I bet you won’t be surprised when I tell you that most ten year olds don’t grow up wishing to be an opera singer. Yes, I’m sure it does happen. But if there’s anything I’ve learnt from the Opera World so far, it is that most of us didn’t really know we were going to study opera until late teen years and beyond. Before this, we were doing what normal theatre nerds do: Studying instruments, dancing, acting, singing (naturally) and most possibly dreaming of a career in musical theatre.
In the last week, I have managed to talk to some major names in the industry about how they fell into this world we love and…. Why Opera?
“Honestly? Because I couldn’t dance, and so musical theatre was out!”
“I suppose I had to? Not to sound like a cliché, but I feel like it chose me… and I simply couldn’t resist!”
“I wanted to do musical theatre but I didn’t have the grunt… But I discovered opera when I was studying Musical Theatre at WAAPA! I’d go to the library every night and listen to opera, and I realised Wow! There’s so many different pieces! It’s like Musical Theatre times a hundred. Opera was just my thing… It was just what I was meant to do.”
“I just think my voice is suited to this genre. I did come through a musical theatre background, as I started as a dancer… But they put me in the classical stream of singing at university as my voice was maturing at a young age… After I finished study and two and a half years in the original cast of Phantom of the Opera, I wanted to sing some Brahms but realised I couldn’t… So I went back into singing lessons and I just ended up back in classical music and back in opera! I just love it. I love doing intimate 20 people art song recitals, and I also love doing 20 000 people Opera in the Park concerts. Everything in this world has a place of enjoyment for me.”
“I’ve always loved performing on stage and loved music, which led me to musical theatre and opera. Through my study I’ve come to love the operatic sound specifically. I love the constant striving for the most beautiful, resonant, expressive sound that there is. I love the old and new music that has been written for the operatic genre. I still would love to do some musicals though… Classical roles like Sweeney Todd and Fred Graham in Kiss Me Kate… I love that opera companies are starting to perform the more classical musicals as apart of their repertoire… and I’d love to be apart of that in the future!”
I’m sure you’ve noticed that most of our top opera singers started by going after a career in Musical Theatre. I know from reading about her that Joyce Didonato’s plans were originally to become a music teacher, but even still, Joyce often performs American musical repertoire like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and Irving Berlin’s “I Love A Piano”, featured on her recent Grammy-Award-Winning album. There is no doubt at all that music theatre has played a huge influence and made a huge impact on our world, just like opera had a huge influence in creating musical theatre. Yet somehow we always seem to find these two genres fighting. Can we not just agree that they both exist and are both pretty amazing?!
These two worlds constantly collide and collaborate: From Opera’s Bryn Terfel starring in Sweeney Todd recently on West End to Kellie O’Hara recently starring in The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera. Our recent shows at major opera houses have taken the glamour and glitz of Broadway, but after watching A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder it is clear the opera influence is still strong there as well. The worlds are definitely not black and white. Therefore, we musn’t turn our noses or backs on each other and instead look for opportunities to dip our toes into either world…Opera IS Music Theatre and I believe as long as there are people who love musicals, there will be people who will love opera too.
I was lucky enough to talk to Kate Miller Heidke, writer of the opera/musical The Rabbits, contemporary singer/opera singer the other week after seeing her perform in Fremantle. I asked her for advice for young artists, such as myself, and she answered: “I feel like I never followed a particular path… I just did what interested me and what I was passionate about. I feel some opera singers fall into an “established route” and they start feeling as if they’re in an office job. They go to Germany, they do their auditions and they end up in a life that maybe they never particularly wanted…. But it’s an exciting time to BE an opera singer! Everything’s getting a little bit experimental and now is a good time to do what YOU want to do.”
So maybe now is the time to dip your toes into the world of opera… You may just find that it was the right fit all along… and just in case it is… We have some MORE advice for you to get the right footing in the beginning to a new career:
ADVICE FOR YOUNG ARTISTS (From the cast of Voyage To The Moon):
“The advice I’d give a young singer would be to study your languages and listen to as many recordings as you can… Right from the beginning, work technically. Lots of scales at different speeds. Record yourself and LIKE what you hear. Find a good teacher/mentor who you know is right for you.”
“There are so many paths into singing and opera… I’d say follow your dreams and consider the options that you have and take the opportunities when you can. Language is very important and we have a slight disadvantage here in Australia.. Work on your sense of rhythm, I’d also suggest taking up the piano. It’s a really useful skill to have; to be able to work out the harmonies and almost to think like a conductor… Once you know what’s happening in the orchestra beneath you, the music makes much more sense!”
“Take some risks and have a bit of faith in the path you have taken: Performance psychology never goes to waste! Never underestimate giving yourself good preparation time too. Say no when your gut tells you to and when the opportunity arises, pin back your ears and go for it! Also… Always remind yourself WHY you want to be an opera singer!”
Because YOU want to. Take Kleeman’s advice and remind yourself daily about your dreams and aspirations… Remind yourself why you do all this work in the first place. Keep your eyes open and your brain ready for knowledge and you may just fall in love with an old art form that speaks to you.
Thank you so much to Jamie Barton, Joyce Didonato, Kate Miller Heidke, Emma Matthews, Sally Anne Russell and Jeremy Kleeman for their cooperation with this blog. It is brilliant to have this support from these names in the industry on this endeavour.
The O Word will be starting the #WhyOpera? Campaign on our social media pages (Facebook and Twitter) to tell the stories of opera students, young artists, and professionals and why they found themselves in opera…. For most of us aren’t that little ten year old, and yet somewhere along the way we get caught in this world we call ‘Opera’.
Written by Katherine Goyder