It is almost time for young artist programs to commence, kickstarting the careers of another year of opera singers. Can you tell us about your experience in the Covent Garden Young Artist Program, and at what moment you knew that a career in singing was what you wanted to do?
My experience in the Young Artists Programme at Royal Opera House from 2002 to 2004 was awesome. Receiving premium language, movement and vocal coaching with artists of, in many cases, 40 years experience cannot be matched, which was complimented by the opportunity to take on small roles and cover larger ones in main stage productions. My Covent Garden stage debut was as the Peasant in Verdi's Luisa Miller alongside Frittoli, Alvarez, Furlanetto conducted by Benini. I spoke when spoken to and took everything in seasoned professionals around me did. To answer the second part of your question, I knew a career in singing was what I wanted to do from around 1983, sitting in the audience at a Sydney Opera House performance of Wagner's Die Walkuere with Rita Hunter as Bruennhilde.
Travel is a large part of your life as a professional opera singer. When you're on the road, how do you look after yourself both mentally and physically?
Up to 9 and a half months on the road annually is tough. I read a lot and walk twice daily, getting to know the city am working in. History has always interested me. The Resistance Museum in Amsterdam would be one of the most memorable I've visited and influenced a portrayal of role I was doing with Dutch National Opera in Christof Loy's confronting production of Verdi's Les Vepres Siciliennes. I also do a 20-40 minute physical warm up before a vocal warm up, and meditating also plays a big part in my process - we were introduced to this while studying at Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music.
You're currently in Australia to adjudicate for the Sydney Eisteddfod - one of the most important vocal competitions for young singers in the country. Other than a fine instrument, what do you love to see on stage in competitions?
We are in the business of a combined science and art discipline, however we are also entertainers. To maintain a good vocal technique requires knowledge of the science of how we do what we do, and to do it again and again and again. My experience of artistry and musicality is that these tend to be, for the most part, innate in a performer. When the technique becomes one with the artistry, that's what I love to witness and am heartened to say I saw it frequently these last ten days of adjudication.
To become successful in the opera industry, there are a considerable number of skills to learn outside of the mastery of your instrument. What non-musical skills have been most important to you in your career so far?
- When to keep your counsel.
- Arrive early so you can start on time.
- Your reputation starts yesterday and you're are only as good as your next performance.
- Above all, work on developing a balanced inner self-critic.
When faced with a brand new role, what does your process look like? How much time do you spend on learning the music vs developing the role, for example?
Ideally, where possible, I like to do a smaller role in the same opera (e.g. one of the Jews in Salome before taking on Herod) or cover the role before doing it. This makes the work of learning the role easier. Do a word for word translation as it's imperative to know what I'm singing about. I like to 'sing/speak' the text separately from the music, on the breath/support, getting it into the body and muscle memory, noting voiced and unvoiced consonants etc. Taste the text. I then speak it in time before adding pitches. I memorise faster this way. In good composition the rhythm and pitches reveal the character the composer wants/wanted.
If you could go back in time and share something that you wish you'd known about the opera industry with your younger self, what would you say?
Hindsight is wonderful however all industries evolve and likewise, participants evolve or perish. Keep educating yourself about your physiology, voice, art form and surround yourself with teachers and coaches who offer constructive criticism. Never burn a bridge nor be afraid to admit you were in the wrong. Life and work are about being respected not being everyone's best friend. I'm grateful for growing up on a farm witnessing droughts and floods, followed by a decade working in Sydney in Sales, Marketing and PR before heading overseas aged 28 to study at RNCM. I've done many a temp job along the way, am married and have 2 kids which move the goalposts of life. Being a parent is the most difficult job of all. I'm now close to 150 performances on the Covent Garden stage and have shared it and other stages/concert platforms with some of the greatest singers, conductors and directors of our time. Reality in every dream, go live it.
The Sydney Eisteddfod Opera Scholarship Final is on July 16 at 2:30pm. More information and tickets here. Photo: Hubert Francis as Goro in Michael Grandage's production of Madama Butterfly for Grand Theatre de Geneve, Geneva.