Fleuranne Brockway is a young mezzo-soprano currently taking the operatic stage by storm. Praised for her ‘lusciously dark-centred voice’ by the Herald Sun, 2017 has seen big steps for this up and coming young singer. Not only is she one of West Australian Opera’s Young Artists, but she has also won Liederfest 2017 and travelled to the Franz Schubert Institut for intensive study on Lieder. Appearing in Art Song Perth’s September 30th concert Captivating Contrasts, we caught up with Fleuranne to discuss what she has done so far and what we can expect in this concert.
Have you Always Wanted to be an Opera Singer?
No. I originally wanted to be a lawyer or an actress. My cousin is an actress and was a huge inspiration for me. I loved how she could completely embody a character and could transport an audience with her performance. It was my fascination with theatre that later lead to my passion for opera. From a very early age I had a love for musical theatre watching recordings of The Wizard and Oz and Oklahoma with my parents. I became a huge musical theatre junkie which later led to operetta and then into opera.
When I was twelve, my parents took me to see The Mikado, which the WA Gilbert and Sullivan Society put on at the Regal theatre. From there, I become obsessed. I borrowed a book of G+ S libretti and a video recording of the 80s OA production of the Mikado from my local library and spent many an afternoon following along and memorising the text verbatim. It turns out now that my teacher, Gregory Yurisich, was part of this production of the Mikado as Poo-Bah, so when I started getting lessons with him I must admit I was pretty star struck. To this day it’s still one of my favourite recordings of all time.
It was through my ever-expanding collection of Gilbert and Sullivan that I came to opera. I fell in love with artists like Heather Begg and Anthony Warlow through these Gilbert and Sullivan productions and wanted to find more. I knew of opera but I just thought it was for older people. By the age of 14 I had then stumbled onto the OA copy of Luhrmann’s La Boheme and I thought it was the bees knees. By this time I’d finally come to accept that the chances of me being a musical theatre singer were quite low because I couldn’t dance – AT ALL. These days I have some sweet moves that I like to showcase in my lounge room or in the green room before a concert -to get out those last minute jitters – but it’s more of a freestyle/interpretive situation that stems from nothing more than zero talent and zero training.
In the Luhrmann production of Boheme they had a young cast performing which changed my mind about opera. It clicked that young people can do opera too. I would sing along to Mimi’s arias in the living room even though my parents would tell me to stop squawking and go to bed, but I had fallen in love with the music and the story. Something in me said: This is the art form for me. I don’t why, because I definitely didn’t have any training or skill but I had a passion and I ran with it. I cried more watching that that production than during the Lion King and Bambi combined and anything that could be that moving was something I wanted to be apart of.
What has been the highlight in your career so far?
My time at the Franz Schubert Institut. This was the first time I had travelled to Europe and it was different to anything I’d ever experienced. To get the chance to be in the presence of, let alone be coached by, huge names such as Elly Ameling, Helmut Deutsch, and Roger Vignoles was life changing. I also had the chance to work with very talented young artists from all over the world, many of whom I now call good friends. The course focuses a lot on seeing the poetry and music as two equally important parts of a whole and making sure we find many ways to present the text alone to then inform what we do with the music. This is an easy concept to understand but a lot of hard work in practice. After learning the separate parts, how a duo then takes these them and combines them to form a song is a process as detailed as you want to make it. A great duo is essentially one being; the voice threads through the lines of the piano and the piano sings the text with voice. It’s very rewarding work and it will always add more nuances to your performance, even if you end up throwing half of it out at the end of the day. I was very lucky to get paired with my gorgeous American duo partner, Levi Gerke. We had a lot of fun trying to nut out this music together and I now appreciate what a luxury it was to have that time to work like this without any other distractions. Hopefully I’ll be able to get him to Australia in the near future and we can showcase a bit more of what we got up to in Austria!
What has been the most embarrassing moment in your career so far?
There are many but I’ve tried to repress the memory of them all! I recently had to do a cancan onstage as part of some scenes for Orpheus in the Underworld. I made a poor costume choice of a long skirt with two slits. Not only did I trip myself up onstage (didn’t fall over thank goodness)., I ripped the lining of the skirt and when I was picked up by a tall young baritone and spun around, I’m pretty sure I may have flashed a poor audience member. I have never heard otherwise so maybe I got away with it… but it did feel pretty breezy up there.
If you weren’t an Opera Singer, what would you be?
If I had my way I’d want to do arts management or agency work. I thoroughly enjoy promoting other people – which I find difficult for myself – and I’d still be part of furthering this art form which is and always will be my passion.
Who are your favourite composers?
I love singing Strauss, Massenet and Sibelius. I also enjoy letting my hair down and singing some Cabaret songs – Weill, Bolcom, Britten. Things that are a bit tongue in cheek and comedic are always high up on my list. I am also a Puccini tragic (I know, how original!)
In terms of under-rated composers, Sibelius definitely reappears on this list. He’s hugely romantic. So many young singers say that they’ll only learn opera, but when you think of the depth of emotion and intensity in the songs of Sibelius, Grieg or Rachmaninoff, they’re arias in themselves! It IS an aria!
Who are your favourite non-classical performers?
This is a tough question, Ben Folds, Kimbra, The Doors, Flight of the Conchords, Queen, The Kooks, and the Last Dinosaurs! I have an iPod of tunes from five years ago that I listen to all the time.
What is it like being in the Wesfarmers Arts Young Artist Program for WA Opera?
The program that Thomas Johnson and Brad Cohen have developed is still quite new and because there are only three of us, it adapts to our individual needs. They have catered the program this year for Paull-Anthony Keightley, Rebecca Bunn and myself to help us take the next step in our careers as we ask ourselves: How do you transition from Young Artist/student to a professional performer? We work a lot on developing our artistry as they provide career mentoring whilst give us plenty of performance opportunities to hone our craft and get a bit of publicity. We receive regular coachings from Thomas and Brad when he is in Perth, the chance to work with wonderful guest artists such as Nicole Dorigo who is here for Lucia, and Antoinette Halloran who starred as Tosca in March. We are also lucky enough to be joint recipients of the Bendat Scholarship (Which helps me pay for my singing lessons!).
The Young Artists are all welcomed to sit in on rehearsals and observe how principal artists work at this level: It’s very comforting to see them having a lot of fun, making jokes, but are always working hard to try and find more in their performances and create the best show they can. The learning never seems to stop, even for them, which is comforting to see as a young artist (when all you seem to do is study!)
We are also very lucky as young artists to have the support of organisations such as Wesfarmers and Opera Lovers WA. We get so much out of the educational opportunities that their support provides that it’s always so exciting to be able to share the fruits of what we have learnt with them. Also, to perform for people with a similar passion for the arts is always a joy!
As well as being an enthusiastic opera singer, you’re also an enthusiastic Art Song singer, being a semi-finalist in the Mietta Song Competition and winner of Liederfest 2017. Why do you love art song?
It’s all story-telling, isn’t it? There is so much beautiful music out there, why would you just limit yourself to just opera? In my personal experience, I have found art song has allowed me great deal of freedom that I haven’t always found in opera. When you sing an aria these days an audience will always be asking are you the right voice type? Colour? is it age appropriate? Can you sing the full role? the list goes on and on. When you sing a song, you don’t have to tick any of those boxes – you can just be you. You can change the dynamic range, transpose songs, change the voice type it’s written for. This doesn’t always sit well with audiences who prefer a specific colour in certain songs but since the repertoire isn’t as well-known as many operatic works, they’re rarely the majority. Essentially you must fit an aria whereas a song can fit to you. Therefore, I think it’s good for young singers to start with art song over opera. Focus on finding YOUR sound and not trying to sound like your favourite Mimi from recordings, which is always the trap. Unpicking the poor muscle memory from learning an aria with poor technique is more hassle than it’s worth. (Easier and faster to learn it the right way the first time than to fix mistakes!) Other artists’ experiences may be different, but that’s what I have found to be the case in my artistic journey.
September 30th we’ll get to hear you at Art Song Perth’s recital Captivating Contrasts… What can we expect to hear?
There will definitely be contrasts. There’s a French chanson, some Spanish songs, a little bit of Weill and a diverse range of lieder. Earlier this year I spent five weeks in Austria attending the Franz Schubert Institut, which I won as part of the National Liederfest competition. At the school I was coached and masterclassed on twenty-five lieder, most of which I have never performed in Australia. Safe to say, it was a very intense five weeks of my life. We didn’t get one day off during the course! When we weren’t being coached, attending a poetry lecture, rehearsing, performing in masterclasses, we had a concert or were on hikes in the Viennese woods. Not only did I learn a lot about German poetry, lyric diction, the musical style of different composers, but I was also exposed to mountains of repertoire I’d never come across before. Seventeen duos all preparing twenty-five songs by specific composers, with no double ups allowed, meant that we churned through a great deal of repertoire. I now have a very long wish list of songs I would like to perform, when I get around to it! But I would really like to begin by sharing some of this beautiful repertoire, many of which Perth audiences might not be familiar with.
Why should we still be performing opera and art song in 2017?
Such a big question. They are art forms like no other. I don’t want to try and justify why opera and art song should still be performed because it’s as big a question as why should we have art at all? The question of its relevance does come up a lot though and my answer is that it will always be relevant because their focus, at the very core, is on the human condition. We may go on a journey with characters but within the plot, time almost slows down as we explore moments of extreme emotions and focus in through music and text. They deal with emotions that people spend their whole lives struggling with such as love, jealousy, fear, loss and loneliness. That inadvertently make us reflect on these emotions in our own lives and really hone in on what is important.
Advice for Young Artists:
Don’t neglect your languages! (Learnt that from experience!) You have to treat opera singing like a job. How long do you practice this a day? It doesn’t all have to be physical singing – A lot of people only sing for one hour a day! It’s the mental practice that’s so effective: To not have any distractions and think through the music and what you’re trying to achieve. Studies show the brain processes mental practice the same way it does when you’re physicalising the action. Obviously stamina and muscle memory need to be maintained but a tired voice is never an excuse to not still be practicing (Please don’t sing on tired cords!). Look after yourself and love yourself.
If you could turn any book, movie, TV show, life event into an opera, what would it be?
Whilst there are so many options… Nothing can beat the idea of “Rupaul’s Drag Race: The opera!”
Fleur can be seen performing with Art Song Perth at their upcoming concert Captivating Contrasts on the 30th September 7:30pm at the Church of the Resurrection in Swanbourne. She will be accompanied by West Australian Opera’s Head of Music, Thomas Johnson. Other performers in this concert include Christina The, Emma Oorschot, Ry Charleson, Jason Kroll and Art Song Perth’s Vice-President Marilyn Phillips. Buy your tickets here.
Thank you to Fleuranne Brockway for her time, tales and enthusiasm.
Interviewed and edited by Katherine Goyder