You first performed the role of Bellini’s Norma in 2018. How was that experience, and how do you think it has informed your approach this time for Melbourne Opera?

I covered Norma for the Metropolitan Opera first for two seasons and then I got to sing it last year with Chelsea Opera, a company in the UK who do operas in concert. It was incredible. When you cover a role at the Met in New York, it’s fantastic and exciting but always very stressful. You find yourself just desperately trying to remember everything that’s going on in the production so you can obviously jump in if you need to. But when you have ownership over a role, like I did with Chelsea, you start to find very different things and distinct ways to colour it the way you want to. To do it in concert first was I think for me the perfect way around, because then I was aware of all the things I wasn’t happy with, and that I needed to work on musically. So being able to now bring it to the floor and work on it in a staged production is a very cool thing to be able to do.

Helena DixHelena Dix. Photo supplied

The challenges of the role are well-known by this point, so are there elements you find tricky that people might be surprised by?

Just singing it! No, I’m joking. [Laughs] The other bel canto operas I’ve done haven’t had nearly as many accompagnato recits which is a really big thing in Norma. Already recit is one of those things that singers say they’re allergic to until it gets onto the floor dramatically and then it starts to make sense. But recit and accompagnato recit are different things – the way that Bellini writes, in the arias and duets and cabalettas, he basically gives you nothing in the orchestra. So it’s really in the accompagnato recit where the orchestra all of sudden takes on a distinct colour which you yourself have to take on. That’s the hardest thing because all those colour shifts are really fuelled by so many different things, like what you find dramatically. About 50 percent of the role is accompagnato recitative and that surprised me when I looked at it. There is a lot Norma’s got to say and it’s not so much about a beauty of line as it is about making really calculated decisions based on the emotion of a given scene.

Helena Dix in rehearsal for NormaHelena Dix in rehearsal for Norma

Suzanne Chaundy is highly experienced in directing bel canto works. What is it like working with her, and can you speak about her vision for the production?

One of the greatest things about Suzanne is that she goes about things in a distinct style, so you know what you’re getting. She is incredibly well read about everything. She sends us things about the history or the world she wants to create before we even get into the rehearsal room. There is a lot of context and backstory with Suzanne. But what she doesn’t do, and which I appreciate quite a lot, is come with an established idea of “go here, go there”. Some directors have already blocked out the action 100 percent in their heads, but what she does is create quite collaboratively. Every scene we do, we’ll talk it out. She’ll say, “what are you saying, what are we trying to achieve?” So as a singer you don’t just get lost in singing it, you actually go into it trying to find meaning and seeing what you can create together.

A lot of people say that Norma doesn’t quite work dramatically. I know myself that before I came into this project, I said to Suzanne, “I’ve seen maybe five productions of Norma and I’ve never truly been convinced due to a couple of plot points that don’t make a lot of sense. It’s your job to make me believe this.” Musically I’ve always been moved but dramatically, I’ve never really found the key. But I feel like in this production we’re aiming for real honesty of human emotion, not “we’re opera singers and we’re acting!”

Dix with Henry Choo in Melbourne Opera’s 2017 Roberto Devereux, directed by Chaundy. Photo © Robin Halls

Given that Suzanne Chaundy is so collaborative, has your conception of Norma been significantly shaped by your work in rehearsal or have you always had a clear idea of who she is? 

I definitely think I came in with some very strong views, as did she, and I think the fundamental aspects of Norma’s character and journey have been the same from the beginning. But I think the nuances and emotional leaps have definitely been developed through our work in rehearsal. Sam Sakker, who is our Pollione, has given me some thoughts I didn’t have and that only adds layers to your character. Part of our first week of rehearsal was actually just sitting down for two to three hours and really talking about the characters which I think is really imperative with this kind of opera. Everyone understands where we’re coming from and what we’re taking from each other.

Which aspects of the opera do you find most crucial to your understanding of Norma?

I think there are two sides to the way she is drawn. One is the incredible music that Bellini wrote, and the second is the text. He challenges you because, for instance at the very end when Norma is saying to Pollione, “at last you are here in my hands and understand what is going on”, he writes this gorgeous melody. You can indulge in that vocally but actually, what Bellini does is give you this gorgeous melody which sounds like a love song, but the text is the imperative thing there, and you just can’t sing that in a romantic way. It’s actually quite angry and bitter, so it’s about balancing the two things all the time with Norma.

Montserrat Caballé as Norma

Everyone has their favourite Normas. Are there singers you consider especially influential to you?

It’s funny because I have listened to such an array of people in this role. People who are passionate about this opera are very opinionated about who the best Norma is, it’s one of those things. Someone will say Callas, or Sutherland or Caballé, or go back even further. I honestly couldn’t tell you who I’ve been inspired by the most because I take different things from different people in this role. Each Norma provides something which is so eye-opening. That’s the best thing about the role, going, “actually, each one of those people have put their stamp on it and I need to find that for myself.” Callas with her raw emotion, Sutherland with the fragility and fluidity of voice. Caballé is probably the closest to me vocally just in the sense of how we would shape a phrase and things like that. Raymond Lawrence, who is the Head of Music at Melbourne Opera, said to me when I arrived, “I can hear many different things in what you’re trying to do and now the final step for you is putting yourself in the role.” So a lot of what I’ve tried to do is identify my own strengths to hopefully put my own stamp on the role.

Melbourne Opera’s Norma is at the Athenaeum Theatre, September 17 – 24