Adapt and thrive: How the Moffatt Oxenbould Young Artist Program mentors tomorrow’s stars
Opera Australia’s Moffatt Oxenbould Young Artist Program (YAP), which mentors talented young artists on the cusp of a career in opera, is forever updating its curriculum to address the issues facing up-and-coming musicians.
The classical music world is changing in ways that could not have been foreseen only a few years ago. How, for example, do artists remain motivated in an environment where thanks to the GFC, the entertainment dollar is shrinking and opportunities for musicians are waning? When work is scarce, how do singers say no to overly-ambitious roles that might damage their voices? How do young musicians use digital technology to their advantage?
The Internet has effectively ended Australia’s artistic isolation from the Northern Hemisphere, with far-reaching consequences for the opera world. As Andrew Greene (pictured right), Director of OA’s Young Artist Program, puts it: “Through the medium of YouTube, audiences can now compare standards among singers and opera houses at the click of a button.”
OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini puts this development into context when he says: “Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay, they are all wonderful singers and wonderful actors who look exactly right for the roles that they sing, and thanks to digital technology, including HD transmission of opera into cinema, they have become what audiences expect. Singers everywhere have to adapt to these expectations.”
For OA Young Artist Nicole Car (pictured top-right), an attractive young woman who turns up for our interview in a short floral dress that shows off a pair of shapely legs, voice will always be paramount in opera. “But these days there’s strong pressure to look good as well,” she says. She joined the YAP program in December 2011, after studying music at Melbourne University and the Victorian College of the Arts, followed by a year as Young Artist with Victorian Opera.
Andrew Greene says the dilemma for singers is that composers often make contradictory demands on them. “It’s the daughter of the Regiment, not the grandma of the Regiment, yet the vocal demands of the role are so extraordinary that you need a very experienced singer to perform it. The role is not impossible to cast, but the bar has been set very high and is constantly being raised.”
Opera in cinema has brought about increased emphasis on convincing acting too. As Car says: “When there’s a camera in your face, you need to be able to show emotion, but when the audience is five metres away, it’s not all that important.”
Access to a mentoring program is crucial for any young singer, and not only because it offers tutors from NIDA to teach top-notch acting skills. It also puts young singers in touch with experienced artists and administrators, who tend to act as a buffer against the temptation to take on big roles for which they are not ready. “Young artists tend to think that they are indestructable, but taking on heavy roles too early can cause permanent damage to the vocal chords,” says Terracini, himself the product of OA’s Young Artist Program.
Part of Andrew Greene’s role is to act as a safety net for singers who feel that they might have bitten off more than they can chew. He says: “If someone has been cast in a role and along the way discovers that they’re not ready for it, I encourage them to speak to Management, who are supportive of young singers who find themselves in this dilemma. What we all want to avoid is a situation where calamities occur and a young singer is not cast again.”
Greene also acts as advisor to young artists who are ready to audition for roles in the great houses of the Northern Hemisphere. “In Australia, opportunities for classical musicians are limited,” he says. “One of the ways in which we deal with this reality in the Young Artists Program, is by placing great emphasis on fine-tuning German language skills, because the German-speaking countries still offer opera singers the best opportunities.”
Nicole Car, who is not yet ready to spread her wings but doesn’t rule out the possibility in future, says that in Australia, as a result of the financial crisis, opportunities for singers are scarcer than ever. But she has no regrets. “On the first day of Uni, the Head of our Department told us that 95% of us wouldn’t make it,” she remembers. At 18, that was a harsh reality to face. “You persist because you love performing opera and you have to believe that you will be among the five percent. I can’t imagine my life without opera; it’s not even something I consider.”
Young Artists who go on to have successful careers tend to share this devotion. Greene says: “Attitude is everything. You have to want this career above all else, and as part of an ensemble company, you have to be prepared to cover for other singers and to perform lesser roles.” Young sopranos, he says, with a smile, tend to aspire to the coloratura solo spots. “But the fact of the matter is that Emma Matthews is already occupying them. And she’s doing a pretty good job of it.”
Terracini supports this viewpoint: “The artists who succeed are not always the most talented; they’re the ones who have worked the hardest to develop their skills, so that their level of performance is very high,” he says.
Car, who has learned and performed three major roles – Micaëla, Mimì and Donna Anna – in less than a year, assumed that she was ready to go on the stage when she came out of Uni. “But when you begin to work for an opera company, you discover all these extra layers that you never even thought of at Uni. You’re expected to learn large amounts of music all the time, you have to work on your language and acting skills, and on whatever skills a particular production might call for, from fencing to waltzing. And you have to put what you’ve learned into practice straight away.”
You also have to stay abreast of whatever the next big thing crucial to success might be. As Greene says: “In the arts you’re never sure of a job; you continuously have to reinvent yourself.”
But like the vast majority of artists working for OA, he is grateful for the opportunity to be involved. “I am thrilled and inspired by talent. You only want young singers to use their opportunities and succeed.”