Upon arriving in Brisbane Airport I have removed my now sweat-covered cardigan and am regretting a full-length Lululemon “groove-pant”, which now seem as if they were knitted from pure wool and are in fact making me feel anything but groovy. It seems quite ironic that I have flown in to sing Olga in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on the Pushkin story taking place in the notoriously chilly St. Petersburg. I am greeted by a bespectacled Nancy Underhill who gives me a warm hug which is nonetheless welcomed despite the sauna that is “just the Queensland climate”. Nancy wears a linen tunic which I will definitely purchase and change into later as I currently feel like a pig in a sandwich bag.

Riding in her Mercedes back to her house in Chelmer, we talk about a plethora of things. She is mostly excited about procuring an artist’s retreat and holiday home which she refers to as “Heaven” with a one Lisa Gasteen, the Wagnerian juggernaut who along with Nancy has established this wholly unique school for young singers. She notes that the locale of this property is the sort of place where trees are crocheted by neighbourhood hippies and where they can make their pottery in peace. Lisa and Nancy share a profound friendship which seems quite familial. Nancy is an incredible woman. She is an art historian and ran the art History department at Griffith University. Her specialist subject is Medieval history and art and she previously worked at the British Museum before moving to Australia to marry her late husband Peter, a judge. She refers to the British Museum as the BM and unfortunately this makes me giggle repeatedly. I am reminded by this that she is a distinguished woman and that I like toilet humour and am wearing sweaty yoga pants. She slightly unwillingly laughs at my coarse observations anyway and is quick back with a joke. She’s a New Yorker after all. My great friend Paull-Anthony Keightley would stay with Nancy shortly and we would enjoy a few glasses of wine and a cheese board and share a chuckle. A favourite memory!

Nancy’s house not only contains an enviable art collection but is in itself a work of art. The large sprawling garden was designed by Nancy herself containing species I have never seen, a vegetable garden, an orchid greenhouse jasmine which perfumes the evenings. My room is vast with a window seat looking onto fronds of tropical plants. And before this blog turns into Architectural Digest, I digress. As I sit in Nancy’s beautiful home I experience some first day of school anxiety but that is quickly eclipsed by fatigued. After eating a tuna sandwich for dinner and watching the ABC news with Nancy, I fall asleep to the sound of geckos and birds.

Day One of the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School: There is much activity outside the rehearsal room as Lisa greets us all with her famous squillo laden voice. She is a delight. Quite a departure from the intense characters she portrayed in her prolific career, Lisa is earthy, warm and generous. It’s quick hellos and hugs before we are straight into Act One Scene One, which contains a Russian dense duet and quartet. This is evidently inspiring panic is us four female cast members. I meet the rest of the girls involved including an old friend in Panayiota Kalatzis (who was playing Tatyana in our Onegin) on the way to rehearsal. Pana is a glamorous, chatty, Greek-Australian soprano, who manages to make her newly acquired moon-boot look good. Unfortunately, she had encountered a leg-shattering incident whilst selling shoes at her retail job at Nine West. I have a feeling she won’t be needing that job for long. She won the prestigious Herald Sun Aria competition the previous year and was going to audition in London and New York after our Onegin stint here in Brisbane. It sounds like she can’t afford continue to sell shoes if purely for the insurance premiums (ba-dum-tish). We chatted briefly about what we had been up to, before admitting to our meagre Russian skills. Our nerves were quickly put to rest as we began our week of thoughtful work with Richard Hetherington.

Richard Hetherington, myself and Jennifer Marten-Smith

I knew very little about Richard Hetherington other than that he was the newly appointed Head of Music at Covent Garden. So naturally, the pressure was on to not embarrass one’s self. Luckily, nerves were not really required. Richard is not in the business of humiliating singers but in quietly encouraging them to listen and sing within the harmony, to create “snake-like” legato, to phrase with musical integrity and to sing everything as if it is slow, regardless of its tempo. Richard understands singers and voices. He is a legato maven. He speaks slowly, partly because he has a slight stammer but partly it means that one can digest what he is saying while he is saying it. He is brilliant. His energy is relaxed but focussed which is a good example for a group of young singers grappling with Russian diction largely for the first time.

The other lovely singers I worked with were like me, novices with the Russian language. Fiona McArdle and Shikara Ringdahl like Kalatzis are generous, funny and intelligent women, which meant rehearsals were always a pleasure. Both blessed with fantastic and promising young voices, their brilliant and cheeky personalities came to the fore most whilst working with coach Jennifer Marten-Smith. Jen and Richard are a brilliant match in their almost Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. Where Richard’s rehearsal room is English, polite Zen, Jen’s is playful and challenging chaos. Jen is a freelance coach and pianist based in Tasmania. She was a coach and repetiteur at Opera Australia and in opera houses in Germany but she prefers hanging out with her many animals and being surrounded by family. She is energetic, challenging and very thorough. Whilst Richard handles long legato lines, phrasing and harmony Jen is dealing with the specificities of how vowels and consonants connect and helping us work out the finer points of counting impossible ensemble sections. Where Hetherington is impressionism, Marten-Smith is pointillism, both helping us to create a more vivid musical landscape for the story of Eugene Onegin to unfold. It was lovely to see the influences of these coaches giving confidence to young repetiteur, Jonathan Wilson who was giving the singers extremely helpful feedback.

The other essential part of the coaching trio was working with Olga Lipsky. Like with Richard Hetherington I had expectations of a much sterner character. I was met with a softly spoken and sweet pianist and former librarian. Olga is at least tri-lingual, growing up speaking German and Russian. These were probably passed down from her parents who emigrated from Russia during the war. A point of Olga trivia: she plays for a Latvian choir. She was preparing a program for Christmas with the choir. I asked what the Christmas concerts featured and she said that the carols are largely German. Go figure. Amongst polite chatter and banter, Olga took me slowly and thoroughly through my role with much attention to detail and encouragement along the way. She’s darling. I think all of the girls participating found her approach helpful and even learned to read a little Cyrillic!

As you’ll notice, it was only women preparing roles in this year’s Eugene Onegin. The intended project was to be a concert performance of the opera with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and conducted by internationally acclaimed violinist, Maxim Vengerov. However due to a string of unfortunate events, his availability, as well as the availability of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra was compromised. This was deeply disappointing for an artist such as myself based in Perth for whom this opportunity relieved a feeling of artistic isolation, connecting me not only with an interstate orchestra but an international musician and conductor. I sensed that the school was also hugely disappointed by this. Nevertheless, the school managed to provide a great service to a group of young singers. I wonder if I would have felt so prepared, if I would have grown so much artistically, or felt so supported if the school had been so focussed on a concert performance of the opera and not on language and musicality? It’s hard to tell.

The school culminated in a concert performance in the rehearsal room at Griffith.

Shikara Ringdahl, myself, Panayiota Kalatzis and Fiona Mcardle

Initially uninspired by the venue, the school had gone above and beyond to light and decorate the room to provide great atmosphere. The concert began with Richard’s reading of Pushkin’s letter to his friend about Onegin, which was read with Richard’s trademark perfect legato and great feeling whilst underpinned beautifully by Jonathan’s playing of the opera’s introduction. The girls and I performed our scenes with great enjoyment. Pana’s Letter Scene was a particular highlight. Her artistic promise was made particularly evident and I hoped that her auditions overseas would reflect this. I felt Olga’s overwhelming joy in my aria particularly when she sings “Why should I sigh, when full of happiness, my youthful days flow gently by?” With the insecurity and introspection that comes with music-making, it is lovely to have a character remind you of its pure joy. The evening concluded with post-show champagne as we were not only celebrating our time at the school but also Lisa’s birthday. “Happy Birthday” was sung complete with Wagnerian flourishes expertly added by Jonathan. I was sad to say goodbye to my coaches and colleagues but was equally happy to know how much they had inspired me.

This experience gave me room to appreciate that making music is special. It brings ordinary people together to create something extraordinary. It connects us. Regardless of whether it takes place in a rehearsal room or a concert hall, it freezes Brisbane humidity into St Petersburg snow and makes operas out of chaos. We are so very lucky to do this.

Written by Caitlin Cassidy