We had to laugh on the launch day of our new podcast Diva Download, when a satirical video appeared on our social media warning us “whatever you do in lockdown, don’t start a podcast”! How did they know?
Perhaps it was a cliché, but interviewing stars of the opera world during lockdown was in fact the optimum time to contact these difficult-to-pin-down divas. With diaries now free for months and artistic generosity in the air, we managed to secure a star-studded line-up of current and retired opera singers to shed light on the rollercoaster reality of the career.
Indyana Schneider and Sophie Kidwell. Photo supplied
As two young professional mezzo-sopranos living in Germany and Austria, we are constantly involved in conversations about opera stars – their beginnings, opinions, stories, careers, advice. However, the opaque walls of the opera world leave much to the imagination. On listening to an inspiring Desert Island Discs interview with Joyce DiDonato, we realised both how rare it is to really get to know an opera star, and that there is currently no single channel or podcast especially for interviewing opera artists. Just as there is no single way of ‘making it’ in the industry, each singer has their own origins story to tell – be it Nuccia Focile’s extraordinary Metropolitan Opera debut at a few hours’ notice, the northern England roots of Sir Thomas Allen as the inspiration for Billy Elliot, or Australian soprano Lauren Fagan’s Cinderella story from Sydney sales supervisor to Royal Opera House soloist.
In true lockdown spirit, we made use of Zoom and video-called the artists in their homes. As professional singers, most of our guests had microphones that they were able to plug into their computers to ensure top-notch audio recording. Although we fought with some technical issues (we learnt, for example, to adopt a three-second ‘BBC radio silence’ between question and answer), the at-home Zoom setting resulted in some highly amusing circumstances: be it the faint screams of Nuccia Focile’s cat in the background, or Roderick Williams’ son appearing on our screen, looking nervous, searching for scissors for his First Lockdown Haircut. Nevertheless, Zoom provided a fantastic set-up for lockdown interviewing, and the podcast explores everything from performance anxiety and stepping in last minute, to the delicate balance of emotional and technical singing, the future of the opera industry, and opera and family life.
Lauren Fagan. Photo supplied
Between our experience of the Vienna State Opera, Glyndebourne, and various festivals in the UK, we realised we had a solid base of brilliant singers to write to. Thankfully, they were very keen to take part. Roderick Williams, our first guest, opened the series with a hair-raising story about a near-death experience onstage in which Dame Sarah Connolly saved his life. We thought it would be exciting to hear her side of the story, so contacted her agent, and to our absolute mezzo-fan-girls delight, she was more than happy to feature. Her agent, being extremely supportive of the idea, also put us in contact with Scottish tenor Nicky Spence, who we were told, would be “excellent quality podcast material” – and he certainly didn’t disappoint. We began the interview, “Nicky, will you share with us a favourite story from your time on stage?”, and he replied, “Oh no! I have so many! It’s like choosing your favourite child!”
Each interview is flavoured by the personality and experiences of our guest. Our most recent episode, an interview with Australian soprano Lauren Fagan, was particularly insightful for young, early-career singers, packed with advice and inspiration. We were surprised to find that even listeners who don’t identify as ‘opera fans’ have enjoyed getting to know our interviewees, and were even more surprised to find out where they were listening from: Australia, New Zealand, the UK, all around Europe, the US, Canada, Israel, Malaysia, Kazakhstan… Listeners particularly enjoy the 10 quick-fire questions that conclude our interviews: If you could have any composer to dinner, who would it be? Which is more important – ambition or talent? What’s your favourite cocktail?
In our podcast daydreams, Diva Download is a fully funded global platform for interviewing opera stars. Once the industry is back up and running, we hope to be able to interview singers in relation to current performances, as a way to help promote and demystify the art form. The take-away from this first series of Diva Download is that these internationally renowned singers are anything but divas. They are resilient, charming, characterful (in every sense), hard-working, and heart-warming people – though this doesn’t have quite the same ring!
Diva Download is available on all podcast platforms, with new episodes released every Friday. Season One guests include: Roderick Williams, Lauren Fagan, Nuccia Focile, Sir Thomas Allen, David Butt Philip, Dame Sarah Connolly and Nicky Spence. You can find Diva Download on Facebook and Instagram and email them at [email protected]