In Conversation: Celeste Lazarenko

In Conversation: Celeste Lazarenko

Playing the fox, navigating the opera industry and singing overseas.

Celeste Lazarenko
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Celeste Lazarenko

Playing the fox, navigating the opera industry and singing overseas.

Victorian Opera's upcoming production of Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen sees you perform the title role in the rarely-heard operatic gem. What was your first experience of this opera, and what has the rehearsal process looked like so far?

The music of Cunning Little Vixen had always been something I’ve been keen to explore, and when VO asked me to be involved I was completely delighted. The opera is so charming and quirky and the role of Vixen is such an immense challenge. Janáček writes for Vixen in small fragments and requires real vocal agility to master the tempi and tuning together. Jack and I have been working musically on the score for months. It's very detailed and intricate.

Cunning Little Vixen is a surreal story about the meeting of two worlds, both the humans and the animals and how their lives intersect. Vixen is on stage most of the show and she is incredibly physical, so for me, it requires as much training as a dancer, and so I try to attend yoga and dance classes as much as I can. She is bright and cheeky and a delight to play.

As part of the preparation I also read the letters from Janáček to Kamilla Stosslova, a married woman who made such an impression on the composer that you can't help but draw parallels between her and the Vixen. His unrequited longing for her is everywhere in the music.

You've performed roles in a great range of operas, from 17th century baroque to the contemporary minimalism of Philip Glass. When you're preparing the music of an upcoming role, what does the process look like for you before you get into the rehearsal room? Does your method differ in any way depending on the style of music?

I've always been drawn to interesting and varied repertoire. Funnily enough I think the most mainstream opera I've performed is Mozart, which is now being considered more specialized! But I like performing things that audiences haven't seen for a while and it allows for new interpretations of works. It can be exciting to reform old assumptions about opera and can let people see things in a new way. It keeps things exciting - even if it's a historical artefact - history may just teach us something new.

The process of preparation is different for each work. It always requires months of learning and I try to start that as early in the process as I can. As I get older I've realised that cramming to get a piece memorised takes so much longer and it's just not worth the stress, and so it just means careful planning to make time to do everything. It often means I'm singing seven days a week, but sometimes that's just what this job requires. That also means listening to my body and my voice to know what the limits are. As much as I like to tell myself I'm robust, I'm not a machine.

I also try to stay physically fit and I think more singers should be serious about this element too as directors become more demanding about physical performance being a requirement. Having a more holistic approach to mind/body/voice, is really important.

Cunning Little Vixen follows the Vixen's journey from youth to adulthood and the learning that happens along the way. In your career journey so far, what have been some of your biggest learnings about the opera industry? Is there anything you wish you had known when you started?

I suppose I wish I had known earlier that so much of what you do and where you end up, is out of your control.

Getting, or not getting, work depends on so many factors, so although you may have great plans for yourself, life can often have other paths and this can be truly heartbreaking sometimes. You have to be honest, this profession is tough and you may not always get what you want.

So, I think you have to learn to be adaptable and accepting of where you end up, and then be incredibly grateful for any opportunities. 

And also keep your eyes forward. There are many people in the industry who will tell you where they think you belong. Be realistic with yourself, but don't take everyone's advice. Learn to have your own instinct about these things.

What are some of the biggest challenges of living and working overseas as a professional singer?

One of the biggest challenges for singers is being told that your job is international, but not having a visa to actually fulfil that expectation.

It's an amazing experience to study overseas and I will never forget my time at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. But it completely broke my heart when after living there for eight years, and calling it my home, I was forced to come back to Sydney.

But going overseas is essential to your training. Being just a small fish in a big pond will make you learn new skills quickly and also give you perspective about where you are in the system of the performing arts. It's where you learn to cut your teeth.

For our readers with auditions for roles and coming petitions coming up, do you have any advice on how to make the most of your time in front of the panel?

This is, I hope, some helpful advice for singers not just in singing competitions, but for their general development.

  • Don’t reach for repertoire outside of your ability. There are too many people in Australia trying to push bigger and bigger rep on singers that are just not ready. Be smart and do what you do best.
  • Make good sounds. I know that sounds pretty simplistic, but don't get obsessed about getting it all 'right', try to keep your mind on expressing the text and colour of tone.
  • Try to be a real person when you're not on stage. 
  • Be multi-skilled. If the singing is not working that week try acting or dancing instead.
  • Know that you may not win.
  • Know that being involved is the real prize.
  • Know that life and age will give you perspective to understand all these things so be patient. 
  • Be realistic. Times are tough for the arts worldwide.
  • Be generous and help others out (that means on stage too!) It's not a disadvantage. You will probably be working with the same people for a fair chunk of your life, so don't think being selfish will get you ahead. It's naive.
  • Be nice to your folks - remember they were the ones to pay for all those lessons when you were young and will probably be your most attentive and loyal audience members.
  • Most of all - develop a good sense of humour. You need it in this job.

See Celeste in the title role of Victorian Opera's Cunning Little Vixen from 22nd June to 1st July at Arts Centre Melbourne. More information and tickets available here. Photo by Charlie Kinross.