Over our holiday period, we met up with the enchanting Fiona Campbell. One of Australia’s most beloved mezzo sopranos, we were delighted when Fiona agreed to meet up with us and chat about all things opera: Including her upcoming performance at Opera in the Park!
If you weren’t an opera singer and an opera presenter what would you be?
I always wanted to be a vet. I had never even heard an opera until I was at university, so I had the same preconceptions about what opera and opera singers were as the general public do today. I went to university to study voice and piano and I would do school piano lessons and the practice was always agony! But there was something about the music that I loved. I thought that being a music teacher would create good cash flow but when I got into university this whole world of music opened up. It resonated in my being and I had to delve further into that rabbit hole.
Why did you start to pursue classical voice?
I ended up dropping piano because it was going to take too much practice and I was no good, but I started learning conducting. I worked quite a lot on conducting and I loved that very much. In about the second year of my degree, my teacher said ‘I think you have the potential to be a professional singer if you want but you need to devote yourself to it entirely and you’re doing far too much conducting. It’s either conducting or singing!’ When I really thought about it, all great conductors have an instrument that they have already mastered it – and I hadn’t mastered any instrument! – so I decided to master the voice and that took me on a very interesting journey. I’d love to go back to conducting one day: I have all this musical knowledge now; my experience with the repertoire, my experience as a singer and my understanding of that instrument so it’s not a big leap.
What do you like to do when you are not singing/teaching/presenting?
I love walking and swimming. I love being with the kids and having family time. I love eating, entertaining, I love going to concerts and I love having a laugh. I think I really consider music to be part of my life and singing is a part of my life but it’s not my absolute everything. I think it’s a very fickle lover. If it is your sole purpose in life and all of a sudden you’re not getting work, you can be crushed by it. If you create a great life around you and music is just one beautiful part of your life, then for me that’s what’s really worth it over the years.
Who are your favourite composers?
Bach, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Fauré, Debussy. I love a lot of the French repertoire.
Who do you think are the most underrated composers?
I think that Schubert, specifically in this modern day, can be dismissed a little bit. Obviously he is one of the greats and held in high esteem in the world of music, but people outside of that world can often go “Oh it’s just a little Schubert piece”, but when you really look at it? It’s such utter perfection and it is just so exquisitely crafted.
Who inspires you, and why?
I’m inspired by anyone who is really living their absolute true path. They’re not worried about what anyone is saying and they are really focused on their path and what their contribution to the world is. There are extraordinary people who have overcome amazing odds in their life by leading positive, productive lives and contributing to this world to make it a better place. Specifically in the music world, Richard Gill is just a tower of inspiration. He was the Dean of the Conservatorium when I was there and he definitely lived a very inspiring life. I remember him very clearly giving a talk saying “You want to do something easy? Go and do architecture or engineering. Music is hard, it is very hard, in mind and in industry.” And I was very intrigued by that. I think that it was really him in a lot of ways that really inspired me to follow this as a high pursuit in life, not just as a hobby, but as something fundamental to the core of who we are: music and art.
What has been your most embarrassing stage moment?
How long have we got? I once fell off the back of the stage when I was a student; the house lights went out, I turned around and as I was stepping off the stage I saw the steps that I was supposed to be going down over to my left and I landed with a thud! That was pretty embarrassing…although it was in the dark so nobody could see it, but they definitely heard it!
How does one be an opera singer in Perth and survive on the amount of work? Do you tend to travel a lot around Australia?
I would say I’m based in Perth but I commute to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Tasmania and I travel all around Australia and Asia. I think that just to make a living as an opera singer in Perth would be very difficult. One of the key things is to ask “What is my niche? What can I do that nobody else can do or is doing? How do I work that to the best of my ability?”, rather than “I’m going to be Renée Fleming in Perth.”
“What is happening here? What do I want to do with my singing or with my music making? How can I be innovative?” I would encourage travel as I think you learn so much by going to another city. I remember when I was in Europe it was the first time I felt like it wasn’t treated like a hobby. In Australia, people can sort of treat it like that and you don’t get that in Europe. Europeans understand that it takes years and years and years of working hard to get to a level where you can make a living, and here in Perth it’s not known so well, so it’s very difficult to make a living full-time. I’m very fortunate that I was able to reestablish my career based in Perth. It’s challenging, but possible.
And what makes working in Australia so great?
The life is just so awesome! Life in Perth is so easy and beautiful and there’s space here and I think there’s a small enough pool to make your mark. You can be innovative and you can make your own way in these cities, people are very open to something new and exciting coming through. I found that when I went to London I had so much previous experience singing with orchestras and in concerts. The European singers I met who were in their mid twenties had none of that experience and had never sung with an orchestra, because of the sheer volume of people there trying to get a break, it’s just not open to them.
Do you find that working in Australia creates diversity to your career that you might have otherwise not had?
I have had to be more innovative and think outside the square more but that was definitely a positive thing. It lead me in all sorts of interesting directions. I really love the media thing: I love presenting, I love vlogging and I’m good at it! So I’m creating opportunities here for myself that, once again, I may not have had so easily in the UK.
What made you decide to start your “In the Dressing Room” Series and your “Condensed Cream of Faust”?
It drives me nuts when people look at opera and classical music as some formal, distant kind of highbrow thing. I think that’s rubbish: I’m an opera singer, and I am not that. So I want to bring people into my experience of it. Anything I see of “Behind the Scenes” is usually very glamorous and very corporate and stand offish and I wanted to show that actually THIS is what I see. It’s dynamic and fun, real and hard work but the result is extraordinary! I wanted to capture it in a bit of a quirky, fun way but also in a very real way. I want to do interviews in the dressing room so that people see what it’s really like in there. We’re all screaming and laughing and carrying on and it’s life. I want to open up that part that’s shrouded in mystery behind the stage door and show them that this is the most fun you can have and we are just people like anybody else.
What has been your favourite role you have played at WA Opera and why?
You just can’t have more fun on stage than being Cherubino. It’s a role that I’ve developed over the years and it wasn’t until the last time I performed it that I thought I really nailed it! The highest compliment I could get from that was people didn’t know I was a woman! I loved playing a teenage boy, and I think that is one of the greatest challenges as an actor; For a middle aged woman to play a teenage boy convincingly takes years of practice. But I always just try and throw myself into whatever it is that it needs to be.
What makes Opera In the Park challenging and how is it different to performing in His Majesty’s Theatre?
Opera In the Park would have to be one of the most difficult gigs on the calendar. Although it may not be a fully staged opera, we still have to remember exactly when we’re coming on, when we are acting and singing and you get only one rehearsal on the stage. You can’t see the conductor as he’s not directly in front of you and then it’s broadcast to however many thousand people around the state, so that would have to be the most challenging thing.
What can we expect from you in Opera In the Park?
You can expect some of the most famous music and works that WA Opera has done in the past and some tasters of things to come. Some of the best loved moments of opera are going to be featured and it’s going to be fun! We’re going to have a bit of audience interaction and I’m really looking forward to that.
How do you approach adapting arias and songs for concerts in comparison to if you were performing them in operas?
There’s a big challenge in bringing the same dramatic intensity into the moment when you’re just standing on the stage. You have to put as much work into it behind the scenes before you get there so that you can take yourself to that moment in the context of the drama, rather than just singing a pretty song. So often I hear singers with a pretty sound but it’s just boring because there’s no heart behind it. I would always prefer to see someone sing with passion than sing perfectly with no soul, I think being boring is the biggest sin of all as a performer.
How did you work on your languages and really help to nail them?
I have a very good ear which helps a lot and working with really top language coaches is the best money you could spend. When I went to England and was working at Glyndeborne, I had to learn Russian for Eugene Onegin. It took me two weeks of really intensely studying the language coaching tapes they sent me, and I mimicked that over and over until I got it to a level where I thought it was okay. Then when we got to England there were more weeks of very intensely working the language. But it took that two weeks beforehand to crack that oral code. I would say that if you are a young singer listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau if you want to learn German, but mimic. Through mimicking you hear how he is placing a certain consonant. If you just listen you can gloss over a lot of the details, but if you actually mimic saying the words along with his text you can learn a tremendous amount about how to form that voice and how much time to spend on each word, which is incredibly helpful as a start.
What is your overall advice for young singers?
Work hard, practice often, be innovative. Keep the joy factor: Sing because you love it.
If you could see any tv show/movie/book/life event made into an opera, what would it be?
Trump the Opera would be pretty hysterical – I think it’s ripe for comedic material there… A comitragedy! I also think that Chocolat would be fabulous because you get a village setting. There’s the church so you could have all the choral music and then there are fantastic characters with stories for individual arias and lots of ensemble opportunities, all based on this beautiful singular set. You could make chocolate on stage and then send into the auditorium and sell chocolates in the foyer… Let’s pitch it!
Opera in the Park is a FREE EVENT on February 4th 8pm at Supreme Court Gardens.
Dress up in black tie or your favourite outfit to celebrate our 50th year and join us for a celebration!
Interviewed and edited by Katherine Goyder
Transcribed by Caroline McAllister