The 18th Bangalow Music Festival, presented by Southern Cross Soloists, opens tonight and runs until Sunday. Exploring the inner essence of chamber music, the theme for 2019, Conversations Through Chamber Music, is woven through the program.

Brisbane-born mezzo soprano Xenia Puskarz Thomas (aged 22) performs in two concerts. Tonight, as part of Concert 2, which features the Orava Quartet and Southern Cross Soloists, she sings two songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Then on Sunday, in Concert 7, she sings three arias from Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera (The Fake Gardener). Next month she will appear in the opera, playing the cavalier Ramiro, when Imara Savage directs a production for the Queensland Conservatorium, conducted by Johannes Fritzsch.

Puskarz Thomas began her formal vocal studies with renowned soprano Margaret Baker Genovesi, then continued her training with Dr Margaret Schindler at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. In 2018, she was awarded a Bachelor of Music with first class honours. She is the recipient of the Southern Cross Soloists’ Margaret Schindler Scholarship for 2019. She spoke to Limelight about performing at the Bangalow Music Festival and her future plans.

Xenia Puskarz Thomas. Photograph supplied

You currently hold the Margaret Schindler Vocal Scholarship. Can you tell us about how it is designed to support a young vocalist?

There are two components to the scholarship, which is very beneficial for a young singer, particularly because it supports your continued development, so I’m able to continue my tuition this year with Margaret Schindler in [special] lessons, and then the other really important part of being a young vocalist is the performance experience. [The scholarship] provides opportunities to perform professionally with the Southern Cross Soloists (SXS) and so it’s an excellent scholarship to assist a young singer in both areas that I think all singers need: education and performance.

You studied with Margaret Schindler while you were at the Queensland Conservatorium, of course?

Yes, it’s probably been four and a half years now, so I have studied with her for a while and I’m delighted to continue this year with her through the scholarship. She’s an excellent teacher, she’s the Head of Voice at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. Obviously, she’s an excellent teacher and very knowledgeable about singing, and she’s just so generous with her time and a wonderful personality. I admire her very much. She’s more than a teacher; it’s more than singing. I’m sure any musician will agree and it’s more than just [learning] the music, so we’re lucky to have teachers like Margaret Schindler in the world.

Can you tell us about the repertoire you will perform at this year’s Bangalow Music Festival? In the first concert in which you perform you are singing some Mahler songs?

Recently I did a concert performing five of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Here, I’ll be performing two: Das irdische Leben, Verlorne Müh’ and Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht – so a good mix! They’re beautiful songs and anyone who loves Mahler knows he had a big fondness for Germany and its traditions. Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a big collection of stories that capture different parts of the history or folk life of Germany. So I’m delighted to be performing the songs again there. They’re really special, and singing in German is also, I think delicious (laughs). It feels really nice. It’s a very warm sort of language and Mahler sets these texts beautifully. I feel very lucky to sing these songs.

So they’ve been specially arranged?

Yes. [The concert features] the Orava Quartet and the Southern Cross Soloists. So we’re making our own orchestra in a sense, and we’ve also got Ashley Smith coming in on clarinet and Adam Mikulicz on bassoon as well. So there are lots of collaboration with different groups and different artists, which is great.

In the Mozart Concert, conducted by Christopher Dragon, I believe you’re singing the three Ramiro arias from La Finta Giardiniera?

Yes, I am. At the Queensland Conservatorium we’re doing the full opera La Finta Giardiniera in September so I feel it’s a good chance for me to air these arias and Ramiro – I think he’s had a bit of bad luck in love and I suppose these arias go through the emotional highs and lows. The first one is very angry, and he’s glad that he’s free, and then in the next one he’s very much in love, and then the final one he’s angry – so all the emotions of love, which will be good! It’s a nice contrast, they’re very different arias.

Have you been studying them for a while?

Once the opera was announced and the roles assigned, and we were given our scores – I can’t remember when that was, maybe in April – [I’ve been working on it]. I had to have it ready for production rehearsals at the beginning of August. I’m looking forward to performing them in a concert environment. [Actually performing an opera] it’s more about the story, and sometimes the music is a bit lost, so performing it in a concert scene you can really make sure that the music is the highlight of the performance.

Does the role sit well in your voice?

I really enjoy singing Mozart at the moment. Ramiro sits in a bit of an odd spot. It’s quite high [for] a mezzo, but I like singing in that spot, it suits me. It sits in a spot where it could be sung by a soprano but I think trouser roles require that warmth or lower quality so they can be distinguished from the sopranos. So I’m really enjoying learning Ramiro, it feels just right in the voice.

Later this year, you’re off to New York thanks to the Lady Fairfax New York Scholarship that you won from the Opera Foundation. What will do you when you are there?

I’ll be going to New York in October. It’s a self-directed study program and I’ll be taking four operatic roles and preparing them with coaches from the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music, and making them performance ready. So it’s a learning experience but it’s very self-directed which is great, so I can get a feel for New York’s pulse and the teachers there and opportunities.

How young were you when you knew that you wanted to sing?

I was quite lucky. I liked singing in the choir but I think my voice is more classically inclined and I didn’t have the right teacher. When I was 16 I was in a youth orchestra, the Queensland Youth Orchestra. I sang for John Curro who is one of the conductors and he led me to a wonderful lady, Margaret Baker-Genovesi, and I took a gap year and studied with her after school, and she really inspired me to pursue it. I suppose she ignited my passion for it, she was a very knowledgeable woman and she’s still my mentor. I don’t think the 10-year-old me would have [imagined] I’d be where I am now. But I feel like I’m on the right path, I can’t see myself doing anything else, to be honest. I don’t think I’m good at anything else, and actually the more I learn, the more I love it.

Bangalow Music Festival runs tonight until August 11

Full program

Queensland Conservatorium presents La Finta Giardiniera, September 7 – 14