but a flute can move a lot faster and make a very exciting addition to the scene. The first time I performed the aria, my singing teacher David Harper wrote a cadenza that suited me; a mixture of Luigi Ricci’s “Variations, Cadenzas and Traditions”, “The Art of Joan Sutherland” and “Variantes et Points d’Orgue pour les Principaux Airs Du Repertoire par Mathilde Marchesi”.
Performing a role like this takes incredible stamina physically and vocally. When you are gearing up to sing this kind of opera, do you change anything about your day to day practice routine?
Bel canto technique is the safest style of singing for the voice but it does take an enormous amount of bracing and strength in the body to support the sound and the vocal acrobatics. My main focus in the lead up to the beginning of staging rehearsals is to strip away bad habits which tire out the voice; to sing without ego and without too much emotion in the voice. I find it really hard to go through Lucia’s journey and often I find it hard to snap out of her daze or sadness between breaks. The way she is betrayed by the people she loves is horrific.
Alongside your opera commitments, you frequently perform in concert around Australia and internationally. How do you manage your time and ensure that you’re striking a balance between work and family whilst still learning all the music?
It was difficult for me at first because I find it hard to hyperfocus on hard tasks unless the due date is looming! Being a parent for the first time is a steep learning curve. I’m learning now how to enjoy sticking to a slow learning programme to be ready ahead of schedule. My husband Wade and I make sure we both have ample time to study every day. We have wonderful support from our parents with babysitting while we’re on tour.
You were a principal artist at the Hessisches Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, Germany for nine years, performing many title roles. How did working in Europe for this time influence how you approached the industry and learning music, and do you think performing overseas is an integral part of the development process for young Australian musicians?
There are many benefits to singing major roles in smaller European houses. Major houses will not accept you for main roles until you have proven you can sing the role consistently with a good orchestra. You become so used to the pressure of singing, using your stagecraft and working with orchestras that you reach a higher level of professionalism than you can when freelancing. I’m not sure if performing overseas is integral for Australians, but certainly working with coaches and role preparation in Europe and the USA is critical for Australian singers of all ages. Styles and tastes change every decade and we must keep up with them.
When you have some downtime to listen to any music you like, which recordings do you find yourself coming back to again and again - classical or otherwise?
I like most kinds of music! At the moment though, I love listening to bel canto arias sung by Ileana Cotrubas and Mariella Devia. Rufus Wainwright’s “Zebulon” is probably the most played song in my music library.
For young singers at the start of their operatic journeys, what advice do you have for building a successful career? Is there anything you wish you’d known at the beginning of your own?
Firstly, I wish I had studied German in high school or university. I studied Italian and French, but I should’ve added German! It is so important to learn grammar while your mind is still spongey. You can try to learn on your own, but nothing beats a proper course, followed by full language immersion. Secondly, please do not spend a lot of money on a European audition tour before you have worked with European opera coaches. And lastly, the best way to start an international career is by getting into the semi-finals or finals of international singing competitions before you turn 30, or young artist programs in opera houses and summer festivals. Toi toi toi!!
West Australian Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor opens on October 26 at His Majesty's Theatre. More information and tickets available here.