Women in opera

7 Mar 2019

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we asked four creative ladies involved in our Season 2019 a few questions about what they do and why they love it.

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Jessica Pratt © Alessandro Moggi

Jessica Pratt – Soprano in Heroic Bel Canto

How did you become a singer?

It runs in the family; my father is a tenor and I grew up watching him perform. We had a very musical and artistic household so it was almost inevitable that my career would be in the arts. As a young girl, I thought that being an opera singer was the best job ever because you got to play dress ups for a living, people give you flowers when you sing, and you get driven around. I was right about the first two, but I am still working on the driver! 

What do you love about your job?

I love the music and being able to experience and portray different characters’ lives and emotions onstage. Travelling the world and meeting lots of interesting people. Most of all, I love the feeling of the connection with the audience during the performances.

What aspects of your job do you find most challenging?

I find the travelling and being on the road for 11 months of the year is the most challenging aspect. However, I do love getting to know all these cities around the world and after a few years of coming back to certain theatres there is a feeling of home and familiarity and, of course, lots of wonderful friends to make you feel at home

When starting out, what was a surprising aspect of your profession? What is typically misconceived?

When starting out, I was surprised at how difficult I found it to come out at the end of the opera for the bows. I wasn’t nervous as the character onstage, but when I came out during the applause there was no character to hide behind. It was just me, and I am a shy person by nature and absolutely do not enjoy standing in front of so many people like that. 

I think the most misconceived thing about my profession that we sing for the applause. A performance cannot be judged by the amount of applause it receives because it is largely reflective of the audience you have in that moment and not necessarily the type of show you have performed.  For example, an audience on a Wednesday night who have to work the next day will rarely be as enthusiastic as a relaxed one on a Saturday afternoon. The best part of the performance is not the applause but the silence; when you can feel that everyone in the theatre is breathing at the same time just waiting for the next note. 

Emma Muir-Smith – Librettist for Alice Through the Opera Glass and The Selfish Giant

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How did you become a librettist?

I started out as a singer and was a Masters student in 2014/2015 with Victorian Opera. During that time, we workshopped and performed a huge number of new works, and I fell in love with the creation process. I’ve always been intrigued by language, so I approached composer Simon Bruckard with an idea for a children’s opera. We wrote a few scenes and presented them to Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director Richard Mills. This eventually turned into my first libretto and our first opera – The Selfish Giant.

What do you love about your job?

I love theatre and opera, and the unique capabilities of live storytelling to move an audience, and I think the number one highlight of the job for me is the overall collaborative process of creating new work. When you sing, you slip inside the skin of your character and get to know them inside out. As a librettist, you have a big-picture involvement, where you know all the characters and the story and how each element relates to and influences everything else. I love working from this bird’s-eye view. As a musician, I suppose I have a musical picture in my head while I write, and I love it when a composer takes my words and does something with them that’s more brilliant than I could have ever imagined! And then I get to see them come to life on stage, which is extremely exciting!

What aspects of your job do you find challenging?

Anything that involves your own creative vision can pose challenges. It can be easy to fall in love with an idea for a scene, character, or line and not want to give it up, but in something as collaborative as libretto writing, there has to be compromise from all sides. I think one of the most challenging aspects is being able to fight with passion for your ideas, but being able to realise when they’re not the best choice for the moment or the piece that you’re writing, and to be able to let them go. It’s not that they’re not good ideas, it’s just that they’re not the best fit. Except, of course, for the times when they are just crap ideas but it takes you months to realise.

When starting out, what was a surprising aspect of your profession? What is typically misconceived?

For some reason I thought it would be easiest to write my first work entirely in rhyming verse (why?!). I was dying to get straight to the words, but I realised pretty quickly that unless I had a very clear structure of the whole work, and of the direction of each scene, I couldn’t possibly start on the words. For me, the macro-structure governs the micro-structure, and in order to have a well-shaped and well-paced piece of drama, it had to start there. I also naively thought I’d get it close to right on the first or second draft. Try the 50th. I don’t think I realised that I would agonise over literally every single word. 

Perhaps a common misconception is that if you can write poetry or plays that it’s easy to write libretti. There are definite similarities, but I think to write a good libretto, you need to have an understanding and appreciation of a whole lot of things that are unique to writing words for music. Primarily, you need to remember that these words will be sung within a musical world – not spoken, and certainly not read. It means thinking about how the sounds of words can be used to create colour and meaning, and being aware of an economy of language that will enable the composer to find flow and line in their composition, allowing the music to bring its half of the drama. This is the aim – sometimes it doesn’t quite work, or you and the composer have different ideas, but that’s when it becomes really collaborative and the fun begins!

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Ali McGregor in Victorian Opera's production of Lorelei. Photo: Pia Johnson for Victorian Opera.

Ali McGregor – Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music

How did you become a singer? 

I was very privileged to go to a private school that had a very strong music, drama and art department. So, the arts in general were a big part of my life from primary school onwards. Music and drama especially were an everyday part of my life. I hadn’t come from a particularly artistic family, but I adored everything about performing and being a part of a group of musicians and actors. It gave me confidence and a deep appreciation for collaboration at a very early age.

This is one of the reasons I am a big advocate for the arts being taught in primary school around Australia (currently only 1 in 4 schools have a dedicated music teacher). By high school my voice had been noticed by enthusiastic teachers (Tom Healey and Paul Rettke) and I started to focus on my singing more and more, joining the choir and singing with the jazz band. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out I could sing for my VCE, even happier that I could sing at university and overjoyed that I could make a career out of it.

What do you love about your job?

I love the way singing operatically feels inside my head and body – the rush of adrenaline and, weirdly, how it tastes in my mouth is unlike any other sensation in the world. But the thing I love most about performing is the collaboration. Not only with the other performers or with the orchestra, the conductor or the band I am working with, but with the audience. Live performance at its very best becomes a dialogue with the audience – there is a reason that live performance will always be more exciting than a recording. There is an electricity in the air and things can change at any moment. No two performances are ever the same and life is never boring!

What aspects of your job do you find most challenging?

Memorising music and lyrics is getting more difficult as I get older (surprise, surprise!) but also, I find it so much easier to learn lines when I am actively doing it – sitting alone in my room trying to get everything in my head has always been a challenge. The other challenge is to lose my sense of self, my self-consciousness, my hang-ups or worries. I don’t feel like I can truly connect to a narrative, a character or a song until I let go of all of that, but it is always difficult to get there. Having a safe space to work within, with people around you who want you to succeed and leave their judgement at the door is almost essential to ensure that happens.

When starting out, what was a surprising aspect of your profession? What is typically misconceived?

A surprising aspect is just how much time you usually have to kill between rehearsals, in the make-up chair or between stage entrances. Keeping your mind and body active in those breaks is very hard and takes some practice to become second nature. You have to be able to keep the adrenaline going somehow so that when you do walk out on stage you are ready for action!

The other thing I underestimated is just how physically and emotionally draining both rehearsals and performances are. You have to be an athlete and a Zen master or else you will fall in a heap. Keeping fit and mindful off-stage is incredibly important.

Another thing that was surprising is just how incredibly supportive most other performers are to each other. There is a misconception that everyone is bitching and fighting off-stage. There has been a long history of this narrative being told – especially about women.  Yes, sometimes there are people whose insecurities need to create drama, but mostly this has been fostered by a long history of toxic misogyny that without doubt has infiltrated not only our industry but others as well. But generally, everyone is supportive, lovely and willing to be total idiots for each other’s amusement! In the recent production of Lorelei, I was surrounded by other women and I have never felt more supported, accepted and strong amongst them. It was a great process and one that paid dividends off-stage.

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Victorian Opera's Executive Producer and Artistic Associate, Elizabeth Hill-Cooper. Photo: Charlie Kinross for Victorian Opera

Elizabeth Hill-Cooper – Executive Producer and Artistic Associate at Victorian Opera

How did you become a producer? 

I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am. I started in dance and then morphed into choreography before turning my hand to company management, where I learnt the ropes from Stuart Maunder, a long-admired friend and mentor. Further studies cemented my love for this style of work and then my position at Victorian Opera enabled me to fully explore producing.

What do you love about your job?

I love taking a seed of an idea and working to create a fully produced work of art. I love the close relationship you have with a group of people – the staff who assist in bringing it to the stage, the artists and musicians – all focused on the same outcome: a wonderful performance. I also enjoy solving problems, especially the creative nature of finding an alternative to problems that demand a solution.

What aspects of your job do you find most challenging?

Making the budget stretch but not losing the foundations of good work.

When starting out, what was a surprising aspect of your profession? What is typically misconceived?

Misconceived… ‘oh, you get paid to do this!’