This month we ran our Vocal Voyages slightly different from usual… In the form of an interview. We were lucky enough to meet up with WA Opera’s Young Artist Paull-Anthony Keightley, a Perth bass-baritone recently returned from New York City. We always love it when we interview someone passionate about their work and you will find lots of passion in this months Vocal Voyages! So much that we had to divide Paull’s blog into TWO parts.
The second part to this interview will be posted on Wednesday the 8th of June, 2016.
Vocal Voyages: Paull Anthony Keightley
My mum’s best friend always says that I started singing at my second Birthday party – I sang Bananas in Pyjamas. She claims that that was the start of my career. But I remember I started singing towards the end of primary school, when we did a musical. I really wanted to be in it, and I got a role and got to sing a song. That was my first little adventure. I love musical theatre – I was definitely someone who started out wanting to do musicals. I had danced as a kid and started to have singing lessons, but I learnt from the standard male teen musical theatre book and I really loved the songs from that. When I began doing school musicals, I was exposed to a lot of good singers, like Caitlin Cassidy, that were a few years older. We did a lot of musicals like Anything Goes and Kiss Me Kate because we had a lot of legit singers. So I saw these really talented people perform when I was younger. My teacher at the time told me there was a chance I would not get into the Musical Theatre course at WAAPA and encouraged me to audition for Classical Voice too. I wasn’t that into it but I did it anyway. I sang a German song, and I really liked it. I have no idea what the song is now, but I just remember really liking it.
I never studied music at school and I never learnt an instrument so I didn’t have a lot of knowledge as to how music worked. I just liked music. I sang in choirs and I sang around the house. I learnt music aurally, and I still do. It was good when I got to America that they had a special singers’ stream to learn music skills, as although these singers might have a four year Bachelor, some singers just don’t get it. They didn’t start and instrument at four or six so they only had the basics under their belt. But by the time I got to WAAPA I still wanted to do musical theatre. At this point you could do the first year of your Bachelor in Classical Voice and do a Cert II in Musical Theatre at the same time. However, I was not
allowed to, mainly because I was told I was going to be in shows simply because I’m a boy, a prized possession in the Classical course. In week two, the third year actors were doing a play called Corum Boy, which Handel was a character in. The score for this play was essentially different excerpts and arrangements of Handel’s Messiah. Only two weeks into the course I couldn’t help but think “What the hell am I learning this for?” It was all of the Post Grads, a few senior undergrads and then me. But I look back now and realise that’s when I started to grow an appreciation for Classical music.
I was super lucky in the four years that I was at WAAPA. I had three particularly good friends who were also mentors to me that were really helpful. When I started, there were still people finishing what essentially was a six year degree. So a lot of these people were in their mid twenties by the end of their degree – I got really lucky. There was one particular friend of mine who taught me about repertoire and things I didn’t know, like Schubert lieder and opera. Then another friend opened my ears to verismo music, and the third to Bel Canto, Joan Sutherland in particular. I was really lucky that I had influential friends, as well as the teachers and peers in my class. The problem with being 17 or 18
when you start Classical Voice is you can have a love or an inkling that you like it, but it’s one of those acquired tastes that develop over time. I don’t know what year I was in, but my friend and I had this thing where we’d have Opera appreciation night where we would get operas out from the library and we would watch them in a classroom. We watched things like Il Trovatore, which I had no idea about, and then things like Aïda, shows that you watch and think – that’s ginormous! To know something you have to sit thought it. There is always a first time hearing something and you won’t necessarily like it. But you can appreciate it. Personally, I’m a sucker that just wants to hear some Donizetti. I love that.
Looking back now, I probably wasn’t ready to go to the US after I completed my four years at WAAPA. My voice wasn’t ready, but a lot of other parts of me were ready. I had come to WAAPA as somebody who had experience on the stage, so that wasn’t a problem. But everyone has their things that they have to work on and improve. My voice wasn’t ready to go to New York, but I was encouraged to go to America. One of my friends had gone to Manhattan School of Music, and had then gone on to the Curtis Institute. We caught up a lot when I went to New York with my family during my Bachelor when I wasn’t 100% committed to singing opera. I didn’t know that I desperately wanted to do it. But after working with many amazing people in New York who said there was potential, I stepped back and thought about it. While I was at WAAPA, being a boy, I was lucky enough to be in just about every show during my time there. I sang some things that were great, but I also sang some things that, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have sung. I got asked to sing a lot of things where sometimes I was successful and other times I wasn’t. After a few years I felt confused and I didn’t know where my voice was going or what it was capable of because I was always working towards a show. A lot of people in my year had voices that were much further along than mine, so when they sang roles they didn’t have the initial vocal struggle that I sometimes faced.
What I would’ve loved more of in my education at WAAPA was how to sing in languages.
Not that we weren’t given language classes or diction classes, but learning about the nuance of what a language feels like in your mouth. It is a different skill to learning the spoken language. Listening to a French native speak is so different to hearing the sound of a Massenet opera. Their speech is so monotone – so how to you translate that to the heart churning, melodious Massenet? How do I emote in that language? That was the biggest thing that I walked blindly into in America. I had a solid enough understanding of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), but I didn’t know how it felt in my mouth. In my first year at Manhattan School of Music, we did Italian and English diction. And I thought, “Pfft English”. But we don’t really know the mechanics of how to sing in English. These classes were so important. It was essentially “how to express something in a language that you might now know how to speak”. And in all honesty, that is understood a lot of the time. It’s understood that you might not speak fluent French, Italian or German but you’re expected to speak and sing your libretto as if you were. It’s about knowing how to bring life to the words you’re saying. After all, if you’re asked to do an opera in a language you’re not too familiar with, you shouldn’t have to say no because you don’t speak the language!
Being on stage all the time at WAAPA was a gift, and I loved that and learnt a lot about working with colleagues. You never get taught that, but it’s not something you can teach. You can get advice from others and be told personal anecdotes, but it’s learning how to be a colleague that I valued most at WAAPA. Learning how to take notes, how to adapt, how to follow a conductor – these are things that you can only learn by doing them. When I realised my voice wasn’t ready yet, I knew I could work on that by myself or with my teacher or with my coaches – that’s work you can only do privately. With working with a director or a conductor, you can’t learn unless you’re doing it. If someone gave you a picture of a book and said, “here’s a picture of a stage: this is upstage, this is downstage” then that’s fantastic. But if you’re on stage and they ask you to move and you have no idea what “upstage” is, you can only learn from going the wrong way and being yelled at. That’s fine – you’ll never make the same mistake ever again. The environment at WAAPA was also great and you could learn so much from your peers. I mean, I didn’t know who Bryn Terfel was! I didn’t know anything! But through experience I learnt a lot. Because I was here at a time when everyone was a lot older, so you can learn from these people with more experience and knowledge. I enjoyed the education a lot. I learnt so much.
Once I had finished up at WAAPA I had America in mind. I had an idea of what it was like from previous trips to America and my teacher at the time also encouraged me. I had listened to a few singers from the American schools and I just really liked the sound. So I applied for the three main schools in New York – Juilliard, Mannes and Manhattan.
…. And you’ll just have to come back to read about Paull’s journey further!
To read about Paull’s Journey to New York City and his return to Perth, remember to come back and read this Wednesday on the 08.06.2016! You don’t want to miss the words of wisdom from this young Baritone!
Interviewed by Katherine Goyder and Louis Hurley