Interview: Anna-Louise Cole

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Published: 7th November, 2016

Deborah Humble introduces soprano Anna-Louise Cole who talks about her recent successes, singing in the Melbourne Ring Cycle and future engagements. With two roles and an understudy to prepare for, Cole is one very busy young singer.

Could you tell us about your recent competition success and experiences?”

“I feel like I’ve had a pretty amazing two years! I was working full time in social policy development in the former Victorian Department of Human Services, and had just started exploring the younger dramatic soprano repertoire. In December 2014 I was offered a full time position in the Opera Australia chorus, and in mid 2015 my partner and I moved up to Sydney so I could work full time with the company.

Around that time, the casting of the Ring was announced, and I felt so lucky to be given the opportunity to perform two wonderful roles – Gerhilde and the Third Norn – and to understudy Sieglinde.

I was aware of both the Elizabeth Connell prize and the Vienna State Opera Award for the Opera Foundation for young Australians, and in 2015 was named the reserve finalist in the Connell Prize. When these came around in 2016, I remember thinking I may as well put my entries in – that it wasn’t likely I’d win or be a finalist, but that I should probably give them a go, because I’d hate to think I might have missed out if I didn’t at least try.

I remember leaving the audition for the Vienna Award and feeling like I’d sung well, but I genuinely didn’t think I’d win. I knew there were a number of other singers who I really respect who’d also applied, and just felt the odds made it unlikely, just on the numbers! So when I received the call, I was incredibly surprised, but obviously delighted.

The experience of the Connell Prize was quite different, as it’s run as two public concerts, and you spend a lot of time with your fellow competitors. It was a wonderful experience, and I have to say my fellow finalists were the loveliest people. We had a lot of fun backstage and everyone was so generous and supportive.

Looking forward, I’m not sure yet what repertoire I’ll be working on in Vienna, but I’m sure it will be a transformative experience. It’s such a huge house, with such an enormous amount of repertoire. I really can’t wait.

After that I am looking forward to returning to Australia to sing Crobyle in Thaïs with Nicole Car. Then I will perform Aida in Coolangatta, sharing the role with the lovely Natalie Aroyan. Aida is such an amazing role and I can’t wait to work on it with Hugh Halliday who directed me a long time ago in so many productions for Melbourne Opera. I feel he taught me so much of my basic stage technique; I can’t wait to work on such a beautiful and complex role with him.

What are your personal feelings about competitions and their value to emerging singers?

Competitions are generally pretty gruelling experiences, but they are incredibly valuable for young singers at every point. The application processes teach you to be professionally organised; the performances throughout the stages of competition are really similar to auditions. One learns to deal with performance nerves and prepare oneself to perform in sometimes stressful and/or crowded conditions (also like some auditions). You meet fellow singers, develop professional relationships and gain an insight into how big concerts operate. This is all so important – and all before you might even be in a final or win a prize!

If you miss out, it teaches you how to be a generous and gracious colleague, as you’ll likely know those who’ve had success. It also teaches you how to take criticism, and reflect on how you can use your experiences to improve yourself and your singing.

If you’re lucky enough to be in a final or win something, the exposure which you receive is so important for the development of your career and professional reputation.

Finally, for the lucky and persistent, any special opportunities and/or financial support you receive can be absolutely life changing, particularly for Australians given the particular challenges we face of distance and fewer opportunities for young singers than you might find in Europe or the US.

Are the roles of Gerhilde and Third Norn your first foray into Wagner repertoire? How do you find singing Wagner and are there any further roles by him you would like to tackle?

Three years ago I sang der Friedensbote in Rienzi with Melbourne Opera during the Wagner festival that accompanied the first Melbourne Ring, which was a wonderful experience, particularly because the main roles were sung by a real powerhouse cast. I think it’s fair to say that Rienzi is written quite differently to the Ring operas as it was so early in his career, although there are still a lot of similarities, particularly in the Italianate way Wagner treats the German language.

I absolutely adore singing Wagner. I have a German degree and I really love the language itself, which I think really helps singing Wagner. Wagner wrote his own libretti for the Ring and in a way created his own idioms, playing with the modern language and the old German in which the sagas are written. Having a knowledge of German and having also briefly studied Das Nibelungenlied at university means that in singing the Ring I’m not dealing with entirely foreign concepts or words, although the German in the Ring is still incredibly complex! The way Wagner plays with the onomatopoeia of the language and uses alliteration is just so beautiful, sometimes even sexy.

I’d really love to sing more Wagner, if I am able to get the chance. He wrote so many completely wonderful roles for women of my voice type: Senta, Elisabeth, Elsa and Eva to name a few so I really hope one day I’ll get the chance to sing some of them.

How has the rehearsal process been so far? Your roles are very much team efforts. How has it been working with such a large company?

At the beginning of rehearsals I was lucky to be able to rehearse the entire role of Sieglinde with the rest of the cast which was just incredible. Amber Wagner who sings the role was not available for the first weeks of our schedule. It has been so helpful as a cover/understudy to be able to rehearse the whole role from beginning to end, because even though some things have changed through the rehearsal process with Amber, I’ve had the chance to physically feel the journey, emotionally and vocally. It was such a gift.

I also feel lucky that as a chorister within the company I have had a long time to both learn and be coached in these roles with some of the best coaches in the country, perhaps in the world. I have had such a supportive experience learning these roles and I feel so lucky to have been coached particularly by Tony Legge, who has worked on these operas at Bayreuth, among other places.

Preparing the Norns and the Valkyries has been fun. The women I am singing with in both of these operas are all such lovely people, and such beautiful singers; they are all just wonderful and we have bonded well already. Musically, the Norn’s section builds so beautifully, and when all the Valkyries sing together it’s such a thrilling sound to be a part of. We can all physically feel each other’s sound!

Having worked full time at Opera Australia now for well over a year I know so many of my colleagues onstage and off, so there is a really wonderful sense of us all being part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Also, as a Melbourne girl who once wanted to be a cellist, I know quite a few members of the orchestra from as far back as high school, the Melbourne Youth Music orchestras I played in as a teenager and the Conservatorium at Melbourne University. I feel so proud of this endeavour, as a member of this company but also as a Melbournian and an Australian.

Do you have a favourite musical or dramatic moment in the Ring? Is there a particular scene you like so far?

I think at the moment, my favourite parts are the ones I know the best: the second half of Act 1 of Walküre when the twins are falling in love, and the beginning of Act 3 where we enter as Valkyries. The orchestration of both of these parts of the score is just incredible.

We are currently in the middle of the Sitzproben (first rehearsals with the orchestra) and the physical experience of being in the same room as these extraordinary sounds – from both the singers and the orchestra – is something I’ll never forget.

I remember seeing the dress rehearsals of the Ring in 2013 and being blown away by the orchestra so I really can’t wait for the performances.

What can young singers learn by being on stage with some of the most experienced dramatic voices in the world in this repertoire?

I’ve found observing the principal cast so educational and so important for my development as a singer. As well as being consummate artists they are all lovely people and so well liked within the rehearsal room. Observing the rehearsals is important because you can really see the myriad facets of intelligence, effort, experience and craft that build into being a top level singer and delivering an amazing performance of this hugely complex repertoire. It’s also incredible to hear and see these voices up close and be able to watch how these singers produce sound; how they stand, how they breathe, how they deal with consonants and tricky passages.

It’s not just about singing the music well and understanding the language. You have to be an expert in stagecraft; you have to be flexible and able to immediately respond to notes and corrections. It is necessary to judge how to pace yourself singing huge repertoire for hours, giving as much as you can while keeping enough in reserve. You have to build an understanding of your character and their motivations within the piece, and then be prepared to adjust this according to the director and conductors’ approaches. Finally you have to be a wonderful colleague and respectfully work with others in often quite unusual circumstances for a workplace, such as kissing someone you may have only just met (who is playing your brother)!

It’s also wonderful to observe the delicate balance these singers strike between being confident and knowing how to do their jobs so well, but also embodying vulnerability and frailty on stage, in front of thousands of people. It’s a real art. I think those who will see our Ring this time are in for a real treat.

Do you have any amusing stories or experiences you would like to share from the process so far?

The Valkyries scene is quite boisterous and Neil Armfield has really encouraged us to play to the bloodthirsty energy and toughness of these heroines. Unfortunately in the first piano dress trying to physically embody this I swept my right arm very confidently out while Hyeseon Kwong (singing Helmwige) was, I thought, crossing behind me. Actually she wasn’t moving yet and somehow without looking at her I put my index finger straight into her mouth, while she was singing! She was very gracious about it but I now know definitely not to gesture out at that point! We had a great laugh about it afterwards as I was mortified!”