You’ve just been announced as the recipient of the 2012 Chilcott Award, a major award for young singers. That’s a big deal – many congratulations!
Thank you! Yeah, it’s fantastic. I’m really thrilled and very happy, proud and honoured. There are lots of opportunities for awards straight out of college or the National Opera Studio because people are often eager to give a chance to young talent, but sustaining that over the next 5-6 years is a real difficulty. It can be tempting, when you’re already singing professionally but there are some inevitable financial struggles, to forgo things like singing lessons and coaching. These things are expensive; you think, I can’t afford it, do I really need it? But particularly for someone like me, I came into it later, so the chance to continue my vocal development is vital even though I’m now a professional.
Asides from vocal support, what else will the award help with?
As I say, I came to singing late, after studying for a law degree in Australia, so one of my weaknesses is my languages. It isn’t so much of a problem at the moment because I’m singing so much in English - at ENO, at Glyndebourne, even next year at the [Théatre du] Châtelet in Paris doing Carousel. So that’s lucky, but I can’t sustain that over a 30-year career! So the Chilcott award will help with French lessons when I’m in Paris next year; and then German lessons, which is fantastic.
A law degree in Australia isn’t the likeliest of routes to the opera stage: tell us more about how you got into this?
I always loved music but not necessarily singing, and certainly not necessarily classical. In high school I played bass guitar in a jazz band, and normal guitar in a rock band. That’s how I learned to read music, but I sort of always knew I could sing a bit. If I sang in the shower, no-one complained! But it was never something I considered. When I was 20, if someone had told me: by 28 you’ll be singing Papageno at ENO, I would have said ‘what are you talking about?’ It would have felt like a totally foreign world…
Yet here you are, playing Papageno at ENO!
I know! I wasn’t particularly happy studying Law, and I had friends who were studying at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth. They knew I could sing and they said, why don’t you come and do this crash course in classical music on the side? It was like, the history of classical music in nine months. That’s when I had my first actual singing lesson. I’d never even been to an opera before. In fact, I had a massive complex when I was told I was a ‘baritone’ – all I knew was that Pavarotti was a ‘tenor’, and I thought a ‘baritone’ meant second best.
Aw, bless. So how did you find out what it really meant?
There weren’t exactly a lot a lot of classical events to go to live in Perth so I spent a lot of time in the Library listening to CDs. One night I found a disc of Schubert songs by this funny man called Bryn Terfel, with some guy called Malcom Martineau playing the piano. I didn’t have a clue who these people were but it said Bryn was a bass-baritone! And as soon as I heard the first notes I remember thinking: this is just incredible.
Were you surprised how immediately that music spoke to you, having had no classical background at all?
Yeah, I was surprised how much I liked it, so quickly. It says a lot for how universal music can be: you can hear something written 200 years ago, on the other side of the world, and it touches you immediately. That’s why I am so adamant about bringing opera and classical music to people who think they don’t know anything about it or don’t like it – I was one of those people.
Are you involved specifically in outreach projects then?
I’m involved in ENO Baylis which has a great outreach programme for younger people. In March we toured to five London schools and did a Magic Flute workshop, singing to something like 7,000 children. Their response was just amazing: these kids who’d never heard unamplified singing voices before now being just a few feet away from opera singers and musicians from the orchestra. It was incredible to see their faces. Yesterday, 500 of those kids came to our Magic Flute dress rehearsal at the Coliseum and the reception they gave us – well, it’s all downhill from here. We’ll never experience anything like that again! It was wonderful, really wonderful.
So apart from ecstatic kids in the audience, how’s it going, the ENO Magic Flute?
Oh, I love it. That probably sounds really simplistic, but it’s the truth. It just feels wonderful – I am so happy to be at ENO; it really feels like a home base for me. Even being a big company in a big theatre, it has such a community atmosphere. I feel that at Glyndebourne too – they gave me my first job and I have a real connection there. To have come to the UK and have had so many wonderful opportunities so quickly, I just feel incredibly fortunate!
And what else is coming up?
After The Magic Flute, I’m doing a very exciting new Carmen, then going on a concert tour with Scottish Opera. Then it’s to Paris for Carousel at Châtelet, and I really can’t wait for that – it’s a fantastic co-production with Opera North. Then back to ENO; and to Glyndebourne again to reprise Michael Grandage’s Billy Budd, and I’m also doing a new production in a future festival at Glyndebourne which I’m really looking forward to. So it’s all wonderful, but nothing that I feel is too many steps at once. I’m very happy to be busy but I don’t want to be singing anything that scares me. You do sometimes get offered crazy things, and there are certainly people in this world who want to have done everything yesterday, but I’m pretty happy just taking things step by step!
Sounds like you’ve got your feet firmly on the ground. Do you have much time for a life outside of music?
This is a job that isn’t 9-5 and I just don’t mean that in terms of hours. It’s a job that is in your heart, it’s massively part of who you are. So it’s encompassing, but yeah I do try and keep some kind of life outside of classical music. Nothing to do with the law anymore, though. I’m buying a flat right now and having to deal with lawyers, which is bringing back some very bad memories! But I’m really into health and fitness, I swim almost every day, and the guys I train with at the gym don’t even know I’m an opera singer. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to talk about Mozart, or my larynx.
Seeing as you’ve brought up sport, shall we talk about how disastrously Australia did in the Olympics this summer? Were you cheering your adopted Team GB?
Oh my god, definitely! I had to back the winners! But seriously, London really feels like home now. My oldest friend lives here, another of my close friends is here, I’m buying a home here. And although I grew up in Australia, from the age of 2-20, and although my accent and mannerisms are Australian, I was actually born in Scotland. My mum’s Brazilian, my father’s English. So I’d never say never, but I think I’m here to stay…
© Clemency Burton-Hill
The Magic Flute, English National Opera, performances 13 September - 18 October 2012