Perth mezzo-soprano Eva-Marie Middleton sits down for a chat with our very own Katherine Goyder. In this interview, she shares pearls of wisdom from her singing journey and discusses her upcoming Fringe show, ‘Dream of Childhood’s End’.
If you weren’t a singer, you would be a…?
That’s a good question! I guess if I wasn’t a singer I was going to be a historian, or I guess I might be a composer, if I wasn’t focusing on the singing instead at the moment. I’d probably be somewhere in academia. I’m excited because I got my PhD this year so I’m officially a doctor! I never tell any singing people, but that’s why I would be doing that…
Wow, congratulations! In what did you get your doctorate?
In musicology… I never tell any singing people, but that’s why I would be, yes, I’d be doing that.
Next question, when you’re not singing, your favourite pastime is?
Either reading books, or going to the movies with my husband… we see everything- all the Marvel movies, all the deep Luna movies, and then we go to see the French film festival movies…
So onto singing, who are your three favourite composers?
Strauss… these have to be singing composers, of course! And Puccini, and John Adams, I love John Adams!
The three most underrated composers?
That’s really hard to think of, your head goes to the big ones! Who’s underrated? Durufle, probably because he doesn’t write very much but the stuff is so perfect, it doesn’t matter that it’s not many pieces, you just go for it! I might say Herbert Howels, because I think he’s very big in church circles, but you don’t perform his secular stuff. I’m singing some of his next year. (It’s) sort of like Vaughan Williams, but with a bit more jazz thrown in… very folky, every now and then there’s these jazz elements. And then… Part! I think Part should be performed much more often! Again mostly choral stuff, but it was him that came up with that tintinnabulation stuff. Very bell-like and super simple but super difficult therefore and really clashy chords- awesome, but I think it scares off quite a lot of the groups from doing his big stuff, like you don’t hear his oratorios performed that often but they’re stunning!
So- greatest concert experience you’ve ever had?
That would be September last year when I was doing the Strauss Four Last Songs with Fremantle Symphony Orchestra and that was just a moment of yay – just singing! Like in the second song when you’ve got the rising line coming up from the violin and having that sort of support of the orchestra behind you. That was…
And to go to the other side of it, your most embarrassing concert experience?
There was a performance a number of years ago, I was just in the chorus at the time, but it was my most embarrassing concert experience because from the first week the rehearsal schedule hadn’t timed right. So I was just completely over it and I remember just sitting in the wings going ‘yeah I know I’m on in five minutes, it doesn’t matter.’ You know, you’d lost that whole peak, because the peak had been three weeks earlier, and now we were over-rehearsed and past it and that was just an awful feeling of ‘there are no nerves, there is no adrenaline, there’s no nothing, it’s just: we do this now’, and that was just terrible! I always thing when someone says ‘are you nervous?’ that I’d much rather be nervous than that! You’re not supposed to feel like that when you perform!
You need a bit of nervous energy, otherwise what are you going to work off when you get on stage?
Oh you need that! There was one performance in particular where there was just nothing. I think it’s so important with rehearsal planning. It can’t be too much! It can’t be too little, but it can’t be too much. Otherwise the energy’s all wrong.
Exactly. So why did you decide to pursue classical singing?
So I guess my high school was just all rock and jazz, an all popular programme. I did it all, I sang in the rock band and I sang in the barbershop choir, but you just go- this doesn’t quite fit. I never did singing lessons in high school, I was doing Classical Guitar and ended up with this jazz teacher who you could just tell was not interested in the Classical Music I wanted to do. And I was quite fine just playing all these jazz arrangements but I didn’t like them. It just didn’t speak to me in the same way. So I got to the end of year twelve and the week before uni applications were due, I literally broke down in tears on my parents’ floor and said ‘I can’t go do history, I need to do be doing music, why aren’t I doing music?!’ And so in that moment I was like- I’m auditioning for Classical Voice and Composition! I go and I get six weeks of lessons so I can audition, because I’d never sung in Italian in my life and I go and audition and I get in…
Which is amazing!
Which is like ‘whoa what on earth am I doing?’ Huge learning curve. I’d always felt more comfortable with that repertoire in high school and everyone’s writing about Lloyd Webber for their assignments at school and I’m writing about music drama and Wagner. My parents don’t listen to it, but I discovered it on the TV myself and I wanted to do that. So then I was at uni doing composition as my major- I got in to do singing as my major, but I had a bit of a… ‘I’ve only been doing singing for six weeks, I should be doing composition instead, I had more of a portfolio of that. Then I sort of came to the end of that degree and I was going to move to China and teach English as a second language or do something randomly different. I was talking to Nick Bannan at UWA who was my honours supervisor and he said ‘you know, people actually can make a career out of singing choral music’ and I’d never heard of that before, and so I suddenly went ‘you can actually do that?!’. That was the music I absolutely loved at that time and I was doing lots of it, so I was like ok, I’m not going to China, I’m staying here and doing more study and I’m singing in every choir and getting my sight reading up.
The voice does what the voice wants, so you have no say. And I have this discussion all the time with my husband- he’s a pipe organist, and more or less he can decide what he wants to play on the instrument. There’s certain limitations, but he’s followed what I’ve done and it’s changing and I have no say as to what it’s going to be like. When I went into more opera singing, I started off doing all the lyric coloratura high stuff, the queen of the nights, the doll arias, and then we went, ‘I’ve got the notes but it’s not quite fitting, and it’s a bit too loud’ so maybe we’ll try down, so we’re doing more lyric stuff and then I went over to Sydney and had some coaching sessions with Tony Legge at the Australian Opera, trying to go ‘what am I doing, why is it not fitting?’ and he basically said you should be a mezzo- do that for a while. But then, I can’t sing Cherubino, it sounds stupid, it’s too big, it sounds wrong… I won’t say zwischenfach because people think about zwischenfach and they think you can do a lyric mezzo and also a lyric soprano, whereas looking forward, I’ve got the feeling I’m becoming a dramatic soprano, but I’m doing the whole thing that many dramatic sopranos will do where they first do dramatic mezzo for a bit- it’s a bit more acceptable to sing that repertoire slightly earlier and there’s the age thing, and reminding yourself ‘I’m only this old and a dramatic soprano isn’t this old’… once I started doing this bigger repertoire it made sense. And it’s only in the last couple of weeks where I’ve gone back to sing some Händel and I can sing it now, I’ve got to get rid of half the breaths and just put all the phrases together and sing it ridiculously, but it’s that constant self-discovery of what the voice just does.
It’s amazing isn’t it?
It’s amazing, and it’s frustrating, and then it’s exciting and then it’s just a mess of emotions… I think that answered your question?
And the last question of the ‘getting to know you’ section is – if you could see any TV show, book, or movie turned into an opera, what would it be and why?
Ooh… well now I’m going to fall back on what my composer head has thought for ages- I’d like to see the Hans Christian Anderson ‘Little Match Girl’. I know they did one recently for the Hans Christian Anderson anniversary… I always think those dark sort of fairy tales deserve to be done. I like historical operas and things of real events but I think there’s sort of beauty in not having people going ‘oh that’s that person, and that’s that person’
Yes, because you played Jane Seymour in ‘Anna Bolena’, and also the mother and the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’? That’s such a great show… it’s Wagnerian but also approachable…
I just think when you’re doing something fantastic like that, that the stakes become even higher, and you don’t have that whole thing of- like with John Adam’s Nixon in China- historical events, where therefore there’s this sort of weird thing of ‘are they caricaturing these people? How do you play those characters?’ Whereas if it’s a fairytale or something, you’re allowed to do that and it’s real!
So onto your Fringe Show, tell as a little about it- it’s Mahler and Wagner, but you’re acting them out, is that right?
Yes, so I’m going to sing them, and then we’ve got a small ensemble of piano, oboe, French horn… I discovered this arrangement that was already done by an American of the Mahler and then I’ve arranged the Wagner for the same forces to match. Then I’ve gone and got the director and the assistant director because I wanted that other perspective to make sure that it works as a piece of drama as well as a piece of singing. So, it being me, there’s lots of singing in the audience and going right up among people, and the audience is really tightly put around chairs so there’s lots of sort of pushing in among the audience. There is that type of immersive, not necessarily a clear narrative experience, but certainly a feeling of, there’s a character, something is happening, and then the audience can read into that their own experiences of loss and of what their childhood was like and what it isn’t now and that sort of thing.
And what made you choose the Mahler and the Wagner?
Well it was after ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ and I sort of do this where I’ve just finished a role, my voice is feeling really good and I start looking at repertoire and thinking- what could it possibly do now? At that time the Strauss was feeling more and more comfortable, and the warmth of sound is travelling up into the higher regions, but on the other hand I also had to get down pretty low and it was feeling comfortable… so I thought while I’m still a mezzo let’s have a look at some mezzo repertoire!
I looked at Kindertotenlieder, and I thought, it’s a bit gory, it’s so gripping, and that made me think of Fringe because I know lots of people think of Fringe as comedy, but the best Fringe shows I have been to have been the really confronting ones. I went to one where it was just two dancers in silence, but they were that close to the audience, and they were moving up and down this scaffold which was really moving and deep and dark and spoke to me as a Fringe show. So I had this idea of the Mahler, I found the arrangement, and then the Wagner I had in the works with two other orchestras to sing at different times and it’s fallen through, they’ve decided to change the programming, which wasn’t too bad because one of them turned into the Four Last Songs! So I keep having it ready and it doesn’t happen, and I looked at it and they kind of comment on each other, whereas the Mahler’s a very definite story and the Wagner’s more philosophical about things, there’s still a sort of coming to grips with something underneath the two. I thought, I want to put the two together. I started mentioning it to friends and no one told me I was stupid, so I went for it! … If it’s stupid it’s their fault for not telling me!
This sort of goes into the next thing of being a WA opera singer, and there’s only so many opportunities. How do you feel about creating your own opportunities? You sing, and you’re not just waiting for an orchestra to ask you, you’ve gone forward and made it happen…
It’s an awkward situation where you say: Hi I want to do this, but you’re not going to hire me until you know I can do this, but you don’t know I can do this until I do it! No one cares where you did it, or who you did it with, they just care that you did it, so there’s nothing wrong with making our own opportunities, and making it work.
The best feeling for me was the day I decided, today I’m ringing all the musicians. There’s often a gap between the orchestra and the singers in a production, and it doesn’t really matter how much we try, there’s always that break. So it was the best thing to spend this day calling musicians! Some said yes and some said no, but everyone knew who I was! I had this whole spiel of ‘I sang this role in this opera where you played in the orchestra…’ and they actually knew who I was and they actually want to do things with me. Partly that’s just me, but partly it’s a singer thing that you don’t realise that people want their own opportunities. My husband has run his concert series for 16 years, so there was a bit of, ‘Eva you can just use my musicians’, but I was like, no, I want to find my own group of musicians, I want to have that feeling that we’re all in it together… it’s not just a singer’s community, it’s everyone’s community!
That’s a really awesome way to think about it! Why would the show appeal to people who don’t like Classical Music?
I think people can appreciate it as a piece of physical theatre and it just so happens that this character is singing. As performance art, it’s an experience you’re going to go through, and part of the experience is what it’s like to have someone singing in your ear. It’s not an art song recital, it’s not: you sit there, you have to have the translations exactly to understand what’s happening. It’s much more conversational… we’re thinking about the translations in a much broader sense, maybe sometimes I speak the translations, maybe sometimes they’re written on a chalkboard, maybe sometimes we only translate one key like so you get the gist but it’s not interrupting the flow.
It’s definitely not restricted to people who are comfortable with the art song format, it’s much more open and an experience. For me that’s been really challenging. Because it’s so intimate a venue you can look stupid… My director Sarah says ‘stop doing the opera thing!’ She says, ‘Real emotions! They just happen to be in German and they just happen to be sung’
Why do you love this music?
I love the fact that it doesn’t resolve easily… which my teacher hates! And she hates that I’ve made her like this music and she’s had to put up with it! I just think that, listening to Mozart for example, everything feels in nice packages and then this happens, and then you finish the sentence… And I just think that no, in real life, whatever’s going through my head doesn’t just finish and that’s the end of the thought. It turns into the next thought and the next thought and then goes back to the first thought and that’s more of a mess, and that’s what this music’s like. Particularly the Mahler where it just seems to flow on and then I finish what I’m doing, but actually we as the whole group of musicians haven’t finished what we’re saying, because the oboist is still thinking it and the French Horn is still thinking it, and that’s what I love, I feel it’s much more like real life. That’s what I like about Strauss, that’s what I like about Humperdinck- it just doesn’t finish, because life doesn’t wrap up at the end of each thought!
That’s always my number one thing if I go to a concert, people say ‘oh wasn’t that a great concert’ But really in my head I’m thinking: did it make me cry, did it bring me to those emotional heights, or was it just pretty. And pretty is nice, but the real aim is… to have that feeling of utter elation or utter joy, or you really want to stand up and hit something because it’s made you feel that.
What makes the show a must-see for Fringe Festival?
When are you going to hear art song done differently? It’s a world premiere concept, in terms of the actual story that we’ve put together. It’s music that you don’t get that often… in terms of art song you hear Schubert, Faure, you hear French stuff, but not lots of late Romantic German stuff, because, it’s usually… well, Kindertotenlieder is for orchestra, so it does restrict all those possibilities. I’m really happy with these arrangements, the guy who did the Mahler arrangements… they’re very close to the original orchestration and has those really striking harmonies, and the strange thing is it’s a French Horn and an Oboe playing together, and at one point the Oboe has to put a mute in… it sounds amazing!
I love the fact that at this Fringe venue, it’s all classical shows. On the days we’re performing there’s a choir, there’s an orchestra playing … They’ve got Downstairs at the Maj which is doing three shows a night cabaret style, then they’ve opened up this new venue which they’re calling Muse, which is in the Dress Circle Bar upstairs, so they’re turning that into the equivalent of downstairs but with classical things… I know they’re doing the Juliet Letters with a string quartet, they’re doing Piazzola tangos with guitar and violin and some dancers, and all these classically oriented acts. Often they’re separated around, but it’s nice to have a place where if you want classical Fringe you go there and there’s that huge variety.
‘Dream of Childhood’s End’ is playing upstairs in the dress circle bar of His Majesty’s Theatre from the 2nd-4th of February at 9.15pm.