Jet lag and a two-year-old child aren’t an ideal combination for an opera singer who has just one day to recover from the flight from Europe to Australia. But Nicole Car seems to be handling it remarkably well.

“We were lucky this time. On the second flight, Noah slept a good seven-and-a-half hours so even if you don’t sleep all the time at least you get some downtime,” says the much-loved Australian soprano, looking bright-eyed, alert and relaxed.

“Nicole is an iron woman,” says her husband, French-Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, admiringly. “I call her Wonder Woman. If she sleeps five or six hours in a row it’s like she’s had a full night’s sleep. Even if she gets just three or four hours sleep she’s really functional. Seven hours and a half, she’s like ‘I can land this plane!’”

Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis. Photograph © Yan Bleney

Car and Dupuis are chatting to Limelight at their serviced apartment in Sydney, in a brief window before Car’s next rehearsal call for Peter Grimes, which she is singing in concert for Sydney Symphony Orchestra (on July 25 and 27 ) with Stuart Skelton as the troubled anti-hero. She has just put their son Noah to sleep and the three of us sit on the balcony in the afternoon sunshine so we don’t waken him.

They make animated company, sharing stories together and ribbing each other gently, though they are very much in tune with each other’s views and opinions, and clearly besotted. They met in 2015 when she played Tatyana to his Onegin in Tchaikovksy’s Eugene Onegin for Deutsche Oper Berlin. Though the relationship ends tragically on stage, off stage it was a different matter and they were soon in love. Since then they have travelled together and performed alongside each other wherever possible, particularly now that they are parents to Noah.

“It has been a lot of work for our agents, getting their calendars together, but it’s really important for us, our family unit is the most important thing. As much as we love our careers – and we work very, very hard – if for some reason I couldn’t maintain my career while having Noah, Noah is my choice, always, always, always,” says Car.

Happily her stellar career is thriving, along with their growing young son. She and Dupuis have just performed in Ivo van Hove’s production of Don Giovanni for Opéra de Paris, with Car as Donna Elvira and Dupuis in his role debut as Don Giovanni. While in Australia, they will perform together on a recital tour with pianist Jayson Gillham, while Car will also perform Mozart and Beethoven arias for Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra on August 15.

From Australia, they head for Canada where they co-star in Eugene Onegin for Opéra de Montréal. In October/November, they play Posa and Elisabetta in Don Carlo for Opéra de Paris. Early next year they return to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where they made their house debut together in Franco Zeffirelli’s classic production of La Bohème in 2018, with Car as Mimì and Dupuis as Marcello. This time they are in different productions – she in Così Fan Tutte and he in Werther – but scheduled around the same time so they can be there together. They then co-star as Thaïs and Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs for Deutsche Oper Berlin, an opera they performed together in concert for Opera Australia in 2017. In May, Car returns to the Royal Opera, Covent Garden to revisit the role of Mimì in Richard Jones’s production.

Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis. Photograph © Yan Bleney

In Peter Grimes, Car is playing Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolmistress who Grimes hopes to marry. It’s her role debut, so she could do without the pressure of jet lag, but such is life. “Ellen Orford for me is a brand new role so you get into rehearsal and your brain is just on overload the whole time, and it’s Britten, it’s not easy music, it’s not particularly easy to learn, and there are so many ensembles as well so you are trying to listen to everyone else at the same time and it’s a bit insane,” she admits.

“Obviously the reason [Sydney Symphony Orchestra] are doing it is because of Stuart. He is really the best interpreter of Peter Grimes that we have of this generation. I heard Stuart do it with the London Philharmonic in 2013 and I was absolutely blown away. When they said Peter Grimes, I was so excited because I haven’t had a chance to work with Sydney Symphony before, and also when they told me that Stuart was singing Grimes, it was like ‘of course, that’s a no-brainer!’ When we were able to find time within the schedule to do it I was really keen. And I have more Ellen Orfords coming up as well, which is really great,” adds Car.

Though Ellen is often played by an older soprano, Car believes it makes more sense dramatically to have a younger singer in the role. “As soon as we say ‘widow’ we assume that she is that much older but I don’t think that she is, and the music isn’t written that way. And when we look at Peter, he’s not old. When he talks about marrying Ellen I don’t think he is marrying a 60-year-old widow, I think she is of his generation,” says Car.

“The music is written like that, and the way she relates to the child as well, we get this yearning from her for a family. She never had the chance to have one so there is a lot of her that is really relatable [to me]. I think she’s around my age, in her 30s, I don’t think she’s much older than that, so it’s very cool. I haven’t had a chance to sing a lot of Britten before, and to sing in my own native tongue as well is a very interesting thing. There are so many nuances that you can put in when you understand [the language] directly, which take so much more time when you are navigating other languages so it’s very interesting.”

Car is thoroughly enjoying rehearsals and says that it’s a great cast, with everyone extremely well suited to the role they are playing, but she admits that performing in a concert version is “a little scary” when you are making a role debut and don’t have the rehearsal time that you normally would  for an opera. “So it’s a bit like jump in the deep end and let’s see what happens,” she says cheerfully.

Performing a new role in concert, without a score – as is the case here – is a challenge, says Dupuis. “The staging helps you remember [your lines], action helps you remember, and sometimes to not things to do will make you overthink [what you are singing, and you find yourself wondering] ‘what is my next line?’” he says. “So it is the worst possible outcome, a concert version without a score.”

“When they said it is going to be a concert without scores, it was like, ‘OK, that changes the way that we have to learn it now’ because I will not have any visual cues,” says Car. “I write all over my scores. I won’t have any of that so it takes longer, and a different part of your brain I think, but it’s part of the job and for the next Ellen Orfords coming up it will really be part of my muscle memory, which is great.”

The idea of performing in recital together in Australia has been in the wind for a while, it was just a case of finding dates that worked. “We had spoken to the ABC about recording the next album so the thought was to record French melody, and so it was like why don’t we do a recital of French melody and put a few things that are planned for the album into it and then we can use that as a launching board for it,” says Car, whose debut solo album The Kiss was released by ABC Classic in 2016, followed in 2018 by Heroines, recorded live with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

“It then evolved into something else,” says Dupuis of the recital.

“And now we are working with Jayson as well,” adds Car. “He’s such a fantastic pianist and such a nice guy and we have already had rehearsals with him in Paris, so it will be great.”

The program includes French and Spanish songs, arias and duet form Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and solos performed by Gillham of works by Debussy and Granados. Car and Dupuis will also sing a specially commissioned duet by Kevin March, an American composer now living in Australia. They met him when Dupuis was starring in his opera Les Feluettes, based on a novel by Michel Marc Bouchard, which the Opéra de Montréal commissioned and premiered in 2016.

“It was so beautiful and so lyric,” says Car of the opera. “He writes gorgeous music so when we thought about doing the recitals one of the first things we did was contact Kevin and say, ‘look, we’re going to do a program that is French melody, but the second half is French melody inspired by the influence of Spain because there are so many chansons that have Spanish influences, and so what he has done is compose this beautiful duet for the two of us that bridges the two halves between the French and the Spanish.”

“He’s found this beautiful Spanish poem and translated it into English and French and we are using the three languages in the poem. It’s not that long, six or seven minutes, and very reminiscent of Les Feluettes, it’s very beautiful,” says Dupuis.

“It’s very rare for us to get to perform new works because we sit so much in opera, and to bring those new works into a recital form is really important because as much as we love doing all the works we do, we shouldn’t lose [sight of] the fact that there is plenty of new music now and people doing really beautiful things and the fact that Kevin said yes to doing it for us is really exciting,” says Car.

When they first got together, they essentially lived out of suitcases. Even after Noah was born, they lived on the road for 15 months. Determined to establish their own home, where they could leave their things and always have somewhere to go back to, as well as a solid base for Noah, they eventually settled on Paris, buying an apartment there last year, after a lot of discussion about where they should settle. The fact that they work so often at Opéra de Paris was a key element in the decision, as well as the fact that they wanted Noah to speak French.

“My in-laws only speak French so I want to make sure Noah can communicate properly with them. It’s such a gift to have a second language,” says Car.

“They will make fun of his accent though!” says Dupuis with a laugh, adding that the French-Canadian accent is very different to the French accent, and that culturally the two places are quite different.

Discussing the companies they have worked with regularly in recent years they agree that Opéra de Paris, the Metropolitan Opera, and Deutsche Oper Berlin have “treated them like family”, employing both of them whenever possible and always being incredibly welcoming.

Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis in La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. Photograph © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

A question about their debut at the Met has them excitedly sharing the story of how it happened. “I was with Etienne when the call came through for him to sing Marcello,” recalls Car.

“We had just started dating, we were about a month in,” interjects Dupuis.

“The call came through from his agent that he had been offered Marcello at the Met, and I was going, ‘that’s so exciting!’” says Car.

“I’m like super in love, I’ve just met the woman of my dreams, I don’t care about the Met. And she’s going ‘but it’s the Met!’ and I’m like ‘who cares?’” says Dupuis with a laugh. Of course, he said yes.

“About a year later we were in Berlin and we got a call saying the Mimì had had to pull out and would I like to come and sing because they knew obviously that we were together, and I said, ‘yes, I definitely would!’” says Car.

“We were outside a cantina in Berlin. She walked away a little bit [to take the call] and she was smiling, and she looked at me and I thought, ‘ooh! This is good news!’ I remember that sight, her face lighting up,” says Dupuis.

“But what an amazing opportunity for us, firstly to sing together, and in the iconic Zeffirelli production at the iconic theatre that is the Met,” says Car. “I mean to debut there together with all those opportunities combined was an amazing experience.”

You can’t help feeling that they have many other amazing experiences in store.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Peter Grimes in Concert at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House on July 25 & 27. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra performs Bravissima! with Nicole Car at Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, on August 15. 

Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis perform in recital at City Recital Hall, Sydney on August 3, Melbourne Recital Centre on August 7, Canberra Theatre Centre on August 9, and QPAC, Brisbane on August 11