Back home in Australia for WA Opera’s Magic Flute, the tenor tell tales of growing up in a famous opera family.
You grew up in one of Australia’s most distinguished operatic families. Has this been a challenge in developing your own vocal talent?
No, if anything it was a blessing. As a child you absorb so much information without knowing it so I think a lot of my musicality is a result of being surrounded by music as a boy. With mum and dad performing regularly alongside legends like Dame Joan, my brother Ben and I were always in the theatre, in fact, The Sydney Opera House was like a second home for us. We were spoilt! Moffitt Oxenbould was very generous to us and allowed us to watch many operas from the perch above the stage. As a result, performing seemed to come quite naturally to me We moved to the UK when I was seven and I became a cathedral chorister. Serendipitously, we moved to St. Albans where Dr. Barry Rose was master of music at the cathedral. As it happens Dr Rose was head of religious broadcasts when mum was a member of the BBC Singers a decade or so earlier so it seemed like it was all meant to be. I learned so much under his guidance and and was afforded wonderful opportunities during my 5 years there to travel and perform with the Cathedral’s world class choir. My love of early music, Handel especially, stems from my time in the choir. Once my choir days were over, mum guided me vocally and to this day remains my voice teacher. Dad has also been there to ask for advice when ever I might need it.
When your voice broke, did you move from boy soprano to tenor?
I wish it was that simple! My voice broke quite dramatically when I was about 13. I was singing Cobweb in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for OA and my voice broke 2 weeks before opening night. I had to find a way to belt some of my solo lines as a mini-juvenile tenor. As soon as the production finished I went back to school and started singing the bass part in choir. I had a pretty decent low G in those days. I remained a baritone for the next 13 years. For most of that time I worked slowly with mum on light baritone operatic repertoire but never studied opera formally. I was so involved with theatre as a teenager that my loyalties were divided. I loved opera and classical music but I had also discovered Stephen Sondheim and with my voice seemingly settled as a light baritone more opportunities and interesting challenges were presenting themselves in the world of musical theatre. It wasn’t until I was performing in The Phantom of the Opera that my voice really started to change and open up at the top. Towards the end of the Phantom tour I had some time off to deal with an injury and it gave me some time to experiment with light lyric tenor repertoire. It quickly became apparent that my voice was going to settle in higher repertoire and the opportunities in opera looked more exciting. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into both the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera and then the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program which afforded me the time to develop my operatic skills and allowed my voice time to settle.
Who were your inspirations, mentors? Your mother of course, but who else?
Obviously, I find great inspiration from my family and have learnt so much from them. Mum knows my voice better than anyone else in the world and has guided me for many years now. I’ve also learn so much about the training process through her and the amazing work she has done and is continuing to do with her classical students at WAAPA in Perth. My dad has been singing for over 40 years now so just watching him go about his business has taught me so much. And then there’s my brother who’s work ethic and respect for the industry has helped shape how I carry myself at work.
Outside of the family there are several very special people that have really helped shape me into the artist I am now. Through the Lindemann Program I have been guided by some very special people. Maestro Levine is always looking for opportunities to conduct and work with the young artists. I was lucky enough to sing in my first opera in the USA, The Bartered Bride, with him as conductor as well as having regular masterclasses and orchestral workshops with him. Also on the LYADP we worked with fabulous music coaches including John Fisher, Ken Noda and Vlad Iftinca and acting teacher and director Stephen Wadsworth. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am.
Have you had much experience singing in different languages? Italian, French, German?
I get more experienced everyday. With the majority of opera performed in European languages it’s very important to study at least the basics in Italian, French and German. To date I’ve performed operas in Italian, French, Russian, Czech and English and have also performed art songs and operatic excerpts in German, French, English and various regional Italian dialects. Throw in some Latin for oratorio work and I’ve covered many bases.
What was it like performing in the Met’s High Definition productions?
Intimidating but exhilarating, after the fact. The HD Broadcasts are incredible to be a part of. There are so many people involved in and outside of the theatre and of course there are several cameras backstage, in the audience and even on stage! It can be very tough to concentrate on the show when you have so many additional distractions. I feel very fortunate to have performed in 3 broadcasts now and it’s wonderful to know that my family and friends are able to watch from London and Australia.
When did you return to Australia?
I try to come home as frequently as possible but last year was the first time I returned for work. I returned to sing Sunday in the Park with George for Victorian Opera. Now I am in Perth to make my role debut as Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute WA Opera. After that I shall be performing the Australian premiere of Ben Moore’s setting of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother: Dear Theo in David Wickham’s Swan Songs in August. With future engagements at the Met, (Brioche in The Merry Widow, cover Molqi in The Death of Klinghoffer) and my debut at Komische Oper, Berlin, I’m not sure when I will next be back but I do hope it’s sooner rather than later.
One last question: What’s on your wish list?
Oh many things. I really would love to do a show with my brother at some point and perhaps even my dad. Some of my dream composers whose works I feel I am suited to would be Adams, Bernstein, Britten, Handel, Heggie, Janacek, Smetana, Sondheim, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Weill… Ha ha, to name a few. Heading the list of roles would be Tom Rakewell and Lenski. I’d also really like to continue to explore chamber music and new works that have a real theatrical flare to them.
Alexander Lewis currently stars as Tamino in WA Opera’s The Magic Flute.