Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble is in demand on the world stage, not least because she has a voice that can cope equally with Wagner and with belting out the Welsh national anthem for a crowded sports stadium. “It’s been a good trip home”, Humble smiles – and it isn’t over yet. She’s already performed Wagner in Melbourne’s refurbished Hamer Hall’s very first concert – after k.d.lang, Eddie Perfect and others gave way to eight Valkyries, among them Rosamund Illing and Sally-Anne Russell and Humble.
The singer was briefly at the Melbourne Town Hall in May for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert Belshazzar’s Feast and then joined Opera Australia in Sydney as Brigitte in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. “The mezzo role can’t be done that often because the tenor role is so excruciatingly difficult”, Humble said, modestly ignoring the fact that many singers avoid the Wagnerian roles she accepts, for exactly that reason. And this tour isn’t finished yet. Humble travels to Brisbane later this month to perform the role of Erda in Das Rheingold with old friends: the Hamburg State Opera and Hamburg Philharmonic Musical Director, Australian Simone Young.
“I had five years with the Hamburg Opera, and they invited me back as a guest so that’s nice,” said Humble, adding that it was good to have some permanent contracts. There are contracts a-plenty for Wagnerian opera singers next year, the centenary of Wagner’s birth. Humble says she has “another couple of Ring Cycles in Germany”. The Wagner anniversary in Europe is not just next year, she says, but involves a build-up over two to three years. “There’s not a huge pot of Wagner singers” says Humble. “It’s a very special repertoire especially for dramatic sopranos and tenors (and) everyone can’t be everywhere at once”.
The singer is pleased when I pass on the news that Opera Now UK names the Australian production as one of the world’s six “must-sees” in 2013. “Oh that’s great, I’m the only person in all four operas”, says Humble, adding that every visiting artist has to have a sponsor. “I’ve just been sponsored by the Wagner Society of NSW to help raise part of the fees – it’s a very nice connection”. Many members of the Wagner Society of Australia came to Hamburg to see the full Ring Cycle, says Humble. “Simone [Young] and I did a little concert just for the Australians – over 100 of them” she recalls. “It was quite something to have more than 100 Aussies in town … at every opera!”, she added. “They were named the “Wagneroos” at the end!” Back home the enthusiasm continues. “Everyone was telling me they’ve already bought their tickets to all three cycles” (of the 2013 production in Melbourne), says Humble. “They said every cycle is different and they sit in different seats in the auditorium”.
“I’m constantly amazed how passionate people are about Wagner; I’ve never encountered a composer that induces such opposite reactions in people – they love it with absolutely a passion, or they hate it. The more I meet the more staggered I am.” So what set Deborah Humble on a Wagnerian path? “I always had a very large voice and quite a dramatic voice and people always said: ‘You might sing Wagner one day’. So I guess the seed was planted some time ago,” the singer responded. “I met Simone in London about 12 years ago (in my mid 20s) and sang an aria from Wagner, and she told me to put it away in a drawer for a decade. She said, ‘You’re too young, you’re not ready for this, you’ll ruin your voice’.” “She was absolutely right, and I did take her advice. I sang Handel and Mozart.
“But the nice part of the story is that it was almost 10 years to the day that I sang my first Wagner role – Erda, the one I’m doing in Brisbane. Simone Young was conducting, I reminded her, and she said: ‘Well, I was right’. But she was delighted, I’ve been very lucky to have her support”. Living in Germany, immersed in the language, is part of Humble’s preparation for her career. “It’s scary to sing (as a foreigner) in a language the audience know well and are passionate about. “I’ve spent hours and hours and hours and hours working on articulation and the nuances of the language … when I speak in German people know I’m a foreigner but not when I sing”. “I consider myself to have been in a very privileged position”, she says.
With Ring Cycles in Germany and Australia next year “The problem is the time it takes” Humble says. “ There’s May to June, then September to December in Australia – while it’s a wonderful project you have to consider the time it takes you away from Europe”. She says that the main reasons why singers don’t come to Australia include late requests to sing, when they already have commitments; funding may be short; there’s a long rehearsal time compared with Europe and there are limited opportunities to do other work during that time, unlike in Europe with its many crowded opera houses. “Also it’s the climate: in Europe it’s lovely to go to the opera on cold afternoon; here there’s so much else you can do! But we can’t change our geographical position in the world”.
Ironically, the sunshine is part of the attraction of coming home: that, and “family, wine, seafood …” “I love coming back to sing in Australia, it’s like meeting up with old friends of the family, singing with people you studied with, and grew up with, really.” “People think, oh an opera singer, how wonderful, how glamorous – and it is all that, some of the time”, Humble reflects. “But being freelance you might be with new people every six or seven weeks, living in a hotel in a different city, living out of a suitcase, and constantly proving your ability to a new management. Much of that it quite lonely. You have to really want something to persevere with it. “But I love to travel”, she adds. “I’ve been so lucky to see the world. All over the world is my job – it inspires me and I’m still learning all of the time.
Deborah Humble set herself on this path. She dreamed of being an opera singer from the time she was 7 or 8 years old; there’s music in the family; an aunt studied with Melba and well-known singer Michael Lewis is in her father’s family. Humble learnt piano from age five: “Musical language is a second language to me, I can teach myself the scores”, she said. When Humble was just 16, her mother rang the Conservatorium and said: “I’ve got this daughter who wants to be an opera singer, what should I do?” “They said, get a singing teacher”, Humble smiles, “and I also added Italian to my school French and German”. Her medico parents worried that singing wouldn’t earn a living, so their daughter did her Dip Ed and taught for 10 years. “Some of it was in London and Paris – but I haven’t needed to be a teacher since 2004”, she smiles.
And it seems unlikely that Deborah Humble will ever be able to leave the stage for the classroom. “As long as I’m still nervous about a performance, there’s still a reason to do it”, this already great mezzo says. If not conventionally “humble” she has an unassuming grace that belies the stereotype of a Wagnerian soprano. “I’m still growing into it, the journey’s not over, it’s going to last such a long time”.