Australia’s great Wagnerian soprano returns to the concert stage on home turf.

There was a wonderful moment at the Governor’s Gala concert last weekend at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Fêted soprano Lisa Gasteen, the singer who has enthralled audiences at the Met and Covent Garden, was set to make her first appearance with orchestra since a neck injury sustained three years ago forced her to cancel all opera engagements and threatened to prevent her from performing ever again. A Wagnerian star performing with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra at a chamber music event was unusual enough in itself, but there was the added frisson of a triumphant comeback.

As patrons took their seats, the air seemed thick with anticipation for the luscious Zemlinsky songs in the second half. Just as the lights dimmed and musicians readied themselves for the first item on the program, we heard the strains of a singer warming up backstage in the depths of the theatre. The high notes were so penetrating that a stagehand had to run and silence the offender before the concert could begin. It could only be Lisa Gasteen, in glorious full voice.

Later, seated in a noisy café, she asks in typically resonant tones if my dictophone is picking up our conversation. I assure her there is no danger of missing anything and that at least one of us will be heard on tape, loud and clear.

“This year I’m dipping my toe back in the water,” Gasteen says of her performances of Zemlinsky’s Six Maeterlinck Songs and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder at the Townsville festival. “It’s a year designed to see whether I want to get back into it. I’m very content doing what I’m doing, dividing my time between teaching and concert repertoire. The repertoire I’ve chosen is not very taxing.”

She explains that she chose songs with low tessitura during the festival’s planning stages, since the neuro-muscular spasms she suffered were restricting top notes in particular. After ongoing treatments and physiotherapy, however, she has discovered her “range is back”.

One musical benefit of her time away from the international stage has been the opportunity to acquaint herself with new and interesting repertoire. “I almost feel like I’ve been living under a rock for the last twenty years because there’s all this wonderful repertoire I’m only just now discovering, so I’m enjoying that aspect of not doing opera.”

The sunny, laid-back disposition of a Townsville taken over by musicians from all over the world suits the Brisbane-born Gasteen at a time when she is enjoying time spent at home, relaxing with family. “I’ve discovered there is actually a life that can be lived alongside music. Previously opera was my life and there was no room for anything else.”

The festival has shown her “a different way of making music for me and I really enjoy it.”

As for opera, she admits, “I miss the music and I miss some of my colleagues but I don’t miss everything that goes with it.”

Gasteen’s return to a less stressful life in her hometown has brought her a more balanced outlook, making her injury, despite the anguish it has caused, seem like a blessing in disguise. “I was bored, I was tired, I was resentful, I felt like the tail was wagging the dog, not the other way around. So when I pinched this nerve in my neck, it actually in some ways was a relief. I’d rather be out in the back shed doing something else.”

Therapy helped her through a difficult time when she “had to look at the possibility it was all over.” Now, she wants to impart what she has learned from her road to recovery to a younger generation of Australian singers. At the national opera summer school she has launched at the Queensland Conservatorium this year, in addition to internationally renowned vocal coaches she has invited a psychologist to work with the students.

“I feel that it’s a completely overlooked part of our preparation yet it’s terribly important. The stress of the life you have to lead in order to be a performer, and the stresses of performing. We can often get so tied up with this idea of being perfect so people have to learn to live with themselves.

“I wish I’d had the knowledge I have today.”

It was this endeavour that first coaxed Gasteen back into public performance, with Simone Young accompanying her on piano, at a fundraiser in May. “We raised close to $30,000 from the concert for scholarships,” she says proudly.

She was in constant demand in the most illustrious opera houses after winning the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1991 – the only Australian ever to have claimed the prize. Now, she feels it is important to give back, and bring something new, to the community she grew up in. She remembers being a “young singer standing on the precipice with the Conservatorium behind me and a great big black hole in front of me, and way beyond was the career. There’s just nothing here for that intermediate stage.

“If we want to have high-quality music-making in this country that’s what’s required. I think giving to people who are prepared to work hard in music is a valuable thing.”

In the meantime, Gasteen continues to dip her toe in the water, and dip into some surprising repertoire. “I’m singing Dido in the Bangalow Music Festival. I’ve had to learn it, but at least I’ve taught plenty of people the Lament!”