We were lucky enough during this week to sit down with Opera Australia’s Principal Soprano, Taryn Fiebig, and speak about all things career and opera. Thank you to Taryn for giving up some of her time while she was in Perth to speak to us!
Initially opera wasn’t in my field of vision. I started as a cellist at UWA. I did a lot of singing at school and I got involved in a lot of early music at university. Then from there, I got into a bit of a rut… I was doing a lot of music in plays, singing and playing cello, and one of my friends suggested that I audition for the Australian Opera Studio. I had very little knowledge of opera. I went to my first show at 20 and then I had a very steep learning curve where I learnt about the art form. I realised every other art form is combined in opera, and that when opera is done correctly, there is nothing else like it. I think possibly it’s less accessible because it is so demanding, both for the audience and the performers. So I studied at the AOS for two years and then went on to be a young artist at Opera Australia. I had a lot of understudy work to begin with and then the roles got bigger… 12 years later and I’m here!
I’ve also been working with Pinchgut Opera and still doing some early stuff and then I’ll also be working with South Australian Opera next year. Your career eventually gains momentum and once you do something, someone sees it and offers you new opportunities and it just goes from there. That saying of “You’re only as good as your last performance” is so relevant. You have to have that mentality that you’re always auditioning for something else… You just never know whose watching or listening.
I got a scholarship to go to the Dartmouth Festival in England. It’s a pretty amazing thing to be a part of. It’s really diverse music making: opera, early music, instrumental, magical singers from all facets. I used to take my cello with me everywhere, and one day I just heard a baroque aria and started playing the tune to teach myself. Then as I got that, I thought I’d try playing the continuo line with it. Eventually I found I was better at voice than I was at cello. Music is about being able to express yourself the best way you can and that for me is through singing. I have better facilities, which allow me to express better emotions.
There is a definite pro to having played an instrument first though, to be a musician first and then a singer second. If someone tells me they want to be an opera singer, I tell them go and learn an instrument, go and learn languages, go and do acting classes, go and learn to waltz and then come back and I’ll teach you opera. I’ll see them in 20 years! It’s such a complex art form. It’s hard trying to wrap your head around it, even at 44!
Also something else to think about is that you never, never, never reach your destination. You need to come to terms with the thought that you’re never going to get there. Your time starts now. It’s one of those things that people think “Oh I’ll do this and then I’ll get work that will be that.” But you can go to one opera company and be top of the pop for ten years and then they can have a change of administration, and a new artistic director that can’t stand your voice and that’s it… all of that hard work is gone. Just as soon as you find you can get somewhere, something might come out of the woodworks and surprise you. It’s not about reaching a destination… you always have to keep going and keep improving.
Whenever I pick up a role, I always pretend as if I am singing that role and those words for the first time. Every single word is coming out of my mouth and I am listening to everything for the first time. You’ve got to stay in that moment so that you can have a genuine reaction to the things around you and happening to you.
I always start with the text and I translate every single word of the opera. Every. Single. Word. Not just my parts. You will eventually have the patience to do this, especially if you’re doing a show that’s all ensemble. It’s also just so satisfying knowing every single word because it involves you so much more in the drama. So I start with text and I translate the whole thing. I find recitative the most challenging, so I speak them like poetry and I go over it a million times. The music is the easiest part.
I think now, more than ever, I’m really into vowel formation and working closely with language coaches. I’m preparing The Ring Cycle at the moment, which is completely different to preparing Cosi Fan Tutte. It’s like going from being a hurdler to being a weight lifter. Just having the freedom of getting to the vowel as soon as possible and not landing on the consonant so hard. Making sure everything is still vibrating and let it snow ball so that it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Recit can be easy if you have clear dramatic intentions. The difficult part is the aria! Singing the same thing again and again and trying to find a different dramatic purpose for each one is challenging! You can say two things in completely different ways. It depends on who is standing in front of you and what your relationship is with that person that will make you decide on how you say that line. You have to keep thinking all the time.
Masters is great. But go and live in Italy for a year and learn to make a cappuccino. Speak the language and get it into your blood so that it becomes second nature. Study is fantastic but life is more fascinating. Go and earn money in Europe and watch as many operas as you can whilst you’re there. Really speak the language – not with a textbook! I know it’s really expensive to go overseas – but I think go and spend the money in the culture. Go to Naples where Cosi Fan Tutte is set. See the trees, know what that feels like in Summer. Go to East Anglia where Peter Grimes is set – see the ocean and how bleek it is. Go and pour beers at a pub and be in that environment! Or just be aware of where you are and what operas are set there.
When I’m playing a role, I ask myself things like what time of day it is, and what shoes I’m wearing? Do I wear high heels? Have I got a beauty spot? What does a beauty spot mean? Maybe it was covering up syphilis? As an aristocrat you had red or blue on your shoes. Know these things. If I’m Susanna, I’d curtsy but if I was playing the Countess I wouldn’t curtsy. As Susanna, you have to be aware of your class. In that era, every time someone walked past, you would curtsy. We don’t have that system anymore.
When doing an opera, listen to what’s being said and find the hidden gems in your text and music. Once when playing Zerlina in Don Giovanni, we were doing Vedrai Carino and I got asked what the accompaniment was. I said “It’s my heartbeat” and the director asked me yes, but what else could it be? And I had this moment and was like “Oh I get it!” She is pregnant! That’s why she has to go back to Musetto, because she’s pregnant and that heartbeat is a baby! That takes that character to an entirely new level. She then has to tow the line and get back to Musetto because otherwise she’ll be alone and pregnant in that era, so the stakes are enormous! The audience won’t necessarily know that you’ve done this kind of groundwork but they will get your sense of urgency. Get to your text and know the meaning of the text! Find out the information behind and look at the layering.
Text is so important. See it in its raw form – look at the exact translations and look at what’s exactly written in the score. I think it’s very important to keep an open mind when it comes to a production. You have to respect eachother’s interpretations. You can have arguments. But in the end there should be nothing that you can’t talk about. You can press on your argument – But if you don’t have the information to back it up then stay quiet!
I think it’s all the art forms in one. It’s like the perfect wave that a surfer is trying to find and when they find it and they surf it they can drop dead. It’s like a pilgrimage to 1) get it right and 2) to get all the facets chugging along at the same time. But when it does that it’s incredible. It’s the most expressive art form and so when people have access to it, they are quite struck by it. It absolutely has a place in this society.
Practise, practise, practise! And go and submerge yourself in the culture. Whether it be German, French, Italian… Just go there! Eat there, sleep there, Sit in the sun! Get cold, struggle, have success! Have that gamut of emotions that you need in order to be an opera singer. Think about being a chemist as opposed to being an opera singer. As a singer you are exposing yourself to heavy emotion and drama all day. You have to kiss some guy and then go home and live in your share house and eat vegemite toast and then you go back to this weird and wonderful world of opera… It’s a surprise we’re not schizophrenic! Get right in there and leave yourself at the door and allow yourself to really delve into your work. Sometimes it’s scary because on stage, you might have to be a really unpleasant and evil person. That has to come from inside you and you have to have those emotions in you. It can be quite confronting being nasty as a character, and then you turn around and think “who even am I?!”
Interesting…. The first thing that came in my head was Shawshank Redemption. I thought of that first because it has Sull’aria in it… Strange that was the first thing that came to my head!
Thank you so much the sensational Taryn Fiebig! There is so much to be learnt from this talented artist.
Interviewed by Katherine Goyder and Louis Hurley