Handel's second last oratorio and favourite work, Theodora has come to be recognised in the last twenty years as Handel's masterpiece. A succession of the most beautiful arias and choruses, Theodora is a profoundly moving experience.
Theodora is a tale from ancient Rome that speaks to our hearts, here and now. Innocence, love, faith and courage bloom strong and full of promise, only to be struck down by blind hatred and the thirst for power.
"Of all the Pinchgut productions to date, this was the most rewarding for its restrained, purposeful drama and seraphic musical refinement." - Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald
To coincide with the latest release from Pinchgut Opera, please revisit our chat with lead soprano, Valda Wilson. Valda was kind enough to answer some questions about her career and her creative process in the lead up to the season of Theodora in 2016.
In Conversation with Valda Wilson
Australian soprano, Valda Wilson initially trained at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before winning Opera Foundation Australia’s scholarship to the National Opera Studio London.
She was a member of the Junges Ensemble at the Dresden Semperoper where she performed various roles including the title role in Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, female lead in the world premiere of Srnka’s Jakub Flügelbunt, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Jennie Hildebrand in Streetscene, and Inez in Il trovatore.
Valda has made further debuts as First Wood Sprite Rusalka for Naple’s Teatro di San Carlo, the title role in Handel’s Rodelinda with Richard Bonynge AC, CBE (Sydney), Pamina Die Zauberflöte (Salzburg Festival and Oper Klosterneuburg), Rosina Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Verbier Festival, Donna Anna Don Giovanni in Bamberg and Mischa in Charody’s The Carnival in Hamburg.
Joining the Ensemble of the Oldenburg State Theatre for the 2014-2016 seasons, Valda debuted Alice Ford/Falstaff, Iole/Hercules, Julia/Der Vetter aus Dingsda, Anna/La Dame Blanche, Contessa d’Almaviva/Le nozze di Figaro, Romilda/Xerxes, Hanna Glawari/Die lustige Witwe, Mrs Naidoo/Satyagraha and Helena/A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A sought-after concert artist, Valda has featured with the Dresden Philharmonic, the Auryn Quartet at the Musiktage Mondsee Festival (Austria) and headline soprano at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music with Piers Lane AO.
She has also performed with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Orchestre des Champs Elysées, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Hallé Orchestra and the London Cello Orchestra (touring South Korea).
In 2016, Valda returns to Australia for performances with the Australian Festival of Chamber Music and appears in the title role of Handel’s Theodora for Pinchgut Opera.
Fish Fine Music had some questions for Valda before her return to the Australian stage.
You’ve enjoyed a busy performance schedule since leaving Australia in 2009, performing numerous roles across Europe and Australia. What has been your most memorable role and why?
Singing ‘The Merry Widow’ for German audiences was a great honour and a true privilege - plus it was a lot of fun! It became something of a signature role for me at the State Theatre in Oldenburg and I absolutely love singing Lehar’s music.
My first Contessa d’Almaviva last year was also a real milestone for me. That whole opera is just perfection and the Contessa’s music is simply glorious. While in Oldenburg I sang a total of twelve role debuts - within two seasons! It’s surprisingly hard to pick favourites.
Theodora is a role debut for you. Typically, what do you do to prepare for a new role and what challenges (if any) have you faced, preparing for this opera?
There are many interesting recordings of this work, spanning a lot of different performance practices: Tastes have changed drastically over the past half-century, as far as baroque performance goes. Right at the start of studying a new role, I like to sit down with the score and listen to full recordings - familiarising myself with not only my part but with those of the other characters around me, learning where I fit in and getting an overview of what the composer intended. It also helps me to form my own ideas about where I would like to take the character, what I would like to bring out in the score.
Baroque opera is a little like jazz in that you often sing the first part of an aria a second time, with the freedom to do (virtually! Excuse me, Maestro Erin Helyard!) whatever you want. You can even change these variations from one performance to the next. It keeps everyone on their toes and I love the challenge. Listening to how other singers have sung a role gives me my own ideas… it’s good when these can start brewing right from the beginning.
The next few months of study are then spent on all the technical stuff … I truly believe that if we don’t sing beautifully, we can forget the art form of opera… That’s what really has the capacity to hit an audience ‘in the feels’! I spend a lot of time picking apart my roles from a technical perspective: Which passages are tricky? Why? Is it the vowel, a consonant, the tessitura (where the music sits - high/low/middle)? How is my legato? Do I want this passage darker, brighter, with or without vibrato… there is so much more to it than loud versus soft: I want to be able to colour the text like a good Shakespearean actor and that requires absolute mastery of my instrument, knowing its capabilities and working around its limitations.
Singing in my mother tongue of English takes out the translation part of the preparation, but comes with its own set of challenges… Aussies in particular have a glorious capacity for epic dipthongs and lazy, flat vowels, and that does not make for great singing! So I will often record myself and listen back to it, critiquing myself for purity of vowel etc just as much as I would were I singing in Italian, French or German. It’s often just a matter of sending your brain a very clear signal: What vowel, what pitch, what consonant do I really want to sing here?
It sounds dull and nit-picking but it’s necessary to do all of this well before the staging rehearsals commence, so that I can get completely into character and as far as possible ‘forget' the technique stuff - by that stage it should be more or less in my muscle memory.
With her central themes of intense faith, suffering and love, Theodora is a very full-on character. I’m excited to see what Lindy Hume draws out of her, and out of me… I think this is where the role’s challenges will be, delving fully into the character and her experience while still singing well. It’s tough to sing when you are genuinely upset, so there is a kind of balancing act that goes on. It usually takes a little while and a few mid-rehearsal breakdowns to find that balance.
Constant travel and irregular schedules could cause concern to a singer’s vocal health. What do you do to ensure your voice remains fresh and healthy?
Opera is basically a sport, so if it’s good for an athlete it’s good for me. I keep fit, drink a lot of water, sleep plenty, avoid too much alcohol - but I couldn’t go completely without, I like it too much - and I’m quite strict about travel and singing. With a long flight like the one from Europe to Australia, I would aim to arrive at least five days before my first performance or rehearsal. 24 hours in an aeroplane really messes with your body and it needs some time to recover.
I also take singing lessons regularly, at the moment it’s about once a month with tenor Franco Farina in Hamburg. Singers can never truly hear themselves, even with recordings, so it’s vital to have a critical pair of ears outside your own. You’re never truly finished with study.
It also helps to not be too precious. Nothing will get in your way vocally like paranoia and stress!
You were recently in Australia for the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. What do you look forward to most about coming home to perform?
I’m a nature girl so I am always EXTREMELY happy to fly in over the Australian outback, to go bushwalking again, and to be able to go surfing before rehearsals.
It’s particularly special to sing in Australia and be able to invite family and friends to my performances. Air travel is great but Europe is still a long way away… I performed there over sixty times in major roles and some very special concerts last year, but I couldn’t invite my grandpa to even one show. This year I’m in Australia quite a lot and am thrilled about it. The AFCM was a blast - working with Australian artists is always a joy.
What do you think makes Pinchgut Opera so unique here in Australia?
Pinchgut’s commitment to relatively unknown repertoire of the baroque and early classical period is to be cherished - I hope Sydney audiences know how lucky they are! The company has an unwavering focus on making beautiful music and performance art. No jazz hands on the high note here. I’m excited and honoured to sing with such a company.
How important do you think it is for Australian opera companies to employ Australian artists and do you feel there is a fair ratio between local performers and overseas imports?
Given the isolation of Australia as a continent and its distance from Europe, which is still really the 'home' of opera and still a kind of Mecca for operatic talent, I believe Australian companies have a responsibility to local artists to support them and offer them as much repertoire as possible. It is simply not feasible to say to an Australian singer who has only ever worked and studied in this country, "Oh but if you're good, you'll be able to go over to Europe for a couple of months a year and pick up work." It is patently untrue.
Yes, there is a much higher density of opera companies over there, but there is also an over-supply of singers which is only increasing as American singers and those from eastern Europe and Asia flood in. You need to be good, you need good agency representation, and you need a network - the latter two of which simply take time to develop.
I think there should certainly be a strict cap on the percentage of imported performers in Australian productions, and I think that those that are engaged should be of the absolute highest quality. Sydney is fortunate in that it is a stunningly beautiful part of the world and a lot of foreign singers I've worked with - outstanding singers, I should add - would be delighted to come and perform here simply to experience the city. Despite the distance, it is a dream working holiday for European singers.
At the end of all this discussion, my point is: Engage mostly Australian singers, and engage only breathtakingly good imports. That's what I think.
Finally, when you’re not performing, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time and what are you most looking forward to about spending time at home?
I love being outdoors. I am looking forward to spending time on the northern beaches, catching up with my friends from uni days (from both my science and my music lives!), and getting some Australian sun to counter months of northern-European autumn greyness - filtered through an SPF 20+ sunscreen, of course.