Ahead of her debut in Aida, Aroyan reflects on her beginnings, Leontyne’s pearls of wisdom, and the roles coming up next.

When did you realise that opera was something you wanted to seriously pursue?

When I was young I always dreamed of being a singer, a pop singer. One of my biggest idols was Tina Arena. I always wanted to perform onstage as I loved the interaction with an audience. After high school, on the advice of my parents, I went to university in case my singing career didn’t work out. This also helped to alleviate the pressure of succeeding in this difficult business. After completing a Bachelor of Business and a Bachelor of Information Technology, I decided that I still wanted to be a pop singer.

During that time, a famous Armenian mezzo and vocal coach, Liliya Ovchiyan, had just moved to Australia and my parents took me to her concert. That weekend I experienced opera for the first time, and I thought, “wow, this woman’s voice is so voluptuous and voluminous, without a microphone… I have to learn from her.” So, we approached her, I told her about my pop aspirations and sang for her. After just one song, she stopped me and said, “You are not meant to be a pop singer” and at that point my heart sank and I thought my dreams were over. She continued, “You were born to be an opera singer.” A little confused and slightly hesitant I worked with her for a week, training classically, and I fell in love. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Thanks to the advice and guidance of this accomplished opera singer, I am now able to call the Sydney Opera House my home.

Did you have, or do you have any singers that you consider role models?

Travelling and studying around the world allowed me to draw inspiration from many opera legends that I was fortunate enough to work with including Mirella Freni, Ruth Falcon, Renata Scotto, and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. These amazing musicians shaped my training and provided insight into the operatic world and I am truly grateful to these role models. I was able to learn from their worldly knowledge and experience, their expertise and sage advice. I only hope that I too will have an equally long and successful career.

Did you have any moments in your career that you consider ‘big breaks’?

My career has been full of adventures and moments that I consider ‘big breaks’. For the past five years I have been working with Opera Australia – I would say that having this privileged job has been my biggest break. I know how extremely difficult it is to make it in this competitive and challenging arena and I am just so grateful that the Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, took a chance on me and launched me on my professional career. My ‘big break’ just so happened to be one of my dream roles, Mimì in La Bohème. I remember moments before going out on stage thinking, “This is it, the moment I have been waiting for and working so hard towards is finally here.” I can still picture this moment as clear as day: I remember looking to the stage managers Ben and Miranda in the final moments, knowing that there’s no turning back now, and their final words… “You’re on!”

In your time with Opera Australia, which roles have challenged or taught you the most?

Being part of the Opera Australia ensemble is incredible: it has been amazing not only to perform many roles, but also to cover many roles that I hope to perform in the near future. I think it is quite challenging but highly educational, especially when starting a professional career, to be able to cover so many great heroine roles and even be required to go on stage with only a few days’ notice. This is always challenging but also very exciting and, as covers, the coaches of Opera Australia have prepared us and rehearsed us so well that the adrenalin simply kicks in and there is no fear of taking the lead. This has happened to me a few times: performing as Desdemona in Otello and Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, two Verdi heroines that I dreamed of playing. I was honoured to be given the roles and the responsibility. I have learnt very quickly in this company to make the most of every rehearsal, coaching and cover call, as you never know when you will get that phone call to go on.

The role of Aida was famously described by Leontyne Price as being for a ‘juicy lyric’, someone who had volume and size to spare. Does this ring true to you? What are the technical challenges of Aida?

I do agree with the great Leontyne that Aida must have a “juicy and sizeable sound” but it also has a lot to do with the colours of the voice and the way we use those colours to interpret one’s unique portrayal of Aida. I think that one of the technical challenges of Aida is to maintain a steady pace as there is quite a bit of singing right up until the end of the opera. Understandably, a singer can get quite absorbed in and excited by Verdi’s music so it is easy to give too much in the beginning. Aida is not about trying to sing everything big, that’s why it is more suited to voices that can naturally exude a larger sound. I will try to the best of my ability to make Aida as beautiful and bel canto in style as possible.

Natalie Aroyan. Photo © Andrew Keshan

How do you view the role of Aida? What are the dramatic challenges of portraying somebody like her?

In this opera, I believe Aida is the embodiment of suffering. She is constantly tormented and torn between her heart’s desires and her duties to her people. She must make a decision that tortures her: either be selfish and choose forbidden love or be selfless and save her people. Sadly for her, one decision will forsake the other, and therein lies her state of perpetual torment.

The dramatic challenges centre around the fact that although she is suffering, Aida is still a powerful and vibrant soul and ultimately the heroine of this opera. It is my job to find the moments and find the colours that can illustrate these other aspects of her character that have shaped her journey thus far.

She is a slave of Egypt, submissive to her Princess Amneris, but in one moment during their duet, she lets down the façade of poor Aida and the fire within her almost escapes. In moments like these we are able to glimpse the real desires of Aida.

Another exciting debut for you is Eva in Die Meistersinger. Are you excited to be making a foray into German repertoire? Do you see Wagner as something that lies in your future?

I am thrilled to be taking on the role of Eva in such a formidable and enthralling Wagnerian opera and I am sure that I will learn much about performing in this six hour-long piece. This will be my first German opera and I am very excited and honoured to take on this style of repertoire. My first task will be to work intensely with my diction coach to ensure that I do the German language justice. I haven’t thought much about German repertoire in the early stages of my career as I always envisioned that I would perhaps move into Wagner towards the end of my career, but I am happy to perform the lighter of the Wagner roles at this point.

Are there any other roles you have your eye on?

Of course, I am always looking ahead and am excited for the future. There are many roles I can’t wait to perform like Tosca, Amelia from Un ballo in maschera, Leonore from Il Trovatore and Lucrezia Borgia, to name a few. But I think I have my heart set on Tosca especially. I was given the opportunity to cover the role this year for Opera Australia and the role, the music, the characterisation and her fire are what drew me to this character.

Natalie Aroyan is Aida for Opera Australia’s Griffith Opera on the Beach – Aida, which plays Coolangatta Beach September 21 – 30. She reprises the role in 2018 for the mainstage season from August 11, and is Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg November 13 – 22.