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Curtain-raiser for Carmen

by Deborah Humble

Bizet’s Carmen is one of the best-known and most loved operas of all time, and Opera Australia is taking a festive approach to its Melbourne season. There’s a Spanish mezzo in the title role but the strong soprano role of Michaela is to be sung by a “new” Australian. Deborah Humble has the story of an Italian girl down under who has discovered Melbourne has its own charms …

Italian-born soprano Daria Masiero is excited about her recent operatic opportunities in Australia and her newly acquired Australian residency, made possible after she was granted a rare “Distinguished Talent Visa.” At a time in the operatic world where houses and companies are struggling financially, cancelling productions, closing down on an alarmingly regular basis and, in some cases, failing to pay their artists, it is becoming more and more important to cast a wider net in the pursuit of contracts.

Daria Masiero is becoming an increasingly familiar face to opera audiences having performed several major roles in both Sydney and Melbourne for Opera Australia including Liu in Turandot, Leonora in Il Trovatore and the title role in Aida. This May she reprises the role of Michaela in Carmen at the State Theatre.

She talks animatedly about what she likes about her new adoptive home and some of the major differences between working here and in Italy.

Q. How did you come to be involved in opera?

A. I grew up in Frascarolo, a small town of just 1000 people close to Milan. I wanted to be an opera singer since I was six years old. My mother took me to a concert as a child in a nearby town, which had a theatre. There was a lot of classical music around even in a small town. There was always a festival of some kind to go to. Music became part of my life at an early age.

I started singing lessons at secondary school when I was fourteen and then I learnt the cello at the conservatory for eight years. I played in an orchestra before I began opera training. Instrumental training opened my eyes and ears to the colours of the orchestra: nuance, texture and the concept of legato line. After the conservatorium I studied at the Accademia La Scala. I was very emotional at the stage audition because part of my dream was to sing at the big opera houses like La Scala and the Metropolitan and at that moment I felt like my dream was beginning.

Q. What are the differences between singing in Australia and singing in Italy?

A. For me the difference is the awareness of the audiences. My feeling is that in Australia people come to the opera to enjoy the overall performance; they surrender not only to the music but also to the enjoyment of the experience as a whole. This enables me to feel that I can relax and sing without too much stress. When I am Italy and I say I am an opera singer people understand that job. Here in Australia people exclaim with surprise, then maybe ask what I do for my real job!

I think the Italian public is more critical. The people who come to the opera come with a lot of knowledge of the difficulty of the various roles and they understand which voices should sing them. They often have strong opinions and ideas about the success or failure of a particular production.

Money is a problem everywhere now. Theatres have trouble paying singers. Singers can wait for years to receive fees. Theatres use young singers because they cost less. This means a lot of young singers are doing too much too early. Artists must grow into roles with the benefit of experience. Of course I understand it is difficult for a young singer to say no to a job. But the end result for the singer, the theatre and the audience is often an issue of quality. Quality suffers, standards are not what audiences expect. Then the artform as a whole suffers.

I must say I really love working for Opera Australia because it always seems so well organized and efficient – not always the case elsewhere in the world!

Q.Italy is the birthplace of opera. What is your impression about the musical culture in Australia?

A. I never forget that Italy is the birthplace of opera. However one must remember that the majority of the population have little real knowledge about our art form. Popular music is still most widely listened to in my country. I think that knowledge about opera and classical music in general comes with good teaching and must start with the education system. Young people and students in Italy are often involved in opera through theatre and education programs.

There is no reason why classical music in Australia cannot be experienced with “European style” passion. I have been very encouraged to see such enthusiasm amongst young artists in Australia.

Q. What do you miss about Italy when you are working in Australia?

A. I miss my family, my home and my friends. I miss the small villages with small delis: the butcher, the baker, the fruit stall. Everyone knows everyone else and in a single moment one can feel at home and part of the life of the local shopkeeper. This is the aspect I miss the most. Australia is an amazing country but I feel less sense of community here. One never feels alone in Italy. Having said that I have a lot of friends in Melbourne, as there is a big Italian community in the city. The best things about Australia are the lifestyle and the friendly, open and kind people. When I first arrived I couldn’t believe the way people politely waited in a queue, friendly and law abiding! Amazing!

Q. Melbourne or Sydney? Which city do you prefer and why?

A. I love Sydney. The Opera House is of course a national treasure. It’s setting against the background of the harbour is uniquely beautiful and for me perhaps one of the most spectacular and beautiful places in the world. The scenery never ceases to move me. The first time I saw it was an extraordinary moment and I thought how truly fortunate I was to be given the opportunity to work there.

Melbourne has a more European feeling about it that makes me feel a little more at home. I love walking around the city, soaking up the sense of freedom, space and of course sampling the local food culture.

Q. What are your favourite roles/productions here in Australia?

A. The Graeme Murphy production of Turandot is a personal favourite maybe because it was my first job with Opera Australia, and it was also the opera after which Opera Australia gave me the opportunity to get a visa.

Q. What are the important qualities for an opera singer?

A. Emotions are as important on the stage as they are in real life. I know that sounds very Italian! A singer must give emotion to the audience. I know I was successful in a performance or with a particular characterization if audience members come up after the show and thank me because they understood the story. Of course emotions must be somehow contained within the confines of the performance or it affects the singing. This is the challenge: to express the emotions without interrupting the singing and the line of the music.

Q. Singers need to travel. I enjoy that even though I miss my family a lot. It is becoming more difficult after 12 years I must admit. I enjoyed being on the road a lot in the beginning. But this is part of the opera singer’s life.

We are always living in a different place, experiencing different cultures, meeting different colleagues. We must be adaptable and flexible. One has to begin over again every time there is a new job. I love this part of being an opera singer. Every contract is as if I turn to a new chapter in a book. Always interesting. This experience gives one a very open perspective on life. People like us become quite tolerant and every day is different; not at all like a nine-to-five career.

We can meet up with the same colleagues after ten years and it often seems as if no time has passed because the experience of working on the stage is so connected and involved.

Daria Masiero sings the role of Michaela in Carmen on May 15, 17, 21, 23 & 25.

Suzanne Yanko attended the opening night of Carmen on May 14 and reviewed it for artsHub Australia. Read the full review at http://performing.artshub.com.au/news-article/reviews/performing-arts/carmen-243710

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