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Sydney Opera House

Principal second violin thrives on pit buzz

Principal second violin loves pit buzz

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra violinist Airena Nakamura, who was recently promoted from tutti to principal second violin, arrives for our interview complaining (with a laugh) of muscular discomfort. She’s been to boot camp and she’s aching in places she didn’t know she had.

The mother of two says that keeping her career momentum with two young children was a bit of a boot camp in itself, but that things got easier when she joined the AOBO and moved closer to her parents six years ago.

Born in Yokohama in Japan, into a family of musicians, Nakamura came to Australia at the age of three, when her father was offered a position in Sydney as Suzuki violin teacher. Growing up playing the violin and piano, she later studied music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Once qualified, she did casual work for the Sydney Symphony, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra before leaving to study in Germany. Back in Sydney, she married her clarinettist fiancé and signed up for two years of contract work with the ACO. “I did a lot of travelling,” she remembers. “I didn’t see my husband very much.”

When the contract work ran out, she auditioned for the AOBO and started working for the Opera as a casual. “I really enjoyed the people. I had very little experience in opera before that but I grew to love it.”

A first-time mother and six months pregnant with her second child at the time, Nakamura says the stability of a full-time job with the Opera helped to make parenthood easier. “Until then, it had been a juggle – I was performing part-time, had many students and travelled miles to drop off my daughter at my parents’ home every day.” Two weeks before her tutti audition, in the process of moving house (“My home was disappearing around me while I practised”), she had to drop everything when her daughter came down with a cold. “Then I got the cold. Then my husband got it.” 

Days before the audition, her daughter said her first full sentence: “Mummy, put the violin down!” Nakamura put her instrument away, gave her daughter a cuddle, and cried. She laughs at the memory now. “It was the hardest audition I ever did, but my subsequent appointment with the AOBO, and moving closer to my parents, have made our lives much easier. I am very grateful for the support of my family. I love being a mum. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. ”

These days she even practises at home again. “My kids no longer climb all over me while I’m learning notes, saying ‘Let me have a go!’”

Her audition for principal second violin involved a number of screened trials. In the first round, applicants, many of whom were musicians outside the AOBO, were asked to play excerpts from opera and ballet repertoire. In the second round they had to play the slow movement of a Mozart concerto of their choice, and in the third round, a Romantic concerto. “I never got to play my Romantic choice (Mendelssohn), because by then the panel had made up its mind,” Nakamura says. 

The aim of playing behind a screen is to avoid discriminating in favour of or against colleagues, age and sex, she says. “I don’t like it at all; I prefer to give a performance. But everyone’s got to do it.”

The function of a section principal is to act as team leader, interpreting what the conductor would like, making music with the other principals and communicating with the rest of the section.

When Nakamura first began to lead, she found it stressful. “I was very nervous, but I discovered that working with the other principals and the rest of the orchestra is like playing chamber music, which I love. Now I enjoy leading.”

For her, the best part of the job is playing Puccini. “That and being given the opportunity to play a few things in the concertmaster’s chair for the ballet – I got a real buzz out of that!”

Getting hooked on opera took time and exposure, she says. “I had to get immersed in it to fall in love with it. Now, if I had a choice between playing symphony or opera, I’d play opera. I love the drama, the costumes, the music.”

Both her siblings are musicians too, her brother a violinist in Japan and her sister a pianist in the US. “My mother likes to say: ‘How did that happen? That was not in the plan!’”

When the family get together they don’t talk much music at all. “It’s rare for all of us to be together, and when it does happen it’s usually over Christmas and Easter. The kids keep us very busy.”