2016 was a busy year that I rounded off in Poland, making my roll debut as Norina with Opera Krakowska alongside world superstar baritone Marius Kwiecien. Despite what her aria “Quel guardo il cavalliere… So anch’io la virtu magica” may lead one to believe, Norina is far from being a light coloratura role. Immediately proceeding the aria, she’s joined onstage by Malatesta, which any young soprano can pretty much bet on being an older baritone, and they close out the act with the rather full “Pronta io son” duet, which requires incredible stamina and lots of presence in the middle voice, as well as crystal clear musical and text articulation. Shortly afterwards, Norina switches from humble nun to a bride-zilla megalomaniac, and from mid-Act II onwards, Norina is essentially a full lyric soprano role. Low, lots of text, lots of middle voice. I ended up using chest voice on a number of the lower notes, which Freni also does in the Muti recording, but that’s studio, and perhaps for an unforgiving acoustic in a large opera house, not the best choice. Then the huge scene with Don Pasquale in Act III, which for me was the biggest singing of the show. And at the end, when you think the hard work is done, comes the stunning pianissimo “Tornami a dir” duet with Ernesto, which has to be sung with infinite spin and stillness, no mean feat after one hour of full -singing. Norina is the only female solo voice in the show, and often is pitted against larger-voiced male characters, singing in a low register.
This role was certainly a challenge, and perhaps an unexpected challenge. But an excellent learning opportunity. I’m so excited to perform this role again, this time at the Vorarlberger Landestheater in Bregenz (Feb 2017), where I performed Blonde last season. Now that I know the role so well and it is in the body, I can approach the scenic rehearsals with more purpose and assuredness. I know for example which bar I need to be able to stand still, I know passage X is a more fluid one, where a lot of movement is possible, I know where I need time to breath, etc, etc. Most interestingly, I can sink my teeth into the character more. It almost feels like a second debut.
After Poland I came back to Munich for stretch to work on my final project for the Theaterakademie: a staged performance of selected opera scenes. I was to sing Adina. I definitely felt that I was able to develop more lyricism in the voice required for Adina by singing Norina. One became a natural step towards the other. With this last performance at the Theaterakademie, I had completed by Masters degree. I was melancholic about my formal studies coming to an end. I certainly don’t see full time university study as something in my immediate future, so flying the coup again, as it were, felt daunting. Now when I want to practice, I have to pay to hire a room. There is no net to fall back into. No superimposed schedule to give my days structure and meaning. Now I have to find that all for myself. As a freelancer, finding that structure is even harder. It’s something I’m still grappling with. Should I allow my movements to be motivated by consequence? How do you decide which music to start with? There’s a concert in two days, but in one week is an even bigger concert. These are the daily queries.
I kicked off the new year at home in Oz, appearing alongside Teddy Tahu Rhodes at Opera in the Alps. It was nothing short of surreal to return to an event which had meant so much to me as a young developing singer, but this time as one of the main solo acts. The current scholars eagerly listened to my pontificating on #operalyf realities in Europe. It felt important to share anything I could with them. And to sing Violetta’s aria “Sempre libera” for the welcoming ears of the Alps audience was a beautiful thing.
The next immense but fabulous challenge on the calendar was creating (yes, creating) the female roles in Moritz Eggert’s new opera Caliban, written for Operafront at the Dutch National Opera’s Opera Forward Festival. This international contemporary opera festival was to be the setting for my first ever original role debut. What a thrill. Moritz and I already knew each other well, as he was the musical mastermind behind the arrangement for “Traviata Remixed”. He knew me, he knew my voice, and he knew that I loved to act. Moritz wrote three distinct vocal characters, which I had immense pleasure in developing. The libretto by Peter te Nuyl was a joy to unpack and discover. And it was brilliant to work with my Operafront family again. I got to belt a bit too. I learned then – never show a conductor what you can actually do unless you are prepared to do it onstage! Once my “pop” voice was heard, there was no going back. We saw no limits to the possibilities of musical colour. Each character got his or her own accent. Some slang was thrown in. It was brilliant.
A couple of days at home (literally two), and I was off to Bolzano in northern Italy, or “Südtirol” as the German-speakers call it, to start rehearsals on West Side Story. It had been a secret career goal of mine to do this role. Having already performed the mezzo part Anita in a high school production, I knew the show in and out. I even knew some of my colleagues’ lines off by heart. It was a joy to step into a production that felt like an old friend. Speaking of old friends, it was a great pleasure – and endless fun – to work with Rudolf Frey again. Rudi had directed my German debut at the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich back in 2015, and I was thrilled when I got the call to join him for WSS. We giggled and cried our way through the scenic rehearsals, and together developed a moving closing monologue for Maria. I earned the nickname “Regieassistentin” – assistant director – for my bossiness and general desire to control things and tell people what to do. Rudi loved to tease me with it, and I took it on the chin. It’s good to be reminded of your faults sometimes. It was also fantastic to work with fellow Aussie, Maestro Stephen Lloyd, whose knowledge of the music was astounding. Stephen was strict with me in terms of style, and didn’t let me bring any false operatic heaviness into the voice. “Think of Kathleen!” he kept saying. He meant Battle. He spoke my musical language, and by the premiere, aided with the microphones, I was able to achieve the bright yet still classical Maria people hope to hear. Reviews were great. I put on about 5 kilos from eating pizza and gelato and drinking wine every day. It was fabulous and remains one of my favourite memories of the year.
Whilst West Side Story rehearsals were running down in Italy, I nipped up to Hannover to perform the soprano two solos in Wolfgang Rihm’s Klangbeschreibung II at the Klangbrücken Festival, with Ensemble Schwerpunkt. This piece is written for four high coloratura sopranos, brass and percussion. It was a trip! And a blast (hehe).
A trip to the US punctuated the Spring nicely. I joined my best friend Tess in North Carolina for the wedding of one of our best friends, Molly, at which we were both bridesmaids. It was a beautiful break before getting back to New York to work intensively my with voice teacher Neil Semer. As anticipated, after just a week with Neil, I was singing better than I had been in months. He always manages to put me back on the right path, or more accurately, empowers me to put myself back on the right path. I returned to Europe in great vocal shape, ready to take on the next challenge – Valencienne in The Merry Widow at the Schlossfestpiele Langenlois. We rehearsed in Vienna for a month, and it was great to be able to spend an extended period of time in a city I already knew, but only superficially from dozens of one or two day visits. I immediately reconnected with my former Salzburg Festival colleague Franz Gürtelschmied. Franz had held my hand tightly all the way through my first ever professional engagement when I was 23, and it was great to work with him again, especially now that I could actually speak German. We had buckets of fun and relied on each other to pull through challenging times. It was also great to work with director Rudi Frey again on this project. I learned Viennese operetta style mostly through osmosis from brilliant colleagues, in whose blood the style seemed to flow.
During my time in Vienna, I nipped back to Bavaria to appear as Echo in a concert performance of the Ariade auf Naxos finale at the Richard Strauss Festival. As a winner of the first runner-up prize at the Richard Strauss Competition earlier in the year, I had been invited to sing at the prize-winners’ concert, and offered the engagement as Echo. It was an thrill to once more share the stage with one of my vocal idols, Krassimira Stoyanova, who performed her first Marschallin in the same Salzburg Festival Der Rosenkavalier production in which I made my professional debut. Strauss occupies a special place in my heart, and it was a deep honour to perform at his namesake festival.
During the days between shows in Langenlois, I travelled to Bregenz to visit Alex, who was engaged as a soloist in the Bregenz Festival’s world premiere opera To the Lighthouse. It was relaxing to visit him there, and I was “stolz” of how hard he was working. I had only ever been in that kind of milieu as a young artist, and here he was as a fully-blown soloist at a world class festival. I felt proud and humbled at the same time, and it was truly beautiful to see him do so well.
We then moved apartments in Munich, during a visit from Alex’s family, which was stressful to say the least, but we were very grateful for their help. I finished August up in the beautiful Latvian capital city, Riga, where I performed in an opera gala concert at the Latvian National Opera. What an absolute privilege to sing with this orchestra, lead by the sensitive and possibly most chill conductor I have ever worked with – Martins Ozolins. I had a fantastic time visiting friends and just enjoying a new city. I will be back.
And that pretty much sums up the past nine months. I had a birthday, graduated uni, gave an international world premiere role debut, fulfilling a career-long dream, I performed at home for loved ones and old friends, I spent spring in Italy and summer in Austria and now I’m getting ready for the coming season. This year is looking to be just as busy as the last two. Next post will be a bit more interesting and less of a list, I promise.