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A chorus line of dancers dressed in giant noses

Meet Alexander Lewis

The Australian tenor on changing voice types, on-stage chemistry and life as the son of two famous opera singers.

A very close-up portrait of Alexander Lewis

Alexander Lewis. 

When you’re a musical theatre star, the thrill is at the edge. Belting out a top note right at the edge of your voice is exciting, and the audience loves it.

But for Alexander Lewis, the thrill was fading. He was midway through a long tour singing Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, and those top As were popping out a little too easily. As the son of two opera singers, he had an idea what was happening.

Was it possible he was turning into a tenor?

From boy soprano in Britain to tenor in New York

Lewis grew up in a musical family. The son of renowned opera singers Patricia Price and Michael Lewis, he and his brother Ben spent their childhood hearing top voices in full flight. Joan Sutherland sang at their primary school fundraisers. Every New Year’s Eve, they watched their parents perform at the Sydney Opera House.

“I just wanted to do what my Dad did,” Lewis says. He sang in the Australian Youth Choir as a kid, and once the family moved to the United Kingdom, he became a cathedral chorister at St Alban’s under Dr Barry Rose. At high school at Newington College in Sydney, he did a lot of drama and performed in a lot of plays. “I was encouraged to push the boundaries a lot through drama.”

He discovered musical theatre at university and went on to the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts. He began to get the roles and reviews any aspiring performer could dream of. But at 26, he noticed his voice was changing.

Lewis auditioned for two of the world’s most prestigious opera training programs: the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera of New York and San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program. He won places in both.

“The Met took a bit of a punt on me knowing I had a set of performance skills they could develop,” Lewis explains. His training up to that point was probably unique among opera singers, but it had given him musicality, theatricality and languages that would more than underpin opera training.

Lewis bubbles over with enthusiasm as he speaks of his time at the Met. He raves about the training he received under brilliant conductors and famous tenors.

“It was great to sit down and talk to tenors who have been singing for 20 or 30 years and are at the top of their game. But it’s even better to watch singers up close and see how masterful they are. A lot of that comes down to technique. This is the kind of experience that money can’t buy,” he adds.

Fast forward seven years and Lewis is preparing two very different roles for Opera Australia: singing the romantic lead Danilo in The Merry Widow and the title role of Shostakovich’s thoroughly absurd opera The Nose.

On Danilo, Danielle de Niese and the pleasure of The Merry Widow

A man and woman in exotic dress kneel on stage and look into each other's eyes.

Alexander Lewis as Danilo and Danielle de Niese in Opera Australia's The Merry Widow at Arts Centre Melbourne, 2017. Photo: Jeff Busby

“Danilo is a joy to perform,” he says. “This production is just staggeringly beautiful, from the set to what Graeme Murphy has done choreographically and stylistically… it’s a gorgeous, gorgeous show.”

Lewis talks about this production with the kind of joyful pride you see in new parents. The Merry Widow is essentially a rom-com on stage with good music, he says. But while creating the show for its first run in Perth, “we were able to ground it in an honesty and integrity that really focuses the lens”.

“There are these moments of froth and bubble and light-heartedness and then there are some moments of stillness with Hanna that bring the love story to a really intimate level, almost filmic.”

Lewis wasn’t sure what it would be like to work with Danielle de Niese, a singer he’s long admired for her singing and dramatic intent. “Some stars are so busy and they drop in and out, and you never know if you’ll have time to connect. But in this show the chemistry is so vital!”

Fortunately, “Danielle is the most gorgeous of colleagues,” he says. “We’ve all seen those photos of her with her gorgeous smiles, but that smile never leaves her face.” She’s a very physical performer, he adds, “much like I am!”

“We can really spar on stage, which this show really needs, because they’re pretty feisty lovers. I was super excited that she was a performer I could really spark off.”

On noses and nonsense and what’s next

While he’s performing seven shows a week in The Merry Widow in January, Lewis will also be preparing the curious music of The Nose.

It’s hard to think of two shows that are further apart, musically, and both productions have big physical demands. Fortunately, Lewis has sung this role both in New York and London, and performed in this production for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

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A production image from the 2017 production of The Nose at Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Photo credit: Bill Cooper

I ask him how he’d describe it to someone who might not know what to expect.

Lewis doesn’t hesitate, jumping between short, superlative-laden sentences (“It’s incredibly exciting. It’s incredibly loud. It’s completely absurd.”) and longer meditations on the high energy of Shostakovich’s score and the brilliance of Barrie Kosky (“He’s created this absurd, surreal world where we all have these prosthetic noses. You descend into this Alice in Wonderland, abstract fantasy land, but so much darker.”)

He’s jumping around because it’s hard to say just one thing about Shostakovich’s brilliant opera, a showcase of contemporary musical invention encompassing a huge number of musical styles.

He raves about the amazing percussion ensembles, the brilliant rhymes and the sheer scale of more than 70 solo parts and smaller ensembles. “It’s kind of staggering.”

He chuckles about the absurd, “wild and crazy” dance sequences.

He gushes about the talents of fellow cast-members Martin Winkler and John Tomlinson, who he performed with in London. “Martin Winker’s singing is out of this world but on top of that, his ability to clown is mind-bending. It’s one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen.”

Lewis says you should see The Nose, simply, because you won’t have experienced anything like it.

 “I think you’ll leave saying: ‘What the hell was that? I don’t know what it was, but I think I enjoyed myself’.”

The tenor has a busy year ahead, with a lot more of The Merry Widow and The Nose coming up, along with Candide with the Sydney Philharmonia.

Lewis hopes to juggle work in Australia and overseas — for the next 12 months, he plans to enjoy summer all over the world, as he and his wife juggle their respective careers. He is married to Australian performer Christina O’Neill.

Lewis is cagey about the roles he’s hoping to sing in the future, but hints that there are some newer works in development. “Given my background in musical theatre, roles that are being told in a contemporary style with contemporary text really appeal to me.”

He appears to have the gift for them, too, attracting rave reviews in his recent turn in Matthew Aucoin’s The Crossing in New York.

But for now, the rising star is just enjoying performing at the Sydney Opera House. He even sung on that hallowed stage on New Year's Eve, like his parents did when he was a boy.

Jennifer Williams, January 2018