The other day here in Adelaide, I had a young singer come to my show, (Siren, 6.30pm, Garden of Unearthly Delights: tickets here!)After the show she waited outside to talk to me. She said that she hoped to be able to perform like that, one day. She was just starting out on her training at the Conservatoire here in Adelaide and hoped to study in Germany in the future. I had so much advice that I wanted to give, too much to say on a first meeting with a stranger. It left me thinking, what would my advice be to my younger self, to that young opera trainee with stars in her eyes and the confidence and immortality of youth?
So I thought I’d write it down and share it with you all, maybe a young singer out there will read it and it might help them.
Music college is hard. You might be a high flyer, you might not. If you are, there is always pressure to be the best, if you aren’t then you may find yourself sidelined. Both positions are difficult, be kind to yourself.
You will try to sound like Callas, or Gheorghiu or Petibon. Don’t. Enjoy your gloriously young sound. Don’t darken or deepen or over-brighten in the hope of developing vocal richness or lightness. Your voice is as individual as you are. It is also young. You may not know who you are until you hit your mid twenties, late twenties or early thirties, let your voice develop the same way. Find repertoire that suits you now. You have years to sing Norma, Queen of the Night or Don Giovanni.
Be dedicated to music that inspires you. If you love Poulenc, learn all the Poulenc you can. Research unusual material, find songs that your peers aren’t singing. There is a world of music out there that people aren’t singing, gorgeous rare songs which are desperate to be heard. Don’t be afraid to sing in your native tongue. For me, I adore English song. Be pedantic with your diction. You have a duty to the poet in question to allow the audience to hear his or her words. Now, I’d prefer a sacrifice of line to words, any day. Listen to your tutors, but don’t always listen to your tutors.
Don’t be a diva. One day, you can be a diva. Just don’t be a diva now. It’s annoying. When you get to the day when you can be a diva, be a diva about the important things. Don’t make someone else feel bad with your diva-ness. Be grand, be self confident, be assertive but not to the detriment of those around you. As a diva now, I need water, a dressing room, a quiet performance space and a mic that works. I can work around anything else. I don’t have any weird or wonderful backstage rituals or needing peace for ten hours before a show. Be respectful, though, of those other performers who might have complex needs.
You don’t have to follow any diet plans. If you want to drink coffee before you sing, do it. If you want to drink Champagne before you sing, do it. If you want to drink milk you can. If you come back at me saying that it will coat your vocal folds, then I suggest you take yourself to a hospital because if it is coating your vocal folds, you are in danger of drowning. Milk may create mucus, but it will not pass your vocal folds. That’s just biology.
Don’t be disappointed, (OK, you can be a bit disappointed for a while, I cried for a month) if your first operatic dream doesn’t pan out, it’s ok, there is more than one path and as someone once told me, ‘it’s a dance, not a race’. Find what you are good at, if not opera, why not musical theatre, why not classical song, why not cabaret? Be passionate about something and find your path by way of meander. Some people will be Glyndebourne stars at 22, most won’t. It’s ok. There are other paths. Create shows, market them, be different, be proactive. If you have something to say musically, there are heaps of theatrical spaces all over the country. Create art your way.
Be a fearless performer and take artistic risks. The stage is not always the place for subtlety. Feel each musical emotion keenly and make sure that your audience feels it too. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain but being completely emotionally honest with your music. Learn your words, not just by heart but by meaning. Know each inflection and each insinuation. Don’t just sing words and hope to get some meaning across. Fundamentally, singers are storytellers, tell your stories with passion and intensity. There are some wonderful artists who have managed to forge a career that veers away from but alongside traditional opera, the gorgeous Ali McGregor and the devastatingly fabulous le Gateau Chocolat spring to mind, and of course, yours truly.
Finally, have confidence in who you are and what you do. Don’t be afraid to do something unusual and unexpected, as hard as it will inevitably seem sometimes. Take that road less travelled and enjoy the journey.