Soprano Genevieve Kingsford comes from a musical family. Her father, uncle and brother have all played in bands, but she is the only singer among instrumentalists. A few years ago, she followed the call of music and put aside the career she had planned in science.
She made her professional debut as Johanna in an innovative production of Sweeney Todd at the Twickenham Theatre, London, which sold out and won the WhatsOnStage Award for best Off-West End production. After returning home to Melbourne, she soon left again on a tour of China (18 cities in 30 days), performing in the chorus of La Traviata for the Australian International Opera Company.
Now Genevieve is home and making her way in musical theatre. Last year she was a finalist in the Rob Guest Endowment and won Melbourne’s East End Theatre District Artist Development Award. She is about to lend her delightful presence and voice to the role of Fiona in The Production Company’s Brigadoon.
VT: How did you discover your singing voice?
GK: The first door opening for me was the Grade 6 musical. We did a silly fairy tale musical. I auditioned and just sang and had no idea it was something I might be good at. When I moved to high school Mum said, “Do you want to start singing lessons?” She thought it was a good idea mainly for our confidence socially and we – I say “we” because I’m an identical twin and everything’s “we” – would do it not so much as a pursuit but as an exercise. So I did singing lessons with my twin sister Grace up until Year 9 and then I broke away to have more individual training. We were singing songs together for fun but I wanted to get into singing exams and taking it further.
VT: What’s your range?
GK: It’s G3 to a D6. Might go higher on a good day.
VT: So although you loved music, at university you studied a double major in physiology and behavioural neuroscience?
GK: I did. I’d been involved in every facet of school at St Leonard’s. We really threw ourselves into it, so much so that when I got to the end of school I had no idea what I wanted to do. I did the International Baccalaureate, which makes sure you keep every door open. It worked for me because I was interested in sport, humanities, science, the arts, everything! Then my best subjects were chemistry and maths, so my preferences were science-based and I ended up getting into neuroscience.
VT: Did the careers counsellor discuss singing professionally with you?
GK: I didn’t formally study music as a subject at school though I was in three choirs and choir captain in Year 12. I studied drama and theatre studies. I also kept up my involvement in music with singing lessons and exams.
VT: Your voice is versatile. How did you decide to go with musical theatre rather than opera?
K: I think it was about what I listened to. When I was 14, it was the first time I got really obsessed with a musical. I’d come home from school every day and from about 4 to 9, when I had to go to bed, I would be listening to Les Mis. And around this time, I was in my first musical at high school. I’ve got this theory that one of the reasons people get into performing is because when they get on stage, they get that adrenaline rush, it’s almost like drug. It’s so thrilling to be expressing yourself within the safety of telling a story and captivating an audience. And I felt that when I was in high school musicals and was listening to Les Mis.
My singing teacher, Debbie Mitchell, was classically inclined and when I did my singing exams, I remember the examiners almost every year saying, “You should think about singing classically; doing classical singing at uni might be an option”. But my heart was already in musicals, though even then I didn’t see myself pursuing it as a career. I know that some kids from an early age go “that’s what I want to do”; I had no idea.
VT: So you eventually went to the London School of Musical Theatre?
K: Yes, after my neuroscience degree – I finished that in June 2013 – I started at the London School of Musical Theatre. So I went straight from one to the other. I think that after so many years of academia – I went straight from high school to uni without a gap year – I wasn’t willing to do another three year undergraduate degree, even if it was something so completely different as performing arts.
The London School of Musical Theatre was perfect because it was pitched as a professional’s training that polishes you up and takes you to a practical standard, there’s no academic component. I know that’s not for everyone, and there’s a lot of value in a three year degree, but it was totally right for me at the time.
VT: It must have been a big thing to go to London to study?
GK: Yes, it was exciting. Part of it was that I’d kind of got myself into this position, and maybe it was in my head, where there was an expectation that I was the neuroscientist. That’s the road I was heading down, and for me to say, “Oh, I’m just going to do something different”; it was too hard to make slight shifts. I felt that I had to break down everything. And this is all in hindsight, but it was so necessary to take myself out of my environment and really for the first time, make my own decisions. I had such a huge support network from my school, my family. I’d always been with Grace; the longest we’d ever spent apart was four weeks. Moving overseas for two years was a huge time of growth because I’d really never been by myself.
VT: What was your family’s reaction to your change of career path?
GK: I think they were concerned [laughs] because the arts is a fickle industry, but I know they trusted me.
VT: So have you used your neuroscience degree in your performing?
GK: It’s quite amazing, because when I did The Light in the Piazza last year, the character Clara that I played had a traumatic brain injury as a child. I was a bit cheeky; I even mentioned it at my audition, “Oh, by the way, I have a degree in neuroscience and I studied traumatic brain injury so I know everything… [laughs] … Let me just pop that nugget in for you because I really want that part.”
VT: So how did your casting in The Light in the Piazza come about?
GK: Six years before I played the role is when I discovered the show and just fell head over heels for it. From that point on, if anyone asked me what my dream role was, it was Clara in Piazza. It’s a relatively unknown musical, so the fact that it came to Melbourne when I had got back from living overseas, and was at the right age, was like the stars all aligning. At that point my visa had expired and I hadn’t achieved everything I wanted to do in London and it felt like a kind of defeat. But, sure enough, there was a purpose.
I was in China when I got a message to say that Piazza was auditioning and that I had a time booked. About 10 days after I arrived back I had my audition. When I went into the room, I didn’t know anyone there but I knew all the songs and also picked my own song from the same composer, Adam Guettel. After I sang for them, there was a most surreal moment when time stood still. The casting director said, “Where have you come from? How do we not know about you?” After I got the call saying I got the part, I couldn’t process it so I walked around the lounge room for about an hour and a half calling my mum, my sister, my brother, my best mates, my friends in London. Even throughout the course at the London School of Musical Theatre, every time I auditioned for agents, any time an important guest teacher would come in, I’d sing The Light in the Piazza for them. It’s so deeply rooted in me, it’s a beautiful show.
VT: Did The Production Company’s people see you in Piazza and ask you to audition for Brigadoon?
GK: They did, that’s how it came about. And when I got the call saying I got the part of Fiona, I did the same thing; walked around the lounge room for about an hour calling everyone going “Can you believe it?” I’ve gone from the Playhouse (where Piazza played) to the State Theatre (the 2,000 seat theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne). This is massive and so exciting.
VT: I saw you at Scotland the Brave, doing some research for Brigadoon.
GK: Yes, I was. I’ve been trying to get as many influences as I can. I’ve tried not to watch other productions of Brigadoon, I prefer to do research into the time and that’s why I got really obsessed with the TV show Outlander. It’s set in Scotland about 30 years apart from Brigadoon, back in the 1700s, so it’s a very different time to now. I know it’s a fictional show and not totally accurate, but the dramaturgy they’ve done for it is very appropriate to the production of Brigadoon we’re putting on. So I delved into that and went to Scotland the Brave with the bagpipes and the beautiful folk songs. I’m doing a lot of research, as well, on highland life and Scottish clans because this show is so rooted in the sense of community and I’ve got to know what community meant back in 1717.
VT: What do you think are the challenges of doing Brigadoon?
GK: I think the challenges will be that because the musical was written in the mid-1940s, just making sure it’s relatable to the audience now. The director Jason Langley and musical director Michael Tyack have done so much work on the script; without changing it in anyway that’s too far-fetched or changing the story at all, they’ve taken licence to make it more accessible. When you think about it, the setting is appropriate to now. If you look at our current climate in the world, the idea that someone from the modern day stumbles across a town that’s in the 1700s, a community in a simpler time, it’s idyllic.
My character Fiona is strong, she’s got endurance, especially for the times when if you were single at 24, 25, you’re going to be the talk of the town. She digs her heels in and says, “I’m not going to marry for the sake of doing it”. And the amazing thing about the show is that even though it was written in the 1940s, a female gets an “I want” song and she gets to sing it first.
VT: Brigadoon is your first association with The Production Company. Will it be the first of many?
GK: Oh yes, I hope so. I love The Production Company. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that puts on shows for performers so we get work. We also get a chance to delve into some stories that aren’t commonly told here.
Brigadoon plays at the State Theatre October 28 –November 5, 2017. Details and booking.