Last time Australian soprano Helena Dix spoke to Limelight was in April 2020. She had just returned to her London home after a terrifying bout of COVID-19, which landed her in hospital for two weeks. Struggling to breathe and in “insane” pain from blood clots in her lungs, she was connected to an oxygen machine.
As is her wont, Dix’s ebullient nature surfaced as she slowly recovered and she posted tweets of her singing out in full operatic fashion as her machine beeped to alert the nurses that her oxygen levels had fallen. Each day in hospital, she attempted to sing a little of Norma’s aria Casta Diva, despite the pain, to monitor how her breath control was going. Finally she was allowed to go home. The doctors were amazed that she had survived.
Helena Dix. Photograph © Clare Hannan
A year on, Dix chats to Limelight again just before hopping on a plane for Australia to play Vitellia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito for Canberra’s new National Opera.
She sounds chirpy but admits that the journey to recovery has been a long, hard road involving fortnightly trips to the hospital. Tough though it may have been, she was always determined that she would sing again.
“Part of the benefit in being an opera singer is that you are always in the training for the long haul with your career, so one of the things a successful opera singer has to have is discipline. I think that that did me quite well coming out of hospital because it took so much discipline to get my lungs back in working order first of all,” she says.
“I have to say the doctors are somewhat stunned and delighted for me that I am back to capacity, what they called ‘quickly’. A couple of months didn’t seem like ‘quickly’ to me but when I came home I was told ‘you can’t go back to work and you can’t sing’. And I was like ‘that’s not going to happen’.”
“So basically, I was sitting at the piano every day, usually twice a day, in small little increments, and working on the Marchesi vocalises. The Marchesi method is something you use as a kid when you are first learning to sing and to breath. Madame Marchesi wrote these wonderful little ditties [to develop] a singer’s technique. I went and purchased a copy because my copy is in Australia. I thought ‘I can’t believe I am getting Marchesi back out but that’s the way it goes’, I just tried everything I knew. It took a lot of patience and a lot of discipline but I guess I’m incredibly fortunate [with] the knowledge I have of the breath and how to use it.”
“For the first couple of weeks I used to cry quite a lot. I spoke to several people that I trust immensely and they said I needed to give myself small goals and really keep a positive focus. I have an aria, Porgi Amor from The Marriage of Figaro, which I always sing before any role to warm up. It is literally like doing a handstand for me vocally. It’s [usually] so easy for me and I got that out and literally after one bar I was [out of breath] so every day I would aim for one more note. It was like ‘slow and steady wins the race’ as they say.”
Helena Dix in hospital with COVID-19. Photograph © Helena Dix
There were other complications. The doctors believe that the blood clots in her lungs started as a clot in her right leg, which has done long-term damage to a vein in her leg, so she has been in and out of hospital getting that treated. She is still on blood-thinners.
“So it has been a long process and there are sometimes days when something sparks me off,” she admits. “I’ll see someone on a ventilator or I’ll see something on a program where someone can’t breathe and it freaks me out a little bit. I can feel my chest start to feel funny because it all happened so quickly. To be in the UK has been very tricky because I don’t have any family here apart from my husband and we have both had to survive as best we can in order to pay the mortgage.
In true Helena Dix spirit, she had only been out of hospital for a week when she decided to start an online singing studio and set up a website. She has been teaching ever since. “That’s been wonderful and I have connected with singers from around the world,” he says. “I’ve got students in America, Europe, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. I was a teacher before I started singing full-time so teaching is something I really love – though obviously it’s an odd thing teaching online.”
But finally, Dix is about to return to the stage, playing Vitellia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito – a role that she has covered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Born in Melbourne and based in the UK, Dix’s operatic repertoire ranges from Mozart to Wagner but she is particularly in demand for bel canto roles. She first covered Norma in Bellini’s opera at the Metropolitan Opera, then played the role for Chelsea Opera in the UK in 2018 and for Melbourne Opera in 2019, winning rave reviews.
Other roles in her repertoire include Cristina, Regina di Svezia in Foroni’s opera of the same name, Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo, Odabella in Verdi’s Attila, Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani, Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Ariadne/The Prima Donna in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
At the Met, she has covered Norma, Elvira, Elizabeth, Elektra, the title role in Semiramide, as well Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito, and she had a great success when she made her Met stage and role debut as Alice Ford in Robert Carsen’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff in 2019.
Helena Dix. Photograph supplied
“Vitellia is just another feisty woman to add to the CV,” says Dix with a laugh when asked about her latest role debut.
“I love doing her. She’s a bit crazy, but what empowered operatic soprano role isn’t, quite frankly? It is a fantastic part. The only thing is that the recits weren’t written by Mozart, they were written by his student, and they are notorious for being difficult. Peter [Coleman-Wright, the National Opera’s Artistic Director] has put some cuts in which is great, but they are slightly different cuts to the one I learned before. Every different version is like that. There’s something about the Clemenza recits, every singer you speak to says the same thing, they are just horrendous to memorise. But what a story and what a sing!”
She gives a huge laugh when she reveals that the artistic team gave her a warning about not overdoing the ornamentation.
“They said, ‘Now Helena, you are allowed to do some embellishments but it is Mozart, it’s not Bellini’ – so behave yourself basically! I wanted to over embellish one version and sing it for them at the start of rehearsals just to see their faces! And then say ‘I’m joking, it’s all right, I have found the melody and I will stick it to it!’”
Vitellia demands a wide vocal range from low mezzo notes up to high soprano, as well as coloratura. So how challenging are the arias?
“They are very challenging in the sense of the range, absolutely,” says Dix. “The melodies themselves are very simple and then within that there is that incredible range and little bursts of coloratura, and little bursts of chest notes, and little bursts of fire, and little bursts of legato. Vitellia herself is so temperamental and keeps changing her mind and I think vocally that’s represented.”
“I know quite a lot of people find it quite hard to cast actually. The Mozart line has to be quite beautiful but at the same time there has to be quite a lot of fire and the ability to switch quite frequently but still keep the essence of Mozart’s melody. Within the recits Vitellia is very feisty. A lot of soprano roles are quite stereotypical in the way that they’re cast but Vitellia is not always cast with the same sort of voice type, you do get a variety of people doing it. You have got people who have a lower voice, chestier than myself, and then you have someone like myself who sits in the heights a bit more but has access to the chest, but I love that because for me the chest is a chance to resonate with the true eccentricity of the character so that becomes part of the building blocks, which becomes very exciting.”
Helena Dix in Melbourne Opera’s Norma. Photograph © Robin Halls
Asked how helpful it is to have covered the role at the Met, she says: “I always feel so much stronger going into a role having done that because you get to work with such brilliant coaches and musicians at the Met.”
Peter Coleman-Wright, who directs the semi-staged production, has gathered a strong cast, which includes Bradley Daley as Tito and Catherine Carby as Sesto.
“It is a fabulous line-up,” says Dix. “Catherine Carby and I did the Australian Bushfire Benefit concert in London [on 1 March, 2020]. That was actually my last gig technically, although we did it for nothing, but that was the last time we were on stage and now we will be working together doing Tito.”
La Clemenza di Tito is the inaugural production from Canberra’s new National Opera. Originally scheduled for 2020, it was postponed because of COVID, so it launches the new company on 10 April this year.
“I feel it is absolutely imperative to support and get behind a company like this. They have such wonderful people at their heart of this company, people who know the industry so well. When I was growing up there were a few little opportunities but not much at all. Now you’ve got these emerging companies coming at it completely fresh, which I think is fantastic and gives local people a chance,” says Dix.
Helena Dix with Henry Choo in Melbourne Opera’s Roberto Devereux. Photograph © Robin Halls
In May, Dix makes another role debut as Lady Macbeth for Melbourne Opera. “And this one is totally new, it’s not something I’ve done anywhere so I’m terribly excited,” she says.
“I have been working on it for quite a while, plugging away. I wasn’t allowed to see anyone [in London] so I haven’t been able to work face-to-face with coaches or anything like that but I have recently had some sessions on Zoom with Raymond Lawrence, who is the Head of Music for Melbourne Opera. He can’t play with me at the same time on Zoom unfortunately, but you just get used to the technology and how it works and you make the most of it to keep the ideas flowing and to understand the shape of it and to try and work it into the voice.”
“It’s quite new territory for me [vocally] in some ways, but not so much in others. Norma is a bigger beast than Lady Macbeth is in some ways. What I really enjoy about a role like Lady Macbeth is that Verdi really understood the voice so you can do a number of different things within the score to craft it to work for you, and I guess that’s what I will try and do. Lady Macbeth has been sung by such a variety of divas over our time and each one brings something remarkably different to the role. In that way, Lady Macbeth is very similar to Norma. Everyone has a favourite Norma. Some people who love drama and edginess are always going to love Callas as Norma. When I did Norma, I really tried to create it to work for me and for my strengths and what I could bring to the table, and I think I’m very much trying to do the same with Lady Macbeth. These roles really give you the ability to be able to shape it to be the best that it can for you and that’s something that I’m working on,” says Dix.
“I have listened to so many different versions of it now and watched so many different versions and that’s great, it’s great to do your research, and then you have to put everyone else away and you have to find it yourself.”
National Opera’s La Clemenza di Tito plays at Llewellyn Hall, School of Music, ANU, 10 – 17 April