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Sydney Opera House

The trouble with Donna Anna

The trouble with Donna Anna

Don Giovanni is on at the Arts Centre, Melbourne from 2 - 17 December 2012: Click here for more information and tickets. Nicole Car sings the role of Donna Anna for the final two shows.

Ever since Don Giovanni’s world première in the 18th century, opera companies have found it tricky to cast the piece’s main female protagonist, Donna Anna. Opera Australia Young Artist Nicole Car (pictured right), the dark-haired, fair-skinned young singer selected (along with Korean soprano Hyeseoung Kwon) to perform the role in OA’s revival of Don Giovanni, which opens at the Arts Centre, Melbourne in December, confirms that Donna Anna is “a difficult sing”. But she’s thrilled at having been given the opportunity to tackle the role.

“The problem with Donna Anna is that you really need two different voice types to perform the role,” says Car, in the rehearsal room at Sydney’s Opera Centre where we meet. “Mozart expresses the different sides of her character in two very different arias: the first highly dramatic and the second ending, after a seven-minute sing, in a fiendish coloratura.” Cultivating a voice that can do justice to both the drama and the vocal gymnastics, is very hard work. “Basically, you need a dramatic soprano who is also able to sing with the lightness and flexibility of a bel canto singer.”

And the trouble does not end there. In Don G, Mozart wrote three important soprano roles – Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina – and each has to sound distinct from the other two. Add to that the fact that Donna Anna’s tessitura is very high (“She sings between D and F at the top of the stave pretty much all night, which is very tiring in itself”), and that she is part of several ensemble pieces, and it’s clear that the soprano taking on the role has a huge sing on her hands. As Car says: “The challenge lies in working out where to hold back. Because you just can’t sing full volume all night.”

For young singers, the trend is to specialise in either dramatic or coloratura repertoire. Yet for Car such an approach would be far too limiting. “It’s very rare to find a singer who can do both well, and yet, if you can’t, you’ll never be able to sing a role like Lady Macbeth. It would be hard to do Traviata too, as the Violetta of Act III is so different from the Violetta of Act I. I sing a lot of bel canto to keep the voice flexible, even though I’ll never perform it in public.”

Having originally trained as a jazz singer, Car later discovered that jazz technique comes in handy when negotiating operatic repertoire. “Coloratura has never been that much of an issue for me because I’d already mastered the turns and appoggiaturas required for scatting and improvising. Jazz has given me flexibility and freedom.”

Mozart’s operas are also challenging in that, with a selection of ensemble pieces at their core, they demand considerable rehearsal time. Car considers this one of the composer’s strongest attractions. “I’d hate to reach a stage where I walk into a show two days before opening night. It’s important – and so satisfying – to develop a relationship with the people with whom you’re doing the show,” she says.

Next year, she will be singing Pamina in OA’s staging of Julie Taymor’s The Magic Flute production. She’s also been cast as High Priestess in Aida and Valencienne in The Merry Widow. Grateful for the opportunities that come with being part of OA’s Young Artist program, she dreams of one day getting her teeth into “all the Verdi and Puccini repertoire, especially Tosca and Madama Butterfly".

It was during a Tosca performance at the State Theatre that the opera bug first bit Car. A jazz student at the time, and three months from sitting her Year 12 exams, a friend who was studying classical music persuaded her to come along to an opera performance. “We were in the back row of the State Theatre; you could hardly see anything,” she remembers. “The music started...and I was transformed. I fell in love with every single part of what I saw and heard that night. I went home and asked my mum if I could have some singing lessons.”

As a result of that fateful Tosca performance, Car’s entire family have become opera enthusiasts. “Initially Dad was concerned because he wanted me to have a proper job with guaranteed pay,” the singer laughs. “But last year he and Mum came to the opening night of Carmen [in which she sang the role of Micaëla], and afterwards Dad came backstage and said to me: ‘I know I’ve encouraged you to do other things, but I can see now, how happy you are’."

She’s delighted that her family has been travelling on the opera journey with her. “That can only be a good thing for opera.”