This is the second part to our interview with WA Opera Young Artist Paull-Anthony Keightley.
Click here to read Part One.
Once I had finished up at WAAPA I always 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. I applied for the three main schools in New York – Juilliard, Mannes and Manhattan. I was given auditions at all three and I stayed there for three months. I had lessons with people from Juilliard and Manhattan. I did my auditions and the process was essentially the same at all three schools except Juilliard. You had a list of six pieces, but Juilliard asked for more, which was a big ask for me as my repertoire wasn’t much at the time. I got into MSM and Mannes and I just had to go with my gut. I hadn’t had any lessons from anyone at Mannes so I took the age old advice of – don’t choose the school, choose the teacher. So I chose Manhattan and it was during my two years at MSM that I realised I really wanted to sing opera. But I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at all. Like… how hard could it be? You just get up and sing an opera, right?
Little did I know what was ahead. I started school and we had a week of auditions. In first semester there was a main stage opera, a main stage scenes, one concert opera, two vocal ensembles where one did an opera and the other did 2 recitals. The options were endless. I was asked to cover Aquinas in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia which I said yes to and then very quickly said no to as it was way too advanced for me – I didn’t realise how hard it was! I had a very small role in an American opera and that was a fantastic way for me to begin the school. They have a fantastic venue with 1000 seats – a solid performance space where you still have to sing over an orchestra and project. All the major auditions were there so if you got called back you got to sing on that stage. They really liked to treat it as professional as possible. My first semester I was just overwhelmed the whole time and was mesmerised. In second semester, they were doing a Haydn opera, and so I performed the only two arias that I knew in my audition. I had this wild experience where they called me back for the main stage opera and they asked me to go to the library and get a book of arias to sing, and I sang 4 arias. One aria I had to aggressively undress myself, one I had to lie on my back and wistfully sing that I was in love, one aria I had to act that I was Oscar the Grouch and then one aria I had to act like I was petrified of the panel. I left the callback and thought, if i get it then great? If I don’t, then I’ll also be ok with that. Well, I got it. And ended up with 9 million pages of Italian recitative (no exaggeration at all), which I’d never done before in my life. I was cast as a Bari-tenor role which I definitely am not. It was comic and hilarious and stupid, which are all the things I could do, but they just thought my voice was higher than what it was. In the end, two weeks out from the show, I said I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t sing it properly or do it justice, and I had to listen to my gut. They all really wanted me to do it, but it just wasn’t right and I wasn’t ready to be reviewed by the New York Times and Opera News and have it not be my best work. So I ended up bowing out and stayed on as a cover. But the learning experience was invaluable, singing in a classical Italian opera, which translates directly to Mozart opera 100 percent. It was an extra opportunity to see how to sing and express a libretto. The show was completely reimagined and it was one of the most thrilling bits of theatre that I’ve be a part of. That’s when I was like – that wasn’t the right role for me but woah, what incredible theatre!
In my second year of MSM I did a double piano production of Don Giovanni, where I got to play Leporello and then I did The Magic Flute outside of school as Papageno. Then at MSM they did The Magic Flute on the main stage and I played him again. I did Act 2 of Le Nozze di Figaro as Figaro and a chunk of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Demetrius – it was great! They did three operas with an act from each so that rather than just learning a few ensemble works and solos/duets, you still got to immerse yourself in the opera. That was my time at MSM and it was brilliant. I graduated and still probably didn’t have a clear grasp on my voice. Papageno was probably not the most vocally demanding role, but when you’re on stage for two thirds of a Mozart opera, you learn a lot about stamina. The stuff that I learnt from that is incredible.
I was quite happy to return to Perth. I loved my school in America – loved the education – but I didn’t necessarily want to live there. I realised I didn’t have a burning desire to live in America and I was only there for my training. So I returned and have been lucky enough to work for the opera company here. WA Opera then asked me to be the Young Artist for this year which is incredible. I was in the chorus of Faust last year and I was asked to sing in Gianni Schicchi earlier this year and that’s when I got to work with Brad Cohen a bit more one-on-one. I took full advantage of getting to watch the rehearsal process and learnt so much from it. It was a fantastic cast of Perth people, as well as international people and then I was asked a little later if I’d be a Young Artist and why would I say no? I’m singing in Pearl Fishers and The Elixir of Love which will be great and there’s a new head of music and I get to work a lot with him which is a fantastic gift. They’re just lovely. The ability to nurture younger people is fantastic and it’s a bit unusual for it to be just one person this year, but they help me achieve things that I want to achieve and it’s really great. I didn’t know it was coming my way. But it’s lovely to be in Perth. I guess there are so many things that I can do, but there are also plenty of things I’m figuring out, and I’m very happy to be doing that here in Perth. So that’s my journey!
Advice for young singers?
Nut your voice out. Find what you can do, and work on the stuff you can’t. Know who you are – you can have a great idea. Paint the most colourful picture of who you think you are and it will constantly keep changing. Figure out what you need to work on and just figure everything out. But also figure out what you want to do, because it might change, but at least if you’re going for what you want to do at that point in time. You may end up doing something completely different to what you had in mind, but have a vision to follow and things fill fall into place. You don’t want to wake up one day and think “I don’t even enjoy this!” Don’t do it for money because what’s the point?
If you could see any TV Show, Play, Movie, Book turned into an opera, what would it be?
Funny? Like, Real Housewives of New York would be hilarious. But seriously, Hunchback of Notre Dame, because… Why hasn’t that been done?
Because it is amazing! Besides that, there’s something about the human voice which is just exceptional and I can’t help but feel that when you see the scale of emotion that is portrayed, whether it be comic or tragic, to think that time is stretches and time is more important in opera. You have time to watch people process thoughts and watch characters make decisions and grow as people, and to remember that they’re people. Whether it’s a fantasy or whatever it is, they’re still stories that we can all relate to. Pairing phenomenal music with amazing stories it’s just… it’s about emotion and about feeling and about what you get from it. I can’t help but think there are so many things that are important about opera – there is so much to love! Art, design, dance, music, literature, poetry… Then singing is something that pretty much every single person does, whether they’re good at it or not. Everyone loves a good sing. So to be able to express the essence of human life through song… It’s amazing. There’s nothing like hearing the operas of Puccini and Verdi and hearing those stories. Watching Violetta in La Traviata die after you kind of this she’s a skank at the start, then she tells Alfredo “No, stop loving me because I can’t love you!” and then you watch her love him at the end and then she dies and you go… that’s real life. It might be a fantastical expression of life but… that’s life.
A massive thank you to Paull-Anthony Keightley for meeting up with us. If you want to find out more about this Barihunk visit his website or his Facebook page and don’t forget to buy your tickets to WA Opera’s The Elixir of Love to see him and the other talented opera singers of Australia.
Interviewed by Katherine Goyder and Louis Hurley