Life as an opera singer is incredibly interesting - you’re often on the road and meeting new people, which comes with excitements and challenges. I am constantly preparing for different sorts of performances; operas, concerts, plays and musicals, and each form has its own process. For recitals, like the one I am working on at the Sydney Opera House, there is always an element of standard repertoire - those pieces that I’m often asked to sing because of how well they work in front of range of different audiences. I’ll be doing things like arias from Carmen, or ensemble works like the Flower Duet from Lakme. In these events, it’s incredibly important to ensure the works do not become stale, regardless of how many times you perform them or how comfortable you feel getting them prepared for stage. I constantly reconsider the characters, because as you grow older, you have more life experience to pour into the roles. I do think my [portrayal of] Carmen is getting better with age; when I was younger, I found there were parts of her that I couldn’t connect with, but as I experience more and learn more, I feel like I’m able to more authentically communicate that character.
Keeping up your well-known pieces while working on new repertoire is the most exciting balancing act. This performance is unusual for me, because it has had me learning Mandarin! I’ve been speaking with Chinese media outlets recently about the merging of Western Art Music and Eastern Operatic culture and it has been a really fascinating and rewarding process. Being able to share two cultures on stage is important and learning an entirely new language for work is a fantastic challenge, particularly when you become so used to singing the same European languages required of the operatic canon. I have been lucky to work with some wonderful guides though, who have been invaluable in the preparation process. My Chinese aria is the most stunning piece of music and I’m looking forward to getting it on a stage!
Whenever I’m learning a new work, whether it is something from the standard repertoire or something brand new to me, like the Chinese work for this performance, I have a significant research process, where I spend time getting to know the composer, their life, and then maybe the reasons why they put pen to paper in the first place. As artists, it is our job to serve composers by creating the most truthful and meaningful version of their work as possible. There are many techniques to achieve this, but really diving headfirst into the research always helps me.
Balancing that research alongside musical preparation and character development is the singers ongoing challenge. You have to be ridiculously organised! Compartmentalising helps me with that - making sure that I know what my priorities are for every upcoming project. When I get a new job, I spend a lot of time with the score or the script, making sure I have all the nuances under my belt and then I throw myself into the character. I think knowing what your weaknesses are is also helpful and that allows you to make good choices in your prioritisation. If memory is difficult for you, you begin that process earlier, etc.
When it gets to character development, my experience in straight acting has helped enormously, allowing me to approach role preparation from a slightly different point of view. I think it’s important to leave space in your interpretations for your character’s emotion; if I’m singing and my character needs to cry, I’ll allow myself to sob. That’s so much stronger than trying to make the perfect sound! Putting together a character is like baking a cake; there are a huge number of layers, but maybe the most important part is what the audience takes away from your performance. The audience needs to understand your character, so they can empathise with her, regardless of how vicious or conniving or naïve she may be. When you sit in the audience of any production and are moved, it’s because you see aspects of your personality reflected back at you and you can understand in some capacity the emotional arc of the characters onstage. When I’m getting ready for a production, that’s what I’m thinking about constantly. I often record myself performing bits and pieces of the role and watch it back, checking to see if the work is convincing. I’m not concerned about doing it “right”, I’m concerned about being believable. If there’s no truth in my performance, I’ve got to go back to the drawing board.
Something I’ve learnt about that idea of authenticity on stage is the idea of allowing yourself not to be “pretty” on stage when it’s not specifically appropriate. When you spend time thinking about how you look in this or that pose, or that you’ve got singer face on, you’ll never ever reach the heart of your character. She wouldn’t be thinking of those things as she goes about, you know? So, if you’re playing her, neither should you. As a developing singer, I was constantly concerned about what people were seeing. Now I think about what they’re feeling.
As students, it’s too easy to look up at our idols and see their confident characters and believe that everything is fantastic for them off stage as well. They seem put-together and strong and of course, in many ways, we all are because you have to be in the industry, but as I’ve grown into the industry I’ve realized that everyone – whether beginner or seasoned professional – is going through the exact same things as you. There are always crappy times in life, but if you allow it, your vulnerability can bring a huge amount of strength and depth of character to your craft. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that work is not my whole life, but a part of my life, and that is something I wish I’d figured out earlier on. Performers are the luckiest people in the world to be able to do what we do, but at the end of the day, it is a job, and having a life outside of the industry allows you to do that job even better. I think it’s important to remember that you must have things in your life that aren’t your job to make your happy, because if all you have is the career, it’ll never be enough.
It’s a hard job but a great job, being a singer, and I think we do it well here in Australia. I’ve never meet an unprepared colleauge and I really believe we have a great work ethic across all our entertainment sectors. What have been the most important learnings? To stop worrying about myself and get the job done, and to get it done well. I never let myself coast and I couldn’t – audiences are too smart for that!
Sydney Opera House will host East Meets West: Chinese New Year's Eve Gala Concert on February 15th at 8pm.