At only 30, the soprano is fast becoming an in-demand operatic globetrotter.
When I catch up with Nicole Car she’s enjoying her last two weeks being 29. “Don’t worry, I’ll always be under 30,” she jokes over Skype from her apartment in London. She’s just made her Royal Opera House debut in Carmen, the work that launched her Opera Australia career in 2011 at the age of 25 and earning her a Helpmann Award into the bargain. “What draws you in is the fluid, liquid tone of her voice. Even as a character as demure as Micaëla she holds the stage with a strong vocal and emotional presence,” said Limelight’s London critic of that Covent Garden performance.
A few days later and she’s blown the London reviewers away in Eugene Onegin. “She’s a wonderful Tatyana, among the best ever,” said the Guardian; “Car’s passionate Tatyana has a bright and silvery purity,” raved the Independent.
Covent Garden’s Director of Opera Kasper Holten had no doubts that Car had the operatic chops for London after working with her on the production in Sydney in 2014. “From the first moment, it was clear to me that this was an exceptional singer,” he tells me, “the kind I dream about: passionate, present, courageous, open-minded, but also with a strong sense of what she wants to do with a part. A gorgeous, silky and lush voice with a wonderful top. I immediately emailed my casting director, and two days later we invited her to come to London.”
Responses like Holten’s have been typical in recent years, a period that has seen Car increasingly spread her wings overseas while remaining a ‘must see’ fixture at home in shows like La Bohème, The Pearlfishers and Sir David McVicar’s stagings of Faust, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. She was the first singer that OA’s Lyndon Terracini hired when he came to the company at the end of 2009. “I heard her in Melbourne,” he says. “She sang Pace, Pace mio Dio from La Forza del Destino for an audition. I don’t remember her second choice but it was another big aria. When she told me I said, ‘Well, good luck!’ But after she sang them I said, ‘Well, we’d better offer you a job!’”
Talking cheerfully about her upbringing in Melbourne, there wasn’t a time when Nicole Car didn’t love singing, though The Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Queen were the preferred playlist at home. “My parents got a piano when I was maybe three or four,” she reveals. “I wasn’t so much interested in learning it, but I was very interested in singing the notes that I was playing.” She joined her primary school choir, but because she was quite shy she was sent off to singing lessons – “to bring me out of my shell, I guess”. Introduced to jazz by her high school singing teacher, Car fell in love with Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and made quite a splash as a scat singer.
As Michaëla in Carmen at the Royal Opera House, 2014 © Catherine Ashmore/ROH
Musical theatre was also a passion and might have been a career until a friend doing the State School Spectacular with her in Victoria invited Car along to see Tosca at Art Centre Melbourne starring Deborah Riedel. “As soon as Deborah opened her mouth – actually as soon as I heard the first chords of the opera – I was like, ‘Wow! This is what I’m supposed to be doing, this is so exciting!” Car recalls. “The next day I asked for a teacher, and three months later I was enrolled to do classical music.”
“I remember being very excited by the flexibility in Nicole’s voice,” says Anna Connolly, Senior Lecturer in Voice at the Melbourne Conservatorium and Car’s singing teacher since 2003. “I also remember her singing a bit of jazz for me and doing some scat – an equally exciting thing to hear, and no doubt, a major contributor to the remarkable flexibility of her instrument when singing in a classical style.”
Although never really a musicals ‘belter’, nevertheless Car had to make some changes. “I always sang in my head voice, so that had to be kicked out of me,” she admits with a chuckle. “We gave it four years and I wasn’t allowed to sing a single aria at first. It was all art song, developing the voice and working on technique. I only sang my first aria at my end of third year recital!”
The final year of her degree was auspicious as she won the Herald Sun Aria Competition as well as singing her first operatic role: the eponymous heroine in a student showing of Puccini’s Suor Angelica. “It was some of the most remarkable singing I’ve ever heard,” recalls Anna Connolly. “She displayed a prodigious vocal technique, better than many professionals, and musical and dramatic instincts that were truthful, bold and thrilling to hear. There was an honesty, freshness and innocence to her performance that was heartbreakingly beautiful to witness. What was most stunning though, was that this was from a 21-year-old undergraduate who had only been learning classical singing for about four years. It was clear we were seeing the birth of something truly special. I don’t think anyone who was there that day will ever forget it.”
Finishing college without any contracts, Car was working with her mother at the Royal Children’s Hospital when fate came knocking. Victorian Opera needed a cover in The Coronation of Poppea and at the same time Oz Opera was looking for a Madama Butterfly cover for a tour. “I got called in and had two weeks to learn all of Butterfly. Luckily it was in English because it would have been impossible,” she confesses. “I never actually had to sing the role, and my ‘now’ self thanks my 22-year-old self for not doing that.”
Don Giovanni on tour with Victorian Opera the following year saw Car make her professional debut as Donna Anna, a tough sing and a tricky character. “Musically the tessitura sits higher than my voice naturally does so we worked for a long time to get her on track,”
Car reflects. “I think that really helped me with roles like Léïla in Pearlfishers and Pamina as well, because they sit that little bit higher than my voice tends to like.”
“The day I moved to Sydney I got a phone call asking if I would be happy to sing the first ten performances“
The Don paid off. Leading agent Patrick Togher caught the show in Geelong and signed her on the spot while a successful audition for Opera Australia’s Young Artist Programme saw her immediately cast as Micaëla in Carmen after a singer had to withdraw. “The day I moved to Sydney I got a phone call asking if I would be happy to sing the first ten performances,” she tells me. “I was very happy! As a debut and a first role with the company it was pretty huge.”
From this point on Lyndon Terracini became a crucial guide and presence. His no-nonsense approach suited Car down to the ground and his advice has clearly shaped her career to date. “She was singing big Verdi arias, what lots of young people do in competitions,” he relates. “I said, ‘That’s off the agenda,’ so we started with Carmen. I saw she had phenomenal potential. She was young and needed to do a lot of work, but Nicole works tremendously hard and she’s naturally extremely gifted. You need only say something to her once and she does it.”
A similar thing happened soon after with La Bohème and a sick Mimì. “I had a phone call halfway through rehearsals,” Car remembers. “I knew both arias and maybe the duet. I had three weeks coaching everyday to learn the role and then go onstage in Melbourne. I’m lucky, when time is short my brain seems to manage to hold together.”
As Anna Connolly tells me, all artists need two or three people they can trust to give honest, unbiased feedback. “It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to find in the profession,” she admits. For Car, Connolly has been one such mentor as well as vocal coach Tahu Matheson. In New York she sees “breathing guru” Debra Birnbaum. None of them however have quite had the career impact of Terracini. Did she sense his fertile brain behind her first Micaëla and her first Mimì?
As the Countess in OA’s Marriage of Figaro, 2014 © Prudence Upton
“I’m pretty sure it was Lyndon,” she says. “He’s certainly made other calls that have been really great for my career. When I talk about different roles that I might do, or different productions that OA might bring out, it tends to be Lyndon. Sometimes you’re sitting in the green room after a show and he’ll say, ‘Oh, I heard something in your voice tonight and I think maybe you should look at this role.’ I like to go in and meet with him, especially if I’ve been overseas. It’s always a very friendly environment. We chat about what I’ve been doing and maybe what shows are coming up. It’s nice to have a sounding board as well.”
For Terracini, helping his rapidly rising star has been one of his most pleasurable projects. “The greatest challenge with someone who is as talented as that is making sure you don’t offer them things far too early,” he explains. “I said to Nicole early on that she would probably think she was ready to sing all sorts and I wouldn’t let her do it. I’ve seen it too often with this company where people have been very talented and within two years it’s all gone. I was determined that wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately Nicole’s a really smart young woman. She loves the business and she knows what’s what. She’s also got terrific instincts. A conductor might forget something or a colleague may miss a line, and she never skips a beat, she’s right on it. There is never any panic, which is a wonderful attribute – particularly when you’re singing in European houses where there’s very little rehearsal.”
That her head is very much on her shoulders is echoed by others. “Nicole is a superb musician and actress, but more importantly she is down to earth, comfortable in her own skin and has worked assiduously to be so,” says Connolly. “There’s a luxurious feel around Nicole,” adds Kasper Holten, “but it’s the courage with which she uses all her skills that makes her truly outstanding. She looks nice and kind and is pleasant to be around, but the moment she goes on, she turns into a stage animal in the best sense.”
“Would I love to sing Elisabetta in Don Carlos? Absolutely! Should I sing it now? No“
With her star in the ascendant and the offers coming thick and fast, how does she cope? Has she ever tried something she has subsequently reckoned a mistake? Does she often say no? “Yeah, it happens all the time,” she laughs. “Would I love to sing Elisabetta in Don Carlos? Absolutely! Should I sing it now? No. Tosca can wait, Butterfly can wait. What creates longevity in this industry is knowing that later is better for bigger roles. I talk to Anthony Legge [OA’s Associate Music Director] because he’s such a great mentor. It’s not just about vocal material, it’s about being in the right kind of headspace to play the character as well. I can sing the notes on the page for most of those roles, but they can be very physically and mentally demanding as well.”
She now works with the world’s sharpest directorial intellects – men like Holten and Sir David McVicar who has directed her in two of his OA Mozart trilogy (she will complete the hat-trick with Fiordiligi in Così Fan Tutte this year). Both speak highly of her acting instincts and the feeling is mutual. “To have serious geniuses like that as a sounding board makes a world of difference,” she enthuses. “It’s not just about creating beautiful pictures, it’s about real interaction between the characters and what they actually mean when they say things. David has both broad and specific ideas at exactly the same time, and with Kasper it’s about trying to keep up with him! Because they have been thinking about these characters for however many years I try to come prepared. I love trying different things but I always come into the room with an idea. I hope that’s helpful to a director, because they don’t want a blank face. I try and be me and hope we can come to some sort of compromise.”
Kasper Holten reveals how Car’s idea of a compromise can add something unique to a production: “She’s interested in exploring character and concept,” he explains. “But what I love about Nicole is that she also – while staying loyal to the total picture – has a strong intuition and isn’t afraid to offer ideas and insist on things that feel important to her. She changed the ending of Eugene Onegin in my staging. I was doubtful in the beginning and resisted what she suggested, but she was right, and I was grateful to her for improving the production.”
With Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the ROH’s revival of Eugene Onegin © Alastair Muir
It’s a brave 29-year old who takes on a director like Holten, but talking to people about Nicole Car, words like “confident” and “fearless” tend to come up. She’s quick to expand on that, keen to be honest about her feelings. “All artists are insecure,” she admits. “Every time I walk on that stage I’m not sure how the audience will respond or if I’m going to have a good night. I suffered from performance anxiety when I was very young and worked with a performance coach and a therapist on it. Now I think the best way to deal with it is to make sure you’re as prepared as possible. If I go in knowing the opera back-to-front then it’s really easy to be calm. The less unknowns the better!”
Next up for Car is Opera Australia’s staging of a relative rarity: Verdi’s Luisa Miller, which she’s been working on for 18 months. “I don’t like to put too much of a stamp on it vocally before I get in with the conductor,” she tells me. “It’s good not to have things too set. I’m trying not to think about the high notes because I tend to freak out! Also, I think, making sure that it doesn’t get too dramatic too soon. Verdi’s music is really easy to get into and then you’re left with nowhere to go. The audience is stuck. You’re stuck.”
After her Mozart in Australia there’s another Così in Berlin with Donald Runnicles conducting and she hopes to be revisiting roles like Tatyana, Mimì, the Countess and Marguerite. And five or ten years down the track? “I’d love to be singing Tosca. It was the first opera I saw and it’s very close to my heart,” she says. “I’d love to sing Butterfly and Leonora in Trovatore. I think Rusalka might come before then – that’s definitely on the list. And Kátya Kabannová. There’s so much, which is why I’m happy to be patient.”
She’s also just cut her first disc for ABC Classics, an eclectic album called The Kiss made up of the known and the not-so-known. Having heard the final edit, I would be the first to put my hand up and say it’s a doozy.
Meanwhile overseas offers keep coming, thanks in part to having won the prestigious Neue Stimmen competition in Germany, aged 28. She performed in Eugene Onegin last April with the Deutsche Oper (“we had ten days total for a production they hadn’t done in seven years and the first run was opening night!”), and next season she returns to the States as Adalgesa in Dallas Opera’s Norma. For Australian audiences, 2016 is a good year with performances in Sydney and Melbourne, but for our future prospects Down Under perhaps the last word should go to Kasper Holten: “I am sure we’ll see much more of Nicole on the world’s stages over the next decade,” he predicts, “and I apologise to audiences in Australia if my inviting her to Covent Garden contributes to her spending less time in the next years on stage back home – but it was inevitable that the rest of the world would want some of her talent as well.”
Nicole Car appears in Luisa Miller in Melbourne, May 16-27
Her debut album, The Kiss, is out now on ABC Classics
Read Clive Paget’s review of Opera Australia’s Sydney season of Luisa Miller