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Lisa Gasteen: Much more than just witches and bitches

Features - Classical Music | Opera

Lisa Gasteen: Much more than just witches and bitches

by Clive Paget on February 17, 2014 (February 17, 2014) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
The Wagnerian soprano who thought she'd never sing again is looking at a fuller diary than ever.

Frankly, 2008 was an annus horribilis for Australian dramatic soprano Lisa Gasteen. The Wagnerian specialist and star of the 2004 Adelaide Ring was at the very peak of her considerable career when she began to suffer muscle spasms in her neck. So recurrent was the problem she was forced to put her singing career on hold and seriously thought that she would never be able to sing in public again.

As Brünnhilde in the Adelaide Ring

“Every time I opened my mouth, to sing, I would start to spasm”, she said. “It was always at the same pitch – maybe three minutes into my practice. I was trying to deal with that while coming to terms with my career looking like it was over.”

During this turmoil, the soprano was in the process of starting up her famous opera school in Queensland for young emerging artists and professionals. With the need to raise money for the school, she was left with no choice but to keep going: “It was obvious that the only way I was going to raise any kind of money was to sing.”

In the last year or so, a relative miracle has occurred. A series of injections into the affected muscles has allowed her to regain control and gradually ease herself back onto the concert platform. “I had about three or four treatments of Botox and that stopped the major spasms, though I still get occasional ones that are not as severe.” Managing these problems is a constant problem for the determined soprano: “I’ve recently started up some more physio on my neck – so it’s an ongoing thing.”

She’s successfully negotiated her first performances in Perth last year – Judith in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle with The West Australian Symphony Orchestra – and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder in Brisbane with Simone Young. This year her diary is looking even healthier with bookings from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Victorian Opera and Perth-based recital company Swansongs. Not that she envisages a return to the kind of wall-to-wall international flights and appearances on the world’s operatic stages. She’s too committed to her educational activities in Brisbane to let that happen and to a certain extent her philosophy seems to be ‘been there, done that’.

In a masterclass with Kiandra Howarth

“I’m too busy teaching now and I enjoy that,” she says. “I’m practice professor of opera at Griffith University at the Queensland Conservatorium, and I’ve got this opera school going which is very important to me.”

The school has been a major training ground for some of Australia’s top performing singers. Recently, two alumni, Samuel Sakker and Samuel Johnson, were accepted onto the Jette Parker Programme at London’s Royal Opera House.

Her first outing this year will be a role debut for her – the tortured queen and mother, Klytemnestra, in Richard Strauss’s Elektra. No stranger to this emotionally charged masterpiece, she’s sung the title role previously with both Simone Young and Semyon Bychkov conducting, as well as Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, with Sebastian Weigle in Berlin. She’s accepting the transition into mezzo territory with enthusiasm and a touch of humour: “Look, honestly, I don’t really know what I am. I don’t have a top C anymore but I’ve always had a really good middle and lower range. So I was offered it and I thought ‘Well why not?' I’ve done the other two – so I’ve matured now into witches and bitches.”

This time she’s singing under David Robertson with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra providing back up in an intriguing sounding semi-staged production that includes large-scale use of video projection and dancers from the Sydney Dance Company.

Gasteen continues to approach her craft with the same level of dedication, no matter what the role: “Whether you’re singing Verdi, Wagner or Strauss – it’s all the same. The preparation still needs to be thorough, and you must make sure that you leave enough time for the size of the role.”

Strauss’s tragic opera is a pretty disturbing look at human relationships and, even though she’s been in it before, the singer still has questions: “even as Elektra I wondered if there was any maternal love there – or if it was just Klytemnestra trying to manipulate Elektra? Whether Elektra’s hatred of her mother was just about the murder of Agamemnon?”

She talks about having to bring herself into the character she’s adopting: “I guess as an artist you just have to decide what fits with you and sing it with that in mind.” Easier said than done, some might say, when you’re playing a character like Klytemnestra: “I think she’s bonkers,” she says. “She’s unhinged, seriously unhinged.”

And the vocal demands are a test of the singer’s versatility too: “When I’m working on Klytemnestra it’s actually quite difficult because I keep wanting to sing higher. I’m looking for that familiar kind of ring that my mind wants. It is very low – but that’s okay.”

One month later she’s off to Melbourne, this time for a concert with Victorian Opera going under the title Games of Love and Chance, exploring affairs of the heart and the gambles that people take to find love, brought to life through the power of opera.

It’s Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director Richard Mills who has tempted her down south for a program which will see Gasteen sing Im Abendrot from Strauss’s sublime Four Last Songs as well as the fevered Im Treibhaus from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. “Lisa is an artist in the tradition of great Australian singers like Dame Nellie Melba, Marjorie Lawrence and Sylvia Fisher,” says Mills, who will be conducting the concert. “She’s a master performer. Lisa’s commitment to nurturing young talent has seen her establish her own school in Queensland, mentor developing artists, and now she’ll be performing alongside some of Victoria’s finest young musicians.”

Gasteen with Richard Mills last year

She’ll be lucky to do better than her last outing in Victoria – Gasteen received a diamond ring from a fan during her performance in Opera on a White Night, the opening concert of the inaugural White Night Melbourne! The show will go on at Monash University “This event, bringing Lisa Gasteen to the Robert Blackwood Hall is a milestone for us,” said Paul Grabowsky, Executive Director of Monash University Academy of Performing Arts. Joining Lisa will be the voices of Roxane Hislop, Douglas McNicol and Carlos E. Bárcenas, who was only last year a student of Gasteen’s in a Victorian Opera Master Class.

Her WA outing later in the year will see her singing Romantic masterpieces by Wagner, Strauss, Wolf, Brahms and Mahler at Perth Town Hall in the first of a three-part recital series called SwanSongs. Pianist and Principal Coach for the West Australian Opera David Wickham will accompany Gasteen in what will be her only 2014 Western Australian appearance.

Wickham says Gasteen is a world-class Wagnerian and her appearance presents an opportunity to hear her “uniquely thrilling voice” in one of the highlights of Perth’s musical year. “Her strength is in her attention to detail, in exploring the very depths of the human psychology,” he says. “Not only that, but you need a certain body strength to be able to sustain a leading role in an opera where you could be on stage for three of the six hours of the show. Lisa has the ability to go from nothing to overwhelming in terms of sound and she has massive humanity to spare – her performances really are a tribute to her delicacy, intelligence, versatility and sensitivity.”

Lisa Gasteen sings in Elektra with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra February 22 and as part of Victorian Opera’s Games of Love and Chance on March 29. Her SwanSongs recital is in Perth on May 11.