Posts by: Deborah Humble

Jessica Pratt sings ‘Lucia’ at La Scala

 

Performances: February 11, 16, 21

Article can also be found on classicmelbourne.com.au 

LuciaGenovaMarcelloOrselliFifty years after Joan Sutherland sang the role of Lucia di Lamermoor in Milan another Australian, soprano Jessica Pratt, makes her own La Scala debut in Donizetti’s opera in a production directed by Mary Zimmerman and conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi.

The role of  ‘Edgardo’ will be sung by tenor Piero Pretti and it will be his first production of Lucia together with the Australian soprano. They appeared together in performances of Rigoletto at the Verdi Festival in Parma last year and are known as a duo by the tongue twister of an Italian nickname ‘PrettiPratt.’

Lucia is one of Jessica’s favourite roles. “It’s very liberating,” she says, “acting a like a madwoman in front of a few thousand people.”

She has sung the challenging role many times including performances in Berlin, Zurich, Tel Aviv, Ravenna, Como and at Teatro San Carlo in Napoli under the baton of Nello Santi. “Singing the role in the theatre which the opera was written for, where Rossini and Donizetti still have their assigned boxes from which they watched the operas was a great honour.”

Teatro di San Carlo   LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR musica di Gaetano Doni Jessica explains why singing Lucia is so gratifying. “I like her because she because she doesn’t cave to the whims of society and become an obedient wife. She is strong willed; going out alone, meeting with a lover in secret and fighting with her brother. She can’t bend to her family’s will and rather than accept the rule of men she goes mad. It is her strong will that destroys her.”

With regard to the technical aspects of the role she says that her fundamental aim in belcanto repertoire is to produce the drama and emotions required without disturbing the beauty of the vocal line.

“One of the most difficult things in the mad scene is to not let the emotions influence the sound. The line must always remain beautiful even while you are stabbing someone and screaming blue murder.” Jessica explains how “the cadenzas and the coloratura always have to have a dramatic intention behind them; they should never be sung as a technical exercise or just for singing’s sake.”

Opera was a part of the soprano’s life from very early on. Her father was a tenor and as a young girl she thought being an opera singer would be “the best job in the world.” She believed that becoming a professional opera singer would mean playing dress ups, wearing big gowns and going home with a bunch of flowers.

“As an adult I realize that these dresses are heavy and uncomfortable and I usually give the flowers to my dresser or make-up artist because I am flying out the next day. Now I am more attracted to the characters and exploring various emotions through music, language and the physicality of movement. It’s a complex and rewarding art form.”

She describes as one of her career highlights singing in the New Year’s Day concert at La Fenice in Venice.  “It was televised worldwide after the Pope’s speech and there were 4.7 million viewers in Italy alone.”

Teatro di San Carlo   LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR musica di Gaetano DoniShe is clearly very fond of Venice and it’s opera house and says that working there is always a very exciting experience. “They do lovely productions in Venice and the costume department is very close to my heart. I love all aspects of the theatre but especially the art of costume making. They put up with me hanging around and teach me little tricks and new skills. During my last production with them, the 2013/14 season opening of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, I embroidered the front panel of one of my costumes with beads which ended up being more than 30 hours of work. It is now going with the rest of the costumes to a museum in Madrid. I think I am more proud of that than of the DVD and the television broadcast of the production!”

Living and working in Italy, as in any foreign country, presents it’s own set of challenges and rewards. Jessica misses her family, “the fresh air, the nature and especially the open, easygoing friendliness of the Australians.” With some humour she talks about the particular challenge of going to an Italian post office. “ One day I would like to come out and not be in a blind rage. I don’t know if it will ever happen!”

Nonetheless she admits she loves a country that awards a Presidential Medal for coloratura singing, another accolade bestowed upon Jessica at the same time she was awarded the prestigious “La Siola d’Oro” prize last year.

The valuable diamond brooch in the form of a swallow is presented every two years to the soprano voted by Italian music critics to be the best interpreter of famous soprano Lina Pagliughi’s repertoire. Jessica joins illustrious artists such as June Anderson, Mariella Devia and Joan Sutherland, the only other Australian to win the award, and says with obvious pride that “it’s quite incredible to be included in such an historic list of singers, nearly all of whom are my coloratura heroes!”

“These were my very first diamonds. I had to get a safe at the bank to put the brooch into and I am trying not to act like Golum. I am resisting going to the bank just to look at my ‘precious.’”

COPERTINA_01Jessica’s other big treasure is her dog and constant companion Fede whom she adopted two and a half years ago, essentially rescuing him from a life of abuse.  He had a smashed leg and only one eye and had lived most of his life in a kennel. Fede is now well known in Italian opera circles and enjoys life at Lake Como when he is not backstage and in his owner’s dressing rooms.

So famous have the pair become that a children’s book entitled “Un paloscenico per due” or “A stage for two” has just been released by publishing company Squilibri. The book is designed to give children an understanding of classical music, and particularly opera, by telling Fede’s story of life in Italy’s most glamorous opera houses through his eyes.

fenice1Australian audiences do not have long to wait to see Jessica on stage. This May she returns to Melbourne to make her Australian operatic and role debut as Violetta in La Traviata with Victorian Opera under the direction of Richard Mills. She describes the role as “extremely complicated” for the soprano, “requiring three different voices. It must be studied and balanced from the beginning to end.”

First of all however she has ‘Lucia’ to get through. She is clearly excited. “A great friend of mine presented me with the original poster of Joan Sutherland’s ‘Lucia’ from 1964.”

“It’s for good luck,” she adds with a smile.

 

“La Traviata” in Melbourne: 17, 20, 22, 24, 27, 29 May

 

 

“Stepping into the Spotlight.” An interview with Warwick Fyfe for classicmelbourne.com.au

Baritone Warwick Fyfe is no stranger to the spotlight. He has a long list of vocal successes with Opera Australia in works as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado and Verdi’s difficult title roles Rigoletto and Falstaff.  It is the Wagner repertoire however, that Warwick has always found most alluring, and so it was with great relish that he stepped into the role of Alberich recently, replacing an indisposed John Wegner in the Melbourne Ring Cycle.  It was a big task having rehearsed the role of ‘Donner’ for the ten week rehearsal period leading up to the opening night. But this fiercely intelligent and talented artist was totally prepared for the challenge and received nothing but the highest praise for both his vocal and dramatic interpretation of this vertically challenged, sexually depraved character. Despite huge accolades from audience members, music critics and colleagues alike he remains disarmingly and typically understated about both the adulation and applause.

Warwick humbly credits some of his success to the fact that the German repertoire “sits in the meat” of his voice. “Alberich is a very juicy kind of role; the sort you just want to sink your teeth into. The absence of a particular sort of psychological pressure associated with the tessitura is quite liberating dramatically. He explains that unlike some of the Verdi roles he sings (Germont, Amonsaro, Falstaff, Rigoletto), which sit quite high for a low baritone and which must be carefully paced, Alberich is a role he can throw himself into with less calculation. He adds that it is not just his voice that suits Alberich but “my big face reads well and my predilection for scary films means there are plenty of nasties swimming about in my subconscious which surface of their own accord when required.” He provides a couple of interesting examples from past productions telling me that his accent for the role of ‘Papageno’ in the David Freeman production of The Magic Flute was consciously stolen from the serial killer on the film Wolf Creek. “For the Jack the Ripper section of performances of Lulu I referenced Nosferatu and Hannibal Lecter as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. And of course there’s Benny Hill. I am a big fan of Benny Hill . He often creeps into my characterisations. Ideally these things should all well up spontaneously from one’s reservoir of impressions gained over a lifetime.”

The direction of this conversation launches us into a fascinating discussion about what Warwick describes as “cultivating one’s inner garden.” He firmly believes that “every good book you read, every good film you watch, every marvelous painting you look at, every sublime piece of architecture and every beautiful vista you gaze upon will make you a better singer.” He believes that although there are some singers who achieve miracles with their “tonsils alone” that “the artistic dividend from being a cultivated person is enormous. If you are an empty vessel, nothing interesting can come out. One’s whole life is preparation for being on stage.”

So where does he start when he first opens a new score? His preparation of an operatic role begins purely with “gut instinct” and “donkey work memorization.” He describes the process as being like “shelling a truck load of peas. You know you will get there in the end but it ‘s going to take some time!” He says he is not above using recordings to help speed up the process but that he has a strong sense of the character and the context in advance. The best part of the learning process in his opinion is the “polishing” stage. He takes the music off to a coach and a teacher for input and ideas and starts trawling through his mind for whatever resources might come in useful. “It’s the most interesting stage” he explains, because “that is when one finally makes art.”

On the subject of Wagner himself Warwick is happy to talk enthusiastically at length and he is somewhat disappointed when I remind him that this article has a word limit. “Wagner is one of the four titans of music,” he firmly states, “the others being Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.” He gets upset at those who profess a dislike of Wagner’s music, especially when he believes that opinions are often based on a sort of “cherished ignorance” surrounding the man and his politics.  He chooses not to expand on Wagner in relation to anti-semitism but does say that “people in general are not nearly as censorious of the disagreeable eccentricities of other artists.” He believes that one of the problems causing the clear polarization of audiences in relation to Wagner’s operas is that many people have lost the distinction between high art and popular entertainment. “It never occurs to them that a work of high art might demand something of THEM.” We discuss the concept of a society interested in, and used to, instant gratification and he laments what he describes as the “amuse me now and look sharp about it” mentality pervading all elements of life. “Shortening attention spans and an unwillingness to tackle anything challenging is the nub of the problem. A lot of people want music which can be absorbed in a totally passive fashion.”

I am curious to know if Warwick’s study in Germany as winner of the Bayreuth Scholarship helped to inform his Australian performances. He reiterates his ideas on “the general broadening of one’s horizons” always being a good thing and states that “the heady resonance that comes from observing the high arts in a great European capital provides a precious impetus for one’s work.” But he believes that overseas study should make Australian artists “better versions of their Australian selves,” and goes on to point out that whilst “provincialism is our greatest enemy” there are actually advantages to the “fresh way of thinking which actually stems from isolation.” Finally he adds that “more prosaically, travel overseas helps engender a bit of realism about one’s own abilities and potential.”

For those who were lucky enough to see Warwick’s momentous performances in the Melbourne Ring Cycle I doubt there would be many among them left questioning his ability as a singer or an actor. He could surely grace any stage in any opera house in the world in this particular repertoire. He personally finds, like many performers, that he has the annoying ability to focus on the parts of his performance that he isn’t pleased with, as opposed to those which fulfill personal expectations. “It’s an attitude that keeps an artist aspiring, learning and improving.” What then are his final thoughts as this epic event in Australia’s cultural history draws to a close? He says with typical good humour and a huge grin, “Well, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the Ring of the Nibelungen. Alberich is the Nibelung. So I guess I had the privilege of singing the title role!”

More information on Warwick and his forthcoming performances can be found at: www.ozfalstaff.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Australia scores a Covent Garden Hat-Trick.”

as published on www.classicmelbourne.com.au

Deborah Humble talks with tenor Sam Sakker about his expectations from the Covent Garden Young Artist Programme.

Australia’s geographical isolation has always meant that young singers have had to travel far from home seeking to broaden their musical and cultural horizons.  In September this year three more Australians will join the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme at Covent Garden in a two year course designed to help them hone their onstage craft under the guidance of some of the world’s best coaches, conductors and directors. Tenor Sam Sakker, baritone Samuel Johnson and soprano Lauren Fagan join fellow Australians soprano Kiandra Howarth and stage director Greg Eldridge who will be completing their second year.  Selected after a rigorous audition process which saw more than 390 applicants from 58 countries apply for 5 positions in front of Music Director Antonio Pappano and Director of the Royal Opera Kasper Holten, it is a formidable achievement which surely says something about the quality of musical education Australians are receiving at home.

28 year old Sam is excited about the move to London after being encouraged to audition by close friend and “amazing” vocal coach Raymond Lawrence. “Realistically,” he says, “I didn’t expect to be accepted, but I certainly wanted to get up and sing as beautifully as I could.” He presented four arias: “Di tu se fedele” from Un Ballo in Maschera, “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” from La Traviata, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from The Land of Smiles and “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. Now he can’t wait to learn from some of the best talent in the operatic world. “I know I have a long path ahead of me before I’m adept, let alone a master of all the skills I need to become a great singer. This is going to be an amazing opportunity to develop those I know I am lacking, refine the ones I already have, and discover the ones I haven’t yet identified.”  Sam says that singing full time with the Opera Australia chorus has been useful for learning about stagecraft and about the industry in general. But he is now looking forward to working completely on his solo vocal production

Sam acknowledges the professional and personal support of his mentors and biggest supporters including singers Jose Carbo, Emma Matthews and Yvonne Minton, conductor Giovanni Reggioli, and the Australian companies that have given him opportunities on stage.  “Mentorship is so important because people who have trodden the same, or similar path know the pitfalls of the profession and can show you the ropes.” Nonetheless he feels that overseas experience is essential for young Australian performers to launch careers. “There is so much diversity out there in the rest of the world,” he comments, “and such understanding of voices and repertoire that is not standard in Australia. Overseas experience not only broadens your sphere of knowledge but hopefully also leads you down paths you never imagined.”

He is realistic about the challenges ahead and knows first hand what living abroad is like after a move to Berlin just over 12 months ago. “In retrospect, I don’t think that when I left Australia the first time I was really ready to go. Singing wise I realized there was a lot more work to be done. Nonetheless I had a great time living in a completely different place with completely new experiences. I got to see operas very seldom performed in Australia, made some amazing contacts and friends both inside and outside of the opera community and sang in the finals of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Studio auditions.”

On returning to Australia Sam says he was intent on “upskilling” and “diversifying” and he enrolled in a Master of Commerce degree at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “In between starting afresh, getting my head around finance jargon and visits to Centrelink I still made time for regular singing. As soon as I was focused on something else, lots of singing things started falling into place. I sang in the finals of the Herald Sun Aria Competition and performed my first Alfredo in La Traviata with Melbourne Opera, a role I was asked to sing again for New Zealand opera this year.”

Right now Sam is focusing on preparations for the end of the year and is seeking financial support to help with the costs of travel, coaching and language preparation.

“This time I am going abroad with a definitive plan as opposed to thrashing out a path in the unknown. I know I am going to be very busy at the Royal Opera and I can’t wait.”

 

 

Vale Claudio Abbado

 

I have wonderful personal memories of working with Maestro Abbado at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2001. I was a young artist and had the privilege of being given a very small solo in Beethoven’s ‘Choral Fantasy,’  accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Maurizio Pollini at the piano. It is true to say that I was somewhat mesmerised to be among such musical greats, and night after night I would stand side stage and watch whatever programme was being performed. I remember Abbado as somewhat quiet and kind  off stage but rather sprightly and energized on the podium. After the performances we would often go to a local pub where a group of brass and woodwind players from the orchestra would jam jazz standards. Abbado would join us and seemed to enjoy the camaraderie and spontaneous music making as much as the rest of us.
It was with sadness that I heard of his death this week in Italy. He is now lying in a simple coffin surrounded by yellow sunflowers in a dimly lit side chapel at Santuario Santo Stefano in Bologna. I paid my respects yesterday. Along with a steady stream of visitors, some well known musicians amongst them, I approached the chapel on a red carpet. Many people stood by the coffin and wept. Some just lingered for a time and listened to the piped recordings. Others knelt and prayed.
There was a queue to write a last message in a series of guest books by the exit. I found myself wanting to write something profound; something about providing me with one of the most definitive and memorable musical experiences of my life. But I couldn’t find the words. Then I saw what the woman before me had written and realized that simple words are sometimes enough. “Thank you,” she had put. “Thank you for the music.”
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