Let this be a warning to pop singers who want to dabble in opera, but haven’t done the hard yards.
Driving in my car listening to The Conversation Hour on ABC 774 is usually not something that brings forth a bloodcurdling soprano scream. In fact, the last time I screamed like that was during a performance of Tosca – when plunging to my death over the balcony of Sant’Andrea della Valle, I noticed the sloppy stagehand had put the moth-eaten mattress too far upstage to cushion my indelicate fall.
The guest on the conversation hour was a famous baritone with a penchant for going topless. He was gushing forth about the musical South Pacific, the joys of wearing radio microphones and the “chemistry” (read: tabloid treasure trove) between himself and his fellow performers. All this was shocking enough – but in this industry sex and acoustic enhancement sell, so I was not perturbed.
It was the next bombshell that brought forth my guttural expulsion. Said baritone claimed he would like to hear Kate Ceberano, Australia’s pop and soul princess, sing Bizet’s Carmen. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Ms Ceberano in her genre. And I think her forays into the world of music theatre and television have garnered deserved acclaim. But Carmen – really?
Whether this buff baritone was joking or not is neither here nor there. The bottom line is that if I could not be sure this was said in jest, then surely the lay ABC listener would take him seriously. After all, he is an acclaimed singer who has sung at the Met – he must know what he is talking about? Well, no. I feel impelled to stamp my foot and shake my fist as sopranos are wont to do.
You see, the difference between a gifted pop singer and an opera singer is as wide as the Grand Canyon. I am not being snooty in saying this and in no way do I want to appear to place the genre of opera above any other, but a comment like this is akin to saying that a Usain Bolt could win an Olympic marathon, or Mikhail Baryshnikov could be world breakdancing champion.
What our bare-chested baritone neglected to tell his audience is that it takes an immense amount of time, and the proverbial blood, sweat and buckets of tears, to become the kind of opera singer who can command the stage in a title role. I am about to go to Sydney and sing Madama Butterfly. Butterfly is up there with Carmen as one of the most wonderful, yet physically and emotionally exhausting roles in the operatic repertoire.
My preparation is relentless. I have performed the role probably around 50 times in four or five seasons, however if I am not in peak physical and vocal shape this role is a monster… a nodule-maker or vocal bleed waiting to happen! So I sing it every day, note by note, scene by scene. I go over and over phrases that don’t sit right, and I practice kneeling and standing and deep Japanese bows while navigating vocal lines that sweep the stave, all the while generating enough decibels to acoustically fill a 2,000-seat theatre. I subtly shift my resonance, alter placement of a vowel, check my Italian, and have countless hours with vocal teachers and repetiteurs.
I have been doing this now for years – too many to admit to – yet I am still learning, striving and trying to marry mellifluous tone with ease of performance and dramatic sensibility. It is difficult and taxing, but if the end result is a great performance that appears effortless and moving, then it is so deeply, deeply satisfying that the hard work pays off.
So when I hear a throwaway line about Kate Ceberano singing Carmen, I scream. And I think of all my brave and talented operatic colleagues who work office jobs, make coffee, or teach in schools because the industry is so fickle and operatic work is so thin on the ground. And I get scared for all of us in the opera game. What is left for us if the cult of celebrity leaks into the world of opera? It is one of the only artforms left that has been spared the celebrity tsunami.
And so I say to all those with the power to cast operas, watch out! If Ms Ceberano is given the opportunity to tackle Carmen, then my revenge will be swift and cruel. I am going to release an album entitled Pop Diva, in which I will avenge myself by covering all her wonderful hits. It will be truly awful – big vibrato, rolled Rs, and Valkyrie horns to boot!